the media

Compact Magazine Makes a Strong Case for Liberalism

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Among the small minority of Americans who opine about politics for a living, there are several bespoke ideological camps that despise liberals more than each other.

The Catholic integralists of First Things magazine, “post-left” Marxists of various niche podcasts, and contrarian crypto-libertarians of Substack share few policy objectives. But they do harbor a common antipathy for “liberalism” (even if they lack a common definition of that word).

More concretely, these politically homeless media personalities are united by (1) a mutual alienation from the dominant ideological tendencies of their rarified, white-collar world (i.e., liberalism), (2) a recognition that liberalism enjoys cultural power in excess of its popular support, and (3) the delusion that their own esoteric misgivings about liberalism reflect those of a silent (or latent) majority.

Or at least, these folks feign that delusion.

However idiosyncratic their ideological hang-ups may be, today’s anti-liberal intellectuals sing their laments in a populist key. New Rightists whose sexual mores are too conservative for the median Tucker Carlson viewer chastise Republican “jet-setters” for ignoring the will of “working-class voters.” Post-leftists who alienate a supermajority of Americans with their economic convictions — and then estrange nearly all who remain with their anaphylactic intolerance for identity politics — deride the “overclass” and describe themselves as “genuine populists.” Idiosyncratic contrarians who agitate against Americans’ beloved military and tech monopolies lambast the “elite managerial class” for being out of touch.

It’s unclear whether any of these esoteric populists genuinely believe that they have a viable political project. What is clear, however, is that a grand coalition between America’s disparate anti-liberal intellectuals would have no coherent program, let alone a popular one.

Or so Compact magazine suggests.

The newly launched periodical is a joint venture between right-wing and left-wing critics of “the ideology of liberalism” and the “overclass” that perpetuates it. It was founded by the heterodox religious conservatives Matthew Schmitz and Sohrab Ahmari, in partnership with the (post-)post-left “labor populist” Edwin Aponte. This odd throuple has filled out their journal’s masthead with a motley crew of commentators, spanning the ideological gamut from the authoritarian religious conservative Adrian Vermeule to the absolutist civil libertarian Glenn Greenwald. It is genuinely hard to name anything that unites this group beyond some mutual antipathies.

That wouldn’t be a problem if Compact merely aspired to curate debate among its rainbow coalition of ideological misfits. But it has higher aims. “Every new magazine should be an intimation of a possible future,” the founders declare in a note to readers. “Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community — local and national, familial and religious — against a libertine left and a libertarian right.”

Alas, no coherent political vision emerges from the strange blend of polemics that comprises Compact’s inaugural issue.

The magazine’s incoherence derives in part from failures of quality control. Some of its columnists seem to believe that extraordinary claims are a substitute for ordinary evidence. In “The Great Reset Is Real,” Alex Gutentag explains that COVID-era public-health restrictions were never about containing the spread of a fatal virus, but were “actually part of a broader scheme to undermine the middle and working classes, normalize ‘papers, please’ societies, and end the fiat currency system as we know it.”

What follows is an eclectic set of conspiratorial ravings that make only peripheral contact with reality, and none at all with obvious objections or counterarguments. Gutentag suggests that the lockdowns of March 2020 were consciously intended to boost “financial assets and monopolistic giants at the expense of taxpayers and small businesses,” not protect public health. The fact that lockdowns are an intuitive and well-established means of containing the spread of a novel virus; that they were implemented in one form or another by virtually every nation where COVID took root, and proved extremely successful in some contexts; that pandemic-era economic policy brought America’s poverty rate to record lows and household wealth to record highs all go unmentioned. Gutentag’s concern with wealth inequality is well founded. But her belief that COVID-era public-health policies are central to that phenomenon would not withstand a glance at Thomas Piketty’s data sets. So she does not take one. Similarly, the reality that America’s most progressive cities are doing away with vaccine passports makes Gutentag no less certain that such policies are really intended as the first step in the elite’s plan to establish a totalitarian “social credit” system.

That Gutentag’s argument rests less on careful reasoning than paranoid intuitions may be best conveyed by her reflection on the dysfunctions of the U.S. housing market:

[I]nvestment firms like BlackRock have been buying entire neighborhoods of single-family homes, a move with the potential to price thousands of families out of entry-level real estate. This is significant, because home ownership, already trending downward, was once the engine of middle-class prosperity, allowing families to consolidate and pass on wealth.

The problems here are both factual and logical. First, institutional investors own too small a slice of the U.S. housing market to play any significant role in home-price appreciation. At 2020’s end, BlackRock’s entire real-estate portfolio had a fair market value of $75 million. For comparison, the total value of U.S. rental housing alone was $4.5 trillion that year. Meanwhile, institutional investors as a whole owned roughly .375 percent of all single-family homes in the U.S. as of 2019.

In truth, it is precisely the institution that Gutentag seeks to defend — that of homeownership as a vehicle for the consolidation and transmission of middle-class wealth — that produces housing unaffordability, almost by logical necessity. To function as a wealth-building instrument, a house’s market price must rise inexorably over time and at a faster pace than the cost of living. And that can only happen if the supply of housing fails to keep up with demand. This yields a political economy in which homeowners have a strong incentive to engineer housing scarcity through restrictions on new building. And it is this shortage of homes that chiefly explains the difficulties facing aspiring first-time buyers. Gutentag is observing a dysfunction born out of localism and the self-interested behaviors of middle-class homeowners, and baselessly projecting it onto shadowy Wall Street forces. In other words, she is articulating the populism of fools.

