“Many can now see that the nations of the West are hurtling toward the abyss,” writes American-Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony in his recent 400-page magnum opus, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Herein he provides a tour de force review of Anglo-American conservative political thought, from fifteenth-century England to the modern West, and draws lessons for why increasingly fragmented free societies must abandon failed “Enlightenment liberalism.”
At home and abroad, Hazony surveys the Enlightenment’s political wreckage. Domestically, a “dogmatic belief in the individual’s freedom has moved liberals to destigmatize—and, eventually, to actively legitimize—sexual license, narcotics, and pornography, as well as abortion, easy divorce, and out-of-marriage births.” Correspondingly, the “family has been broken and fertility ruined in nearly every Western country.” In foreign affairs, it was “just this kind of rationalism that brought America and other Western countries into the last generation of costly and unsuccessful wars seeking to bring Enlightenment liberalism to the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.”
The antidote for Hazony comes in a “revived nationalist conservatism” that has appeared in recent years in places such as America, Britain, Brazil, Eastern Europe, and Italy. This movement “is rightly called a ‘nationalist’ conservatism, since it seeks to return the national interest, or the common good of the nation, to the center of political discourse,” he writes. By contrast, the “liberal paradigm is blind to the nation” and sees “only individuals and the state that rules over them.”
“Conservative democracy,” as Hazony terms it, or the “Anglo-American tradition is rooted in the ideal of a free and just national state, whose origin is in the Hebrew Bible.” This nation arises “out of diverse tribes, its unity anchored in a common traditional language, law, and religion,” he notes. “Conservative democracy regards the traditional family and congregation as the most basic institutions necessary for the conduct of civilized life,” he adds. “At the same time, the state offers toleration to religious and social views that do not endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.”
In contrast to the seventh-century English political philosopher John Locke, the “decisive figure in the liberal tradition,” Hazony praises the eighteenth-century British Parliamentarian Edmund Burke. Empiricists including Burke rejected “Locke’s axioms” that “one need only consult reason to arrive at the one form of government that is everywhere the best, for all mankind,” Hazony notes. The “only realistic prospect for advancement in politics and morals is by means of an empirical method, which requires a course of trial and error over centuries,” as exemplified by Anglo-American constitutional history.
Hazony elaborates that “there are certainly principles of human nature that are true of all men, and therefore natural laws that prescribe what is good for every human society.” Yet these “are the subject of unending controversy” due to the “great variety of human experience, and the weakness of the operations of the human mind that are used to generalize from this experience,” he adds. In actuality, the “way people think and the things they believe are largely the product of the particular culture in which they were raised,” not pure reason.
Hazony juxtaposes the French Revolution with the “Second American Revolution” following the ratification of the United States Constitution, both in 1789. Following views developed by Locke and others such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French Revolution unleashed “its universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and subsequent terror for those who would not listen to reason,” Hazony observes. Meanwhile, after the failed Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, “ended a decade of shocking disorder by restoring the familiar forms of the national English constitution.”
At Philadelphia’s 1787 constitutional “convention dominated by the conservative party,” of the “initiators and the most consequential participants, most were longtime nationalists and later Federalists” such as George Washington, Hazony notes. “The Federalist Party was from the start the party of American nationalist conservatism,” he adds, whose legacy, including opposition to slavery, would continue in the later “American Whig party.” This “name strikingly intended to invoke the Anglo-American conservative tradition and the ideas of Edmund Burke,” ideas that later laid the basis for the emergence of the Republican Party under Abraham Lincoln.
This concrete political history means underlines for Hazony that “[n]either America nor Britain has ever been a ‘creedal nation,’ defined primarily by an abstract formula as found, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence.” Beginning with the Federalists, national conservatives therefore believed that the “adoption of immigrant communities into a new nation can only be successful if the immigrants are sufficiently weak, and therefore willing to assimilate,” Hazony notes. Belying mantras that diversity is strength, he observes that the
relationship between cohesion and tyranny is actually the reverse of what is commonly supposed. Where a nation, tribe, or family is cohesive, it may be ruled with a light hand, and a greater degree of freedom can be entrusted to its constituent members.
Enlightenment rationalism has unleashed a “perpetual cultural revolution,” Hazony notes. As he explains, “since liberalism constantly inculcates an aversion to tradition, it is unstable and unsustainable. For this reason, it is easily overthrown by Marxists and others claiming that their own reasoning is superior to that of any liberal.” Accordingly, merely thirty years after the Cold War’s end, an “updated Marxism—one that has taken the oppressed to be people of color and LGBTQ rather than the working class,” has conquered leading American institutions.
A major engine of American social upheaval has been the United States Supreme Court since its 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, which falsely proclaimed a “separation between church and state,” Hazony writes. He ironically notes that Washington, America’s first president, and his successor, John Adams, “appointed only committed Federalists to the Supreme Court” such as John Marshall, and thereby further strengthened national union. They never “imagined the circumstances that most Western nations face today, in which jurists use the national Supreme Court to impose what is in effect a new constitution—one that is post-national and hostile to Christianity.”
Changing America’s judicial direction is thus a key concern for Hazony in his drive to restore faith and family to societal prominence in America as part of a wider national renewal. His analysis of American judicial history is just one of the many fascinating facets of this richly detailed, insightful book. “Conservatism begins at home” with conservative mores, Hazony pithily concludes his tome, which would be a welcome addition to any curious home.
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