Resist the Post-liberal Temptation

Published February 26, 2023

National Review

Pay attention to intellectual debates on, let’s broadly call it, “the right,” and you can easily come away with the impression that liberal democracy — the very foundation upon which the American experiments rests — is in intractable decline and inevitable collapse. Because definitions matter, liberal democracy in its usage here denotes a regime established to secure and administer a just order by respecting an individual’s natural rights through a system of ordered liberty, the rule of law, and constitutional procedure.

According to various critiques, liberal democracy has strayed so far from its Judeo-Christian beginnings that its problems are not merely comparable to a head cold that will eventually go away, but to a terminable disease from which death is imminent. We could call this the declensionist critique, from the likes of individuals like Stephen Wolfe, author of the much-discussed The Case for Christian Nationalism. A similar narrative holds that liberal democracy was flawed from its foundation because it was premised on a false anthropology organized around maximizing liberty instead of protecting religion, family, and social cohesion. We could call this the foundationalist critique, evident in the works of figures like Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed.

Though grouped under the broad umbrella of “post-liberalism,” proponents of these narratives are not monolithic. Indeed, Wolfe, though he despises what he calls the “liberal creedalist project,” nonetheless has distanced himself from the “post-liberal” label. Moreover, not all of their critiques are unfounded: America has strayed from its initial Protestant moral ecology. All, however, seem to converge around the consensus that America as we know it requires “regime change” — a systemic restructuring of our politics and culture.

Drastic as that may seem, champions of the post-liberal (and post-liberal-adjacent) Right look on — justifiably — at the extreme moral decadence and debauchery of the modern West and deem the project of distributing power among the many — instead of securing it in a strong, centralizing moral authority — a failure. Do we really want to “conserve” drag queens, declining marriage rates, pronoun badges, and a whole month dedicated to celebrating sexual sin?

This group may have a point as well about the vulnerability of our regime. A morally denuded attitude toward the Constitution that sees its purpose as only arbitrating procedure and supposedly bypassing morality has left open a backdoor for the ruling elites of moral progressivism to pour into it every perversion they possibly can. What progressivism cannot accomplish through majorities, it relies on corrupted readings of the Constitution to enact. The Constitution is not, after all, a morally neutral document. It is a legal document left to the interpretations of people whose consciences are shaped by worldviews. Today, some of those worldviews are deeply irreconcilable with what we as conservatives believe is consistent with the Founders’ vision.

So these reactionaries declare America and its project of self-government a failed experiment. Since Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison apparently gave us same-sex marriage, secularism, and late-term abortion, we must turn to various shades of post-liberalism — whether neo-Caesarism or Christian Nationalism, or other — to get ourselves out of decline and certain destruction.

An irony in all of this is that many believe conservatism is itself innately prone to post-liberal tendencies. I know I sympathize with many post-liberal sentiments. After all, I believe morality requires transcendence for its substance. I believe in a morally robust account of the common good — ban the drag queens, ban porn, and even tax divorce. I’m not a libertarian. I think the Constitution is not preeminently concerned with maximizing liberty but with securing God-given, pre-political rights and moral goods implanted upon the faculties of men, God’s image-bearers. I uphold the natural family as the foundation of society. “Same-sex” marriage does not exist in my worldview, and abortion is the greatest human-rights atrocity of our time. So why, then, I am I not conclusively on the side of the post-liberals? What’s stopping me?

It’s this: I agree with much of the diagnoses of post-liberalism, but little with the treatment plan. The post-liberals’ alternatives are mostly inchoate and imaginative. The manner of their critique, which is often extreme and strident, only dissuades potential sympathizers by inducing further despair and cynicism. To be a post-liberal, in most instances, is to stoke anger, alienation, and resentment at what American has become. It is certainly understandable why, even if I think it is wrong to wade into those waters. But the post-liberal revolutionary zeal is the direct opposite of a Burkean conservatism that champions American constitutionalism. Indeed, some post-liberals are downright hostile to the idea of distributing power to an entire population instead of to a select few competent to oversee a robust common good.

The post-liberal vision is incomplete because, at least currently, it has no feasible plan of action to achieve its goals apart from venting. Part of this, in their defense, is that conservatism is not preeminently a governmental undertaking — it’s first a moral vision sustained through family, community, tradition, and congregation. Whatever the merits of its various tenets, the idea that America or even a select number of states will magically wake up in ten years and have a renaissance of church-state establishments seems a fever dream. Of course, I can anticipate the post-liberal response to this line of critique to be, “Well, just look at what progressivism has gotten away with over the last 30 years — same-sex marriage going from unimaginable to celebrated.” Progressivism has indeed gotten away with much, often by inept rulings accomplished through bad personnel brought about by . . . wait for it . . . the result of elections.

