Yoram Hazony: Is Liberalism Failing? A Bold New Proposal to Combat Woke Ascendancy
In the face of an ever more radical left, many on the right seem to have lost sight of what conservatism really is, says political theorist Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and author of the new book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.”
“At someplace along the way, the religion part and the nationalism part dropped out, and what came to be called conservatism is only the freedoms, you know, the freedoms of the market and other individual liberties,” he says. But this myopic focus on maximizing individual freedoms has also led to the decimation of the traditional family and national cohesion, he argues.
Conservatism can’t just be about conserving liberty and individual freedom, but rather needs to be grounded in other principles, such as religious faith and nationalism, he says.
Jan Jekielek: Yoram Hazony, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Yoram Hazony: It’s great to see you, Jan. A pleasure to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: So, I’ve really been enjoying reading your book “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” and so let’s just start off there. Is conservatism still alive? Why does it need to be rediscovered?
Mr. Hazony: That’s a very good question. I think a lot of people who have associated with the conservative movement for decades have been asking themselves exactly that question. As I write in the book, I, my wife, my friends, we kind of signed up to be activists and members and enthusiasts of the conservative movement when we were in college in the 1980s.
Ronald Reagan was the president and Thatcher was prime minister and Pope John Paul II was the first Polish pope and the three of them were locked in this kind of civilizational struggle against communism. Today, when people look back on that, there’s a very strong interpretation that goes [back to] the 1980s, conservatives were only concerned with individual liberties, the free market, free trade. There’s that kind of an image that I think those of us who were there in those days wouldn’t really have recognized it.
In the 1980s, the common way of thinking about conservatism in the United States and in Britain, I think, was expressed by Irving Kristol who described modern conservatism as having three pillars: religion, nationalism, and economic growth. And of those three, he explicitly thought that religion was the most important. That’s the conservative movement that I joined, and someplace along the way, the religion part and the nationalism part dropped out, and what came to be called conservatism is only the freedoms, the freedoms of the market and other individual liberties.
Now, liberties are obviously important. We cherish them and we value them, but I don’t think it’s possible to have anything conserved by a movement that’s only interested in individual freedom. Individual freedom taken by itself in its pure form without any other principles to balance it is not about conserving anything. It’s the opposite. It’s about saying, “We don’t owe the past anything. We don’t have any duty of handing down and transmitting things.”
So, the present day conservative movement is certainly quite confused that you run into prominent people who say, “What we’re conserving is liberty. What we’re conserving is liberalism.” This leads you into a confusion that’s so thorough that I think you simply can’t understand anything. And so, one of the first purposes of this book is to remind everyone about the many centuries of Anglo-American conservatism and what it was and what it stood for, and to allow people to make a decision, am I a conservative or am I a liberal.
Mr. Jekielek: So, you make a pretty strong contention in the book, and I think it’s also part of your reason for writing it. I’m actually going to read the line because I think it bears doing that. “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: Well, the hegemony, enlightenment liberalism is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of people who believe in it. But the number of those people is quickly decreasing, declining, and their influence has been, in fact, I think, has been shattered. I think when you look at the history of post-war liberalism in the United States and Britain and in other countries after World War II, I think it’s fair to say that by the 1960s, there was a consensus that the public philosophy of the West was going to be something called liberal democracy.
That was a new term. I mean, FDR, I don’t think would ever have used a term like that. FDR was still talking about God-fearing democracy, but God-fearing democracy became liberal democracy in the wake of World War II. There’s about 60 years from the 1960s until a couple of years ago in which I think the main institutions responsible for developing and disseminating ideas, certainly in America and in the UK were liberal. They were expressly liberal.
Both Democrats and Republicans, they had different versions of liberalism, but they all fundamentally were based on the idea that individual freedom is the heart of the political order. If you have that, you don’t really mean much else. In 2020, we see something very different. “The New York Times,” the leading journalistic exponent for liberalism for all those decades, “The New York Times” dismissed some of its key proponents of liberalism in order to accommodate a woke neo-Marxism, and that accommodation was then repeated across the United States and Britain.
I went to Princeton University, and at Princeton, they decided the time has come to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from the buildings. Woodrow Wilson, of course, was president of Princeton University in addition to being president of the United States, and you can’t have a more obvious figure of a liberal intellectual and a liberal political leader, but he was too toxic for Princeton University.
So, they scrubbed his name from the buildings, and Princeton now is under the thumb of this woke neo-Marxist ideology. You can repeat that across dozens of major institutions, educational businesses, parts of the U.S. government bureaucracy, even the military. So, I don’t think there’s any question that 2020 is a watershed year in which the idea that you had to be a liberal in order to be in good standing in the United States ended. That’s why I say that the hegemony of liberal ideas has ended.
Now, there’s an attempt by the woke neo-Marxist, the progressives, this new ideological movement to establish its own hegemony, so that if you don’t go along with woke, then you’re not going to be a member of American or British society in good standing. We still don’t know if that’s going to succeed, but it’s working real well. When we talk about the shattering of the hegemony of liberal ideas, we should also notice that has freed up on the political right. It opened up the possibility of new ideas coming from the right, and so it’s an especially important moment to be sharpening our understanding of what is the conservative alternative, what do conservatives have to offer, how are they different from Marxist and liberals. That’s the reason for the book right now
Mr. Jekielek: And frankly, other brands of right wing thought, right?
