Yoram Hazony. Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Washington DC: Regnery, 2022.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the past 30 years has abounded with intellectual brouhaha over “the end of history” and the supposed triumph of an abstracted notion of political society called liberal democracy or liberal democratic capitalism or the “market state.” The past decade, however, has brought this establishment consensus, which was never a majoritarian consensus, to an apoplectic halt. Some even speculate the impending end of the post-World War II political order that undergirded liberal democratic capitalism. Yoram Hazony joins the ranks of this debate with his latest work, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, offering a vision of rediscovery for a post-liberal conservative and nationalist future.
I know Yoram Hazony. I had become familiar with his writings through my subscription to Commentary. I met him in the summer of 2017 in Jerusalem while a grad student at Yale. I count myself as an admirer of his work and we had several intimate discussions while I was attending the 2017 Herzl Institute summer seminar and conference. Hazony has long been a voice on the intellectual right; he is not a freeloading spirit chaser seeking to capitalize on the winds of political and intellectual change as, in my opinion, certain writers and intellectuals of the so-called “National Conservative” movement surrounding Hazony are. One only need read Hazony’s earliest works defending a Jewish state of Israel to know his bonafides on conservative political philosophy.
I have taught and tutored on political philosophy as well, which is the formal educational background of my work despite my current predominance in literary criticism and general turn embrace of a life of aestheticism and artistic humanism. Like Hazony, I have maintained to students and friends that the myth of Enlightenment liberalism is hogwash to anyone with formal education and study who hasn’t swallowed the university propaganda. Until the post-1945 order, the political world associated with “liberal democracy” tended toward a soft Protestant nationalism with some degree of toleration for religious and ethnic minorities but undeniably Protestant and nationalist in its self-understanding. Hazony reminds us of this fact in his opening page:
By the 1960s, the old Protestant nationalism that had animated the generation of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower had been set aside, and Enlightenment liberalism became the new framework within which American political life was conducted. America was given what was, in effect, a new liberal constitution.
Anyone who reads the American Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, or the speeches of Generals Eisenhower, Matthew Ridgeway, Douglas MacArthur, or George Patton, and who also have intellectual backgrounds and education in classics and the Bible, let alone political theory, will find—irrespective of the personal heterodox theologies of these individuals—a wealth of political philosophical and theological substance that draws on beliefs and traditions supposedly cast aside in favor of the skeptical rationalism of Locke, Spinoza, or Rousseau. This isn’t to say that all of the great Anglo-American individuals sampled in this book were orthodox believers. Hazony doesn’t imply that. It is to say, though (contrary secular critics who are among the most ignorant of how the Bible influenced political theory), that they were shaped in what modern academia now calls the tradition of the Hebraic republic, a political philosophy borne from a limited government, quasi-republican, reading of the Hebrew Bible and especially the Torah (however legitimate such readings were in relation to biblical historicity). This, of course, is a tradition that predominately found home in the Reformation during Protestant battles with Catholicism on issues regarding ecclesiastic hegemony so it isn’t a surprise to the well-read and well-educated that such interpretations flourished in Protestant nations. (Though this tradition does find a scattered home among some pre-Reformation Catholic thinkers.)
Implicit in Hazony’s work is a larger debate over the nature of political order, one that Thomas Hobbes and even Robert Filmore (antagonists of Hazony’s thesis) engaged in that we ourselves are also indirectly involved in whether we acknowledge it or not. This debate is what Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss considered part of the wrestling with “the everlasting constitution,” something that many conservatives in America are ironically adherents of. The rationalist universalism of the social contract theories of the Enlightenment, which have subsequently informed the post-1960s Anglo-American political-juridical establishment, is premised on a certain anthropological understanding of humanity, one in which the perfect legal order can remedy the agitations of man’s soul and provide a life of peace and prosperity for all. This is what still motivates all rationalist political impulses, from Plato and Locke to Marx and contemporary neo-Marxists to Constitutional “Originalists” in the United States.
