by yoram hazony
regnery, 256 pages, $29.99
The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism
by matthew continetti
basic books, 496 pages, $18.99
American conservatism has been a remarkably unstable thing since the end of the Cold War. Twenty years ago, the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush and the hawkish foreign-policy views of the neoconservatives were ascendant. A little less than ten years ago, the right was supposedly in the midst of a “libertarian moment,” and the Tea Party’s only rival appeared to be a high-minded and technocratic “reform conservatism.”
Then came Donald Trump. He campaigned in 2016 as a right-wing populist, neither libertarian nor technocratic and certainly not what Bush Republicans would consider “compassionate.” Unlike Bush and the neoconservatives, who went to great lengths to brand themselves as faithful successors to Ronald Reagan, Trump cared little for the appearance of continuity. Conservative intellectual orthodoxy no longer mattered, so a number of politically unorthodox thinkers began to make arguments for a new right.
Yoram Hazony was one of them. His 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, and a series of conferences he organized in the U.S. and Europe launched what he called “national conservatism.” Hazony championed the nation-state and generally took a nationalist line on trade, immigration, and foreign policy—which is to say, he has been skeptical of free trade, opposed to open borders, and critical of international institutions and idealistic military ventures overseas. Hazony’s new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, presents a complete case for what he understands Anglo-American conservatism to be: He offers an interpretation of history, a philosophical foundation, a discussion of policy, and—perhaps most important—an account of what this conservatism means at the personal level, in his own experience and for others.
A very different way of describing conservatism is found in Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. Instead of directly advancing an argument for his preferred variety of conservatism, Continetti tells the story of right-wing politics and intellectual development over the course of a full century, from the time of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge to the end of Trump’s presidency. The book tries to do too much, yet does it surprisingly well. Continetti has captured at least the overall outline of the right’s contours since the 1920s. Readers who have wondered what “fusionism” is or where “neoconservatives” come from or how the Religious Right relates to the Jimmy Carter era will find answers here. The book’s fatal flaw is that those answers are typically presented in the context of conventional liberal assumptions about the perils of conservatism and the wickedness of right-wing populism.
These books illustrate opposing tendencies on the right today. One side, represented by Continetti, believes that American conservatism is a variety of liberalism and that right-wing populism is at best a necessary evil, at worst altogether foolish or evil. The other side believes that American conservatism has been crippled by its deference to liberal dogmas. Hazony’s book is intended to free conservatives from thinking of themselves as liberals. Although neither of these volumes is primarily concerned with policy or electoral politics, obvious practical implications ensue for the right, depending on which self-understanding prevails. Voters and politicians may pay scant attention to such books, but works like these define the horizons within which political action and policymaking take place.
Continetti and Hazony are both in some sense heirs to Irving Kristol, the self-described “godfather” of neoconservatism. Continetti started his career at The Weekly Standard, a magazine founded by Irving’s son, William Kristol, and he later married into the Kristol family himself. As a student at Princeton in the 1980s, Hazony was inspired by reading Irving Kristol and received support from a nonprofit that Kristol ran for a campus magazine he started. But Hazony and Continetti have channeled the Kristol inheritance in different directions. Hazony emphasizes, among other things, Kristol’s critique of the American Founders: By failing to create a formal role for religion in the Constitution, they left the newborn republic to grow up into the troubled America that exists today. Conservatism, Hazony writes, needs men and women who lead “a conservative life,” including a life of religious practice. Yet Hazony notes regretfully that even Kristol, though he described himself as “a neo-orthodox Jew,” was “non-practicing.”
Continetti converted to Judaism when he married into the Kristol family. Religion is hardly absent from the pages of The Right, and its author is concerned about America’s deepening secularism. But Continetti is a champion of the affirmative side of the Kristol legacy, a view of America’s original liberalism as, on the whole, successful and worth defending. If Continetti and Hazony recognize some of the same challenges facing the right, they approach them from different premises. The “rediscovery” in Hazony’s title is of a conservatism that is not predicated on liberalism, “classical” or otherwise. Continetti, by contrast, concludes The Right with quotations from George Will and Harvey Mansfield pointing to the liberal foundations of American conservatism.