Mr. Hazony: Yes, for sure. I think it’s important to emphasize that when the hegemony, the rule, the dominance of a certain set of ideas, when it breaks, as it has, new ideas start to arise from all directions, and some of them are healthy, good ideas, and some of them are desperate and even crazy. When we look at the American right today, I’m talking about especially among young people, there is a tendency which I don’t think can be denied, there’s a tendency among especially people on the right, let’s say under 30 to say, “Look, I’ve never seen conservatism conserve anything in my life. It’s a fraud.” If you try to talk to them about Christianity or Judaism, the Bible, the great Anglo-American tradition, they’ll say, “Look, all of that has failed. The American constitution has failed.” It’s a failure, and they are willing to consider other things.
There are characters on the fringes of the right who write books proposing dictatorship, different kinds of dictatorships, so there’s secular technocratic dictatorship, and there’s Catholic world empire dictatorship, and all sorts of different versions of let’s just abandon the past for some kind of fantastic alternative. These are not conservative alternatives, but they’re clearly on the right. They’re attacking the left and saying, “No, we don’t want the leftist revolution. We want our own kind of revolution.”
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s do a little bit of definitions here because I think certainly in the book, you alluded to it a little bit earlier that there’s confusion even among conservatives of what that actually means and how it is distinct from liberalism which you argue is failing.
Mr. Hazony: Sure. Look, the most important thing to understand about traditional Anglo-American conservatism, this great movement that has existed for many centuries, it is a movement, a political movement that focuses attention on the question of what do you need to do in order to be able to transmit your nation its values, its identity, its coherent standing from one generation to the next.
A conservative is somebody who considers national and religious traditions to be the key to strengthening the nation and to maintaining it over time. Right? So, conservatives begin with that question, with the question of let’s say that I consider there to be something good in our inheritance, religious national inheritance, what do I have to do in order that my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren will still have the benefits of this inheritance.
Now, that whole way of thinking is pretty alien to enlightenment liberalism. Enlightenment liberalism was invented mostly during the 1600s, 1700s. It’s a rationalist theory whose purpose is to try to figure out what universally for all human beings, for all time, in all ages, in all countries, what’s the right form of government.
So, it’s an approach that begins with the assumption that there is a right form of government for all people, and that we can just figure it out if we reason well enough. It’s an anti-traditionalist philosophy, liberalism, because what it does is it says what we need is to reason, if we think properly, if we think clearly, we’ll get to the right answers. Tradition is seen as something cumbersome that prevents you from being able to get to the right answers.
So, liberals and conservatives, there are things that we do share because conservatives also are, at least in the English and American tradition, the British and American tradition, conservatives are concerned about individual liberties among other things. And that means that, let’s say, during the Cold War, when William Buckley, who saw himself as an individualist, which is to say as a kind of liberal, when William Buckley proposed this alliance between liberals and conservatives to fight Marxism and to fight communism abroad and to roll back socialism at home, he was eventually able to patch together a coalition of liberals and conservatives. But liberalism and conservatism as ideas continue to stand in terrific tension because the conservative is asking, “What do we need to do in order to maintain ourselves and transmit certain ideas?” and to do that, you have to create norms. You have to create guardrails. You have to say, “This range of behaviors and ideas, this is what we stand for.”
Liberals say almost the opposite. Liberals say, “No, everybody needs to be free to choose just about everything.” And today, when we see a society in which all the guardrails, they’re pretty much gone. Every day, some wild new thing is proposed as the new way that society should be structured, and the young people who don’t remember, who don’t have memories of a society that had guardrails and what it was like, I don’t think they’re especially happy with the fact that they feel that they’ve received no usable inheritance, not at the level of how do you form a family, not at the level of how do you relate to God and scripture, not at the level of how do I keep my nation going, or why would I even want to keep my nation going. All of these questions, they hang very heavily on a young generation which feels that it has no inheritance, and so the question that we need to deal with as conservatives, we have to listen to what they’re saying, and we have to respond to the question of why should you be a conservative and not a liberal.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, you’re just making me think of something that you wrote in the book which is the idea that you need the cultural history of, let’s say for lack of a better term, a nation or something like that when you’re creating laws and rules and ideas and how you’re going to govern, those things are very, very important. You can’t just impose whatever you believe which would be the liberal view, right, of how things actually should be. Right? I think it’s written in there that when that doesn’t work, I kept thinking about Afghanistan, right? When it doesn’t work, the liberals will say, “Well, it’s a bad implementation on our part,” but the conservatives would say, “Well, actually, you didn’t factor in all of this cultural history in doing this.” Right?
Mr. Hazony: Yes, absolutely. Let’s take a few examples. American foreign policy in the last 30 years has been explicitly called a liberal internationalist foreign policy. You can see by looking at American involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, in the Balkans, in Somalia, and Libya, in all of these places and more, for 30 years, pretty much since the first Bush administration, the United States had a foreign policy that was based on this idea that liberalism is all you need and everybody should embrace it.
