In a review of Ross Douthat’s book The Decadent Society, Tara Isabella Burton argued that the way out of decadence is to have actual public conversation and debate about how our politics can be reconnected to something transcendent or, at least, something beyond this world:
What we need, Douthat implies, is a renewed eschatological vision of what history, and what we, are for. It might well lie in the secular promise of the progressive arc of history. It might lie, Douthat suggests in his concluding pages, in turning our attention to the stars: to the thrill of another space race. And it might (Douthat’s sympathies are unsubtle here) lie in religious revival: a communal commitment to the idea that embodiment is meaningful precisely because our bodies are not all there is. Or, perhaps, we might find a fusion of all three. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward,” Douthat concludes, “toward God, toward the stars or both.” It’s time we talk seriously about how to get there.
Though it can sound grandiose in our contemporary moment, where we often are reduced to hoping our political debates can have any substance whatever, let alone some kind of transcendent aspiration, Burton’s plea is, by conservative Christian standards, actually quite banal.
It has long been the claim amongst religious conservatives that societies, like individuals, need an end toward which they are laboring. When our societies (or political systems) are deprived of an agreed upon telos they are made incoherent because they are actually disconnected from time itself; there is no ability to say that we must do x today because we wish to realize y tomorrow because no one can agree upon what it is we ought to be realizing tomorrow. This is not a surprise.
Reformed divines such as Johannes Althusius and Lutherans like Niels Hemmingsen and Philip Melanchthon were saying as much 500 years ago. Althusius went so far as to say that the person who removes the Ten Commandments from public life would “destroy all… social life among men.” Likewise the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written more recently that Christian love is a meaningless concept if detached from truth, saying that “Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. Truth is the light that gives meaning and value to charity.” And, of course, Solzhenitsyn made this very point in his famous Harvard commencement address. A purely immanent politics is inherently a decadent politics, for it can only run on the inertia provided by a large amount of accrued wealth.
Thus immanent politics end up resembling in many ways the kind of politics that Rusty Reno critiqued in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society in which he noted that our political order today works very well for the people wealthy enough to buy the goods that our order has made so hard to obtain organically, such as support with childcare and homemaking, quality education, time for leisure, and so on. For those who lack accrued wealth to purchase these goods, the goods are simply never realized or experienced. This is the story Charles Murray told in Coming Apart. Both Fishtown and Belmont belong to an immanent political frame. But only one of them has the means necessary to cope with it.
But, of course, the moment we begin to talk about restoring transcendence to our politics, a host of questions arise. This was the subtext to last summer’s much discussed conflagration between New York Post editor Sohrab Ahmari and The Dispatch’s David French. But reattaching our politics to the transcendent is not simply a question of political theory; it’s a question of statesmanship and legislation. And here, so far, the discussion has been more limited, mostly making what are, again by conservative Christian standards, very modest claims about banning abortion, banning pornography, protecting religious liberty, and so on.
But what would a post-Trump politics of the transcendent look like on Capitol Hill? What is the legislative agenda of a politician who wants to steer conservatism out of decadence and rescue our legislative vision from the immanent frame? If the American Right escapes its libertarian fever dreams and recovers a constructive vision of government’s role in the life of the commonwealth, what does that mean for conservative policy and legislation?
There are two theories emerging in the Republican party. These competing theories, which we’ll call “civil catechesis” and “national greatness,” have a number of plausible champions. Freshman Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw was, at one point, an obvious civil catechist, though he has become far more hacky and non-ideological more recently. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is a clear proponent of (ethnically defined) national greatness.
But the purest distillation of these two strategies can be found by looking more closely at two strikingly similar GOP senators. Both are members of gen x. Both were born in rural towns in middle America. Both are children of public school teachers (one with both parents as teachers, the other with a mother who taught and a banker father). Both finished their graduate education at Yale. Both are evangelical Presbyterians who have dabbled in religious publishing before entering politics. But as much as their similarities are striking, their difference is more important. They have radically different answers to the central question facing conservatives today: How do we attempt the work of civil and legislative renewal in a decadent society?
Sasse’s Civil Catechesis
Earlier this year Nebraska junior Sen. Ben Sasse pushed, for the second year in a row, a bill that would provide legal protection to infants who survive an attempted abortion. For the second year in a row, Sasse’s bill failed. Some critics of the bill said that itl is unnecessary, that very few abortions fail and so we do not need a bill of this kind on the books. Others contended that the bill was an anti-Roe play despite the fact that the bill said nothing whatever about the legality of abortion itself.
