“A conservative,” says Yoram Hazony, “considers national and religious traditions key to strengthening the nation and to maintaining it over time.”
In a recent episode of “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek talks with Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, president of Jerusalem’s Herzl Institute, and author of the new book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.” Hazony believes that the myopic focus on individual liberties by both old-style liberals and many conservatives has led to the destruction of the family and national cohesion, giving rise to an ever more radical left.
Jan Jekielek: I’ve enjoyed your book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” so let’s start off there. Why does conservatism need to be rediscovered?
Yoram Hazony: A lot of people associated with the conservative movement for decades have asked themselves exactly that question. As I write in the book, my wife and I, and my friends, were activists and enthusiasts of the conservative movement in the 1980s. President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II were locked in a struggle against communism. Today, there’s a very strong interpretation that the 1980s conservatives were only concerned with individual liberties and the free market. Those of us who were there wouldn’t have recognized this interpretation.
Now, liberties are obviously important, but it’s impossible to conserve anything by a movement that’s only interested in individual freedom. Without any other principles, individual freedom isn’t about conserving anything. It’s the opposite. It’s saying, “We don’t owe the past anything. We don’t have any duty of handing down and transmitting things.”
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to read a line from your book: “Five years of political upheaval from 2016 to 2020 was all it took to shatter the hegemony of enlightenment liberalism.” So, enlightenment liberalism is shattered?
Mr. Hazony: Enlightenment liberalism is still alive in the hearts and minds of people who believe in it, but the number of those people is quickly decreasing, and their influence has, in fact, been shattered. When you look at the history of liberalism after World War II, by the 1960s, there was a consensus that the philosophy of the West was liberal democracy, which was a new term. It was based on individual freedom.
In 2020, we saw something very different. The New York Times—the leading exponent for liberalism—dismissed some proponents of liberalism to accommodate a woke neo-Marxism, and that accommodation was then repeated across the United States and Britain.
I went to Princeton University, which has now decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the buildings. You can’t find a more obvious liberal intellectual and political leader, but Wilson was too toxic for Princeton. So they scrubbed his name from the buildings, and Princeton now is under the thumb of woke neo-Marxist ideology. You can repeat that across dozens of major institutions, parts of the U.S. government bureaucracy, and even the military.
There’s an attempt by woke neo-Marxists—the progressives—to establish hegemony. If you don’t go along, then you’re not going to be a member of society in good standing.
Mr. Jekielek: In your book, you allude to the confusion, even among conservatives, of what “conservative” actually means and how it’s distinct from liberalism, which you argue is failing.
Mr. Hazony: Traditional Anglo-American conservatism has existed for centuries. It focuses attention on what you need to do to transmit your nation’s values, its identity, from one generation to the next. A conservative considers national and religious traditions key to strengthening the nation and to maintaining it over time. What must I do in order that my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren will have the benefits of this inheritance?
That way of thinking was alien to enlightenment liberalism. Enlightenment liberalism was invented mostly during the 1600s and 1700s. It’s a rationalist theory that tries to figure out for human beings of all ages and countries the right form of government. This approach begins with the assumption that there’s a right form of government for all people and that we can figure it out if we reason well enough, if we think properly and clearly.
Though liberals and conservatives are concerned about individual liberties, their ideas stand in terrific tension. The conservative asks, “What do we need to do to transmit certain ideas?” To do that, you have to create norms. You have to create guardrails. You say, “This range of behaviors and ideas is what we stand for.”
Liberals say almost the opposite: “Everybody needs to be free to choose just about anything.” And today, we have a society in which all the guardrails are pretty much gone. Every day, some wild new thing is proposed as to the way society should be structured, and the young people, who have no memory of a society with guardrails, are not happy that they’ve received no usable inheritance. As conservatives, we have to listen to them and explain why they should be conservative.
Mr. Jekielek: You call this a sort of backlash to the kind of unbridled individualism of the post-World War II years. That’s a fascinating thought.
Mr. Hazony: This is something conservative thinkers were already emphasizing in the 1980s. Irving Kristol wrote a book called “Two Cheers for Capitalism.” He basically said, “Look, capitalism is about empowering individuals and giving them the maximum degree of choices as to what business they will go into, what products they’ll make, and where they’ll take employment.”
The problem, Kristol said, is that this excessive focus on the individual by the market acts as a solvent to destroy all loyalty to groups, beginning with the family. The bonds of the family are based on a mutual loyalty, which is traditional, backed up by scriptural tradition, and is the way we’ve lived for a couple thousand years.
If you bring the liberalism of the market into the family, Kristol says that husbands and wives treat each other like commodities.
“I don’t choose to be in this marriage anymore.” That idea of greater loyalty dissolves under the pressure of the market, saying: “No, everything is free choice. You need a maximum of choice.”
The same thing happens with the relationship between a people and a nation. The question of what we owe our country becomes an absurdity if we decide we don’t owe anything, if we say, “I have the natural right to choose whatever I want.”
I think conservatives are coming to realize that you need some kind of balance among principles. It can’t always be individual liberty on every issue.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk about your vision for conservative democracy, specifically the question of public religion.
Mr. Hazony: We need to revert to conservative tradition, which means setting enlightenment liberalism aside and using our inherited traditions as our framework for moving forward. Religion is at the heart of that. A conservative view says, “There’s no such thing as a society without some overarching public religion or public philosophy.” We’ve seen how Christian assumptions were replaced by liberal assumptions after World War II, and now we’re seeing a similar attempt to replace liberal assumptions with neo-Marxist assumptions.
If people care for the future, they need to ask what was lost when biblical tradition ceased to be the guardrails—our overarching public philosophy.
I think—and I don’t know if it will succeed—that many Christians are going to look at the new woke public religion and say: “This is too far. We need to go back. We need to restore what the country was like before the enlightenment liberal revolution after World War II.”
Mr. Jekielek: Having effective ways of transmitting historical lessons and culture is critical to this vision, which makes me think this is something very strong in the Jewish tradition.
Mr. Hazony: One of the big differences between ancient Jewish thought and Greek philosophy is that Judaism focuses on family and nation. Obviously there’s a great focus on God and scripture, but socially and anthropologically, the Bible thinks in terms of families, clans, tribes, and nations. The biblical authors are also constantly concerned with this question of teaching our children.
So the idea of intergenerational transmission, righteousness, wisdom, and a God-fearing worldview—and also the reverse—the evil-doing that transmits from one generation to the next, is at the heart of the way the Bible describes politics.
It’s the strangest thing that in America or Britain—which were built on widespread reading of the Old Testament and taking the Bible to heart—today, you can’t find that. Kids go to school; it’s not in school. They go to universities, but you can’t find any discussion of this stuff in almost any academic setting. Instead, everybody’s thinking in terms of enlightenment liberal ideas. The only way we can restore an understanding about the way the world works is by returning to studying the Bible, and I hope that’s still possible.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.