Liberalism’s Good and Faithful Servants

Adrian Vermeule

Liberalism’s Good and Faithful Servants

What passes for the American intellectual right is a sorry thing. Indeed, it lacks even the virtues of unity and coherence; in reality, it is fractured, an ever-changing hodgepodge of views and conflicting mini-movements. To the extent there exists any institutional structure at all, it is only to be found on the right wing of liberalism, Conservatism Inc., which coheres in a brittle way only at the price of stasis, recycling nostrums for Reagan’s birthday, policing intellectual challenges, and establishing yet another Center for Madison and Mammon at some nominally Catholic university or other, funded to the tune of $10 million by some calculating donor who suspects Leo XIII was a dangerous socialist.

So what is organized isn’t opposed to liberalism in any real sense, and what is genuinely opposed to liberalism—genuinely critical of the endless revolution of liberalism, genuinely interested not merely in slowing its progress, but in defeating it, undoing it, curing its ills, and then transcending it to rebuild a civilization—isn’t organized.

What’s even worse—and this is my thesis—is that most of the sub-movements on the American right that imagine themselves to be critical of liberalism are, objectively, its servants. They serve the liberal order by practicing and, indeed, advocating, in one form or another, political quietism: the fundamental refusal to mount a political and public challenge to liberalism itself.

(No, such a challenge doesn’t mean “overthrowing the government,” because the government was here before liberalism and will be here after it; nor does it mean “betraying the Constitution” or some such, because the Constitution can be interpreted on nonliberal premises and, indeed, was for a long time interpreted on such premises, as I have argued; nor does it mean “theocracy,” for liberalism has no monopoly on recognizing a legitimate sphere of independence for the temporal power, and a legitimate sphere for the individual conscience as well. If these or similar slogans leapt into your thoughts, you already suffer from the very infection of the mind I mean to diagnose here.)

“Quietism takes a bewildering variety of forms.”

This quietism takes a bewildering variety of forms, united only in their proud, unyielding, and, indeed, occasionally angry commitment to political defeat. Liberalism offers an infinite variety of ways in which to retreat into a private and nonpolitical sphere, surrendering any fundamental contest for sovereignty—which is, of course, the only outcome that the liberal order really cares about. It is like entering a sort of gourmet market for lotus-eaters, in which all the goods appear to be temptingly different, yet in reality all contain the same powerful soporific.

Would you like to frequent artisanal coffeehouses in a college town, writing overlong screeds about authentic anti-liberalism and the primacy of the local? Be my guest, says the liberal order, we will even fund you to do so; you are a good and faithful servant. Might you prefer the “traditional” life — a picturesque farm, some chickens, a vaguely Mennonite aesthetic, and an Instagram account? Of course!, says liberalism, you are welcome to be a domestic extremist, so long as your extremism remains safely domesticated.

If your aesthetic runs more to the suburban book group with a bit of Aristotle and a glass of wine, so be it, as long as you promise not to think too deeply about the political dimensions of human excellence. Or, if all that strikes you as too feminized, please step this way; here is your basement gym, where you can bulk up and then go online, anonymously, to talk tough about Nietzsche, Evola, and neo-reaction, and slip in a few of those slurs you have been dying to use—so long as you report to work when the boss tells you to.

Are you more ambitious for a public reputation? Even that can be given to you, so long as your work remains within safely defined limits. With great fanfare and all the regalia of worldly honor, you may be given a post from which to express thoughtful opinions about nuanced policy reforms that never quite seem to lead anywhere, or about this or that religious-liberty case you are definitely planning to pursue. If things go well, you may even, eventually, get that poor baker from Colorado off the hook—a signal victory.

The only intellectual movement on the American scene that is genuinely political is so-called integralism or, as I think a more accurate term, political Catholicism. This political Catholicism is frequently accused by critics of a will to power (or, more pompously, a libido dominandi). In a certain sense, the accusation is true. Indeed, it is far more true than the critics, whose horizons are truncated by the basic compromise with liberalism, can begin to understand. The political Catholic looks at the series of false alternatives offered by the localists, the free-marketers, the cheerleaders of martyrdom—national or local action? state or market? Rome or the catacombs? —and says, “Yes, both/and; I will take them all.” The political Catholic wants to order the nation and its state to the natural and divine law, the tranquility of order, precisely because doing so is the best way to protect and shelter the localities in which genuinely human community, imbued with grace, can flourish. Conversely, those localities are to be protected as the best way to generate well-formed persons, who can rightly order the nation and the world towards truth, beauty, and goodness, rooted in the divine. Not everyone must engage in politics in the everyday sense, but some should make a vocation of political action in the highest sense. The political Catholic thinks that not even the smallest particle of creation is off-limits to grace, which can perfect and elevate any part of nature, even the state and even the market.

What is at stake is, indeed, far more elevated than power. What is at stake is no less than authority, the full authority of a reasoned political order, composed of both temporal and spiritual powers in right relation to the natural and divine law, that would put a mere Rome to shame. That limitless ambition is why liberalism finds a genuinely political Catholicism intolerable; why the liberal order will accept only a version of Catholicism that submits to be ruled; and why, whatever their justifications and whatever their self-conceptions, the practitioners and advocates of political quietism unfailingly receive their present rewards.

Adrian Vermeule is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the author, most recently, of Common Good Constitutionalism.

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