Two weeks ago I appeared on Titus Techera’s podcast Post-Modern Conservative to talk with him about my article for the National Review, “Learning the Wrong Lessons From Reform Conservatism” and the blog-post that went with it, “Conservatism’s Generational Civil War.” Our discussion was fruitful and wide ranging: over its course we discussed various intellectual currents in 21st century conservative thought, my assessment of the “reformicons” and their failure as a political movement (including a few that did not make it into the original article), how conservatives never really fought a culture war, but a political war over culture, unsettling parallels I see between frog-twitter conservatives of today and the right-wing intellectuals of Weimar Germany, the need for a “manly” defense of (small-l) liberal principles, and my opinion of Adrian Vermeule’s article in The Atlantic on “common good constitutionalism.“
On that last point, I would like to clarify something I said on the podcast. Twice I called Vermeule’s ideas “intentionally stupid.” The word “stupid” was a mistake; rather, I think his ideas are intentionally absurd. No one with two wits about them actually believes that America will—any time in the next fifty years at least—be a republic whose constitution is interpreted by the dictates of 19th century Catholic theology. Move an inch towards this “common good” framing and you will be left not with Catholic social teaching, but the “common good” as The New York Times editorial page defines it. Vermeule knows this. We all know it. His proposals are prima facie absurdities—and that is the entire point!
What is going on here is a sort of signalling. By writing up an article for the nation’s largest magazine that is simultaneously an outrage to any normie who reads them yet the logical extension of Vermeule’s beliefs, Vermeule is signalling something important: my commitment to these principles is so strong, and their underlying logic so compelling, that I am willing to make myself an object of national spite and ridicule to defend them. This approach is not intended to persuade the unconvinced so much as it is to inspire the uncommitted. No leftist or libertarian will be won over to “common good” thinking by these displays. But a confused and frustrated young conservative desperately searching for a moral framework to latch onto? Proto-integralists who have lost faith in America’s founding principles but have been too shy or too intimidated to voice their loss? These are the people who will be impressed by Vermeule’s stand, and it is with them in mind he wrote his piece.
Hear the rest of my thoughts on that question and many others over at the Post Modern Conservative podcast.
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