Quirks in the Neo-Integralist Vision

The Neo-Integralist Challenge

The rise of neo-integralism[1] to a place of prominence in current political debates on the American right has been met unhappily in many quarters—most recently in an apopleptic The New Republic piece entitled, "Originalism Is Dead. Long Live Natural Law." Charged as authoritarian in inclination, or even assigned the dark hyperbole of “fascist,” vitriol has come from expected left-wing and left-liberal critics raising the specter of theocracy, concerns about anti-pluralism, and nervousness over the unreasonableness of strong social conservative beliefs in the public square. Yet the reaction has been even harsher from segments of the American right’s own intellectual establishment, especially its right-liberal and libertarian wings. 

Why the particularly heated response? It is not as if there is no common cause between the upstart neo-integralists and more mainstream conservatives. The most public neo-integralists, university professors like Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule and the University of Dallas’ Gladden Pappin, the New York Post’s opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari, the influential Cistercian monk Father Edmund Waldstein, and the writer-lawyer Patrick Smith, all criticize in strong terms the failings of a hyper-individualistic and culturally-fragmented American polity in ways that on first glance seem quite in line with mainline conservative views. Yet, the dominant response has been one of deep mistrust.

Undoubtedly, the neo-integralists do not seek to play nice with establishment conservatives, levying powerful critiques against Reaganite fusionism, the dominance of right-liberal views among conservative elites, and the indebtedness of the American founding to classical liberalism. That neo-integralists may also find themselves at least circumstantial allies to other challenges to the right-liberal GOP status-quo (such as statist nationalism and anti-elite populism), has not helped either.

However, the allergic mainstream reaction also comes from a more troubling thematic elision that has unhelpfully clouded the neo-integralist case. A curious lacuna exists in neo-integralist rhetoric online and in most writing related to fundamental questions of political regime. Quite simply, there is very little said about representative political institutions, electoral politics, or about democracy itself among neo-integralists at present. The neo-integralist challenge thus delivers itself an unnecessary wound, one allowing an all too easy characterization by unkind opponents as barely obscured authoritarianism, and one that inadvertently leans into casting upon itself the mantle of promoting a black legend-style assault on American democracy.

This is strange, as the intellectual predecessors of today’s neo-integralism often explicitly included representational bodies of one sort of another in their sociopolitical visions, even their outright authoritarian variants. Similarly, the Catholic Church, which provides the moral and metaphysical content for neo-integralist thinkers, is itself a noted exponent of conciliarist and other medieval-pattern forms of representation and deliberation within its sprawling, internal institutions. And not least, the corporatist organizational patterns often viewed favorably by neo-integralists are theorized explicitly with interlocking mechanisms for representation and deliberation built in. The neo-integralist respect for institutional and metaphysical hierarchy should not, in principle, an authoritarian make.

The rhetorical absence of representative institutions is an unforced argumentative error, especially when coupled with the tendency by some neo-integralists to instead emphasize the sovereign executive as an agent for the movement’s political goals. In truth, in most neo-integralist writings one finds far more interest in and reference to an all-powerful executive presidency (which of course could be democratically-elected) or a tutelary judiciary than even a minimal effort to discuss the role of a legislature or other representational bodies.

Most confusingly, this posture simply misrepresents many of the political systems that neo-integralists often most cite as exemplars. True executive absolutism is a relic of a few European monarchies over a small, cherry-picked time-period, or the disastrous combination of the modern state and anti-clerical, totalizing dictatorships of the twentieth century. And the medieval and interwar-era polities of neo-integralist admiration are decidedly none of these.

At the end of the day, uncertainty about where neo-integralists stand on the role and place of representative institutions ultimately bleeds into the broader ecosystem of the anti-establishment right, within which neo-integralists hold influence far above their small nominal cohort. Whether one is making an neo-integralist friendly case for moderate forms of illiberal, statist conservatism, or more full-throated neo-integralist arguments proper, failing to treat political regime and institutions of representation seriously, especially within the context of the American republic, is an unhelpful omission that regrettably encourages suspicion rather than productive debate.  