As Ramesh Ponnuru has demonstrated, these objections are all wrongheaded, at best, and bad faith at worst. The bill merely sought to ensure that survivors of attempted abortion would be cared for rather than left to die on the table, as was strongly implied in remarks made by Virginia governor Ralph Northam in 2019.
That even this bill failed is particularly difficult for Sasse, a once-promising senator whose star has seemingly fallen in recent years, even as he gears up for a guaranteed re-election to a second term this November. In 2014, Sasse overcame more popular primary challengers in Nebraska to succeed former Bush administration Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns in the Senate.
He campaigned on a mixture of folksy accessibility, making much of his small town roots and the fact that his parents were public school teachers, and conservative wonkishness somewhat akin to the appeal of a younger Paul Ryan. He toured across the state in a red RV and gave town halls in which he assailed Obamacare, often with cartoonishly large stacks of paper stacked next to him as he spoke, and proposed that if he were elected he would help to wind down President Obama’s signature legislative achievement and, crucially, replace it with something better. That, of course, did not happen.
In 2016 Sasse, a longtime member of the conservative establishment who worked for President George W. Bush, reinvented himself as a dissident conservative by publicly attacking Donald Trump long after most of the GOP had gotten in line behind the eventual president. He called for a more virtuous conservatism and even seemed to flirt with running for president on a third party ticket or leaving the GOP. He called for a renewal of ‘civil catechesis,’ a schooling of the American citizenry in the virtues required to sustain a republican form of government. This call fell on deaf ears as the GOP nominated Trump anyway.
Then Sasse published two books, each of which are, in different ways, arguing for the centrality of civil virtue in the life of any functional republic. The Vanishing American Adult extolled the virtues of self-sufficiency while Them called us back to the difficult work of trying to understand and even love our fellow citizens. More recently Sasse has become the primary pro-life voice in the Senate. He addressed the March for Life in person in 2018, a year before Vice President Mike Pence and two years before Trump himself would attend the nation’s largest pro-life rally.
Yet as his first term in the Senate winds down, many critics are unsure about the viability of Sasse’s project—or even what his project actually is. Occasional condemnations of Trump grounded mostly in procedural complaints combined with a very limited legislative track record does not a project make. That said, Sasse’s vision is actually more clear than many think.
You can see a parallel to Sasse’s civil catechesis project in the world of Never Trump media. The domain in which these conservative figures focus their arguments are, like Sasse’s public advocacy and legislative work, growing ever narrower and narrower. And that is, I think, by design.
Consider the much-discussed example of David French: In a column published earlier this year, he dismissed conservative debates about banning porn by noting that actually it is not possible to ban porn because the Constitution won’t allow it. Though French is obviously my better in terms of legal knowledge, it strikes this outsider as odd to claim that our Constitution categorically will not allow something when it is only five years since it was discovered by our nation’s highest court that the Constitution allowed for the redefinition of marriage.
If the constitution can be publicly made to support an idea as new and anomalous as “same-sex marriage is a thing that actually can exist,” then surely it can also support the far older idea that obscenity has a coarsening effect on a society and, therefore, should not be tolerated. Even so, the rhetorical movement is striking: French mostly ignores the question of whether or not pornography should, in theory, be banned in a just society and instead focuses on the much narrower question of whether or not porn can be banned in this society under this constitution. The moral questions associated with porn and society are almost entirely bracketed; the whole focus is on the legal, which is a far narrower conversation.
What is the reason for this narrowing amongst the Never Trump wing of American conservatism? Some think it is because the Never Trumpers don’t actually have a viable political program and have alienated all their possible allies anyway. This forces them to take the battle to narrower and narrower issues as their power continues to diminish. Certainly you can make this case with Sasse: His criticisms of Trump alienated the Trumpist wing of the GOP. His more recent reticence to critique the president has alienated the Never Trump wing of the party. His lack of legislative boldness has, likewise, alienated the reformocons. And so Sasse went from arguing about the centrality of character in 2016 to arguing that killing babies is bad in 2020. He is a man without a party or even a coalition and so the only battles left for him to plausibly fight are the tremendously obvious. This is one theory. But there is another that may be more interesting that complicates this way of criticizing the civil catechists.
