The mainstream of America’s postwar conservative movement is a key target of Patrick Deneen’s 2018 bestseller Why Liberalism Failed. “Both main political options of our age must be understood as different sides of same counterfeit [liberal] coin,” he insists (p. 18). Since then, many postliberals of the Catholic New Right, including Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and Sohrab Ahmari, have taken to casting their mainstream conservative opponents as ‘right-liberals.’ There have, in turn, been numerous spirited defenses of the right-liberal perspective in response. Intra-conservative debates in America today increasingly fall into these ‘postliberal’ and ‘right-liberal’ camps, of which Catholic New Right commentators are especially vocal and influential.
The postliberals’ critique of what they characterize as ‘right-liberalism’ relitigates a major dispute in the early development of the postwar conservative movement in America. There are three key differences in how the modern postliberals of the Catholic New Right and their right-liberal opponents conceive the task of governance today. Interestingly, all three are anticipated by Brent Bozell in his critique of how Frank Meyer’s “fusionism” resolved the debate between traditionalists and libertarians in the early 1960s. Bozell’s criticism contains resources the postliberals can use to bolster their argument.
Three Differences Between the Two Philosophies of Governance
The first key difference is that postliberals offer a darker assessment of the current social and political situation than right-liberals. They’re more alarmed by the apparent change in the public philosophy governing much of academia, journalism, and left-wing politics to what they’ll call “wokism.” This refers primarily to recent developments, though the lineage is disputed, of the revolutions of the 1960s: critical race theory out of the civil rights movement; gay marriage and transgenderism out of the sexual revolution. Postliberals place these developments in a sterner “decline of the West” narrative. Right liberals are less alarmed by these changes and resist the postliberals’ inference that they demand a change in conservatism’s governing philosophy.
Secondly, postliberalism is marked by a change in how freedom is understood, and where it’s placed, in the governing philosophy of the right. Postliberals explicitly abandon the right-liberal dictum that the (or a) main purpose of government is to defend individual freedom and individual rights, as liberals have understood them. This, the most fundamental change, is largely a consequence of the postliberals’ characterization of our situation: postliberals view the increasing incidence and public celebration of “woke” behavior as an intolerable quantity of freedom’s misuse that, while driven by progressives, was made possible by right liberals sharing their goal of individual liberty. Postliberals see the decline of the West they see as partly caused by left and right liberals centering individual freedom.
As a corollary of this, thirdly, postliberals have abandoned the goal definitive of the postwar right of rolling back or arresting the growth of state power. They’re explicitly willing to use state power to limit individual freedom and enforce conservative ethical ends. As Vermeule writes, of his “Common-Good Constitutionalism”: “Its main aim is certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power… but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.”
Traditionalism vs. Libertarianism Relitigated
As is well known, in its early years the postwar conservative movement in America consisted of loosely aligned rivalrous factions. “Traditionalists” were those more concerned for virtue while “libertarians” emphasized freedom. Their fierce early rivalry faded significantly when Frank Meyer developed his so-called “fusionism” in articles for National Review and his 1962 book In Defense of Freedom. Meyer claimed his fusionism presented the “instinctive consensus” shared across the movement, and that the rivalrous factions had erroneously abstracted and “emphasized” merely a part of the true “fusionist” whole. While traditionalists like Kirk, Kendall and Bozell offered arguments against fusionism, as George Nash reports, “by the mid-1960s the tumult began to subside… Meyer’s fusionism had won. Quietly, with little fanfare… fusionism became for most National Review conservatives a fait accompli” (p. 180).
Meyer’s fusionism takes a fundamentally libertarian form with its choice of first principle. As he writes in the first sentence of In Defense of Freedom, “the freedom of the person is the central and primary end of political society” – it is, he says, “the decisive criterion of the good society.” Most crucially, as he insists in response to Bozell’s critique, true conservatism infers from this first principle, “the demand for principled limitation of the power of the state, for the strictest guarantees that the power of the state will be foreclosed from interference in the moral and spiritual sphere” (p. 156)
Against claims to the contrary, Meyer insists that Fusionism isn’t mere libertarianism – isn’t a straight negation of traditionalism but rather preserves it – because unlike nineteenth-century liberalism, the fusionist joins the traditionalist in emphatically insisting that there are real objective standards of virtue and that “the duty of men is to seek virtue.” Fusionism merely forbids the use of state power to encourage virtue or punish vice and insists that all such encouragement and punishment occur through the nonpolitical institutions of civil society. Helping men to achieve virtue is, Meyer concedes to the traditionalist, “the most important of problems. All that I am contending is that it is not a political problem, that it is not the concern of the state, that virtue cannot be enforced or brought about by political means” (p. 127).
