A Review of David French’s Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation (St. Martin’s Press, September 2020).
In March 2019, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari co-authored a manifesto in First Things entitled “Against the Dead Consensus.” “There is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016. Any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right,” the authors argue. In another piece for First Things published two months later, Ahmari makes explicit, “Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?” This article, “Against David Frenchism,” initiated a high-profile debate over the future of the conservative movement.
In Divided We Fall, it becomes obvious that French has misunderstood Ahmari’s criticism: he’s failed to grasp why the right has left his version of conservatism behind.
David French is an evangelical Christian and graduate of Harvard Law School who has spent most of his career working as a religious-liberty attorney. From 2015 he served as a full-time writer for National Review before taking up his current position as senior editor of The Dispatch in 2019. National Review was generally opposed to Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016. In May that year, shortly after French had written some particularly scathing remarks about Trump, Bill Kristol (editor of the now-defunct Weekly Standard) almost convinced French to run for president. Since Trump’s 2016 victory, French has become an even more prominent face of the Never-Trump faction of conservatism.
Ahmari became supportive of Trump and the right-populist movements throughout the West shortly after his conversion to Catholicism in December 2016. He introduces French as a “Never-Trump stalwart” in his article, and French’s prominence as a Never-Trumper likely contributed to Ahmari picking him as his exemplar for the anti-Trump establishment conservatism he calls “the dead consensus.” But their dispute, while initiated by opposing attitudes towards Trump, expanded into a debate over which of “two visions” should guide the conservative movement and its political party, given the nature of the modern left (as the title of the first of two in-person engagements put it).
In “Against David Frenchism,” as well as in his subsequent essays, Ahmari has begun articulating a vision for a “New Right” that is sharply distinguished from the “dead consensus” French represents. As I outline in my review for Human Events of Ahmari’s recent book, Ahmari’s is a vision “for a nonmodern and postliberal political theory.”
David French published his own book in 2020, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. In it, he defends the dead consensus’s liberalism against Ahmari’s pro-Trump vision for the right, and refers to Ahmari’s criticisms at key points. “Make no mistake, liberalism is under attack,” French writes, as he introduces Ahmari and his allies as the central threat to our continued existence as a unified nation.
In Divided We Fall, it becomes obvious that French has misunderstood Ahmari’s criticism: he’s failed to grasp why the right has left his version of conservatism behind.
FRENCH’S VS. AHMARI’S VISION FOR THE RIGHT
“There’s no polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” So wrote Ahmari, an Iranian immigrant, in the tweet heard around the world that started the Franco-Persian war. As he’s explained in subsequent essays and debates, Ahmari’s target is a particular approach to culture-war debates shared by conservative journalists like French, conservative lawyers at the supreme court, and the libertarian tendency in the Republican Party in its use of state power. These all share a way of responding to the fact that our nation consists of various groups taking their moral cues from different and conflicting ethical doctrines—different religions and secular worldviews. All three adhere to liberal political philosophy.
Ahmari’s target is a particular approach to culture-war debates shared by conservative journalists like French, conservative lawyers at the supreme court, and the libertarian tendency in the Republican Party in its use of state power.
It holds that in the context of so much pluralism, our national cohesion is threatened when any group seeks to impose its comprehensive ethical view on everyone else. In our public debates, our legal strategies, and our use of state power, it recommends leaving our central ethical disputes unresolved. In a pluralistic society, we must only assert our individual rights, allow (and help) our opponents to do the same, and live with them in as tolerable a level of harmony as we can manage.
Ahmari singles French out because French, he argues, tends to “fall back on religious liberty” when defending the right’s position on issues like “abortion, same-sex marriage, polyamory [and] kids in drag.” This move exemplifies the liberal posture of asserting only your right to disagree. Ahmari urges the right to abandon that posture and confront the left with the full resources of its own substantive ethical doctrines.
He offers two reasons why we should do this. First and foremost, the left now aggressively imposes its substantial ethical view on everyone else. As he puts it in his second debate with French, “The woke sexual revolutionary left has a substantive vision of the highest good, and they seek to systematically impose it at every level.”
Second, Ahmari holds the liberal posture exemplified by French responsible for the right’s string of defeats in the culture war. The progressive left’s views on sex, marriage, and gender came to dominate the culture, Ahmari argues, because the right was too timid to contest them, offensively, with arguments based on its own ethical doctrines. With this in mind, Ahmari pithily defines Frenchism as “a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square.”