People were talking about the end of history. What that meant was that there’s not going to be a struggle over ideas anymore because liberalism just is, it’s the final answer. We just have the answer, and now all we need to do is go and explain it to people, or maybe we’ll have to do some bombing and then explain it to people, but if you did that, the assumption is, well, why wouldn’t Afghanis, and Iraqis, and Serbians, and everybody else become just liberals.
Let’s take a couple more examples of the same thing. The idea that free trade, freedom, liberal policies of trade would turn China into a liberal democracy. I mean, everybody believed that. China entered the World Trade Organization because the American leaders of both parties believed that China was on the verge of becoming a liberal democracy like the United States. And all they succeeded in doing really is in building up this fearsome rival which remains as authoritarian or even more so than it was 30 years ago.
So, that’s a second example of how the liberal framework which is just based on freedom says, “Let’s just
have free trade, and it’ll convince everybody that all they need is freedom, and the world will simply just move towards this worldview.” And in fact, we did the opposite. The opposite happened. The Chinese government never ceases to be authoritarian. In fact, they simply believe that their authoritarianism is better than American liberalism. They look down at American liberalism, and the West has created this fierce rival that may actually win because of these liberal policies.
A third example, obviously, immigration policies. The problem with the idea of individual liberty is if every human being has the right to be equally free, then how can you justify borders? How can you justify telling certain people, “No, you’re not allowed to enter my country”? From the perspective of a pure enlightenment liberalism, the whole idea that you should have borders and distinguish between your own citizens and non-citizens, it looks like racism, and you can just go on and on.
This view that only liberty, the equality of liberties for everybody in the nation and everybody in the world, that view, it’s impossible to maintain. It simply leads you to one destructive policy after another at the level of government, but at the level of the individual, it’s even more damaging because it opens up a chaos of alternatives where every alternative seems to be equally the same.
Mr. Jekielek: So, we’re living in this, I think what you describe as a dangerous time where there’s new ideas kind of vying for supremacy. On this foreign policy or international front, of course, we have the Russia Ukraine war, right, and I think it’s being portrayed as a kind of liberalism versus authoritarianism picture. Right? But I’m guessing you don’t see it that way.
Mr. Hazony: No, I think that this is when we talk about the hegemony of liberal idea, exactly what is meant is that large numbers of people, especially in the elites, the decision-makers, they can’t look at anything at any level as anything other than individual liberties versus authoritarianism. That straitjacket ends up being imposed on every issue, every political issue, every international and domestic issue. So, this is a great example. Elite opinion-makers in the United States and in Britain, many people genuinely think that Ukraine is fighting for liberal democracy, and that it’s the same… What they’re thinking is something like Trump is evil, the Democrats are good. Putin is Trump and Ukraine is the Democrats.
None of this is true. I mean, it is true that Putin, that the Russian government is an imperialist government, and that its invasion of Ukraine is an example of a thuggish imperialism. That part is true. But if you want to know what Ukrainians are fighting for, what they’re fighting for is the independence of their nation, of their national inheritance, of their religious inheritance. They have a history that’s a thousand years long, and they would like to be able to live in accordance to their own traditions, and their own values, [and] make their own decisions instead of having them made in Moscow. So, a conservative would say, “You have no idea whether there are liberals fighting in Ukraine or not.” Liberalism is completely alien to the question of what’s actually happening there.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s look a little bit closer to home then because we’re here in Washington, D.C., steps away from the Supreme Court, and there’s been this opinion circulated in an unprecedented fashion, suggesting that Roe versus Wade is about to be struck down and there’s protests in front of some of the justices’ homes even. It appears that there just hasn’t been a lot of work done to protect them. That’s at least what it looks like to me. So, how does your thinking inform this situation and this kind of chaos?
Mr. Hazony: Well, I think that we’re seeing the decay of American democracy. 30 years ago, 40 years ago, it was legitimate. There was a legitimate debate between liberals and conservatives. People understood that when Reagan was in government, a key part of Reagan’s coalition was Christian conservatives, both Protestant and Catholics, and people like Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham were an integral part of the Reagan coalition at the political level. And thinkers like Irving Kristol, I’ve already mentioned this, saw religion as being at the heart of what conservatism was about.
In those days, there was nothing surprising at all about President Reagan proposing a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in the public schools in the United States. That was the side that Reagan was on, and people on the left disagreed with it, they disliked it, they called them names, but there was an assumption that it was legitimate, that in a democracy, it was legitimate that there could be conservatives who have conservative ideas and conservative platform and that they’re allowed to advance it.
What we’re seeing in the United States in the last five, six years is the end of this mutual legitimacy. One side has moved so far left that it now considers obvious examples of religious-based conservatism or tradition-based conservatism as simply beyond the pale. It’s not a matter of we’re being outvoted in a free election in a free vote. It’s a matter of, this is absolutely illegitimate. It’s not allowed to happen. It has to be stopped by any means. You can only maintain a democracy if each side grants the legitimacy of the other, and conservatives are at this point very far from being legitimate in the eyes of the progressives who’ve taken over much of the left and most of the formerly liberal institutions.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and so this is I think you’re speaking to perhaps why people are probably people wondering about this. Why is it that some of the pro-abortion protestors are not protesting necessarily just at pro-life establishments, for lack of a better term, or pro-life organizations, but specifically, but are actually going to churches and protesting in front of churches?