Though the Born Alive Survivor’s Act failed for a second time, something interesting happened on the second attempt: They picked up three more votes. Three Democrats voted for it in 2019 and did so again in 2020—Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Alabama’s Doug Jones. But three Republicans who abstained last time also supported the bill this year, including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. It is possible that this was a one-off shift caused by a couple non-repeatable quirks: There are no more abstaining Republicans for Sasse to pull in if he brings the bill back in 2021. Moreover, Doug Jones is likely to be out of office, which removes one of the bill’s Democratic supporters, though presumably Tommy Tuberville would vote for the bill, allowing them to keep that particular seat in their column, at least. So it is possible the bill stalls out with the Republicans plus Casey and Manchin supporting it, leaving it nowhere.
But another way of reading this is that three Republican senators who didn’t think the bill was important enough to show up for last year were present to vote this time. And perhaps that coalition building work can grow in the years to come to include other members of the Senate. This is the gamble Sasse is taking. But to really understand how this strategy fits within Sasse’s broader program, we need to zoom out and consider what the Born Alive bill is.
The Born Alive bill works by running a reductio on our nation’s abortion debates. Are our debates really about women’s health or are they about protecting a broader cultural regime that has little space for the vulnerable because of its underlying commitment to the most extreme forms of individualism? If it is the former, then there should be no problem in supporting the Born Alive bill for the simple reason that it does not touch the pregnant woman in any way: It is exclusively concerned with what happens to a baby that survives an abortion. Thus the bill is a thought experiment: Is it possible to pass legislation that narrowly targets the most extreme form of a public issue in hopes of building a bipartisan consensus?
In other words: The narrowing of Sasse’s political vision (and French’s as well, perhaps) may be a feature rather than a bug. Can we find common ground by narrowing our debate to one specific, extreme form of a problem? Call it a politics searching for common ground. Forget all the theatre. Forget the complex questions that arise with more wide-ranging legislative proposals, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham’s 20-week abortion ban. Bracket all of those. Focus, instead, on a highly specific question that highlights a fairly extreme form of the problem at hand. Suppose a baby survives an attempted abortion. What do you do? This is the domain in which Sasse has chosen to fight his defining political battle.
That being said, you can easily imagine how this might translate to other debates: Perhaps we should not, for now, ban all pornography but instead ban more extreme forms of it, such as torture porn or the various forms of “kink” porn that most Americans would recognize as being inherently degrading and dehumanizing.
Or, in an approach that could have some purchase on the left, perhaps the play is not to pass Medicare for All, but to pass a narrower form of healthcare reform that guarantees free care for particular services, such as maternity coverage, perhaps, or insulin for diabetics. Use legislation to address the most extreme forms of a social problem and then attempt to do the remaining work via local-level civil reform organized around a renewal of public virtue. This is, perhaps, the closest Sasse can get to a viable theory of federal political power: Use the national government’s power to address extreme edge cases where, maybe, common ground can still be found. Leave the rest for local communities to sort out for themselves.
In all of this you can easily argue that Sasse’s program has historical precedence. The famous English evangelical reformer William Wilberforce is today mostly remembered for his role in abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself in the United Kingdom. But alongside his legislative work on that particular issue, Wilberforce was also part of a broader movement of British evangelicals that called for a reform of what was, in the 19th century, known as “manners,” and would today be understood as civil virtue. So you find legislative solutions for extreme forms of human evil where you can, maybe, come to a genuinely bipartisan consensus. The rest is left to the virtue of the citizens—which means the rest of the national politician’s work is mostly teaching citizens about civil virtue. This is politics in which one of a politician’s primary roles is to be an educator, an unsurprising vision for a man whose parents were public school teachers and who, himself, worked in higher ed prior to moving to DC.
So one of the two theories that could shape the post-Trump GOP is this Wilberforcian emphasis on civil virtue closely tied to narrow, focused legislative reform that identifies particularly egregious instances of injustice in order to build what would otherwise be unlikely legislative coalitions. This is the theory of the civil catechists and it runs closely parallel to the more general public ethos encouraged by writers such as French.
Josh Hawley’s National Greatness
The alternative strategy, unsurprisingly, has much overlap with the broader ethos of French’s antagonist, Sohrab Ahmari. Last summer Ahmari called for a politics ordered to humanity’s “highest good.” To envision such a politics is to envision a far more ambitious, aggressive strategy than anything the Sassian school would look to promote given their staunch localism and hesitancy about sweeping legislative change imposed from the top-down. This school of thought is far less hesitant about centralized legislative action to promote public reform. Ahmari himself has, in fact, identified his most likely congressional ally already: Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.