If, however, the liberal hegemony of the past 80 years is coming to an end, as all political orders invariably do, what world are we moving toward or what world can we build in the wake of this seismic shift we are living through? Hazony contends that conservatives can no longer cling to the “fusionism” of the Cold War because it was (in reality) predominately a form of Enlightenment liberalism than it was conservatism, which, while having its merits and importance demanded by the necessities of the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, has also lived past its relevance. He calls this moving beyond fusionism “national conservatism.” Hazony’s contention, then, runs counter Matthew Continetti who has offered a spirited defense of big tent conservative fusionism (which I have a review of at The University Bookman).
In trying to move beyond the fusionism of the Cold War, a conservatism that is sometimes said to be “conserving liberalism,” Hazony takes us back to the origins of the Anglo-American tradition of conservatism as he sees it. First, he identifies a conservative as “a person who works to recover, restore, and build up the traditions of his forefathers and past them on to future generations” and that in “a political standpoint [conservatism] regards the recovery, restoration, elaboration, and repair of national and religious traditions as the key to maintaining a nation and strengthening it through time.” As it relates to Anglo-American conservatism, the principles of historical empiricism instead of rationalism, nationalism instead of localism or internationalist universalism, religion instead of irreligion, limited executive power instead of executive centralization, and individual freedom rooted in the concrete realities of embodied life and personal property instead of social contract notions of liberty and the general will, are the backbone of conservative philosophy. These ideas are found in a long tradition of thinkers going back to John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, John Seldon, and Edmund Burke, who stood against the Puritan utopianism of radical non-conformists and the authoritarianism of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Filmore, which subsequently found expression principally through the Federalist Party in America and the old Tory tradition in the United Kingdom.
The book, then, tries to chart a concise history of how national conservativism came into being, its principal thinkers, its history of development, its embodiment in politicians and parties, its rivals and ups and downs through the centuries, and its prospects for revival in an age of anxiety and change (often not for the better).
The greatest strength of the book is its dealing with American nationalism as expressed in the Federalist Party and embodied in men like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. We often are told that these men, as sons of the Enlightenment, were the thorough-going liberals of his day. Likewise, libertarians have taken a hatchet to men like Hamilton because of his foresight on matters of national banking and advocating an energetic executive which they have cast, in the aftermath of the Federal Reserve, New Deal, and Great Society, as the precursor to modern bureaucratic liberalism. Hazony contends, rightfully and persuasively, that this is a misleading misreading of Hamilton and the Federalist program. Further, if the real Alexander Hamilton was known, he likely wouldn’t have been made the star of a Broadway Musical which equally distorts this misunderstood Founding Father who was widely recognized, before the 1950s, as one of the key architects of the conservative tradition in America.
The Federalist Party was, as all historians of America know, a nationalist and conservative party by the definitions laid out by Hazony. As he writes, the Federalists were undergirded by the principles of: “regarding Americans as a distinct nation of British heritage, American constitutional continuity with the British constitution, the Supreme Court as the body responsible for interpreting the Constitution [ostentatiously in a nationalist lens rather than states’ rights lens], economic nationalism, a nationalist immigration policy, alliance with Britain, an alliance between religion and state, and opposition to slavery.” Point by point, Hazony goes back into the history of the Federalist Party and its policies from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to its administrative rule under Washington and Adams, to show how the Federalists were committed to these principles that anyone with even a faint knowledge of American history would know.
In looking back on the Federalist Party, Hazony finds an antagonist in Thomas Jefferson who is the contradictory genius of liberal imperialism with its commitment to rationalist universalism and voluntarist individualism and anti-nationalist localism with its emphasis on states’ rights. This, in effect, recasts an age-old dichotomy in understanding American politics: Jefferson vs. Hamilton but with a twist. The traditional Jefferson vs. Hamilton dichotomy is that Jefferson is the articulate defender of limited government vis-à-vis the progenitor of progressive federal activism found in Hamilton. In this reading, Jefferson ends up the conservative through his advocacy of limited government and opposition to the commercial welfare state whereas Hamilton ends up the progressive through his advocacy of an energetic executive branch and social national economic vision. Hazony, while not commenting on this thread of American historiography, implicitly rebukes it on philosophical grounds: Jefferson was, and remains, a liberal in the rationalist, universalist, individualist sense (and still looms over modern liberalism and progressivism despite their recent anxiety over Jefferson’s role as a slave owner) and Hamilton was, and remains, a conservative in the Anglo-American tradition with his emphasis on historical lineage and politics of national order uniting executive politics with the moral stability of religion.
