The Primary Political Question: A Response to Milco on Liberalism

by Petrus Hispanus

The two essays recently published here by Elliot Milco—one on liberalism in government and one on liberalism in education—are both excellent. I think they are good prolegomena for posing the biggest political question of them all, about the relation between truth and politics (Strauss’s “natural right and history” obsession). Milco hints at this question in both posts when he talks about how Humean balancing tecnhiques are good (as far as they go) and how it’s good for us to understand and be conversant with the many divergent intellectual systems out there. Granting both of these claims (and I do, more or less), the question remains: How must a Catholic traditionalist (or, if you want to refer to him with the aseptic terminology of liberalism: a person making truth-claims) face liberalism?

It seems that the neo-Catholic strategy (that is, the “Catholic Action” and “Vatican II” strategy) of attempting to duke it out in the liberal marketplace of ideas, relying on liberalism’s principles of procedural fairness to ensure we have a place at the table, is proving to be a failure. (The only difference between Catholic Action and the Vatican II strategy is that the former is based on the creation of an official Catholic face in practical politics, while the latter is based on the more difficult idea of Catholic laity soaking the social structure with Christian values from within. All of this, however, accepting the liberal procedural principles as a fair playing ground.)

I think Milco is right: there is a self-radicalizing principle in liberalism that explains why and how these strategies are doomed to fail. The procedural principles liberal strategies are based on, being the only common ground, the only language anyone can use in public, quickly become the only acceptable creed. I think this is evident, though it hasn’t stopped many good and knowledgeable Catholics from thinking that a kind of even more covert strategy is the way to go, one that is still based on the delusion that, if we are good liberals and don’t “force” ourselves onto others (i.e., speak clearly in terms of truth), we can still evangelize them from within.

This suggests that a traditionalist’s political strategy should be even more radical than that of something like Catholic Action: it should begin with an unqualified rejection of liberalism from its very principles, with the sole and clear objective of evangelization (including political evangelization). In this endeavor, both an acceptance of Hume’s fairness principles and a working understanding of today’s cultural and intellectual fads (i.e., a good grasp and a good practice in how liberalism works and speaks) are good instruments to count on, so that our words are intelligible.

The Carlist movement in Spain is based on this kind of idea (their analysis of the liberal predicament is very similar). But they add the necessity of an explicitly political principle (in their case, the legitimist cause), because they fear that without it, we will lose our link to Christendom, making our labors and our thoughts into a purely intellectual project. I think the reason for this, ultimately, is the importance they give to the virtue of piety in traditionalism. It is piety to our ancient fatherlands, forebears, even our ancient kings, that provides the political justification for traditionalism as a movement with the explicit objective of bringing for the real, down-to-earth, factual reign of Christ the King. Thus, their commitments to monarchy, to old customs, etc.

In a country like the United States, this may not be so easily done, or even thought (and the same is true, though perhaps to a lesser degree, in Latin America). The point, in any case, is that in order to be a true alternative to liberalism that is capable of escaping its self-radicalizing ideologization, traditionalism must also have a working alternative to the liberal state, a political “incarnation”, if you will, even if it is only in aspirational form. Without this, it is almost impossible to prevent traditionalism from becoming, as time passes, another fad within the vacuum of liberal ideology.

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