Ahmari recommends something quite specific, then, when he issues his much–ridiculed call “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good.” He’s urging the right to change the orientation with which it engages the left journalistically, legally, and politically: abandon liberalism’s limitation wherein we only defend our individual rights and confront the left on more substantive ethical grounds. “The only way is through,” Ahmari writes: the right must aim to resolve its deep moral disputes with the left and take them head-on.
Ahmari’s other claim causing mass outrage, that “civility and decency are secondary values,” amounts to the same suggestion. Ahmari’s point is that the establishment right, unlike President Trump, is unwilling to confront the left on issues like critical race theory and “social justice.” “Civility and decency” name what were responsible for the right’s inability to impede the left when it casts opposition to the left’s ethical views as “bigotry.” They’re what cost us, and continue to cost us, the culture war.
Lastly, consider Ahmari’s complaint that “talk of politics as war and enmity is thoroughly alien to French.” French closed his first response agreeing: “he’s right about that much: I do not see politics as war.” But French does see politics as war. He, too, thinks in friend/enemy terms. It’s just that his tribe is “liberals,” whether their substantive ethics are progressive or conservative, and his enemy group is “illiberals.” This is made clear when he finds confirmation of “classic horseshoe theory” in Ahmari’s critique—the view that the extreme left and right coincide. Ahmari and “the illiberal left” are the same to French because they’re both what makes them French’s enemies: illiberal; their differences are, to him, of secondary importance. To French, to “say the only way [is] through is to in essence become the enemy.”
Ahmari pithily defines Frenchism as ‘a program for negotiating Christian retreat from the public square.’
French maintains this same friend/enemy cut in Divided We Fall. His policy and ethical differences with progressives take backstage throughout the book due to the urgency of aligning with anyone who’ll defend liberalism as a “form of government” against its enemies on the left and right. He opens the book’s conclusion, for example, recounting how he considers a progressive professor a friend even though “he and I seek very different policy outcomes, [for] we both consider ourselves classical liberals.” This leads to French’s telling remark a few pages later that “there are two culture wars in American life… the classical conservative/progressive split,” and the “deeper struggle between decency and indecency.” That second struggle, for French, is “between those people of all political persuasions who continue to believe in constitutional processes and basic democratic norms, on the one hand, and… the campus social justice warrior or the ‘Flight 93’ Trump populist, on the other.”
But when Ahmari wrote, in the closing line of “Against David Frenchism,” that “to recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty,” he was specifically targeting French’s friend/enemy distinction between liberals and illiberals. Ahmari’s view is that the right must learn to distinguish between friends and enemies according to whether or not a person or group’s substantive ethics align with its own. Ahmari’s criticism targets French’s failure to cut at the level of substantive ethical doctrine. This is what the left does, embracing the illiberal practices of corporations, big tech, national security agencies, and the military as they’ve gravitated to the left on substantive ethical questions. We must abandon French’s alignment, Ahmari urges, and recognize our true enemies—especially in the institutions just listed.
Something crucial follows here. It is no part of Ahmari’s vision for the right that we abandon reason-giving, persuasion, or honest appraisals of our opponents’ arguments. This fact alone thoroughly destroys all the arguments French and his allies have given in response. French is simply wrong when he writes for National Review that Ahmari abhors “a discussion of only ideas.” Adam Serwer is wrong when he writes for the Atlantic that Ahmari isn’t concerned to “win arguments.” Cathy Young is wrong when she writes for Quillette that French is the only one of the two who “wants to persuade.” Robby Soave is wrong to wonder for Reason whether Ahmari intends for us to “start punching leftists.” So is every other pundit from Team French.
Ahmarism is not misology. It does not forgo persuasion and dialogue. It targets the Frenchist form of debate and political activity, ‘the left’s highest good vs. the right’s right to disagree.’ Ahmari seeks to replace this with dialogue, debate, and political conflict over the highest good itself. He aims to change how the right is disposed in its struggle with the left.
DIVIDED WE FALL
French closes the Introduction to Divided We Fall citing the Ahmari-led “online storm” against him as the reason why “liberalism is under threat.” He writes:
“Ahmari made three broad arguments. First, politics was rapidly devolving to a state of ‘war and enmity.’ Second, in such circumstances, civility and decency were ‘second-order values.’ Indeed, in some circumstances they may be undesirable. And third, liberalism itself was responsible for perceived declines in American culture. Why was I part of the equation?”
