Introducing Conservatism: A Rediscovery
It would be difficult for the typical observer of American politics to doubt that conservatism is in crisis. At present, Joe Biden’s approval ratings are quite low, despite generally favorable economic conditions. Majorities of the American public disagree with the Democratic party on important issues related to race and gender ideology. In normal circumstances, one would expect this to be a time when the Republican party to be ascendant in a major way. Instead, what we see is a Republican party that seems determined to self-immolate and snatch a devastating defeat from the jaws of what should be an easy victory.
What explains this disfunction among American conservatives? Perhaps conservatism, as an idea, is doomed to end in failure. Or, perhaps, true conservatism has been lost, and needs to be recovered. It is this idea that animates Yoram Hazony in his book Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Hazony believes that a “remarkable fact about contemporary conservatism” can be found in “the extraordinary confusion over what distinguishes Anglo-American conservatism from Enlightenment liberalism (or ‘classical liberalism’ or ‘libertarianism’ or, for that matter, from the philosophy of Ayn Rand).” George Will, in his book The Conservative Sensibility, considers American conservatism based on the idea of conserving the values of the Founders, which were in turn derived from the classical liberal values of the Enlightenment. So, to George Will, American conservatism is about conserving the classical liberal tradition. Not so for Hazony. He believes the broader tradition of Anglo-American conservatism stands in distinction from, and is in many ways opposed to, classical liberalism and Enlightenment values.
Hazony believes that true conservatism needs to be rediscovered, and its recovery is necessary to improve the state of the nation. This is made all the more necessary because Enlightenment liberalism has failed: “The hegemony of liberal ideas, which was supposed to last forever and to be embraced by all nations, has come to an end after only sixty years.” Liberalism has been unable to withstand the challenges of radical Progressivism or Marxism. Because liberalism is fundamentally different from conservatism, liberalism lacks the tools necessary to conserve itself: “For the truth—which at this point cannot be repeated frequently enough—is that Enlightenment liberalism, as a political ideology, is bereft of any interest in conserving anything. It is devoted entirely to freedom, and in particular to freedom from the past. In other words, liberalism is an ideology 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.”
Despite this grim assessment, Hazony is hopeful that true conservatism can be rediscovered: “Is it possible for a society whose traditions have grown so faint to revive them? Is it possible for individuals who have grown up in a liberal society obsessed with personal freedoms to become strong conservative men and women and to do what a conservative calling demands of them? I believe it is possible because I have seen it happen many times over the course of my life. It is possible for individuals to discover that they have been on the wrong course, repent, and set out on a new and better course. And this is possible, too, for families and congregations, tribes and nations.”
This is ambitious, to be sure. And due to this ambition, Hazony’s vision of conservatism deserves careful consideration and scrutiny. Over the next several posts, I’ll go over the major ideas in Hazony’s book. As always when I do these book reviews, I’ll be presenting, rather than evaluating, Hazony’s argument, and if anyone has questions in the comments, my responses will be tailored to represent Hazony’s view as I understand it, rather than presenting my own views. My evaluation and critique of the book will be saved for the final posts.