American Decline

When conservatives become revolutionaries

By Damon Linker, The Week

The conservative intelligentsia keeps returning to authoritarianism.

Back in June of last year, I wrote a column about how the intellectual right was talking itself into tearing down American democracy. The occasion was a debate between David French, a social-conservative defender of the right to religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment, and Sohrab Ahmari, a more stridently right-wing opinion journalist and editor who favors a politics actively devoted to re-ordering American life “to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” even in the absence of popular support for such a religiously informed project.

Ahmari’s side of the debate received a considerable boost this April when Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule published an essay in The Atlantic in which he took aim at the conservative jurisprudence of “originalism,” which in theory restrains the actions of Supreme Court justices by insisting that they defer to the meaning of the Constitution as it was understood at the time it was drafted and ratified. In place of originalism, Vermuele advocated something called “common good constitutionalism,” which would use the law to inculcate a comprehensive moral view rooted in conservative Christianity.

At the time, I described this proposal as “an impatient dismissal of the need for democratic legitimacy and a full-throated endorsement of political authoritarianism.” Last week, President Trump signaled his administration’s approval of such views by announcing it plans to appoint Vermeule to a three-year term on the Administrative Conference of the United States.


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