Several decades ago, Samuel T. Francis coined the phrase "harmless persuasion" to describe would-be conservatives who desist from saying anything that might evoke anger on the left. Francis was referring to neoconservatives, who climbed to power in the 1980s at the expense of the Old Right. But since then, there have been other contenders for the honor of representing the "harmless persuasion." My own favorites are Catholic and Orthodox traditionalists, who wear their piety on the sleeves but who rarely offend the left. At least three of these soi-disant traditionalists, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, and Patrick J. Deneen, have been lavishly praised in the New York Times. One might believe from seeing a review there of Deneen's book Why Liberalism Failed that the Times had been converted to neo-medieval traditionalism. Incidentally, all three of the aforementioned traditionalists extol one another's traditionalism in what looks like a mutual admiration society.
This problematic but self-congratulating traditionalism is certainly nothing new. An entire movement in England, led by the Nottingham sociologist John Millbank, has been at the same game for decades. It consists of occupying the extreme right of Anglo-Catholicism on certain liturgical questions while denouncing European counterrevolutionaries for being tainted by "liberalism." But the radical traditionalist then veers sharply left on contemporary political and economic questions. Millbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward have constructed a "theological social theory" that is hostile to the "liberalism" that has supposedly poisoned Western society for centuries. But propounding this theory also conveniently allows its bearers to join the anti-capitalist left – and the last time I encountered Professor Pickstock, she was attacking the callousness of Margaret Thatcher while calling for the acceptance of more non-Western refugees into Europe.
In the U.S., harmless traditionalists of a religious bent follow a path similar to that of the Radical Orthodox in England. They generally avoid scolding the left harshly, instead directing their bile against an enemy called "liberalism." By "liberalism" they mean an ideology that took root at the end of the Middle Ages and is held responsible for a multitude of social ills, including capitalism, secularism, individual rights, and our media-created fake culture. Mixed in with these generalities are at least some grains of truth. For example, it is possible to ascribe radical consequences to the constructivist character of the American constitutional republic and to the practice of stressing individual rights at the expense of long established communal ones. Individual rights continue to morph, and some of them, as Deneen notes, are forced down the throats of the unwilling by public administration and legislating courts.
But there are two problems with the more general stance that Deneen's widely reviewed book, Why Liberalism Failed, exemplifies. The anti-liberal critics set up a straw man, which they pretend their side has always been battling. This has supposedly been the case since Catholic Aristotelians or religious communitarians lost their political and moral battle to natural rights theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Since then, "liberals" have caused, among other ills, "the degradation of citizenship" and the erosion of education. Much of this complaint is, of course, open to dispute. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when real liberal ideas gained influence in the West, universities, libraries, symphony orchestras, and manifold cultural activities flourished – indeed, to a degree that humanity had not experienced before. The dissolution of families properly criticized by Deneen had barely started in the post-World War II era, which came centuries after liberal solvents had supposedly begun their destructive work.
It is also questionable whether the ills that Deneen attributes to contemporary "liberal democracy" and our commercialized mass culture is typical of anything outside the present age. Deneen and his friends may see deeper than I, but I discern no signs of these late modern developments in early modern Europe and among those varied groups, including both Catholics and Protestants, that helped produce liberal political theory. I make this observation, by the way, not as a devotee of Locke, but as someone who in his social thinking may be closer to Deneen's position. Although I too value the social bond more than individual self-expressiveness, I find no reason to father our late modern problems on thinkers addressing different concerns who lived centuries ago. Nor do I think their influence was an unmixed curse.
The other problem with the anti-liberal traditionalist position in question is that it never really engages the left. Whether the issue is being a NeverTrump, supporting the liberal Democrat Doug Jones against the flawed Fundamentalist Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama senatorial race, or loudly deploring white racism and homophobia, our traditionalists can yell with the best of their leftist pals.
Although Deneen ostentatiously laments the effects of corporate capitalism on women in the workforce, he never dares advocate anything that might raise eyebrows – e.g., restoring traditional gender roles and the single family wage. He knows that his goose would be cooked if he recommended a return to the prevalent social situation of the 1950s. But no one at the New York Times or Washington Post could possibly object to his hymn to a distant past that exists only as a vague memory.
Dreher proposes a Benedict Option that would be open to people like himself. It would allow the faithful to withdraw from a morally corrupt society into a community of the pure. Significantly, Dreher has reserved his harshest invective for Trump and his supporters while criticizing the left only in very general terms.
Douthat, a Catholic convert and New York Times "conservative" or "co-conservative" with David Brooks, is equally skilled at striking righteous poses. But some of us on the right wish he'd combine his righteous tone with hard-hitting attacks on the left.
Needless to say, that might spell the end of a promising career as a "traditionalist" in the national press.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in American Thinker and has been rerun with permission of its author.
Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.