Other pieces betray a similar tendency to start with a conclusion (generally, that some strand of liberal orthodoxy is in fact a fig leaf concealing a betrayal of the common people) and then stick by it, irrespective of evidence. Sohrab Ahmari declares that the crisis in Ukraine has revealed that “liberal hawks are flying high once more, talons extended for the hunt.” He proceeds to ponder how liberal interventionism managed to rehabilitate itself after the past decades’ many failed regime-change wars. The fact that America’s sitting president withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and has foresworn any American military intervention in Ukraine, does not figure into Ahmari’s reflection. In recent days, mainstream, left-of-center news outlets have published a superabundance of arguments against U.S. intervention in Ukraine. But this does not stop Ahmari from declaring that “the hawks’ takeover of mainstream, left-of-center outlets is so thorough as to render the old neoconservative bastions almost superfluous.”

Not all of Compact’s provocations are so poorly argued. But regardless of their variable quality, the magazine’s pieces do not add up to a coherent critique of liberalism, let alone a positive vision for replacing it.

Edwin Aponte assails liberalism for failing to live up to the ideal of “unrestrained speech.” Liberal regimes may place fewer legal prohibitions on free expression than all present alternatives, Aponte tacitly concedes. But “whichever wing of liberal capital is in political ascendancy” nevertheless transmits its preferred “censorship regime” through the nation’s social mores and civil institutions until it “is so deeply internalized that most people reflexively conform to it.”

Aponte presents no evidence for this extraordinary claim, only non sequiturs. He observes that both conservatives and liberals plead for toleration when they are politically weak, while seeking to advance their censorious laws and/or norms while in power. But just because ideologues try to promulgate their preferred standards of public discourse while in power does not mean that they succeed in doing so. Donald Trump’s election did not banish “political correctness” from American society, nor did Joe Biden’s lead Americans to reflexively conform to the progressive movement’s rhetorical taboos.

For Aponte, a society with genuine freedom of speech would apparently be one where the moral intuitions of powerful classes exert no insidious influence on popular standards of decorum. To the extent that this goal is realizable, it would seem to require the abolition of class. And then, even under perfect communism, hierarchies of moral authority might still persist.

If Aponte’s critique of liberal speech norms is utopian, it is also completely antithetical to that of his co-founders. Ahmari first gained notoriety for arguing that conservatives must “regulate compliance” with their moral orthodoxy through the coercive use of state power. Vermeule endorses this view in his contribution to the magazine, arguing that liberalism perverts freedom of speech when it places the expressive autonomy of the individual above the “common good” of society writ large. The Harvard law professor argues that the traditional understanding of “free speech” in America justly recognized the legitimacy of “restrictions on blasphemy.”

Compact’s criticism of liberalism in the narrower sense — the ideology of the American center-left — is similarly contradictory. In “Why We Need the Patriarchy,” Nina Power argues that feminism has enabled men “to exercise power without responsibility.” Under patriarchy, Power insists, male privilege was paired with duty. The sexual revolution did more to erode the latter than the former, Power suggests, as it enabled men to secure sexual gratification uncoupled from any sense of paternal obligation. “The frat boy, the porn-addled young man who acts caddishly and frivolously” are not embodiments of patriarchy, she writes, but of its absence.

Others in Compact’s anti-liberal firmament, however, criticize progressive sexual morality on entirely different terms. To them, the problem isn’t that the siren song of equality has led feminists into a world that’s excessively permissive of caddish male sexuality; rather, the problem is that liberals have become the new puritans, placing every manifestation of male libido on a continuum with rape. In “Against Aesthetic Castration,” Adam Lehrer argues that Me Too has tyrannically broadened “the definition of what constitutes sexual assault and predatory behavior.” Today, men are figuratively castrated: “We think twice before complimenting a woman on her perfume, we worry about how long our gaze lingers, and we second-guess every interaction with the opposite sex.”

Compact is even ambivalent about its own animating populism. While it routinely derides liberalism as elitist, the magazine’s authors intermittently characterize the majority of Americans as sheeple, hoodwinked by liberal propaganda about Ukraine’s victimhood or the efficacy of COVID vaccines. At one point, Power laments, “The last two years of mass support for highly authoritarian measures in the name of Covid safety attest that many would prefer to be told what to do by an anonymous technocracy than their older relatives, male or otherwise.”

All this dissonance might be a virtue in a purely literary project. In a magazine that hopes to prosecute the case against liberalism — and gesture toward an alternative dispensation that transcends the categories of left and right — it is fatal.

In the end, Compact adds up to a strong argument for the very thing it aims to indict. After all, what kind of polity can peacefully accommodate Marxist über-civil libertarians and aspiring theocrats, defenders of patriarchal obligation and male sexual freedom, populists and elitists, wild-eyed conspiracists and everyone else, if not one that is committed, however hypocritically, to the liberal ideals of pluralism and toleration? With enemies like this, liberalism needs no flatterers.

Compact Magazine Makes a Strong Case for Liberalism