Since his arrival in Washington in 2018, Hawley has wasted little time pushing a more aggressive style of reform. So far he has introduced bills targeting big tech, Wall Street, and, most recently, predatory landlords. Indeed, when you set aside the more woke aspects of her platform, there are ways in which Hawley looks very like former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, both of whom exemplify different wings of the anti-monopoly populist tradition. Indeed, the Niskanan Center’s proposal for a “better Warrenism” may end up looking very like Hawleyism. To anyone who has followed Hawley’s career, this is not a surprise.
If Sasse exemplifies a Wilberforcian tradition of cultural reform, Hawley belongs to the Rooseveltian tradition. Indeed, Hawley has written a book about the original trust buster, Teddy Roosevelt, in which Hawley calls the former president a ‘preacher of righteousness.’ Much of the difference between Sasse and Hawley can be accounted for by simply taking a closer look at Roosevelt’s career.
For Roosevelt, many of the problems created in a modern economy have to do with the consolidation of power in monopolies. Markets are fine, even good. But markets need to be able to function as true markets and when there are monopolies or even when there are few enough participants that competition can be avoided, markets lose most of their strength and, instead, become a means for solidifying power structures, almost as a kind of market-based feudalism with the market’s winners playing the role of the new nobility and the losers becoming the new serfs. This process, which was well under way prior to COVID, has only been accelerated by the pandemic.
Under this analysis, you actually can’t solve the central problem of common life in America via targeted legislative action on the national level tied to local-level social reform because the problem exists not chiefly on the level of civic virtue but primarily in the realm of policy and national policy in particular. By Hawley’s reasoning, Sasse’s program is simply disconnected from the actual lived reality of common life in 21st century America because the chief problems before us cannot, by definition, be solved via localism.
What is required is a one-two punch of sweeping legislative reform and strident, aggressive public rhetoric that uses the bully pulpit—Roosevelt again—afforded by public office to shove the nation toward radical transformation. The difference between the two schools, then, is almost certainly not in their goals: Both desire strong local communities able to govern themselves and see to their own needs. Indeed, Sasse and Hawley likely even agree on many of the ways in which local communities should govern themselves and what goods they should aspire to together.
But the Hawley school sees the Sassian method as being unrealistic because it hasn’t fully reckoned with the source of our social problems. A renewal of virtue is made more difficult by tech addictions. Stable, local communities are made less plausible by predatory landlords and economic centralization. Those problems must be solved legislatively so that local communities can then be freed to do what they are meant to do, which is to serve as an incubator for family, piety, and citizenship.
Thus the goals of the Sasse school are good, in this view, but by resisting more aggressive attempts at national-level reform they actually deny themselves the means of realizing their goals. In this understanding of our moment, incremental progress via highly targeted bills cannot solve the problem. What is needed, instead, is aggressive, radical proposals that, in the short term, may have no chance at passing but that aggressively attack the Overton Window.
And yet there is one central problem with Hawley’s proposal: At some point, these proposals need to translate into a viable political agenda. It’s fine, in the short term, to view legislation as being chiefly about shifting the Overton Window. But at some point legislation actually has to be passed to be effective. The only alternative is the long-shot scenario in which the right combination of Supreme Court cases come along which end up having the effect of defining national policy. That happened this summer with transgender issues, as our nation’s highest court basically gave us a Utah-style Freedom for All policy. But you can’t bank on such a thing happening multiple times, nor should you given the court’s radically anti-democratic nature.
You need a viable plan for implementing policy. And so far there is little evidence that Hawley has that. Radical though his proposed bills are, none have seen serious debate from the floor of the Senate. None have advanced even so far as Sasse’s Born Alive bill. And the Sassians would say there is a reason for that: When you live in a decadent society, radical action is practically impossible. The norms are too entrenched, the energy for attempting sweeping reform too limited. The only way forward, legislatively, is to pursue narrower, more targeted forms of action.
Thus the defining question facing the post-Trump GOP will be this: Is it possible to attempt (Teddy) Roosevelt-style reforms during a time of decadence? Or is the only plausible way forward to be more modest in our ambitions? Do we escape decadence by reaching for the stars, enacting an aggressive legislative proposal that is extreme enough to reach escape velocity? Or will our escape be more plodding and slow, if only because plodding is the only speed a decadent society will allow?