Mr. Hazony: Again, because the old liberal deal in which churches were going to stay… Churches were not going to be supported by the state, but they could be free to express their opinions, to have an intellectual influence, to have a spiritual influence. That was the old liberal order. We’re not there anymore. That has simply come to an end.
In the new order that’s emerging, many people see Christianity simply as something that shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, people will say, “In your heart, you’re allowed to be Christian,” but the moment that you start acting on Christian traditions, biblical values, to try to maintain them in any region or locality, you’ll immediately be met with people who simply see Christianity as darkness and barbarism as something that we’ve overcome it.
Thanks to the supreme court, Christian values, one by one by one, they’ve been knocked over and a condition in which Christianity raises its head and becomes a player again in the public life of the country and in the political arena as it was a few decades ago, that is impossible for many people to accept. It’s not legitimate. They will not allow it. They’ll use whatever tools they can to prevent conservative Christianity from gaining any kind of power over virtually anything.
Mr. Jekielek: And at the same time, I think the Supreme Court, and you can tell me if you agree with this, but it seems like it’s one of the few institutions, which was, I don’t know, held in respect by most people out there, and that perhaps now is even being threatened.
Mr. Hazony: I think that’s true. This is part and parcel of overthrowing all of the traditions, all of the guardrails. When I was a kid, there was an assumption that there was a basic respect to the supreme court, to the Congress, to the presidency. Kids said all sorts of nasty things about the president, but I think that the behavior of the vast majority of adults, and certainly those in public life, to the president of the United States and to the Congress and to the Supreme Court was one of giving honor, giving respect. It, of course, mattered if you disagreed, but it was a very basic part of citizenship that you would give honor to the president, regardless of which political party, and that was mostly the way people lived.
Unfortunately, that has ended, and now all of public life is kind of like this college dorm where everybody’s constantly throwing mud on every institution, regardless of how revered or important it is. If it doesn’t come up with the answers you believe in, it just should be dismantled. I mean, take a look at people keep bringing up eliminating the Electoral College which is to say repealing the regime that has elected the president of the United States for the last two centuries and more. What are they talking about? What they’re talking about is saying, “Tradition has no relevance to me. The only thing that has relevance to me is how I can make sure that this country is liberal and that conservatives are pushed out of public life. Whatever tools are necessary, that’s what we’re going to use.”
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting because as I was reading and as you’re talking now, I keep thinking about this, that it’s almost like this woke neo-Marxism, as you call it is a sort of harsh backlash to this kind of unbridled individualism of the last however many years post-World War II. Right? I don’t know if you would see it that way. That’s just a fascinating thought in a way.
Mr. Hazony: I think you’re absolutely right. I think that is exactly right. This is something that conservative thinkers were already emphasizing in the 1980s. Irving Kristol, who had a big role in giving me my start because he funded the “Princeton Tory” when we founded it, Irving Kristol wrote a book called “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” and his reason for not giving cheers admitted that capitalism is the system that leads to the economic growth the best and provides liberty for innovation and material progress.
He agreed with all of that, but the reason he would only give capitalism two cheers instead of three was because he said, “Look, capitalism is about empowering the private individual and giving him the maximum degree of choices as to what business he or she will go into, what products he or she makes, where you take employment, what the conditions of employment are.” Its openness and its freedom is an integral part of what makes capitalism work.
The problem is that as you continually hammer on this individual liberty that the market requires, as you keep reinforcing it and you keep emphasizing it. What Kristol said is that then what happens is that this excessive focus on the individual acts as a solvent to destroy all loyalty to groups, beginning with the family, the family is not primarily about personal choice. Children are not, do not choose to be born into the family they’re born into. They don’t choose their parents. In fact, when you’re a parent, you’ll eventually figure out that you don’t choose your children either. I mean, each one of them is different. They come into the world, you don’t get to decide who and what they are. The bonds of the family are based on a mutual loyalty, which is traditional, which is backed up by the Bible and by scriptural tradition, and by the way that we’ve lived in Christian countries for a couple thousand years.
And if you try to bring the liberalism of the market into the family, well, what do you get? So, Irving Kristol says, “Well, what you get is husbands and wives, they start treating each other like they’re commodities. I don’t choose to be in this marriage anymore. I chose to be in it before, but now I don’t choose anymore.” So, marriages start to fall apart because the principle of some kind of greater loyalty to your spouse, to the community, before God, that idea of greater loyalty is dissolved under the pressure of the market saying, “No, everything is free choices. You need maximum of choice.”
The same thing happens with the relationship between a people and a nation that if it becomes a matter of choice, so you can choose whether to serve in the military, and then serving in the military becomes an entirely voluntary thing. Do you feel like it? Do you not feel like it? The question of what do we owe to our country becomes an absurd thing because we don’t… What do you mean? I don’t owe anything. I just, I’m free to choose. I have the natural right to choose whatever I want.
So, even conservatives the great majority of conservatives understand the value of the market mechanism as a way of conducting an economy. But conservatives also see it as a solvent, as something that dissolves all the other bonds that hold society together, and take a look at the way that individualism has destroyed the possibility of a traditional family or a traditional nation, and that is, in fact, what conservatives have been warning about and need to fight against. That’s the problem.