The answer to same-sex marriage and abortion is not to overthrow the Constitution, as some post-liberal logic seems to imply. Neither is it to make Protestantism an established religion — a supposed balm that has no historical proof of resisting social decline (the Church of England is largely now just a chaplain to British secularism). It is to establish better institutions to cultivate the next generation of judges and more effective campaigning to prevent progressives from making judicial appointments from the start. Unless one wants revolution, it is the platoons of civil society that will reform our nation, not venting one’s spleen. The politics of shifting the moral imagination requires practicality, which few of the post-liberals are offering. While most Americans think America has some very severe problems, talk of suspending the Constitution or re-instituting church-state establishments is being taken seriously by exactly no one. If one wants to “take back America,” getting married and going to church offers a better strategy than a Twitter thread.

But there are legislative ways to repeal insanity if we operate through traditional constitutionalism. Another irony, however, is that, absent some kind of revolution or coup, post-liberalism could only succeed by relying on the very thing it condemns: constitutional proceduralism. If post-liberals can’t persuade the necessary political majorities to agree with their alternative vision of America, then they, too, will be found playing according to liberal democracy’s rules, which entails an actual, concrete plan of action. The failure of the post-liberal right is not its vision of moral traditionalism; it is its complete lack of awareness that to recapture what has been lost requires actual majorities to be mustered.

Much of post-liberalism sounds like Dungeons and Dragons LARP-ing with graduate degrees. For example, self-professed Christian Nationalists can recite all the founding documents they want telling of our Christian past — and they are right — but they cannot declare victory in the same way that The Office’s Michael Scott declares “bankruptcy” by simply yelling it and expect to be taken seriously. We must “do the work,” as I often hear said. If the choice is between revolution, on the one hand, and patience and long-suffering diligence to work from within the American tradition, on the other, I know where I’m going to stand. I think that speaks for a lot of other concerned conservatives, too. So much of the healing America needs can come through her Constitution. But we must persuade and build a coalition.

But I understand the temptation of the moment, which is why I don’t discount the gravity of post-liberalism’s concerns. Indeed, I share many of them myself. I can sense this feeling in others. People can see that America is trying to test the outer limits of how far the natural law can stretch before its whiplash back to reality. Things really do seem to be coming apart at the level of our national consensus. Looking at the burned-out precincts of American culture and all its attendant rot, I understand why monarchy, Caesarism, or other authoritarian visions seem appealing. That all assumes, of course, that history’s past troubles with authoritarianism would not return. But since human nature is what it is, they certainly would.

Political regimes cannot subsist on different flavors of authoritarianism. They need a combination of reliable legal procedure, magnanimous restraint, moral virtue, and the freedom to assemble governing majorities that keep the rot in check. We can still do all of that. No one is stopping conservatives from taking America back apart from conservatism’s will to be more persuasive and appealing than the squalidness of progressivism. Whatever rot exists in America, people can still organize and push back against moral insanity. Progressives may not play by those rules any longer; indeed, the argument from many sectors in post-liberalism is that if progressives have given up on playing fairly, why should we?

If this is no longer appealing, I give you Florida as the counterexample, where “woke goes to die,” to quote Governor Ron DeSantis. Or state legislatures more broadly, which are more conservative and more powerful than ever before. Or Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch (the last of whom, I know, has his own foibles, like Bostock, to answer for). Or where I live in Kentucky, where a slow revolution of sorts has occurred in our legislature, turning it from blue to deep red. Even with a fluke Democratic governor in office and the set-back of an abortion ballot loss last November, the Democratic Party in Kentucky could be likened to a clown car at this point simply because of its extremism and deep unpopularity. Elections truly do have consequences in ways that snark on Twitter does not. Conservatism is incremental. And conservative victories can be notched in ways that do not make us sound like zealots.

But still, this does not mean that various elements of conservatism don’t deserve a sabbatical, or, even better, retirement. The Republican establishment is completely out of sync with its base, focusing too much on Ukraine and not enough on Ohio. Larry Hogan’s dismissal of concerns over school curricula as “big government” is the exact form of boomer libertarian conservatism that should go away. Much of the supposed “Dead Consensus” conservatism of post-war liberalism should stay dead. Managerial conservatism that turned its head to cultural rot in favor of tax cuts is responsible for its own decline.

I’m not writing to defend liberal democracy as the only reasonable output that a conservative or a Christian could come away with from a biblical worldview. Short of the Kingdom of God itself, all political regimes are imperfectible. So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the urgency of witnessing to the truth as the occasion presents us. Truth is attractive. If we abandon the responsibility of making arguments in ways that can actually persuade, we do not deserve to be taken seriously. We must make those arguments forthrightly but also with “gentleness and respect,” as my Christian faith teaches (1 Peter 3:15). We are driven by truth, not crowd-appeasing “winsomeness.” We must also understand that we have the ability right now to mobilize and persuade. All that’s stopping us from moral sanity is mustering the arguments, political strategies, and slow-plodding activity to recapture institutions. But we are distracted from these endeavors by whining, griping, sniping at other conservatives who have not given up on liberal democracy, and by writing the umpteenth obituary for liberal democracy on a Substack. The fact of the matter is that figures like Ron DeSantis or groups like Alliance Defending Freedom have done more for conservatives and Christians while working within the confines of American constitutionalism than any book on Christian Nationalism or professorial diatribe will ever accomplish.

EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.

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