Authoritarianism Just Around the Corner

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It's possible you've also already been following the debate prompted by Damon Linker's attack on Andrew Bacevich's vision of conservatism; if not, go here and here and here; here for Linker's response to his critics; and here and here for more. I would just throw in two points. First, I think that Linker's determined quest to defend his vision of liberalism against all enemies, and to rout theocratic authoritarianism from the field once and for all, is reaching a point of seriously diminishing returns. It always struck me that the small coterie of intellectuals surrounding First Things were exceedingly unlikely candidates for the role Linker cast them in - a near-existential threat to the liberal order, etc. - but at least he was overhyping people who had some claim to political influence. In his latest jeremiad against the illiberal menace, on the other hand, he's moved on to targeting "paleoconservatives" like Daniel Larison, Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, all of whom are notable not only for being marginal to American politics as its currently practiced, but for liking it that way.

Which brings me to my second point. At the heart of Linker's critique of the theocons, supposedly, wasn't their religious and cultural conservatism per se but their decision to marry religious conservatism to a particular political faction, and to attempt to impose their beliefs on their fellow Americans by legal fiat. So you would think that he would have a high appreciation for the Drehers and Deneens of the world, who conceive of their religious conservatism as a cultural project first and a political project a distant second, if at all ... who have been just as fierce as Linker, if not fiercer, in their attacks on the contemporary Republican Party, the contemporary conservative movement, and the presidency of George W. Bush ... and whose central critique of American culture, that it could stand to inculcate more self-discipline and self-restrain in its citizenry, is looking reasonably compelling at the moment. But no: He wants to rout them from the field as well, attacking even an apolitical cultural conservatism for embodying "the suicide of the critical intellect" (a phrase that seems like a remarkably lousy fit for the group of wildly heterodox, combative and contrarian writers in question), meeting an appeal for greater private virtue with a defense of the virtues of fornication, and insisting that the "Benedict option" in any form is the royal road to Marcel Maciel-esque corruption. Which goes to the suspicion that cultural conservatives always have about the liberal order: That it claims to create a political framework that's studiously neutral between competing modes of thought and life, but when push comes to shove it wants to impose liberalism all the way down.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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