Conservative Renewal Now | Opinion
For three generations, Western nations have lived in the shadow of world wars. The depths of trauma have never been fully examined, nor its consequences fully mapped. But we know that a few years after the end of the Second World War, the political life of these countries underwent an unprecedented revision. By the 1960s, the old Protestant nationalism that had animated the generation of Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower had been cast aside, and Enlightenment liberalism became the new framework in which American political life was conducted. America received what was, in effect, a new liberal constitution that guaranteed civil liberties for blacks and other minorities, but also banned prayer and Bible reading in schools and lifted previous legal restrictions on the divorce, pornography, immigration and abortion. Academics and intellectuals even gave the regime a new name, which they now called “liberal democracy”.
In the decades that followed, many Americans and Europeans came to believe that they had discovered in liberalism the ultimate political theory: a regime so obviously desirable that competition between political ideologies had in fact ended. Soon liberalism would be embraced by all nations. The reign of liberal ideas will last forever.
No one believes it anymore.
Five years of political upheaval – from 2016 to 2020 – were enough to break the hegemony of Enlightenment liberalism. Suddenly, the conflict between competing political visions is fiercely alive again:
On the one hand, the lure of a revived nationalist conservatism materialized in the 2016 election of Donald Trump’s “America First” administration in the United States, Britain’s departure from the European Union and by the rise of conservative nationalist governments in Eastern Europe. Europe, Italy, India, Brazil and more.
At the same time, an updated Marxism (“anti-racism” or “revivalism”) launched a surprisingly successful attempt to take control of the institutions that had been responsible for the development of liberal ideas in America, Britain and elsewhere. of the. By the summer of 2020, the most important news media, universities and schools, large technological and other companies, and even the government bureaucracy and the military, had adopted a policy of adapting to the new Marxism and promote their program.
Meanwhile, in 2018, a rising China anointed Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping ruler for life. Persecution of religious and political dissidents followed, culminating in the effective annexation of Hong Kong, until recently the epitome of Enlightenment liberalism in Asia, in 2020. Americans were suddenly faced with the grim reality of an imperialist China pursuing an increasingly credible campaign. overthrow Western nations as the dominant power in world affairs.
The hegemony of liberal ideas, supposed to last forever, ended after only 60 years.
What will happen next?
Many commentators have compared the collapse of the liberal order in America to Weimar Germany. And indeed, on the far right, we now find an assortment of personalities singing the praises of dictatorship and “white identity”.
Yet, despite the dark historical parallels, America may have the resources to overcome these challenges. Many Americans still possess a strong intuitive attachment to the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. This includes the vast majority of nationalist conservatives who supported the Trump presidency. To be sure, they oppose many aspects of the liberal consensus of the past decades, including large-scale immigration; the relocation of US manufacturing capacity to China in the name of free trade; the empowerment of international bodies, such as the UN, EU and WTO, to the detriment of independent national states; and wars aimed at bringing liberalism to other parts of the world. They propose government action against the progressive cartels that dominate big business, the media, universities and schools; and seek policies that can help reverse the breakdown of family and religious tradition. But nationalist conservatives support democratic rule and peaceful transitions of power, as well as customary protections of property rights, free speech and religious freedom.
With the collapse of liberal hegemony in America, this nationalist conservatism offers the best hope for restoring political stability and health.
But there are considerable difficulties in the way of any sort of revived political conservatism in the English-speaking world. Two in particular stand out:
First, many of today’s “conservatives” know very little about what it would take to conserve anything across generations. It is true that Cold War conservatives led the successful effort to defeat Soviet communism abroad and socialism at home, a struggle that reached its successful conclusion during the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980s.
Yet during those same years, the political and religious traditions that had provided stability and continuity to America and Britain for centuries were badly damaged and even overthrown. This shocking destruction of Anglo-American cultural heritage involved the suppression or stigmatization of crucial ideas and institutions such as God and Writing, nation and congregation, marriage and family, male and women, honor and loyaltythe Sabbath and the sacred. This is not just due to excessive political pragmatism or weak character among conservatives. There is also, at this stage, an astonishing degree of ignorance. A lot of curators don’t really know why you would need to preserve these things anymore.
Which brings us to the second remarkable fact about contemporary conservatism: the extraordinary confusion about what distinguishes Anglo-American conservatism from Enlightenment liberalism (or “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism”, or for that matter, from the philosophy of ‘Ayn Rand). For decades, many “conservatives” have shown little interest in political ideas other than those that can be used to justify ever greater doses of personal freedom. And if anyone tried to point out that this exclusive focus on individual freedom is liberalismand that he does not have the power to keep whatever it was, he received the flippant retort which, after all, What we conservatives keep is liberalism.
This confusion over the content and purposes of political conservatism has crippled conservative momentum in the English-speaking world. For the truth is that Enlightenment liberalism, per se, lacks any interest in conserving anything. It is all about freedom – and in particular the release of the past. In other words, liberalism promises to free us from conservatives! In other words, it seeks to free us from the kind of public and private life in which men and women know what it takes to propagate beneficial ideas, behaviors and institutions through generations.
Anglo-American conservatism having become confused with liberalism, it is precisely for this reason that it has become incapable of conserving anything. Conservatives have become onlookers, gaping in amazement as the consuming fire of the Cultural Revolution destroys everything in its path.
If we are to make anything stable and permanent under these conditions of permanent revolution and cultural devastation, we must have other tools at our disposal besides the lists of individual liberties and outlawed forms of discrimination that liberals have been compiling and promoting ever since. the 1940s. These will have to be conservative, not liberal tools.
However, to have such tools, democratic nations will have to abandon their post-war obsession with liberalism. They will have to rediscover the history and philosophy of authentic Anglo-American conservatism, which does not focus on freedom but on how things spread over time, and on what must be done so that conservation and the transmission really takes place through the generations.
And they will have to rediscover practice of conservatism— which is not only the practice of conservative governmentbut also and above all the practice of being a conservative person and leading a conservative life.
Is it possible for individuals who grew up in a liberal society, obsessed with individual liberties, to become strong conservative men and women and do what a conservative calling demands of them?
I believe it’s possible because I’ve seen it happen countless times. I have seen individuals and entire families discover that they have taken a wrong turn, repent, and set about restoring the tradition with their own hands and in their own lives. And if it can happen, then it is also possible on a larger scale, at the level of congregations, cultural movements and nations.
Why hasn’t this happened until now? Maybe because the times weren’t disturbed enough yet. Perhaps we had to see, with our own eyes, how every aspect of our great cultural heritage is being attacked and undermined. Perhaps we have had to see for ourselves that America is really about to throw itself into the abyss, taking all democratic nations with it.
If so, then the rise of the New Marxists presents an opportunity for a conservative revival unlike any we have seen in our lifetime. Certainly, the potential for tragedy is very great. But the extreme of this catastrophe can also allow a questioning and a restoration hitherto impossible. Many will now find they are ready for the rediscovery I have described: The rediscovery of conservative living.
Yoram Hazony is the president of the Edmund Burke Foundation. This essay is adapted from his new book, Conservatism: a rediscovery (Regnery, 2022).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.