In Continetti’s account, the history of the right over the last century has been a story of populism and elitism in dynamic tension. After a hundred years, Continetti argues, the right has come almost full circle. No one would mistake Donald Trump for Calvin Coolidge, but the Republican Party of our time is again, as in Coolidge’s day, in favor of immigration restriction, tariffs, and what Continetti calls a “disengaged nationalism” in foreign affairs.
Continetti’s narrative depicts the conservative movement that grew and flourished from the end of World War II to the George W. Bush administration as an overall failure, in that it did not redeem the right from its populist errors. Continetti credits the movement with success in the Cold War, to be sure. But the decades-long attempt to make the right more intellectually mainstream at home and more “engaged” with the world beyond our borders only wound up leading back to the ethos of Coolidge and Harding in the exaggerated form of Donald Trump.
Continetti wants a liberal conservatism that can command respect among America’s elite, and in his last pages he considers whether such a thing, “a new neoconservatism,” might not have better prospects in the Democratic Party than in Trump’s GOP. “The rise of liberal critics of ‘woke’ racial-equity politics may portend a new center,” he writes, “based in the classical liberal principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, equal opportunity, merit-based achievement, and color blindness.”
What Continetti found in writing The Right, however, was that even the old neoconservatism represented a significant departure from earlier traditions of American conservatism, which in Continetti’s telling were hopelessly impractical and prone to ideological extremism. He has as little sympathy as any liberal for the pre–World War II “America First” right, for the red-hunting supporters of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, or for the literary-philosophical tradition of Southern agrarianism, which he seems to conflate with any traditionalist critique of Wall Street.
Continetti depicts the postwar right as out of touch with the public and—even when conservatives were correct about certain issues, as they were about communist subversion—as overreacting in ways that discredited conservatism. The senators who were the standard-bearers for the political right in the first two decades after World War II, Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater, are treated here as losers whose political failures were indicative of their philosophical deficiencies.
The intellectual right of the early postwar era fares no better than the politicians in Continetti’s account. William F. Buckley Jr. and the brilliant writers he assembled in National Review were also susceptible to bad judgment and ideological exaggerations, and they initially found little purchase with the public. Continetti has elsewhere written sensitively about the work of such figures as Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, and Russell Kirk. But in The Right he has little space to unfold the nuances of their thought. Readers instead get capsule summaries along with the verdict that most of their ideas had no consequences.
The best chapters are those on the neoconservatives, the figures with whom Continetti most sympathizes. He explains their migration from left to right very well. They started out in some cases as social democrats or anti-Stalinist Marxists—in the ideological line of succession from Leon Trotsky—and in other cases as Cold War liberals and Democrats. What reoriented them was the radicalism of the New Left that arose in the 1960s and ’70s. As the left became violent, anti-American, and culturally revolutionary, these journalists, scholars, and policymakers moved right, or at least into the pages of right-leaning magazines.
The neoconservatives exemplified a liberal conservatism that was not libertarian conservatism. They gave only “two cheers for capitalism,” but not because they believed in some other historical or philosophical economic ideal. They accepted the New Deal welfare state and subscribed to the foreign policy of anti-communist liberals like Harry Truman. At their best, as in some of the essays of Irving Kristol, they displayed a Tocquevillian sensibility and a keen awareness of the discontents of modern life. The neoconservatives also contributed a new emphasis on social science, as exemplified in the pages of The Public Interest, a journal Kristol created.
Continetti covers well-known neoconservatives like the Cold War hawks Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democratic senator, and the political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick. His book is particularly helpful, however, in noting the contributions of some lesser-known neoconservatives, such as Erwin Glikes, the Basic Books editor who shepherded to press Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.
