The obscure corners of the Twittersphere that I inhabit were in a bit of an uproar over an article about integralism my academic advisor James M. Patterson wrote for Law & Liberty. Likewise, much more influential corners were metaphorically set ablaze by rockstar venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s article calling on the West to build again. While these don’t seem immediately related, I want to offer some brief thoughts on why they and their subjects are linked.
First, the responses to each piece have been wildly different. Integralist responses to Patterson have been almost uniformly dismissive. In contrast, most responses to Andreessen have been respectful and, in some cases, insightful. Ezra Klein’s piece for Vox comes to mind, as well as responses from many of my aesthetic-focused friends on Twitter. Why is this? At one level, it’s about status. Andreessen is regarded in many Silicon Valley as a demigod of tech investing. In contrast, Patterson is a relatively obscure academic who primarily writes for what Sohrab Ahmari and others term “Conservative, Inc.” publications like Law & Liberty and the Acton Institute. At another level, it’s about power. Andreesen has enormous influence, while Patterson is merely firing a salvo into a fiery debate that’s also relatively fringe. However, integralism has quickly moved from the fringes to the center of the conversation for many young conservatives, and that’s part of the reason I think it’s worth comparing with Andreessen’s call.
Now that I have that out of the way, let me explain how I think these pieces are related. Andreessen castigates America for failing to build good cities, good education for the masses, and good manufacturing capability. He sees a deep hollowness at the core of American life today that, for him, can only be solved by building again. One is reminded of Ross Douthat’s injunction to get down on your knees and start working on the warp drive, though Andreessen would prefer you pick up some rebar and cement, or maybe a medical centrifuge. Integralists are gaining popularity and converts because many young conservatives are profoundly dissatisfied with the lack of political action on the part of establishment conservatism. They sense, rightly, that social conservatives have been left out in the cold while economic libertarians have gotten much of what they want – tax cuts, deregulation, and lax enforcement of white-collar crime. Young conservatives are fiercely debating how to build the next political regime on the ashes of our old dead consensus, and integralists offer a powerful and coherent philosophy that’s at least somewhat backed up by the weight and force of the Catholic Church.
Now, we get to the nub. Both Andreessen and the integralists miss crucial history. Klein makes this clear for the builders, while Patterson makes it clear for the integralists. The political barriers to building are substantial, and they must be overcome whether or not you are an integralist. Andreessen is blocked at every level by recalcitrant senators, obstinate governors, and NIMBY homeowners in local planning boards. Increasing polarization only entrenches these malactors as increasingly more powerful incumbents. Integralists are blocked by the powerful GOP donor class which (except for a few scattered Newman Guide donors) is universally opposed to increased state action to protect the common good and by a distinctively non-Catholic tinge to American history that prevents an originalist reading of the Constitution to support the common good. Andreessen must overcome the veto points of American political life. Integralists must overcome the veto points of American conservatism.
One thing that amazed me about the negative response to Patterson’s piece was the sharp ire directed to his closing anecdote of receiving material and physical help from his Catholic parish community when he moved away from Virginia. Ahmari characterized it using a South Park reference to ‘member berries and many others claimed it was only an example of sentimental nostalgia for an imagined past. My reading is different. Patterson is calling for a revitalization of parish communities as a primary focus for young conservatives skeptical of the dead libertarian consensus.
We must be clear that most integralists are not tfw no gf incels but rather involved members of their local parish who’d be more than likely to lend a hand to someone struggling at their parish, as Patterson illustrated in his anecdote. Most active integralists on Twitter are the family men who become pillars of their local community in exactly the way that Yuval Levin or Tim Carney or (yes, I know) Charles Murray would approve of. Even the young people that perhaps took the most umbrage at this point are by no means mom’s-basement-dwellers. There’s multiple young Ivy League academics working on these topics from a political theory standpoint – see Jordan Perkins or Anna Lukina, for example. Patterson’s piece is misread because it’s easy to take his point as “all integralist are Warhammer incel cosplayers” rather than the more correct “integralists are competing for the hearts of politically isolated youth.” This is a missed point of common ground – every serious Catholic of goodwill is interested in building up parish life as an effective counter to the alienation that defines so much of America today.
However, integralists are unsatisfied with merely building up their local parishes. They want to build a nation oriented towards the Good, filled with good Catholics. Perhaps they see a new fusion opportunity on the horizon with the rise of the industrial-policy right. But the problem is that folks like Andreessen, Thiel, and Vance are too wedded to the dead libertarian consensus to partner up with religious builders; also, their understanding of building capability is rooted in the private sector and dismissive of the public sector, which is where the integralists want to fight. Some will reply that I am missing the trendline and that the builder-libertarians are converting. I’m not convinced that getting President Hawley or Rubio to pass a bunch of tax cuts for heartland manufacturing facilities is winning the day for either the industrial-policy right or the integralist right, and until we see more concrete policy proposals that don’t simply draw blindly out of the GOP parts bin, I remain skeptical.
Why are these ideas gaining so much currency right now?Patterson argues that people are attracted to integralism because they are enraptured by the sublime historical experience of merging love and loss in the contemplation of popes and fascist leaders. I don’t think that’s quite right – people are attracted to integralism because it offers a coherent political philosophy in an age of muddled politics and realignment. Likewise, Andreessen’s philosophy of building is attractive because it appeals to young people priced out of big cities and pathways to middle-class prosperity, not because it stimulates them on some quasi-metaphysical or aesthetic level. While Freudian psychoanalysis of our opponents is always tempting, I think we tread on safer ground if we look at the material and political conditions of our present reality to explain the attraction of these new ideas.
I’ve mentioned the dead libertarian consensus a few times in this essay. To be clear, it is only dead for young conservatives and a few renegade professors who are not beholden to nonprofit Conservatism, Inc dollars. Tea Party libertarians hold significant sway in the White House and are even more prevalent in the think tank world, mostly because donors tend to be financial services barons who benefit handsomely from libertarian economic policy. This is where Patterson misses the mark in his critique. He ignores the frustration that modern integralists have with libertarians. Students and faculty may not parrot libertarian theology (and it is a theology) line-by-line, but people who hold a lot of power in Washington DC and in the larger networks of intelligentsia are True Believers. To my mind, this is the largest hurdle that both Andreessen’s builders and Catholic integralists must clear.
Builders of all stripes must be cognizant of political realities. Andreessen and his ilk must be willing to invest in political change by smoothing veto points in political processes, and integralists must be able to transcend their unsavory intellectual history to appeal to people beyond the academic class by smoothing veto points in the donor class and Conservatism, Inc. If they are successful, then we may just be able to angle our political sights upward, out of the decadent muck we currently live in.