Mr. Jekielek: So, this is very interesting because I’ve been thinking about how very often that the ideal situation is some kind of balance, right, between liberalism and conservatism, and for certain things, a more liberal approach is better, for certain things, a more conservative approach is better, but that’s actually kind of what you’re saying here inherently. Right?
Mr. Hazony: Yeah. Yes, yes. I argue in the book that the conservative tradition, whether you’re looking at the tradition of Selden and Burke and Disraeli in the UK, or you’re looking at the American conservative tradition which begins obviously in colonial times, but at the founding is represented by George Washington and the Federalist Party. Actually, the Nationalist Conservative Party in those days in America was called the Federalist Party, and Washington and his group on both sides of the Atlantic see the aims of government as requiring a balance among six or seven or eight different purposes of government.
And so, when you take the American constitution, which was not written by the liberals, it was written by the conservatives of those days, the preamble of the American constitution does talk obviously about the blessings of liberty, but in addition, beyond that, it talks about things like in order to form a more perfect union, forming unions and making them perfect is not something that the market can do. Individual liberties can’t do that. It comes from someplace else.
The preamble talks about establishing justice. It talks about the general welfare. The general welfare of the country is not something that the individual doing whatever is in his interests is thinking about, but government, and public figures more generally, not just government, the head of a high tech corporation, the guy runs Twitter, he or she also needs to be thinking about the general welfare, about what’s good for this nation. What do I owe this nation? What would be in its interest? And when everybody stops doing that, then you start getting people saying, “Oh, what would be in my interest, and I’m completely free to do it because I have a natural right to do whatever I want.”
People who think like that, they also say, “Well, pornography, people want to buy pornography. I want to sell it. It doesn’t matter if every kid has it pumped into his life on his smartphone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s addictive, whether it’s degrading. Nothing matters other than the fact that there are people who want to buy it and people want to sell it.”
I think conservatives have come to realize, are coming to realize that you need some kind of balance among principles. It can’t only be individual liberty on every issue all the time. There has to be a balance and conservatism is exactly about striking that balance among six or seven different principles, and if you do it right, the British and the Americans have been very good at it. Then you can reach, in real life, a durable defense not only of the nation but also of individual liberties.
Mr. Jekielek: I just want to mention you have this wonderful chapter, section of the book at the end, just about your own sort of formation of your own thinking. I thought that was very valuable because you can see how you’ve come to some of the ideas that you have. There’s this one moment in there where you’re talking about how you and your future wife are getting to know each other, and you realize that you have this, you realize or you decide, I’m not sure, that you have this bond, and the bond is that you’re just going to be committed no matter what. I relate to that. I had the same moment with my own wife.
The second piece is this, you talk about the inaugural issue of the Princeton Tory, this piece that you put in there, and I have to read from here because I think it’s somewhat prescient. You’re basically describing how “the rise of a churchless faith that claimed to place a reason at the center, but which was in reality no less bigoted and intolerant than the traditional religions it sought to displace,” that this was something that was… You’re forecasting that this is something that might happen, and a lot of people are arguing that this is what has happened now.
Mr. Hazony: Yes. Right. So, I was 19 years old when I wrote that article in the first issue of the “Princeton Tory” which was our conservative magazine on the Princeton campus, and I was siding with the Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell camp that saw Christianity as crucial to the public life of the country and regarded liberalism as kind of a substitute for religion. I think at the time it was very difficult for people to understand how liberalism could be a substitute for religion, but at this point, now that liberalism has collapsed into woke neo-Marxism, I think it’s really easy for people to see that it is an alternative religion.
Let me just say something about Julie and me adopting a conservative life, which at the time on the Princeton campus, there was a kind of a conservative revival going on which affected Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. There was just an awful lot of people coming back to their religion as part of the atmosphere of religious nationalism and let’s make our nation great again. I think that for us, we wanted to get married and start a family because for us in those days, that’s how you became an adult. You took on the responsibilities of adulthood by marrying, beginning a family, and committing to raising them, not until they’re 18, but committing for your entire life to be responsible for these children and to train them and to bring them into our faith tradition and our historical national tradition.
I see young people today, and I understand that even the ones that want to be loyal, they want to be loyalists, I can see this among my children. Some children, when they reach adolescence, they feel like they have to rebel, and some children, they feel like no, that their place is to help Mom and Dad to continue whatever it is that they’re doing.
There are different kinds of children, and there’s a lot to say about each of them, but if I were to generalize, I would say that my children and their friends, they’re scared, they hesitate. They’re scared to do things like getting married and having children and serving in the military, and almost anything that we a generation ago thought, “Wow, we really want to do this. Let’s get to it so that we can take on the responsibilities of adulthood and start contributing to the history that we’re a part of.” That’s not where they are.
Where they are is they feel uncertain about is this the right thing, should I get married, shouldn’t I get married, is this the right person, is it not the right person. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked by my kids and by others, how can you know? But you can’t know. Right? I mean, there is no way to know. I mean, the marriage bond is a leap of faith. You know a lot about the person you’re marrying as they are at a certain moment, maybe not everything, but you know a lot about them, but the problem is that you don’t know who they’re going to be 20 years from now.
