The lines of division on the American right have grown sharp. Certain factions have adopted fundamentally different approaches to the relative values of purity and persuasion in seeking political power. And some of what’s now being offered up as conservatism seems not to correspond with a historical understanding of the American conservative tradition.
A prominent example of this tendency is Yoram Hazony, whose new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, propounds what recently has come to be called “common-good conservatism.” For Hazony, president of the Herzl Institute, a research center in Jerusalem, the theory and practice of American conservativism has decayed and must be reconstructed to empower government to close the gap between the City of Man—the realm of “earthly possession”—and the City of God moored in “heavenly hopes.”
In Conservatism, Hazony proposes refashioning the United States on the basis of political theology, putting Christianity at the center of the nation’s public life. Conservatism, Hazony says, “refers to a political standpoint that regards the recovery, restoration, elaboration, and repair of national and religious traditions as the key to maintaining a nation and strengthening it through time.” He considers this neglected tradition “conservative democracy,” the true faith, in contradistinction to the “liberal democracy” that has long held the American right in its thrall. Explaining and extolling this political tradition, Hazony draws heavily upon “the resources of Anglo-American conservatism based on the Bible and the common law.” This ideology rests on two pillars long identified as primary supports of conservatism: nationalism and religion.
From the outset, Hazony grants that the popular label “nationalist conservatism” is redundant, since Anglo-American conservatism has long placed the idea of the nation at the heart of political life. But he chooses to emphasize it all the same since the integrity of the nation has fallen out of favor in many elite quarters—and not exclusively on the political left. Hazony has been led to despair of the American experiment on account of what he sees as the unfettered internationalism and freewheeling individualism that have characterized its public life since the end of the Cold War, if not earlier. In response to this ostensible disavowal of the nation, Hazony (along with other post-liberal conservatives) seeks to return “the national interest, or the common good of the nation” to center stage in American politics.
In theory, this sounds like a brief for one-nation conservatism with a broad conception of the purposes of government in fostering a more vigorous and coherent society. Such a bold program of conservative reform is overdue. But Hazony’s Conservatism is not the long-awaited correction that we need. It is, rather, a doctrine inimical to the principles that have been central to the American right and its erstwhile mission of training citizens in the obligations as well as the blessings of their freedoms.
A chief reason for this is that its author doesn’t account for the exceptionalism of American conservatism and its yawning differences with older Continental European and British varieties. Without a feudal past to speak of, and hence unburdened by an established church and an entrenched aristocracy, American conservatism has always borne the imprint of Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln, whose mutual purpose was to conserve or establish institutions and practices conducive to economic dynamism and social mobility.
Hazony’s nationalist conservatism has a distinctly foreign ring. When he impugns internationalism, he means American global hegemony. But rather than being antithetical to the conservative creed, the doctrine of American internationalism as we have known it since World War II has been an unprecedented boon for the advance of American interests and the support of its ideals.
Against this global engagement Hazony asserts the primacy of family, clan, and nation. But it’s worth asking what value the tribe will have if the world order is no longer anchored by a liberal hegemon or collapses outright. Without such an arrangement, a great many tribes—including the Jews in Israel, to which Hazony belongs—might face a plight too terrible to contemplate.
The copious benefits conferred by America’s unique international role escapes those who yearn for the United States to be a “normal country.” The wisdom of America’s expansive conception of its national interests also escaped the political thinker Hans Morgenthau, who impugned its “nationalistic universalism” after World War II. But Morgenthau scarcely knew how vital American power would prove to the spread of democracy and free trade and to the maintenance of peace among leading powers. So on what basis does Hazony besmirch an American hegemony that has kept the peace for so long?
Hazony claimed in a previous book, The Virtue of Nationalism, that American conservatism harbors a thorough commitment to natural rights that has spawned an imperial ambition to bring “mankind under a single political regime.” In this view, a conservatism tethered to liberalism is inherently aggressive, opposed in principle to the existence of diverse national states. For Hazony, who stresses the mutual bonds of national or tribal loyalty to the exclusion of other affections and obligations, this belief in the singular legitimacy of the liberal regime—and the global exertions it entails—is incompatible with the kind of group solidarity that sustains real nationhood.
In his new work, Hazony continues to promote national particularism while bristling at the notion that America is in some sense a “creedal nation.” He fails to comprehend that Americans can form “a single, highly distinctive nation and also be citizens of a republic with transcendent ideals. Historically, American conservatives have had little trouble reconciling these twin identities, embracing principles at once reflexively nationalistic and fiercely internationalist. This accords with a Burkean conception of concentric rings of inherited obligations, which swell outward from the private realm to encompass the nation but don’t end with it. What Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of civilization—the communities and private associations that shape individuals and citizens—were merely “the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind.”