The Strange Lacuna: Neo-Integralism and the Problem of Representative Politics

For an intellectual project that maintains such a rigorous critique of American politics as-is, it is an unfortunate oversight that there has been so little effort articulating a neo-integralist vision of political representation. Especially given the weighty republican heritage of the United States, adhering to a guilty European pleasure of finding comfort in monarchism and throne-and-altar politics seems to be an obvious non-starter for a movement far more thoughtful than other ideological frissons of the right. The lack of such discussion has fueled doubts, rightly or wrongly, that the project is fundamentally authoritarian. The ease of making this charge has not been lost on right-liberal opponents. That online neo-integralists have a weakness for waxing poetic about interwar regimes such as the Austrian Ständestaat of Engelbert Dollfuß or the thirteenth century rule of the French king Saint Louis IX has not necessarily helped, of course.

The lack of properly articulating a neo-integralist position on and about representative institutions, elections, or democracy can partially be laid at the feet of the project being cast first in relatively abstract, ideational terms, especially by the more theological neo-integralists. From this perspective, delineating practical structures of government is simply less central than building foundations for a fundamental, spiritual reorientation towards the common good.

Even with this caveat, attention among neo-integralists to questions of political regime has been oddly backwards. The most articulate musings on questions of democracy and representation have come from Father Edmund Waldstein, an important theorist of neo-integralism whose European monarchism is likely of little use in intra-American debates. As a central node in much of neo-integralism’s online infrastructure, Father Waldstein has raised thought-provoking defenses of a monarchic vision of neo-integralism, while discussing with nuance how these interact with modern sensibilities. But while philosophically engaging, this does very little for those looking to see how neo-integralist solutions may fit within the American experience. In the meantime, for important public neo-integralists such as Adrian Vermeule or Sohrab Ahmari, who regularly argue in far greater detail about American constitutional law or the utilization of executive authority, it remains consistently confusing why representation and regime are obliquely dodged.

To be clear, neo-integralism does not need to have a political representation problem. There is a rich intellectual and practical tradition dealing with political regimes and structures of political representation upon which neo-integralism could build without adulterating theological commitments—and while maintaining connection to the touchstone regimes that are often referenced as exemplars in neo-integralist discussions. The glories of Catholic Europe are in many ways defined by tremendous variations on representative assemblies fitting within, alongside, or even dominating polities quite different from liberal democracies. Similarly, the creative experiments of fin-de-siècle and interwar-era states too are chock full of serious-minded attempts to grapple with the problem of a participatory mass political society while avoiding the self-fragmenting, liberal-dominated parliamentarism they found so odious to social cohesion. And the rich Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition of the “mixed regime” provides plenty of material for taking representative institutions seriously from a more abstract, philosophical position.

The question of political representation shadows a great deal of neo-integralist claims. Methods of arriving at an understanding of the common good are well-elaborated in neo-integralist argument through explicit Catholic teaching or by way of a general acceptance of the natural law. A logical next step is finding societal and institutional methods of achieving that selfsame good. Among the most prolific neo-integralists: in Patrick Deneen we learn of the value of localism; in Adrian Vermeule the abnegated judiciary and the sovereign executive and his administrative apparat; in Father Waldstein the coherence of proper order and hierarchy in the Rule of St. Benedict as an analogic aspiration for the polity; in Patrick Smith an Augustinian kingly authority over an allegorical house with “a duly proportioned arrangement of its parts.”

So how does one fit “the people,” or, the social groups constituent of the organic whole, into these visions? Is there room for democracy, or for republic, in striving for the neo-integralist common good? If so, it would be helpful to articulate the project’s relation to representative forms of government as such, and if not then make explicit the otherwise unstated authoritarianism therein.

Illiberal Political Representation, Corporate Assemblies, and the Conciliar Tradition

Neo-integralists have many models across human history to pick from when looking for guidance on how to approach political representation. If anything, such forms are especially notable in the world-historical inheritance of Western Christendom. Most obvious for neo-integralists should be the “conciliar” tradition of the European Middle Ages, in which representational assemblies and councils constituted a primary political locus for leadership confirmation, policy assent, elite deliberation, and even decision-making proper. This is embodied explicitly in the institutional Catholic Church’s last thousand years and its longstanding tendencies towards forms of synodal deliberation. Most importantly, this conciliar view on deliberation and decision-making long ago bled into the temporal world, expressed in medieval monarchies through privy councils and traditional estates systems, in autonomous city oligarchies and civic guild systems, and in the Parlements, Cortes, Tage, diets, and other such assemblies that safeguarded rights and utilized their privileges as part of a broader system of shared governance.