It’s understood that the postliberal critique of right liberalism is a critique of the fusionist settlement: it’s fusionism that’s targeted in the 2019 First Things manifesto, “Against the Dead Consensus.” That manifesto’s sequel, Sohrab Ahmari’s “Against David Frenchism,” is a “puzzle,” writes Ross Douthat, in that “superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty.” But the puzzle is explained when we realize that French accepts, while Ahmari rejects, the fusionist form of governance: French thinks that “his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition… Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement.” French has been widely considered the paradigmatic avatar of right liberalism since Ahmari cast him in that role, and it’s as spokesman of that faction that he writes, “the right is now in the process of unlearning liberty.”
We get a more precise alignment in Gladden Pappin’s “Towards a Party of the State.” What defines liberalism, he writes, is separating civil society from the state and allocating the inculcating of virtue to civil society alone – precisely the form Meyer insists upon. Postliberalism is thus a clear rejection of Meyer’s claim that fusionism preserves everything traditionalists should themselves want to preserve. Postliberals reject fusionism because its very form is a rejection of the claim that it’s legitimate to use state power for moral ends (and thus infringe on individual freedom).
In his critique of Meyer, Bozell goes straight at the keystone of Meyer’s argument that traditionalist conservatives too, if only they understood the nature of things, would be fusionists: that political freedom is required to make virtue possible; that seemingly virtuous actions, if performed under state compulsion, have no moral worth.
Bozell agrees that we must possess metaphysical freedom, must not be physically determined, for our actions to be genuinely our responsibility and for them to possess moral worth. But he thinks Meyer’s argument confounds metaphysical and political freedom: “the freedom that is necessary to virtue,” he writes, is “a freedom no man will ever be without.” It is, he claims, “inalienable,” so even in the most oppressive political circumstances we still possess both it and the moral responsibility derived from the choices it makes possible.
On Bozell’s teaching, then, the fusionist has no ground to claim that it’s illegitimate to use state power for moral or spiritual ends. He writes, “If moral freedom is beyond the reach of politics, surely politics has better things to do than making the preservation of moral freedom its chief preoccupation.”
Bozell shares the postliberals’ view that putting freedom first harms society. His analysis is similar to Deneen’s Tocquevillian exploration of the logic of the liberal regime in Why Liberalism Failed: Bozell explores “the inner logic of the dictum that virtue-not-freely-chosen is not virtue at all.” He notes that this dictum should apply not only to politics, but to civil society as well. He writes, “libertarianism’s first command – maximize freedom – applies with equal vigor to all society’s activities.” The dictum thus instructs us to liberate ourselves from “the ‘props’ which every rational society has erected to promote a virtuous citizenry… [fusionism] permits no measures for the purpose of encouraging and aiding virtue.”
Bozell closes his paper with this line: “The story of how the Free society has come to take priority over the good society is the story of the decline of the West.” We thus have in Bozell all three elements I listed on how postliberals differ from right-liberals: a decline-of-the-West assessment of our current situation; blaming this decline on our commitment to individual freedom and thus calling to abandon this commitment, and thirdly a claim that it’s legitimate to use state power to encourage virtue and punish vice beyond mere infringement on the rights of others.
Meyer responded to Bozell’s final words like so: “The West is in decay not, as Mr. Bozell asserts, because ‘the free society has come to take priority over the good society,’ but because freedom has declined as virtue has declined. The recovery of the one demands the recovery of the other; the recovery of both is the mission of conservatism today” (p. 163). For postliberals, the conservative movement adopting Meyer’s view rather than Bozell’s meant it perpetuated rather than arrested the destructive logic of liberalism. As Nash reports, “It was Meyer who would write The Conservative Mainstream in 1968 – … not Bozell” (p. 180). The postliberals wish it were otherwise. We can understand them as relitigating the wisdom of the postwar conservative movement’s choice to adopt the fusionist form rather than follow the lead of thinkers like Bozell.
Daniel Addison is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College/CUNY. He completed his PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh under the direction of John McDowell in 2013. He has written on politics for Human Events, ArcDigital and Merion West.