But to those wanting to see “the Enlightenment driven away” (to annex a line of W.H. Auden’s), the rot set in with the postwar compromise between classical liberals and conservatives. What Hazony dubs “Cold War conservatism apparently went astray when this “fusionism” bound traditionalists with liberals in a coalition against Communism. The price of this alliance, on Hazony’s telling, was nothing less than the suppression of conservatism in a new order that “systematically stripp[ed] religious and national tradition from public life.”
By placing individual freedom at the center of its account of political order, says Hazony, the American right became a custodian of this liberal paradigm. Ever since, it has offered only a right-wing version of liberalism. What this omits is that American conservatism is—has always been—a species of liberalism, forged to conserve a liberal revolution. Contra Hazony, the place of prominence accorded to certain Enlightenment “propositions” in American conservative thought has not amounted to a “replacement” of America’s political order but a profound expression of it.
Hazony is on stronger ground with his critique of the individualist ethic that dominated the conservative consensus before the ascent of Donald Trump. He refers to the “extraordinary confusion” that has allowed contemporary conservatism to substitute laissez-faire economics “for a political theory that could actually conserve something.” Hazony argues for a more expansive notion of government’s reach and responsibilities than has prevailed on the right in recent decades.
Conservatism posits, not without justification, that the contemporary right hasn’t provided a suitable corrective to the overbearing progressivism of our times. It should not be doubted that modern conservatism was, and still is, trapped by a stunted vision of political life, replete with misleading rhetoric about small government supposedly informing a stale policy agenda that holds little appeal for the electorate and undermines the nation’s well-being.
But Hazony seeks to supplant this libertarian-lite ideology with an impractical “God-fearing democracy.” This theologically tinged conservatism is no more relevant to the challenges facing the United States than anything proffered by the conservatives Hazony has come to reject. The author doesn’t refrain from advocating the use of the federal government to enforce the place of religion in the public square. “Conservative democracy regards biblical religion as the only firm foundation for national independence, justice, and public morals in Western nations,” Hazony writes.
It isn’t readily apparent how imposing religion on public schools and the marketplace is the solution to the nation’s most intractable problems, from stalled mobility to social breakdown among the non–college educated. These ills aren’t the exclusive provenance of secular America, and not all churches contribute to a better balance between freedom and virtue in American civic and cultural life. Since the eclipse of Mainline Protestantism, what the Catholic conservative columnist Ross Douthat calls “bad religion” has run rampant, with charismatic pastors preaching the prosperity gospel. Such dogmas would stand to gain as much from Hazony’s faith-based scheme as any conservative or reactionary alternative would. What’s more, the danger of majority tyranny would be markedly aggravated for religious minorities. The author’s solution: a “negotiated settlement of the boundaries between the Christian public sphere and the sphere of minority autonomy.” In practice, this would mean local religious minorities extracting what they could from the Christian majority—and suffering what they had to.
This was certainly not the view of George Washington. In his letter to the Touro Synagogue of Rhode Island in 1790, he declared, “The Citizens of the United States of America … possess alike liberty of conscience.… It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States … requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”
The freedom of conscience is essential to a country dedicated to the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. To overcome this insuperable problem—isn’t conservatism supposed to be about conserving the political inheritance of a particular nation?—Hazony offers a counter-history of American political theory in which the Founders were divided between Enlightenment radicals (e.g., Thomas Jefferson) and British-style conservatives (e.g., George Washington and Alexander Hamilton). The Constitution, he insists, was inspired by the latter and has little to do with the Declaration’s “abstract formula” of rights. (One notes here that Hazony stakes his claim against the secular order on the “godless” Constitution that omits all reference to the Almighty.)
Among other things, this juxtaposition of the “Spirit of ’87” with the “Spirit of ’76” would have baffled and horrified the greatest conservative of all, who maintained that the Declaration of Independence was the “apple of gold” for which the Constitution provided the “setting of silver.” As president-elect, Abraham Lincoln gave impromptu remarks at Independence Hall to the effect that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
Conservatism in the United States believes in universal moral truths even as it understands the sobering limitations of politics in a flawed and fallen world. At its core, conservatism seeks to conserve the conditions under which liberty is permitted and equipped to flourish. It expresses itself in the language of public interest but is elevated by personal virtue. It is founded on the consent of the governed but aims at securing rights not subject to majority whim or will. It recognizes that a great nation’s chief duty is within its borders, but that it is not thereby absolved from renovating the condition of mankind.
To say the least, this sketch does not describe the current state of American conservatism, which has mostly come to be characterized by either an unresponsive libertarianism or a populism with little sympathy for the deepest wellsprings of the American character. For the maladies of the United States, a genuine one-nation conservatism, not Hazony’s utterly foreign notion of theological nationalism, remains the soundest remedy.
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