As political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse argues, the dictate of quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbari debet (“what concerns everyone, must be approved by everyone”) was a tradition that undergirded the medieval conception of rule and was fundamental to the success of state-building in the West. It was not in the Enlightenment-bound liberalism of the American founding that political representation was birthed, but a far older legacy—and one much dearer to many neo-integralists’ hearts.

As a somewhat tongue-in-cheek example, even the semi-ironic love for the stolid Habsburg monarchy or the glorious irrationalities of the Holy Roman Empire among online reactionaries could actually be harnessed for actual intellectual effort using this framework. The profound diversity and political complexity of the medieval and early modern systems of constitutional rule within the Germanies were actually far more functional than the enlightenment-Whiggish interpretation has long maintained. Why are neo-integralists not putting forward contemporary approaches to developing curiae of social interest or politico-juridical chambers of deliberation built to avoid the individualizing tendencies of parliamentarism?

Or, to provide another example, why are neo-integralists not attacking liberal parliamentarism itself on representational grounds, a system which neo-integralists often otherwise suggest as itself having an authoritarian, elitist legacy and logic? The point here is that there is a great deal of low-hanging fruit that turning to questions of political representation could provide.

For every insinuation of ultramontane deference to Petrine primacy, there could easily be a call towards that same Catholic conciliar tradition that sought to better facilitate political peace and promote the common good. Jørgen Møller, summarizing a significant academic research agenda, writes that the origin of modern representative institutions is fundamentally the product of solving conflicts within the Catholic episcopacy, especially from the Fourth Lateran Council onward—a debate that ultimately “formulated the first systematic theory about representative government.” It quickly moved from the Church proper and merged with and modified traditional feudal institutions.

This conciliarist-inspired view of proper political rule was based in interlocking networks and hierarchies of corporate representation, binding obligations, and duties to consent and assent through regular institutions that ensured the broader legitimacy and functioning of the system as a whole. And if neo-integralists should need further papal imprimatur to treat seriously the conciliar tradition and representation outside of the golden eras of Catholic Europe, look no further than the twentieth century’s Pope Paul VI and his Apostolica Sollicitudo, which established a permanent synodal form for internal Church governance.

It would be healthy even for neo-integralists to respond to this challenge by doubling down and highlighting the weaknesses of the conciliar tradition, to bring forward doubts about the medieval councils and their failings. Perhaps pointing to the specific heresy of the Pisan conciliabulum at the Fifth Lateran Council, or gesturing menacingly about Gallicanism, Americanism, and the infamous cadre of reformist German bishops of today. That still would be a great improvement over not discussing such models at all and keeping the neo-integralist view on political representation and political regime in the dark.

Older integralist thought of the prior century also worked seriously at finding means of marrying a non-liberal modern state with representative institutions, and often took medieval examples very seriously. Fin de siècle and interwar-era theorists were eager to develop alternative political structures. António Costa Pinto, a scholar of Interwar-era Iberian politics, describes the numerous versions of corporatist schemas developed that were fixated on ways of representing groups of social interest, even when such regimes disappointingly fell back on authoritarian executives as guarantors of stability in the end. Returning the fueros to a dreamed-of Carlist Spain, promoting corporatist organs of representation through interwar regimes like the Ständestaat of Dollfuß’s Austria, and gestures to organic structures of society in Romania, in Italy, and in France all have origins in this tradition.

This older integralist tradition, even with all of its frankly authoritarian bugbears, always included an important cognizance on the need for buy-in, deliberation, and representation in political systems that also contained strong, authoritative leadership—especially if they believed that the regime was meant to be built to last. In that era, it was often the liberals who deified centralization and technocratic authoritarianism, not the integralists, Catholic corporatists, and distributists that formed a strong element of the tradition upon which neo-integralism now draws.

