Intellectuals Gather to Propose “Another World”
The Restoring A Nation Conference took place at Franciscan University of Steubenville on October 7–8th. The conference, put on by the university’s Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life in conjunction with the Bonum Commune Foundation, sought to explore the idea of “the common good in the American tradition.”
Criticizing “America’s liberal consensus”—which participants understood to include both the conventionally-defined left and right wings of American politics—the aim of the conference was to “recover forgotten wisdom” of the American tradition from the “triple foundations of the West”: “Greek Philosophy, Christian Religion, and Roman Law.”
Lectures from such influential intellectuals as the Catholic University of America’s Professor Chad Pecknold, Franciscan University’s own Professor Scott Hahn, and Harvard Law School’s Professor Adrian Vermeule ensured that all three of these “triple foundations of the West” were adequately covered.
The conference did not limit itself to an abstract notion of recovery of ideas, though; a great deal of the talks at the conference centered on policy proposals adapted to the current moment. A central theme of the conference was that “another world is possible,” which was fittingly the title of the opening conversation, led by Notre Dame’s Professor Patrick Deneen, the University of Dallas’s Professor Gladden Pappin, and the conference’s organizer, Sohrab Ahmari—a journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Veritas Center.
A discussion between Pappin, Professor Darel Paul of Williams College, and Veritas Center Director and Franciscan University Professor Anne Hendershott focused on family policy. In particular, Pappin pointed to the model created by the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as a possible way forward for promoting the good of families through political action in the United States.
Another key policy area that was explored throughout the conference was how the government can use state power to ensure balanced bargaining power in disputes that arise between labor and capital within a market economy. In his keynote address, Ahmari outlined a clearly unfair and coercive situation between an employee and employer in Communist China. He recounted in detail how the employee was forced to work long hours without breaks in poor working conditions for a meager compensation—all of the stereotypical ills suffered by the repressed worker in an authoritarian nation—before dropping the rhetorical bomb that he was actually speaking about a real-life story that occurred in the United States.
This tricky element in Ahmari’s speech—which was referencing the story of New York Amazon worker union leader Chris Smalls—sought to establish his point that private actors can coerce others in much the same way that a government can coerce its citizens. The natural conclusion of such a realization, Ahmari argued, is that the government cannot lessen the level of coercion taking place in a market economy by taking a “neutral” or inactive position in economic disputes.
Though much of the conference fit right in with conventional right-wing American politics—with orthodox Christian ethics acting as the standard on questions of sexuality, the family, and the ends of human life—this pro-union thread from Ahmari and the willingness to involve government in matters such as the promotion of family formation marked a self-conscious split from conventional modern conservative doctrine.
Professor Deneen described the strand of thought promoted by the conference as “not right or left” but about “the politics of the in and the out.” Deneen said that the liberal consensus—rather than being a political orientation itself—represented “the politics of a class,” which “scrambles the categories” typically talked about in American politics. The overall goal of the conference was therefore to reintroduce a “politics oriented to the out.”
Participants in the conference surely did not see this “politics of the out” as an innovation or an intellectual exercise, though. Throughout the weekend, speakers reiterated the idea that this post-liberal approach to politics was rooted in history—including the American tradition, particularly in the New Deal—and was in response to the real suffering of millions of Americans due to the harmful policies of the past decades.
The actual communities affected by the policies that the conference was criticizing and to which they were proposing alternatives took center stage at the bookends of the conference. In the opening panel, Professor Deneen displayed a slideshow that juxtaposed photos of the city the conference was set in—Steubenville, Ohio—from the 1950’s and today. His overarching message was clear: while the United States has continued to advance in terms of gross economic production and the prevailing definition of social progress, many American communities have been harrowed and defeated in the same timeframe. Deneen’s conclusion was that it looked as though Steubenville had been defeated in a war, a war fought by American political elites against their own countrymen by means of continual economic outsourcing and cultural depletion. Another slide showed the city of South Bend, with a thriving downtown from the middle of the 20th century on one side and a dilapidated building from the present day on the other, the implication that the area had suffered a similar warlike devastation as Steubenville.
While the historical setting of the conference’s exploration of post-liberal politics was established by this emotional opening, it was the final keynote lecture delivered by Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance that provided the most vivid presentation of the future imagined for these communities. Integrating recent personal encounters with depleted Ohio communities on the campaign trail with broader statements about what is needed to create a successful political movement, Vance gave a rousing speech that ended in several extended standing ovations. Talking with the authority of one who may be soon actively involved in the policy decisions of our nation, Vance spoke about the need to continually build institutions with this new vision at heart in order to counter the established power of the liberal consensus the conference was fighting against.
Reactions to the conference have been numerous, including a criticism of the participants as “Pro-life New Dealers”—a label that Ahmari and others latched onto positively. Given the controversy whipped up by the conference and the participation of high-profile academics and political figures, the debates raised by the Restoring A Nation conference seem likely to continue beyond Steubenville.
Luke Thompson is a junior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. Seeing the Appalachian Mountains for the first time during his trip to Steubenville, he was impressed by their beauty but would like to stress that they would hardly qualify as hills by his Western standards. Reach out to him at email@example.com with any questions or comments.
Phote Credit: Conference promotional materials