Searching for a New Conservatism

Yoram Hazony. Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2022. 480pp. $29.99.

On June 12, 1987, American president Ronald Reagan spoke at the famous Brandenburg Gate in what was then West Berlin, Germany.  During this speech, the Gipper offered a main tendue to Soviet leader Gorbachev in which America and the Soviet Union could work together for a peaceful solution to the Cold War.  During his remarks, Regan famously implored Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall and end the division of Germany.  Reagan's words proved to be prophetic, as two years later, the Berlin Wall did come tumbling down.  However, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the final termination of the Soviet Union was the beginning of a new era as much as it was the end of another.

Approximately twenty-five years later, Reagan's Brandenburg speech conveys two paradoxical messages.

The first is a historical one.  During the Reagan Era, the political right throughout Western Europe was almost entirely united in the anti-communist crusade.  Social conservatives, libertarians, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, and fiscal conservatives (and many others) were all working together for a common goal of rolling back the advance of the Soviet Union.  It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism that splits between paleo- and neoconservatives would form during the 1990s and would subsequently widen during the twenty-first century as libertarianism and then populism would take hold of large swaths of the right.

The second message that Reagan's Brandenburg speech provides is the sense that even and perhaps especially during the apogee of the Reagan '80s, America was already in substantive decline.  As echoed in '80s films such as Terminator (1984), Robocop (1987), and Tim Burton's Batman (1989), there was a side of America that was increasingly coarse and degenerate, with drug addiction, ethnic conflict, and the decay of Christian values already having made tremendous inroads into the nation.  While America may have won the war abroad during the Reagan era, she ultimately, during the twenty-first century, failed to win the culture war at home.  

In his recent work, Israeli philosopher and Scripture scholar Yoram Hazony provides a comprehensive examination of what did and did not work within the 20th-century conservative movement in America.  Hazony views the post–World War II conservative movement as being fundamentally tainted by what he calls "Enlightenment liberalism."  According to Hazony, the period from the founding of the National Review in 1955 to the end of Margaret Thatcher's ministry in 1990 was an age in which there was a "fusion" between liberals and conservatives in order to fight the Cold War.  During this time, America transitioned from what Hazony calls a "Christian democracy" to a "liberal democracy."  As Hazony admits, even FDR referred to himself as a "Christian and a Democrat."

However, after the Second World War and beginning with Supreme Court decisions such as Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the liberal establishment began to purge Christianity from American public life.  Hazony admits that liberals identify acts such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as being intertwined with the purge of religion.  However (and this is what separates him from the alt or dissident right), Hazony upholds racial segregation as morally wrong while disagreeing with both liberals and the radical left that stripping religion from public life was something good.

In Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Hazony does have some criticism for some of the mainstays of conservatism, such as Russell Kirk.  Hazony admits that Kirk's own history of Anglo-American conservatism resembles his own.  As Hazony does, Kirk emphasizes custom and culture, and especially the importance of Christianity, IN the formation of Anglo-American law.  For his part, Hazony stresses the influence of Mosaic law on British law.  However, Hazony strongly disagrees with Kirk's promotion of Southerners such as John Calhoun because of Calhoun's association with slavery.  To the potential objection of Russell Kirk devotees, Hazony thus appears to be presenting an updated version of the Kirk historiography, shorn of its reactionary elements.

In what may perhaps draw the objection of Straussians and libertarians, Hazony further critiques the work of Leo Strauss and Friedrich von Hayek.  Both philosophers sought to diagnose the sources of German National Socialism.  For Hayek, it was Germany's rejection of empiricism as well as its embrace of socialism.  As Hazony notes, Hayek, as well as Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand, took aim at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's social democracy as being parallel to Nazi totalitarianism.  In order to get the West back on track, Hayek and others proposed a return to the tradition of liberty.  Hayek famously contrasted "planned order" in totalitarian systems with the "spontaneous" order provided by liberalism.   

According to Hazony, for Leo Strauss, it was the German abandonment of rationalism that ultimately led to the rise of Nazism.  Strauss further saw traditionalism and empiricism as being the roots of National Socialism, criticizing the traditionalism and authoritarianism present in premodern as well as reactionary societies.  Strauss was further concerned that Americans were embracing a relativism that inspired the rise of Nazism.

Hazony's principal point is that both Strass and Hayek were "liberals" who rejected communitarianism (in the case of Hayek) and tradition and authority (in the case of Strauss).  Hazony argues for a revival of communitarianism along with a return of and reverence for religious authority.

"There are also various tidbits that reveal Hazony's complexity as a man and a thinker." There is further a curious and admittedly touching section in which Hazony reveals a number of personal anecdotes that note how his own conservatism was shaped.  Although a deeply and proudly Jewish man, Hazony's wife, Julie, is a Christian convert to Judaism.  Hazony further reveals that his and his wife's lives have been shaped by the chaos of the late twentieth century.  Both Yoram and Julie were abandoned by their fathers, and both saw the effects of divorce in the lives of friends.  In response to this moral chaos, Hazony chose to follow the life of Orthodox Judaism, modeled by his uncle and aunt, and live together with his wife, raising a family according to Orthodox tradition in Israel.  At the same time, he recognizes that the dominant faith of the West historically has been Christianity, and Americans will be better Americans by being better Christians.

Hazony also points out that there are significant differences between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Judaism.  Indeed, one of the key issues for modern political conservatives is the current resurfacing of the rivals among these religions as the social conservative alliance begins to strain in the post-Trump era.

To solve the current malaise, Hazony hopes for a revival of strong communities rooted in the family as well as a return of religion to public life.  Humans are, for Hazony, fundamentally tribal and familial as opposed to being radical individuals as suggested by the liberal tradition.  Moreover, humans need proper cultivation and guidance from moral and religious authorities.

Yoram Hazony's Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a book that will draw praise as well as some criticism from readers.  Christians may object to his attempt to reach behind medieval and Christian thought to reach the Mosaic law.  However, Hazony's most profound insight in the book is his identification of the fundamentally liberal character of much of post–World War II conservatism.  Moreover, he provides a much-needed emphasis on the essentially social character of humans.  The biggest question asked and perhaps unanswered by Conservatism: A Discovery is how Westerners can regroup and re-form communal and familial bonds that the rest of the world takes for granted. 

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