Squaring the circle of authoritative illiberal rule and popular representation in the interwar era proved to be a notable failure, as other critics of neo-integralism have recapitulated. Institutionally, the most promising attempts were in clericalist Austria and during the earlier creativity of Salazar’s Portugal, before it succumbed to temptations of bureaucratic authoritarianism, as the neo-integralist Thomas Hackett has recently outlined in New Polity. Franco’s Spain, in fact, represents a great integralist disappointment, as Carlist desires to reinvigorate the traditional fueros were regularly curtailed. In general, one would strongly suggest avoiding the authoritarianism of these exemplar regimes—yet mining the interwar tradition for its more representational parts is no bad thing for the aspiring neo-integralist theorist today.

Of course, one can also compliment interwar-era examples with ones from democratic peer regimes of the era. While these were further removed from direct integralist efforts, their indebtedness to foundational Catholic social teachings could be surprisingly significant. Writing convincingly in the blog Ius et Iustitium, Yves Casertano notes that even elements of FDR’s New Deal program approvingly cited the papal encyclicals of Pius XI in discussions of economic organization and structure. The veins of earlier twentieth century corporatism—either in its regime- or policy-level forms—hold considerable endowments that could be readily exploited by neo-integralists seeking to seriously fill in the gap of political representation today.

The Problem of Relying on the Overmighty Executive and Some Suggestions

Right-liberal interlocutors often raise the concern of what happens when state power is captured by ideological enemies—a worry about an unhealthy spiral of the Schmittian friend-enemy distinction in the totalizing context of the modern, centralized state. This is indeed the traditional defense of both limited government and procedural liberal institutionalism by conservatives. Electoral democracies solve this problem through the cycling of regular elections and competitive pluralism, but a major element of the neo-integralist critique is that contemporary liberalism is de facto controlled by a unitary professional managerial class that monopolizes all representational structures. In fairness, this is not a fanciful argument, as party cartel theory and increasing homogeneity within the Western political class of the last several decades has been noted even in mainstream political science.

One could easily imagine a neo-integralist engagement with traditions of political representation that emphasizes the functional value of social estates and layered curiae, or otherwise finding ways to denude the professional political class of overwhelming dominance in political institutions. This could be radical, in the interwar-era mode of actual constitutional change, or it could be a deliberate strategy within existing electoral democracies of cultivating interest-articulating institutions like labor unions, professional groups, and associations in an organized hierarchy or long agreed-upon moral precepts, rather than a pluralist liberal vein dominated functionally by an over-educated left-liberal elite. Ironically, any neo-integralist proposal regarding representation would have the valuable benefit of likely undermining the hegemony of lawyers in the politically-relevant organs of power as well.

To take a constructive example of actually-existing neo-integralism in a pragmatic mode, political theorist Gladden Pappin’s writings in American Affairs and elsewhere have acted as something of a bridge between a neo-integralist ideological orientation and the practical realities of the “statist turn” for some American conservatives. In many ways, his proposal to consciously construct a “Party of the State” represents the closest thing we have to a neo-integralist flavored approach to political institutions, harnessing party vehicles to achieve political power and reorienting state action towards the common good. He has followed this up with an interesting piece on corporatism and Congress—thus doing the good work of providing an institutional vision, rather than just implying authority or executive control.

Engaging with the reality of modern party politics should be the first practical test of neo-integralism as an ideological coherency beyond the internet, and one that requires a solidified understanding of how to approach representation, deliberation, and institutional politics. It is unclear, for example, why American neo-integralists should not be more interested in institutional reforms such as proportional representation for the House of Representatives or investments in party-building at the state level that could lower the barriers to entry for a friendly (if not neo-integralist per se) statist party along Christian Social or non-liberal Christian Democratic molds.