You just don’t, and to hold the marriage together is not just a commitment to, yes, I consent to be with this person the way they are now. You’re agreeing or vowing to be faithful to someone who you haven’t met yet who is going to exist 20 years from now. And both sides have to understand, people, they grow, they change, they grow apart, and then they have to grow back together again which is possible. You can do it if both sides are committed. If they have the faith that this can happen—this can work.
So, if you’re growing up in a community where you’ve seen it, all around you, you see families that remain intact for 30, 40, 50 years, and if you look closely, you know that it’s not because they’re in love like in a Hollywood movie and their love has never been troubled. It’s nothing like that at all. The love between a man and a woman who are married 40 years, that love is expressed in the fact that their relationship has changed and the attractions of youth, they’ve weakened, and now there are other attractions. There are other issues. The thing has been worked on and rebuilt, and therefore it’s steady and stable and strong and it can be magnificent, but it’s based on a leap of faith. The whole thing is based on a leap of faith.
The same thing about your commitment to your nation, your commitment to your children, all sorts of commitments that we take on are not really about, they’re not really about choice because even if you make a choice initially, later, you’re not going to have a choice. You’re making a choice to not have a choice for your whole life and still that’s the right thing to do according to our traditions. If you are within our guardrails, that’s what you do, but that needs to be restored now.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and so this is the big question, isn’t it? Right now, there’s this ascendent and illiberal ideology that’s going to become the dominant culture, and now you have to be understanding of its precepts and organizing principles in moving forward. So, what is the way forward in a situation like this?
Mr. Hazony: Conservative thinkers talk a lot about restoration. The reason that this word is so important in the conservative tradition is because if you’re realistic about traditions, you see that they always run down. There’s no such thing as a tradition that is transmitted with a perfect clarity and completeness from one generation to the next. Things change. People change. Situations change.
So, a real tradition, a living tradition, is one that works really well during a certain time, and then it starts to run down. It starts to hit problems under pressure from events, circumstances, bad leadership, for any number of reasons, and then what conservatism is about in that next generation is looking for a way to bring about restoration. It’s not an attempt to make everything the way that it was in the 1940s or the 1950s. There’s no such thing. You can’t just make everything the way it was by clicking a button. But what you can do is when you see that things are running down, you can look back and look for precedents and models among your own ancestors and the tradition of your own people, look for precedents and models that worked.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I just wanted to jump in because there’s certain things that you would want, and then there’s other things like, for example, Jim Crow, which you decidedly wouldn’t want. Right? You’re picking the best and…
Mr. Hazony: All the conservative thinkers that I’m familiar with say that. In fact, every generation has a responsibility to repair the tradition. John Selden, who’s one of the great British figures who shaped the common law tradition, you can almost say that he’s the father of the American Bill of Rights because the idea of writing down these rights was something that he and his group came up with about 150 years before the Americans copied them and did it in the United States.
So, Selden is emphatic about this. He’s an arch traditionalist, but he says, “You can’t take every foolish thing that’s become attached to the tradition through accident or historical mistake and treat it as though it’s holy.” That’s impossible. I mean, our job of maintaining a tradition involves a selection of the parts that are healthy and strong and good, and an assumption, a presumption that we don’t understand everything so we don’t want to change everything, but when there’s something that is clearly destructive, clearly a mistake, it’s your job to repair it.
So, I write about the issue of Jim Crow in the book, and I fully identify, I completely identify with the generation that came back from the war, that defeated Nazism and came home and said, “Millions of people just died in this war fighting racism, and we can’t continue to have the same kind of racial persecution in our own country.” I’m a hundred percent in sympathy with that. I think there was a mistake. I think the mistake of 1960s enlightenment liberalism, the mistake was to say, “Oh, well, Blacks should be equal to rights. We need to make a major push by public and private institutions to end persecution of Blacks in this country.” Okay, that makes sense.
But then what they did was they said, “Okay, well, while we’re at it, let’s not just outlaw discrimination. Discrimination means making distinctions. So, we’ll outlaw making distinctions not only between Black and white,” which they should have done, “but also, we’re outlawing distinctions between Christians and Jews, distinction between men and women, distinctions on the basis of national origin.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 takes all of these huge categories and says, “Nowhere in society are you going to allow distinctions on the basis of any of these things,” right, and it was applied to immigration too. The Immigration Act in 1965 explicitly forbids making distinctions on the basis of national origin. You’re not allowed to say things like maybe it would be better to have immigrants from Christian countries at least in larger numbers than immigrants from other countries. That kind of thinking became illegitimate.
That’s why I say it was kind of like the establishment of a new constitution. It was a liberal constitution that was new, and there were good aspects to it, in the fight against Jim Crow, for sure, maybe in other things, but in general, the idea that you would take a tool, a legal anti-discrimination tool that was designed in order to bring relief to persecuted Black Americans, you take that tool and apply it at the same time, in the same wording to all these other groups who have completely different issues and completely different problems.
Just to give you an example. For Blacks, it was an objective major difficulty, a part of their being persecuted that Blacks had to go to separate schools, and they couldn’t attend the schools that the white kids went to. That was a fountain of injustice, a source of real injustice. But now, if you think about Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and other minorities, Hindu, Muslim, atheists, is it true that what they need is all to go to the same schools? I mean, that’s not immediately obvious. The fact that Blacks and whites should go to the same schools doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best thing for Christians and Jews and atheists to all go to the same schools. Maybe they’d like to have their own schools.
