What Does the Sohrab Ahmari/David French Fight Say About Bipartisanship?

I confess that I can’t quite figure out what The Federalist’s Ben Domenech is talking about. He says that “American culture is past the point of peaceable navigation of conflict.” Does that mean we should start shooting each other? Are there states ready to secede from the Union?

He says that “The Left seeks to destroy all that Christian conservatives hold dear,” but he just assumes that his readers know what that means. Are liberals about to pillage their villages, poison their wells, slaughter their livestock, and carry off the womenfolk?

This is all part of a pseudo-intellectual debate spurred by a spat between the National Review’s David French and New York Post editorial page director Sohrab Ahmari. Ahmari is an Iranian immigrant and recent adopter of Roman Catholicism, and he appears to have the convert’s familiar penchant for zealotry. Writing at First Things rather than his own newspaper, Ahmari went after David French for being too civil. Here’s a sample:

It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)

I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, 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 and ultimately the Highest Good.

French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue.

Personally, I find it a little odd that David French is considered to be such a nice person, because I’ve never felt that way about him. Yet, setting that aside, he has now been assigned the role of a weakling in the great Culture War. If conservative Christians follow his strategy they will never be able to stop drag queens from corrupting the children of Sacramento.

Somehow this dispute spurred a wider debate, with most conservatives weighing in on Ahmari’s side to argue that the times call for the combative style of Trump rather than the milquetoast approach of French.

In some ways, it’s a mirror image of the same debate liberals are having with Joe Biden.

A split has emerged among the Democratic presidential candidates over whether the party should aim to work with Republicans or wage war against them, a division stemming from a belief by many rank-and-file Democrats that the GOP has stopped playing by the old rules.

Former vice president Joe Biden repeatedly touts the need to return to an era of bipartisan comity, saying that “compromise is not a dirty word” and predicting that Republicans will have an “epiphany” on bipartisanship after President Trump is out of office.

Others say Biden’s view is naive and harks back to an era of bipartisanship that no longer exists, rather than confronting the hardball tactics that have helped Republicans notch big political wins in recent years.

“We’re done with two sets of rules, one for the Republicans and one for the Democrats,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a candidate for the presidency, said recently, suggesting that if Democrats win the Senate they should consider eliminating the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation.

The main difference is that the liberals are talking about voter suppression, gerrymandering, politicized courts, abuse of power, and the impossibility of working with Republicans who lack even an iota of good faith. In other words, they’re mainly concerned with structure and process. The conservatives are concerned with people’s naughty parts and sexual preferences, which is to say that they’re freaking out about issues. They feel under siege because they’re being punished for homophobic and racist views, and for being extremists on abortion and contraception. They think the liberals are trying to criminalize their opinions, but the liberals are more concerned that the Republicans are trying to rig our elections.

That’s not to say that liberals don’t care about issues. They know that nothing can be done about climate change, for example, as long as there is a legislative filibuster in the Senate. They are beyond concerned about the right’s assault on reproductive freedom and women’s health. But they still see the assault primarily in process terms, and seek solutions in structural reforms rather than in some ill-defined resort to incivility and win-at-all-cost tactics.

Perhaps the conservative warriors would disagree, but I see their defeats as occurring more in the private sphere than the public one. They are disinvited to speak on college campuses and their more intolerant outbursts cause media boycotts targeting advertisers. The liberal losses come in political power, through lost seats and elections, unfavorable court rulings, and tax and regulatory decisions that favor rich Republicans and predatory industries.

Even where the conservative Christians have been dealt some blows, as on gay marriage and sodomy laws, those rulings came from a Republican-majority Supreme Court. That majority would be Democratic now if Merrick Garland had been confirmed in 2016, so which side has more right to feel aggrieved?

My takeaway from all of this is that partisans on both sides think bipartisanship has no near-term future. It’s hard to argue with them, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of America is happy with this situation. The politics of bipartisanship—of a promised return to normalcy—are probably more potent today than at any point in the past when we actually had some cross-party consensus.

Most of all, this silly debate on the right just highlights that conservatives feel that they’re in a fight to the death and that ethical concerns that get in the way of winning are signs of a dangerous weakness. They’ll work with Trump despite his transparently fake Christian values because he has the same enemies and he’s willing to do anything, say anything, to wage the fight successfully.

The Democrats aren’t there yet. That’s why Joe Biden is so far ahead in the polls.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com