However, another thread of American historiography throws a wrench into the geographic and genealogical interpretation of American politics: Puritan and Cavalier, another famous trope that dominated American consciousness into the twentieth century, where New England Federalism was the spirit of Puritanism and southern sectionalism and, eventually, secessionism was the spirit of the Cavalier with close ties to the Anglican-cum-Episcopal Church. Hazony can’t offer, or doesn’t offer for the sake brevity, an explanation for how the rejection of Puritanism as part of the English conservative inheritance ends up being the geographic and genealogical root for American national conservatism since the Federalist Party dominated in the very areas where exiled English Puritanism found a home in the New World and often came from radical non-conformist stock. How is it that men of Anglican stock, by contrast, despite their drift toward a Christianized Deism, like Jefferson, as well as other Jeffersonians of Anglican/Episcopalian descent (like James Madison and Patrick Henry), ended up as American liberals while the scions of radical Puritans rejected by the English tradition of conservatism ended up as American nationalists? The ironies of America still abound.
What follows from these historical foundations is a return to a philosophical and metaphysical exposition of conservatism in contrast to liberalism. Liberalism is a philosophy that “promises to liberate us from precisely one thing, and that thing is conservatism. That is, it seeks to liberate us from the kind of public and private life in which men and women know what must be done to propagate beneficial ideas, behaviors, and institutions across generations and see to it that these things really are done.” Liberalism, as philosophy, is premised on a normative vision of human existence, individual choice, undergirded by abstract philosophical reason. Liberalism is the promise of self-creation and self-liberation from all inheritances, be they historical or biological. Non-binary gender ideology and transgenderism is the logical endpoint of liberalism, not a betrayal of it. The purpose of politics is to facilitate this liberation from all inheritance. Conservatism, by contrast, grounded in empirical observation and the ways in which humans act, sees the world as both individualist and communal: individuals are born into families and communities, choose to live in families and communities (rather than be coerced), and interact in a web of hierarchies and relationships to advance their personal and social standings in said communities. Thus, conservatism includes a realistic form of individualism while acknowledging what everyone until the twenty-first century knew to be self-evident: humans are communal, relational, social creatures whose happiness and maturation as human beings are codependent on their relationships with others and the communities they are part of.
For Hazony, the relations we find in community lead to the nation—hence his “national conservatism.” The two most important pillars for individuals to belong in a national conservative vision are the family and religion, historically the two pillars from which all nations were themselves derived. (There are echoes of Aristotle here.)
After outlining a philosophical sketch of conservatism, Hazony trains his intellectual firepower on deconstructing the liberal hegemony in the Cold War. Here, our author takes aim at the fusionism that became the prevailing spirit of Anglo-American conservatism arguing that the incoherent mix of libertarian economics, social conservative traditionalism (which most closely resembles Hazony’s national conservatism), and anti-Communist liberalism (political democratism), is no longer sustainable and the failures of the Bush Administration and the repudiation of McCain and Romney signaled the end of the fusionist thesis. With fusionism in ruin, and the liberal political order waning, Hazony wants a new conservatism by turning to an old conservatism: national conservatism.
The victory of the West in the Cold War, spearheaded by America, with strong support from the English-speaking world (especially Britain but also to a large extent Australia and Canada), ironically reveals the limits of Hazony’s national conservatism. Conservatism, “fusionism,” won the Cold War. The dissolution of the Soviet Union without nuclear armageddon is a testament to the moral fortitude of the conservative movement (more than any other movement which included presidents, prime ministers, and popes) in the face of Stalinist imperialism and liberal defeatism seeking accommodation with the Soviet menace. This victory, though, was a product of the opening of conservatism to include disaffected groups who also saw communism as a threat to be confronted: Catholics, anti-communist liberal democrats of a soft Enlightenment spirit, libertarian economists, and migrants and refugees who had no background in Anglo-American culture fleeing communist guerillas and revolutionaries and joining the anti-communist politics of the Cold War Right. This is the conservatism of “fusionism” which Hazony derides as primarily a soft form of Enlightenment liberalism that accommodated acceptable conservative views in the Cold War crisis but is of no use anymore for the rest of the twenty-first century.
