The debate over liberalism within the American conservative and Catholic commentariat is confusing from the perspective of a European outsider observing from a continent where liberalism’s political destruction is further advanced, and yet the old order still stands, bloodied, paranoid, anxious but undefeated. Does this debate, in which a small but influential faction is seeking to overturn the conservative establishment’s attachment to classical liberalism, herald the beginning of America’s slouch towards Rome—whether the Rome of a nationalist like Salvini or that of Pope Francis—or is it yet another case of America’s online political rhetoric outsoaring a more mundane reality?
The political constructions of Europe’s new strongmen, chiefly Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have been cheered on by many American religious conservatives, and not without reason. These new ruling parties are more popular among voters in Central and Eastern Europe than the neoliberal regimes they have replaced. They are also in many ways superior in responding to the desires of their publics than the imported economic and social liberal orthodoxies of Anglo-Saxon corporate conservatism.
The adoption in countries like Italy and Poland of a Catholic-tinged Christian identity as a means of political mobilization no doubt looks attractive to American conservative Christians skeptical that the retreat to self-governing religious localism that the writer Rod Dreher has dubbed “The Benedict Option,” will preserve their modes of life and thought. Instead of hiding away in the metaphorical round-towers and hilltop monasteries of Dreherism waiting for the liberal wave to recede, the appeal of sallying forth to reconquer the lost cities and institutions of the pre-woke order is understandable; it may even be an effective strategy. Yet, there is also the risk that its proponents are outrunning the conditions for the success of their project, potentially hobbling their chances in a race that has barely started.
Partly inspired by European critics of liberalism like Ryszard Legutko, America’s right wing dissidents have constructed, in their own bestselling books and online commentary, legalistic and moral theories of the “rightly ordered” societies they hope to build. But where the intellectuals in the U.S. have theorized a future post-liberal political order, European politicians have constructed actually existing non-liberal and increasingly illiberal states. On one side of the Atlantic, the state is built; on the other, the justifying theory. Yet attempting to build along the European state model to match the American theory would be a fool’s errand because the underlying conditions that exist in those parts of Europe where post-liberal politicians succeed do not exist in the U.S. While they differ markedly from each other, in comparison to the U.S., Italy, Poland and Hungary are all overwhelmingly or predominantly Catholic ethnically-bounded nation-states with histories of foreign domination or partition, combining weak historical attachments to liberal democracy with ambivalent attitudes to their 20th century autocratic rulers. In Poland and Hungary, the long years of Communist rule seem to have inoculated their voters from the waves of social liberalism that transformed Western Europe far more effectively than establishment conservatism ever managed to achieve in the United States. As a political project, the postmodern corporatist state helmed by a Christian strongman is unlikely to take root even in Europe north of the Alps or west of the old Habsburg frontiers, let alone in America. It is hard to escape the conclusion this mooted Counter-Reformation against conservative fusionism is merely the higher-status equivalent of less influential American enthusiasts roleplaying the clashes of other dead European ideologies in the streets: an interesting symbol of our confused and disordered times, but dead in the water as a serious political project.
There is another problem, one that concerns, not only conditions, but ends. Conservatives agitating against the status quo are not united by any consensus towards the prospects for liberalism’s survival; instead, they share a set of paradoxical assumptions about the current state of affairs and contradictory goals about what should come next. According to the conservative dissidents in the Ahmari camp, liberalism is both tottering under its own contradictions and an out-of-control juggernaut of woke capital and hostile institutions. They believe liberal order is doomed and yet also nearly omnipotent: threatening to extinguish the very civilization that birthed it and bring about an endless desolation.
