On July 5, 2015, Twitter poet Dril tweeted out an all-time classic, “if youre one of the guys who blocked me on here, i Forgive you, and im ready for you to unblock me now.” On September 9, 2019, Ryan T. Anderson, publisher of America’s leading journal of anti-integralism, Public Discourse, expanded at length upon Dril’s tweet. Ostensibly inspired by the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, Anderson delivers such pithy insights as, “This discussion is best understood not as an ‘either-or’ but as a ‘both-and.'” He goes on to assert that, “The essential intellectual work involves thinking through how to understand the ‘and’ at the theoretical level, and then fleshing out how to embody and implement that ‘and’ at a practical level.” In other words, the harmony of pen and sword between Sohrab Ahmari and David French is basically for Ahmari to concede French’s project (which is, more or less, Anderson’s project). Ryan T. Anderson forgives illiberals for their intransigence and is ready for us to stop complaining about things he likes.
You can read the whole thing at Public Discourse, but it’s a lot of churning over the same ground that Anderson has churned over endlessly over the course of his career. He tells us (describing an essay with his colleague Robert P. George), “We argue that, for example, the political institutions and practices surrounding property rights, the free exercise of religion, and the freedom of speech are justified because of—and hence limited by—the demands of justice and the common good.” We also hear about how “Certain rights and liberties should be understood as important substantive aspects of the common good, and others as important procedural constraints that prevent the abuse of governmental authority.” He even comes around to explaining how academic free speech is necessary for the functioning of universities and how this is the proper analogy for good proceduralism. If Ryan Anderson’s vision of good proceduralism is the tenure system, maybe we should ask the fifteen conservative professors left in the United States how they feel about the protections afforded by tenure.
I’m sure Anderson would respond that this is not what he is arguing at all. No doubt, he would object that he is describing how the academy should function, which is a far cry from how the degraded progressive re-education centers popping up at our elite universities do function. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? For one thing, if the argument is that real proceduralism has never been tried, no one’s buying that one any more. And the reason is simple: while elite universities have not always been Democratic Kampuchea cosplay conventions, they have had apprenticeships and the expectation of serious scholarship and tenure. Just like Anderson describes. Those good procedures didn’t stop the slide of the American university into its current state. What basis is there for assuming that good procedures will work when applied in the Republic? Is there any basis?
At any rate it’ll go over great at Anderson’s next after-dinner speech to donors. I even bet some of them will stay awake for it. Now, even if his audience is too sleepy to notice, you might notice that it’s mighty hard to see where the “and” comes in. Indeed, Anderson’s notion seems to be that everyone has to accept liberal proceduralism and a “Civil Rights Uniformity Act” and a “more robust” version of the “First Amendment Defense Act” will protect morality and religion. Trust the system, Anderson tells us, and eventually—and for what would be the first time—the ratchet will have to start turning in the other direction. There’s no reason to abandon Anderson and French’s preferred venues of courts, committee staff counsel offices, and think tanks. And there’s no sense returning to first principles to try to see if a better strategy could be formulated. “We must also avoid supposing that theoretical claims about the purpose of government could, on their own, provide answers to the questions facing us today.”
“Politics is practical,” Anderson tells us. “It’s concerned with how we should order our lives together in the concrete, given all the givens. It’s directed at action, not abstraction. Thus, it must be concerned with practicalities.“ We have to focus on practicalities! Nothing is more practical than producing white papers and draft legislation that won’t be enacted any time soon. Or, in all likelihood, ever. Nothing accepts (cheerfully!) what is given like going to court to win small battles with David French while big wars are lost at One First Street. We cannot be concerned with abstractions, like the realization, expressed perhaps a little inexpertly by Sohrab Ahmari (and Brent Bozell before him), that movement conservatives don’t win. Or the mounting horror as one realizes that the ratchet may not even be able to move in the other direction, however much we might want it to.
Particularly galling is Anderson’s rejection of teams and personality-based politics. “While neither French nor Ahmari is entirely correct, we need not feel forced into cheering for one side or the other, into viewing this as a matter of ‘teams,'” Anderson scolds us. “We conservatives need to keep the main focus on ideas, not personalities. We need to think prudently about practical steps we should take—here and now, given all the givens—that will promote the common good.” This seems to mean, given everything that came before it, that David French should be handed the win, and Sohrab Ahmari (and those who think like him) should have the good taste not to complain about it. But given Public Discourse‘s unstinting hostility to integralist thinkers, one would be excused for thinking that Anderson is, in fact, not really all that opposed to the idea of teams as much as he is opposed to idea that anyone might be on a team other than his.
Now maybe I have been unfair to Anderson—the long-running beef between Public Discourse and integralists has involved me from time to time—but if his project differs meaningfully from David French’s project, it’s not clear how. His arguments seem directed for the most part exclusively to Sohrab Ahmari’s position. The defense of liberal proceduralism, the importance of limiting government’s power to make moral decisions, and the rejection of abstractions all seem aimed squarely at Ahmari. One could, in fact, quite justifiably conclude that Anderson, if he doesn’t think French is entirely correct, thinks French is mostly correct. If this is not the case, then it might be nice to know what Anderson thinks French gets wrong.