Such party models are not rare on the historical ground. Hewing to the European referent states for many neo-integralists, parallels to Zentrum in Imperial Germany or the famous “Iron Ring of the Right” coalition in the Austrian monarchy, for example, essentially write themselves as ways to increase political power by acting as a kingmaker that would fit quite well in the highly polarized American political system. Michel Gurfinkiel’s recent article in First Things provides a great deal of context to this older and varied Catholic party heritage—one that has been historically absent from American politics for obvious reasons, but clearly stands as a potential model for constructive neo-integralist engagement with modern party politics. This would also helpfully emphasize the neo-integralist concern over the bankruptcy of the “fusionist” GOP and the intolerant progressivism of the Democratic Party—if the economically left, socially right “populist” quadrant of the American political compass that represents at least 20% of the electorate and is so devoid of institutional representation, why not build on that?

Untrammeled executives are both an exception within the intellectual and actual political tradition that neo-integralists draw on and seem particularly unsuited to our era of widespread political participation. National executives of moralist character, unbounded by any sort of checking institutions, and endowed with strong administrative capacity are unusual, largely confined to a few countries in Europe during the Age of Absolutism and in the first half of the twentieth century as the administrative state expanded at the same time that anti-parliamentary movements gained traction.

An integrated society and state requires forms of conciliar and representational institutions, otherwise it will be prone to tyranny, egoism, and the subordination of the Church or spiritual element to secularized leadership ambition. Saint Thomas Aquinas himself promoted the Aristotelian ideal of the “mixed regime” in his mirror of princes treatise, De Regno, which required the integration of the people and the layered, differentiated nature of societal groups into the political regime to function properly, alongside a ruling, virtuous and singular authority (see also Summa Theologiae I-II q.105 a.1, for example). This is a rich tradition to draw on, and one that surprisingly has not come more to the fore among neo-integralist theorists so far. The neo-integralists Alan Fimister and Father Thomas Crean have been more explicit than most in pointing to the Aristotelian-Thomistic mixed regime and suggesting forms of popular participation as important neo-integralist goals, as well as a few other more esoteric online sources. Meanwhile, Father Waldstein’s treatment of the interaction between monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements in that model (from a monarchist perspective) and their relation to modern politics awaits a tighter exposition for broader neo-integralist and adjacent intellectual audiences. Yet these are exceptions that for the time being have proved the rule among neo-integralist debates today.


The neo-integralist challenge to business-as-usual on the American right is one of the most creative and dynamic ideological developments of the last four decades. Starting from a powerful critique of American social disintegration, neo-integralists are ambitious in their goals of developing a positive program beyond simple diagnosis, something they share with other revisionist programs in the postliberal intellectual ecumene. But their philosophy suffers from uncertainty by both opponents and potential allies about its own views on political regimes, representative institutions, and democracy itself. To that end, a more open conversation—among neo-integralists themselves as well as between them and other right- and center-right interlocutors—on these issues is needed.

It is unfortunate that public neo-integralists have chosen to emphasize executive-dominance as an alternative to hegemonic liberalism, nor does it do neo-integralists any favors by simply ignoring representational political institutions in their core arguments with the unkindly disposed. If neo-integralist thinkers really do believe in untrammeled executive power, then they should say so. Winking at the saintly authority of King Louis IX and speaking ominously of the sovereign exception only confuses exactly what the goals of this intellectual project are. If, on the other hand, they believe in a Thomistic just ordering of society through a mixed constitution with aristocratic and democratic elements, then do so, and be serious about what that means for governance, for representation, and for the modern democracies that we live in today.

[1] Contemporary neo-integralists takes their name from nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholic political movements in Europe which sought the reversal of secularism, church-state separation, and anti-clerical liberal governments in favor of confessional Catholic states. Modern neo-integralists have developed a broader ideological tent, although its central poles certainly adhere to the old premise as well. To avoid terminological throat-clearing, let us say that neo-integralism is a political program that seeks to reorient political and state power towards a (Catholic) conception of the common good and away from the assumptions and practices of political liberalism. We may view this as “actually existing neo-integralism,” instead of the narrower, formal definition.

Featured Image: Monet, collage of his paintings of the Rouen cathedral, all form 1890's; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 



Julian Waller

Julian Waller is a Ph.D Candidate in Political Science at George Washington University where his academic research focuses on political institutions in contemporary authoritarian regimes, dynamics of democratization and autocratization.  

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