Discussing the future of conservatism 

Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program recently hosted Sohrab Ahmari, the New York Post’s opinion editor, David French, a senior writer at National Review, and Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, for a debate on conservatism in the Trump era. 

The debate actually started long before Notre Dame. Ahmari, along with Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, to name a few, took their stand “against the dead consensus,” namely fusionism, the mixing of laissez-faire capitalism, foreign interventionism, and social conservatism. 

Ahmari later wrote an essay this summer called “Against David French-ism.”  This led to moderated debates at Catholic universities, the most recent of which took place here at Notre Dame. 

The first round was hosted at the Catholic University of America, where many thought French the victor after Ahmari’s invocation of “Drag Queen Story Hour” seemed to fall flat.

The one here at Notre Dame was well-received by students. Aaron Cox, a student present at the debate, found it to be “really civil.” When asked for his thoughts on the panel, he responded: “I don’t think it’s a good thing for conservatives in the long term to empower the government to restrict speech, because sooner or later that’s going to be used against us.”

Chris McDonald, another undergraduate, remarked: “I find it fascinating how in this age where right-wing politics are being transformed by the current landscape, there is this infighting between folks who agree on almost every issue but still disagree philosophically on how to enact that conservative vision.”

These quibbles, however, can prove to be a problem when two debaters fail to grasp each other’s philosophical and theological views.

“They seemed to talk a bit past each other for much of the time,” Alex Roerty, another student, said. “I think this was partly due to the lack of rebuttal periods.”

Professor Kesler, who was not part of the original conversation or the first debate, was a welcome presence in the latest conversation. Professor Phillip Muñoz, the director of the Constitutional Studies program, explained to the Rover: “Kesler added a historical perspective about the degree to which Trump’s policies fit within the history of the Republican party and American conservatism more generally.”

I sat down briefly with Kesler following the debate. He had said, in passing, that “it’s more about reason than revelation” and “all religions teach the same morality,” in a short aside on religious freedom during the panel. 

Given that he is a West Coast Straussian, meaning an adherent of Leo Strauss who denies that America is modern, I inquired about his thoughts on classical philosophy’s place today. Strauss was influenced by Heidegger, who criticized the tradition of Western philosophy. Strauss sought to reclaim Western philosophy in spite of a cultural ethos which dismisses tradition as ‘antiquated.’ 

Kesler stressed the importance of classical philosophy as a safeguard which “enhances revelation.” Reason is integral to our classical foundation, and without reason, “religion then becomes a value,” he stated. “And values are relative. It’s just not value judgements, [but] irrational preferences. [Reason makes] religion more plausible and defensible.”

In my interview with David French, I asked if fusionism can be saved. He answered in the affirmative for two reasons. First, big government and technocratic interventions do not tend to work, and second, if one includes within fusionism a more aggressive foreign policy, then the world cannot go back to the way it was before World War II, as we have experienced unprecedented peace, more or less, for the past 70 years. 

When asked if the contrast of Lockean autonomy and a more Christian view of man as a social being, he replied that what we’re seeing is not “radical autonomy,” but rather, a “growth of identity politics.”

I asked both Ahmari and French their thoughts on Adrian Vermuele, a Harvard legal scholar and Catholic convert (our own Fr. Kevin Grove, CSC, influenced his conversion), who, in recent years, has championed Catholic Integralism.

French criticized “academic political theorists” who can get “divorced from the real world.” This disassociation seems to him to tend towards “a dorm room bull session at 3 a.m” rather than a substantive discussion. While these can “have some value…they also have to be tethered to something actually very real.” He prizes the practical approach: “I’m not liberalism conceived, I’m liberalism applied. That’s what a lawyer does.”

Ahmari, by contrast, considers Vermeule’s “critique of liberalism as a sacramental religion of its own [to be] very penetrating.”

“You see it structured in the sense that we have confession, in a way, when you’ve gone against certain liberal values, you have to publicly confess it. We have processions centered around liberal values, like Gay Pride Parades. When he talks about liberalism as a kind of religious phenomenon, or, he even says sometimes it’s one of the world’s great religions, I find that critique very profound.”

Bea Cuasay is a junior studying Philosophy and Constitutional Studies. Send her your Garrigouvian dithyrambic encomia at bcuasay@nd.edu.