The enlightenment liberal mindset, it’s really blockheaded. It really makes no sense. Women have to be equal to men in every way because Blacks have to be equal to whites in every way. That doesn’t follow. It doesn’t make sense. There’s some ways in which men and women should be equal, and there are other ways in which it might not be appropriate for them to be equal. Maybe washroom facilities should not be unified, but that’s just the beginning of the discussion.
So, I think that enlightenment liberalism is characterized by this kind of blockheaded thinking that you found a problem, it’s a real injustice, it’s a real problem, you have a proposal for how to solve it, and then you expand that proposal to cover many, many other categories, and then you just keep expanding it. So, it’s expanded to add sexual orientation, and it’s expanded to add equality on the basis of whatever, disabilities, age.
You just keep going, and as you keep going, what you’re doing is you are removing from the political leadership and the public leadership the ability to make fine judgements and distinctions about what people really need, what different groups actually need, what they actually want. Not only that but what society’s actually capable of giving because every time that you give somebody a right, you take rights from someone else, and that is almost never discussed. Requiring private institutions to allow Blacks and whites both, requiring the private institutions to do that, that’s a violation of a certain right, the right to freely run your business the way you want to.
Now, I’m in favor of that violation of that right? I’m in favor of that trade off, but every time you grant somebody a right, you’re taking rights away from somebody else. As you can see, people want the right to be able to order a gay wedding cake in every cake shop in the country. So, that means you will take away the right to run a Christian business according to traditional Christian principles about what wedding cakes are supposed to look like.
We’ve stopped having the conservative, the traditionalist, realist, conservative discussion about how we balance among different rights. How do we balance among the needs of different groups? What are the real needs of the different groups? What’s most important to them, and how do we strike that balance? That’s something that has to be decided through prudence, through negotiation, through consultation, through conflict and resolution. You can’t decide it through some calculus of an abstract natural rights theory.
Mr. Jekielek: Not a one-size-fits-all solution, basically.
Mr. Hazony: Right, yes. And Edmund Burke, one of the greatest conservative thinkers, that’s basically what he says about universal rights theories. He doesn’t say, “There are no rights.” He just says that the theory that you can take rights like freedom and equality and fraternity and justice, take these vast abstract, vague terms and use them to directly decide what’s right for everybody in the country and everybody in the world. It’s absurd. It’s just not true. You can’t do it. It can’t be done.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, as we finish up, I do want to talk a little bit about your vision for conservative democracy because you spend some time looking at that. I specifically wanted to look at the question of public religion because I felt that might be one of the most contentious parts of the proposal. But just in general, why don’t you give me the quick overview.
Mr. Hazony: America and Britain and other countries that are influenced by American and British ideas need to revert to the conservative tradition which is easy to find if you’re looking for it. That means setting enlightenment liberalism aside, and trying to use the inherited religious constitutional national traditions as a framework for thinking about how do we go forward in our society.
So, you’re right that religion is at the heart of that because a conservative view says, “There’s no such thing as a society without some kind of overarching public religion or public philosophy,” if you want to call it. There are basic assumptions of every society, and we’ve seen examples of how Christian assumptions can be replaced in the United States by liberal assumptions after World War II. And now we’re seeing a similar attempt to replace liberal assumptions with these neo-Marxist assumptions.
I think that if people care for the future of America, of the UK, these wonderful nations, if you care about it, then I think that you need to be asking what was lost when Christianity, when biblical tradition ceased to be the guardrails, ceased to be the overarching public philosophy of the country. Obviously a country like the United States now has, it’s a very large country, and there are many places where Christian and biblical tradition is a non-starter, and there are many places where I think where there’s still majorities that would much prefer to have a public life that’s based on biblical tradition and on Christian ideas than what is clearly coming which I think it’s just taking this country over the abyss.
So, what does that mean in practice? In practice, it means that the line of supreme court decisions that began in 1947 with the declaration that separation of church and state had to take place at the state level, all states in the United States on all religious issues, I think that was a terrible mistake. I think what is going to happen, I don’t know if it’s going to succeed, but I’m pretty sure that what’s going to happen is that many Christians are going to look at the new woke public religion, and they’re going to say, “This is simply too far. We need to go back. We need to restore. We need to get to a restoration of aspects of what the country was like before the enlightenment liberal revolution after World War II.”
Mr. Jekielek: But you don’t think that enlightenment liberalism can really be reestablished? I mean, that’s what you’re arguing.
Mr. Hazony: Yes, that’s true. I think in the 1960s, the belief was, and I’m talking about a belief that was held both by large sections of the left and by large sections of the right, the belief was that liberalism is that the idea of all human beings being equal and all human beings being free, the idea that that was sufficient, that those principles and the principle of consent of choice, that those are sufficient in order to maintain a country over generations, I think that that idea has been proved false. The United States tried it. The UK tried it. The Europeans tried. It lasted for two generations. I mean, they thought that they had the final answer of what a just, fair, reasonable politics would be for all time, and it lasted two generations.