The same era that gave rise to the neoconservatives also saw the emergence of a populist “New Right,” as it was known at the time. Christian conservatives troubled by the New Left’s hostility to the family and religious institutions became more active in politics. The organizational mastermind Paul Weyrich, who also helped to establish the Heritage Foundation, urged Jerry Falwell to launch the Moral Majority (whose name Weyrich supplied). Also connected to the New Right, and in direct opposition to the neoconservatives, were a set of right-wing intellectuals who adopted the label “paleoconservatives” in the 1980s.
Continetti does not look very closely into the New Right, Christian conservatism, and paleoconservatism, however. He says nothing about how a cantankerous populist braintrust formed around Chronicles magazine beginning in the mid-1980s. Richard John Neuhaus features in Continetti’s narrative, but the story of how First Things was born from an acrimonious split between Neuhaus and the Rockford Institute (the publisher of Chronicles) does not make the cut. And Continetti pays little attention to debates among Christian conservatives in the years after the Reagan administration: There is no mention here of the “End of Democracy?” controversy in the pages of this journal during the Bill Clinton era, and the cultural impact of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” likewise escapes his notice.
But then, the latter part of Continetti’s book is much less focused on ideas and intellectuals than earlier chapters had been. After The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, few books offering a big-picture social analysis or serious political theory appear in The Right’s narrative. This is not a result of authorial bias. Something that Continetti shows well is how the right after Reagan turned into a movement of media figures and policy wonks. The great thinkers of earlier decades were superfluous to the reconstituted movement’s political and polemical needs.
For Continetti, neither the theorists of the early post–World War II right nor the conservative pundits of the post–Cold War era struck the right balance. Though he acknowledges the policy success and popular influence of libertarian economists such as Milton Friedman, Continetti’s principal models for a conservatism that is neither too theoretical and removed from the public, as was the case with the early thinkers, nor too populist and inclined to pander, as are the right’s latter-day publicists, are the 1970s neoconservatives.
As a guide to the “who” and “what” of the American right over the past century, this book is very useful. But The Right is ultimately a liberal history of American conservatism and provides little insight into the “why” questions: why conservative thinkers invested their efforts in ideas that were unpopular and appeared extreme to outsiders; why conservative voters are so defiantly populist; and why the right coheres as well as it does, despite the seemingly profound division between its elite theorists and its grassroots base.
The answers to these questions lie deep in the religious and localist commitments of the right’s thinkers and voters.The religious conservative accepts liberalism only to the extent that it conforms to God’s law, and the conservative particularist patriot believes that the idea of America must be in the service of actual Americans. Liberals, by contrast—even liberal conservatives—either fail to see the tension between liberalism and these deeper commitments, or resolve the tension in favor of liberalism. Either way, liberals struggle to see the nonliberal right as anything other than misguided and futile, if not perverse, bizarre, and dangerous. Yet, as Continetti’s book—perhaps unintentionally—shows, it is hard-right thinkers and populists, not liberal conservatives, who have done the most to shape American conservatism.
Yoram Hazony works to vindicate the nonliberal right. Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a passionate, forcefully argued refutation of the claim that liberalism is America’s only tradition. On the contrary, the rationalism that is characteristic of what Hazony terms “Enlightenment liberalism” is corrosive of the traditions of politics, faith, and life on which the nation has always depended. Unchecked liberalism leads to the moral and institutional decay we see around us in the twenty-first century.
Yet many conservatives have accepted a liberal account of America’s origins. As a result, they either defend liberalism, without realizing how the very creed they defend is destroying the country they love, or they reject America along with liberalism in the belief that the country was founded on a false philosophy. Hazony dismisses the premise that lies behind both of those responses. He attempts to show that America was founded on a pre-liberal English tradition with a biblical concept of the nation. The Federalists among our republic’s Founding Fathers were also, according to Hazony, opponents of Enlightenment rationalism. They were conservatives, not liberals.
The sixty chapters of Hazony’s book are divided into four sections, the first of which covers the history of conservative thought in England and America. The second presents a general conservative philosophy, whose prime attributes are a rejection of wide-ranging applications of reason in favor of empiricism, and a certain understanding of the importance of honor in human society. The third part of the book considers a variety of recent conservative thinkers—many of the same writers touched upon in Continetti’s book. A final section grounds conservatism in the conduct of personal life, with illustrations drawn from the author’s life and the lives of men and women he has encountered.