These are indeed the words with which Ahmari states his criticisms. But what Ahmari meant by those words is not the meaning French gives them. The answer to French’s question is that it’s his unwillingness to challenge the left on substantial ethical grounds—his “civility”—that allows the woke left to destroy our healthy cultural norms. Ahmari is urging this challenge—a different discussion, not a rejection of discussion.
Ahmari is urging this challenge—a different discussion, not a rejection of discussion.
What French posits in response to his own question, while true, doesn’t contain this understanding of Ahmari’s criticism. He writes: “Because in my support for both civility and the liberal order (in particular, my support for civil liberties), I was inadequate for the challenge of the times. The path of ‘David French-ism’ was allegedly retreat and defeat. Ahmari’s goal, by contrast, was to ‘fight the culture war…’”
This is no mere omission. In fact, French’s false claim that Ahmari’s vision for the right abandons discussion structures the book’s entire argument. The choice facing the right, French continues, is between his brand of “pluralism” and Ahmari’s “vision for domination.” French’s way will heal the nation, in his view, while Ahmari’s, since it abandons discussion, “risks splitting the nation into two.” French continues:
“I recognize pluralism as a permanent fact of American life … Ahmari and many of his allies on the right seek to sweep past pluralism to create (and impose) a new political and moral order, one designed according to their specific moral values—and to the extent that individual liberty conflicts with the ‘common good’ or ‘Highest Good,’ it must be swept away.”
That’s a vision for domination, not accommodation … as I’ll explain in the pages that follow, the quest for moral, cultural, and political domination by either side of our national divide risks splitting the nation into two.”
So ends French’s introduction. In the first of the book’s three parts, French gives his view of what’s causing our nation’s unity to fray. He argues that if the right continues with Ahmari’s vision, “the nation could fracture.” Here we see that French’s book-length response to Ahmari’s criticism is based on the same mischaracterization of Ahmari’s challenge to “Frenchism” as Team French’s 2019 criticisms (my emphasis):
“The goal is domination, not discussion, and certainly not coexistence. ‘The only way is through,’ remember? The only way is to ‘reorder’ the public square. It’s time to impose the ‘common good’ or the ‘Highest Good.’ The instrument is power. Resistance is a sign of depravity.
In reality, however, the very act of attempting to use the levers of political and economic power to drive your opponent to the edges of American influence inflames every single flash point of division articulated in this book. It breaks the fundamental compact between citizen and state.”
French opens Part III of Divided We Fall repeating that it’s Ahmari’s desire “to dominate” his opponents that threatens the nation’s unity, and offers his own liberal pluralist “solution” to our polarization crisis. He closes here by citing Ahmari as his prime example of how “the right is moving in exactly the opposite direction necessary to accommodate American pluralism and foster national reconciliation.”
Since French’s entire book is based on a misreading of Ahmari’s critique, it offers a thoroughly unresponsive defense of the same losing program for the right that Ahmari has targeted for the past two years.
But since French’s entire book is based on a misreading of Ahmari’s critique, it offers a thoroughly unresponsive defense of the same losing program for the right that Ahmari has targeted for the past two years. He writes in the Introduction’s final paragraph that “To embrace pluralism is to surrender the dream of domination. To embrace pluralism is to acknowledge that even the quest for domination is dangerous.” Since “domination” means Ahmarism, this translates, ‘to embrace pluralism is to surrender the dream of making substantive ethical challenges to woke ethics. To embrace pluralism is to see that even the quest to challenge woke ethics on substantive grounds is dangerous.’
To embrace French’s pluralism is to refrain from evaluating whether narratives are true or just. After sketching accounts of the left and right’s conflicting narratives, French warns against attempting to “adjudicate” between them. He writes:
“The point of this book is not to adjudicate the competing narratives of left and right. Indeed, the effort is both futile and counterproductive. … The point of this book is to help the reader understand these competing narratives and to warn against the product of their inexorable and relentless spread through the American body politic.”
This principled resistance to evaluating narratives structures the whole book: “Again, the purpose of this book is not to debate the merits of these positions”; “regardless of the virtue of the underlying positions, it is a simple fact that when both sides move to their own edges—regardless of the virtue of that edge—it exacerbates division.”
These texts confirm that Ahmari’s main charge against French in 2019 is entirely valid of 2020’s Divided We Fall. French warns us not to evaluate the “merits” or “virtue” of the left’s highest good. Meanwhile, they systematically impose it at every level. Here, in its full glory, is French’s program for negotiating the retreat of substantive considerations from the public square.
To embrace French’s “pluralism” is to surrender.