In my book, I go into the question of what it is about liberalism that self-destructs. To put it too simply, because liberalism doesn’t emphasize tradition, but rather reason. Everybody should just think for themselves and be free to choose. Everything will be okay. Because of that, what happens is that liberals teach their kids to think for themselves, which in itself is a good thing, but what they’re really saying is the traditions are irrelevant.
You don’t need to inherit the ideas of the past. You don’t need to work to receive and then transmit ideas to future generations because you’re smart enough. You’ll just figure it out yourself. And when you say that, and the kids are thinking for themselves and they come home and they say, “You know what? I think Marxism is better than liberalism or I think white identitarian neo-Darwinian quasi-fascism is better than liberalism. I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve exercised my reason. My views are reasonable. Here.” Those kids, they can just talk for hours explaining to you how reasonable what they think is.
And so, the issue is, is it important to maintain anything from the past, or you’re just perfectly happy to have no inheritance, and every generation will just make it up as they go along, and they’ll just become crazier and crazier until this country disappears, until it just collapses, and it falls into pieces, and gets invaded, and becomes something completely different. Is that what you want?
If that’s what you want, then just keep telling your kids there’s no need for tradition. There is no inheritance. Figure it out yourself. You tell them that, you’ll get what we plainly see coming. So, yes, I think that the idea of pure enlightenment liberalism, liberalism is all you need freedom, freedom, freedom, all the time, all issues, we did that. It doesn’t work.
Mr. Jekielek: And so, I guess as a kind of final thought here, this idea of transmission, that word kept coming up, and just having very effective ways of transmitting historical lessons and culture and so forth is critical to the vision, and it made me think this is very much something that’s very strong in the Jewish tradition actually. Right?
Mr. Hazony: You’re right. One of the big differences between ancient Jewish political thought as you find it in the Bible and then in the rabbinic literature, differences between Judaism and Greek philosophy, one of the major differences is that Judaism focuses on family and nation. Obviously, there’s a great focus on God and scripture, but socially, anthropologically, because the Bible thinks in terms of families, clans, tribes, and nations. It is constantly concerned, the prophets, the biblical authors are constantly concerned with this question of teach this to your children. Teach this to your children.
In the Old Testament, justice itself, the way the world works is that sins propagate. When you do something wrong, it propagates to the third and fourth generation. I mean, the idea in the Bible, the political idea is you do something, and there’s no way to avoid… If you’re an alcoholic, there is no way to avoid your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffering, bearing the weight of what it is that you did. If parents get divorced, the impact of that is to the third and fourth generation, and you can continue saying that about anything.
So, the idea of intergenerational transmission, both of righteousness and wisdom and prudence and a God-fearing worldview, and also the reverse, the way that evil-doing and foolishness transmit themselves from generation to the next, that’s at the heart of the way that the Bible thinks about politics. My academic field is political theory. That’s where I got my official academic training.
It’s the strangest thing that a society like America or Britain that were built on extremely widespread reading of the Old Testament and taking the Bible to heart at all levels of society, today, you can’t find that. Kids go to school, it’s not in school. They go to universities, you can’t find any discussion of this stuff in almost any academic setting in undergraduate or graduate school. It’s just not there. So, everybody’s thinking in terms of enlightenment liberal ideas. There’s some interest in classical Greek and Roman sources, but none of those sources address these issues, and the only way that we can actually restore an understanding about the way the world actually works is by returning to studying the Bible, and I hope that’s still possible.
Mr. Jekielek: And one final thought, and I just realized you did touch on this a little bit when you were talking about basically how to, I suppose, leave the thinking about how to incorporate religion into the life of the political unit, so to speak. I got the sense that you’re suggesting that you bring it to the state level or perhaps even a more granular level. Did I understand that correctly?
Mr. Hazony: I think simply as a practical matter, there’s a small number of people on the right who say, “Oh, the supreme court, the administrative state, that’s where decision-making is made. So, let’s just impose on the country our ideas instead of their ideas.” So, I understand that, but I don’t think it’s practical. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the only way that there’s going to be a reasonable move to experimenting with different kinds of conservative democracy is if states where there’s a majority that wants conservatism, a conservative democracy, Christian democracy, states that want that should be allowed to experiment with it. I mean, that’s the only way that we’re going to find out whether it’s the most horrible thing in the world like many liberals think, or whether, actually, maybe today Christian democracy could be a better system for lots of people. Maybe it will catch on. Maybe people will like it. The only way that we’re going to find out is if people are allowed to experiment in this way.
I just, I think that the idea of let’s dictatorially impose from Washington a Christian answer for the entire country, that’s not going to happen. At least, it’s not going to happen unless the United States goes through a much, much more radical convulsion than even what we’re seeing now, and that’s possible, but I think that decent people should be praying that doesn’t happen. We, as conservatives, we should do whatever we can to restore the best of the Anglo-American tradition, rather than just participating in the fantasies about what kind of dictatorship would work best here.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Yoram Hazony, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show again.
Mr. Hazony: Thank you. Thank you for giving me so much time, and it’s really great to see you.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Yoram Hazony and me for this episode of American Thought Leaders. His book again is Conservatism: A Rediscovery. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek. Try a 14 day free trial of Epoch TV at ept.ms/free trialjan. That’s ept.ms/free trial J-A-N.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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