The post-1945, and especially the post-1960s, liberal hegemony is coming to an end. Rather than lament, as the octogenarians are, we must look forward to a future of resuscitation and innovation. This will entail another opening of conservatism, drawing on the best of the past while taking in the best of other communities and traditions just as fusionism did. In a word, a cosmopolitan conservatism, not a national conservatism, is really the only viable path forward unless one wants to relegate conservatism to the “ash heap of history” as Reagan said of the Soviet Union. Hazony concedes that William F. Buckley’s strategy of aligning moderate economic libertarians with anti-communist liberals and traditionalists “made sense in context” while lamenting the lack of “philosophical coherence” that resulted in this contextual alliance to defeat the Soviet Union. No political movement has ever been philosophically coherent, and it doesn’t make much sense given the world we live to seek such purity given the context we find ourselves.
Nevertheless, Hazony has written and impressive and heroic work outlining the shortcomings of the current liberal order and its intellectual and political hegemony that is currently in crisis. He sketches an alternative. That alternative is drawn from history and philosophy, empiricism and, though he is reluctant to admit it, rationalism (his sketch of national conservatism includes the theoretical which doesn’t admit some of the nuances of the events that undergirded his so-called national conservatism). It includes the concrete and the abstract. Even so, it runs into a problem.
The national conservatism of the Anglo-American tradition is equally spent, perhaps more-so than the liberalism that replaced it. Protestantism in the Anglo-American world is in freefall despite the efforts of some to recalibrate and offer a revival through schools and independent institutions dedicated to reviving Protestant-oriented commentary along the lines of Catholic culture commentary. The shared cultural traditions which underpinned the American national tradition are also fading (and it is also a fact only recently brushed away that America, despite its Anglo origin, had a very extensive anti-English tradition in America which included various elements of American conservatism before the Second World War). What made Cold War conservatism so potent and, ultimately, victorious was its ability to graft into its heart traditionalist Catholic immigrants, Jewish intellectuals, disaffected anti-communist liberals, free-market libertarians, and anti-statist populists into an effective political and intellectual coalition. Any twenty-first century conservatism that closes the door on these groups because they don’t exactly fit into that national conservative mold won’t have any future as that demographic base of national conservatism shrinks and shrinks. (And empirically, for all the praise of empiricism in this book, it is; and this empirical fact cannot be discounted: a new ecumenical conservatism, not a purity-based and “coherent” conservatism, is needed.)
Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a superb and monumental intellectual history and exposition of a forgotten side of conservative philosophy. For those who seek intellectual growth and maturation, the book is a must. As a program for the future, it leaves a lot to be desired. The many figures long dead whose ideas had no influence in the twentieth century, didn’t win the Cold War and won’t win the future. Any new conservatism that arises in these tumultuous times will have to accept the profound political differences from the world when the various theorists extoled and eulogized in this book lived. We live in a global, cosmopolitan, and ecumenical world. That’s a world that Fortescue, Seldon, Burke, and Hamilton did not live. That is an empirical fact.
The values and ideas that moved the conservatives of the past are alive and well, as human nature necessitates. The political manifestation of those ideas, however, have long since passed. Conservatives must recognize this reality if they are to take the best of one’s ancestral traditions and guide them forward into this brave new world. Hazony seeks to do this, but through means that seem implausible given the world we now live. The demands of empiricism cannot simply be historical. They must also be attuned to the present. Conservatism’s future is not in historical empiricism, but an empiricism of the present that draws on the wisdom of the past, of history, in order to manifest the best of history in the circumstances that the world today exists in. Anything less than this is mere intellectual theorizing however eloquent and educational that theorizing may be.
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