This is not necessarily a contradiction, on the proverbial basis that the wounded beast is most dangerous, but it is difficult to find historical analogies. It may well be the case that American liberalism is about to collapse, like Soviet communism and Europe’s ancien regimes before it, but it is unlikely that this will occur without the shock of some violent and yet unforeseen external event. Thus far, much of the energy behind the post-liberal project appears to be channeled into ideological agitation on twitter. At the moment, the pro-Trump American right has fought a vicious and only narrowly-won battle just to keep their elected president in office and to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court. Whatever the merits of their arguments in intellectual journals and provocative tweets, a vastly more radical transformation of the nation’s entire political philosophy appears to exceed their capabilities. The analogy is with the Democratic Socialists of America’s use of the language and symbolism of Communism to advance a modest and rather boring form of social democracy within the Democratic Party. American conservatives flirting with the genuine illiberalism or post-liberalism happening in Europe are merely using it as a piquant spice to enhance the attractiveness of a modest reform movement within conservatism, a fiery dash of Hungarian paprika on the same old American stodge.
And if they were capable of such a transformation, the fundamental question would remain: What is it, in the end, that they want? If their claimed project is to be taken seriously, America’s nascent post-liberals must define what they are for, not just point with disgust at those who they are against. Here, the terms of a recent semantic debate, one of admittedly narrow interest and low stakes, may illuminate larger questions. Some conservative critics of liberalism nevertheless object to the term illiberal. The Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony, for instance, claims that that ‘illiberalism’ is a pejorative term used to discredit critics of the liberal order. In truth, however, illiberal is a neutral descriptor, and one that Orban himself proudly uses to describe the political his own political system.
“Illiberal” is only a pejorative term if used from within liberalism. If the American new right intends to construct a moral and political order outside or beyond liberalism, the British formulation of “post-liberal,” as used by Alasdair MacIntyre, John Milbank, Adrian Pabst and others, seems more apt. Unlike the American Catholic conservative Patrick Deneen, Pabst and Milbank attempt to construct a vision of the order that replaces liberalism, in their case a uniquely English form of medieval guild socialism owing much to William Morris. It is a vision that regrets liberalism, rather than abjures it; seeks to move beyond it rather than eradicate it. The crucial engagement with liberalism here is that has been superseded: the political imagination has already moved beyond liberalism. “Illiberalism,” whether or not it accepts the term, instead casts the liberal as the Schmittian enemy, against whom the righteous party defines itself. It is the mirror image of liberalism, and by defining itself in opposition, it is trapped within the old order. Indeed, so central is the desire to renounce liberalism and all its works displayed by America’s new conservative converts that it sometimes appears Catholicism is merely a convenient vehicle towards illiberal ends.
What post-liberalism and illiberalism share is the belief that liberalism is already collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. If this is truly the case, it ought to be a matter of supreme indifference what liberal partisans think or say, or what terminology they use to describe their opponents. That it is evidently not a matter of indifference highlights the crucial distinction between the openly illiberal or post-liberal polities coming into being in Central Europe and Italy and the theorists and commentators attempting to redefine American conservatism: for good or ill, the constitution, legal and political philosophy and public discourse of the United States are all deeply intertwined with liberalism, in a way those of Italy, Hungary and Poland are not.
In its thousand-year history, Hungary has experienced liberalism as a mode of political thought for less than thirty years, a brief experiment now discarded for the foreseeable future. In contrast, the United States, as a creation of the Enlightenment, was founded along liberal assumptions. American politics is a brutal war between two brands of liberal thought, a clash so bitter because the proponents are so fundamentally akin. The two are, not necessarily for the good of the world, two heads of the same creature: indeed, America is currently the vehicle through which liberalism is spread through the world, irrespective of the rest of the world’s wishes. The final collapse of liberalism, when it comes, will be coterminous with the collapse of the American empire, which is a difficult outcome for tenured American conservatives to root on.
In a manner that exists nowhere on the European continent, Liberalism can be understood as America’s civic religion, the wellspring of its political visions and the source of a sacred text whose precise interpretation is as endlessly debated and bitterly disputed as any divine commandment. The capture of the American state and its conversion into a Christian, or even Catholic post-liberal or illiberal entity would be an event as profoundly momentous as the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, an epoch-changing event so vanishingly unlikely that it would, like Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge, be explicable even by its supporters only as a miracle. It is unclear that American political life in 2019 is a time of miracles.