There is a good deal of truth in every part of the book, and even where Conservatism: A Rediscovery goes amiss, it does so in ways that are healthily provocative. Seen as the beginning of a conversation, this is a very valuable work. But it suffers from an appearance of having been written in haste, with each section susceptible to serious objections.
For instance, Hazony’s argument for a continuous Anglo-American political tradition depends on telling only half of the story. Though there certainly are continuities among medieval English constitutionalism, early modern English constitutionalism, and American constitutionalism, there are enormous changes and differences among the periods (and the ideas of individual thinkers across the ages) as well. What Hazony has in fact done in the name of de-emphasizing Lockean liberalism as the root of the American order is to recapitulate the mythology of Whig history: the belief, skillfully criticized by historians from David Hume onward, in an ancient constitution whose original principles and outlines have remained the principles and outlines of British (or, for Hazony, “Anglo-American”) government into modern times. Hazony winds up adopting one kind of liberalism (Whig history) in an effort to displace another (Lockean theory). This would be fair enough if not for the almost Manichean intensity with which Hazony insists that liberalism and conservatism are always distinct and opposed.
Notably, some of Hazony’s own sources disagree with him. Hazony includes in his honor roll of Anglo-American conservative thinkers Josiah Tucker, an eighteenth-century Englishman who argued at length and with great force that the American colonies were thoroughly Lockean—and for that reason he was glad to see them leave the British Empire.
Elsewhere Hazony cites Edmund Burke’s description of the colonists as “American English” as a point in favor of his argument for a single Anglo-American tradition. But the phrase appears only once in twelve volumes of Burke’s collected works. In general Burke, like the colonists themselves, recognized that America had developed into a nation unto itself. The Americans had distinct constitutional practices. Whereas England exhibited a high degree of ecclesiastical as well as political government, the American colonies had powerful traditions of local self-government in church and state alike. Burke noted the profound political implications of the Northern colonies’ dissenting Protestant habits. And he argued that the prevalence of slavery in the Southern colonies made Southern whites acutely jealous of their own liberties, to an extent that seemed insane to most Englishmen. The different institutions of England and America, and the great distance that separated the lands, led to distinct constitutional evolutions.
Hazony traces ideas like a partisan rather than a historian: Every thinker is assigned to one camp or the other, as either a conservative or a liberal. Thus the tangled politics and legacy of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the debates over ratification of the Constitution become, in Hazony’s book, a straightforward tale of Hazony-style conservatives versus rationalist liberal Jeffersonians. He treats the Declaration of Independence as if Jefferson had written the document to express his own idiosyncratic ideas, rather than those of the Continental Congress. (The final text of the Declaration, of course, was revised by many hands, including that of John Adams.) He likewise treats the Constitution not as a document that expressed the views of a wide coalition but as a manifesto for the later Federalist Party. In truth, the Declaration and the Constitution both enjoyed support from a combination of “liberals” and “conservatives,” and opponents of the Constitution’s ratification were a similarly eclectic mix.
Hazony’s treatment of Christian history and politics is also distorted. His prioritization of the Bible as a source of public authority and teaching sits uneasily with his preference for Anglican traditionalism over Puritanism as a benchmark of Anglo-American conservatism. His Toryism will not allow him to consider the Puritans conservatives—they were, after all, the revolutionary party in the English Civil War. Americans, however, owe a great deal of their political tradition, even in its secularized form, to the Puritan experience, while America’s most important branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, does not, it is fair to say, embrace anything like Hazony’s understanding of Bible-based politics.
Conservatism: A Rediscovery, like The Virtue of Nationalism, treats the Catholic Church as an international conspiracy that threatens Anglo-American political independence and indeed the very principle of national independence. The existence of Catholic nation-states such as France, and the long record of professed Catholic political authorities defying—and even bullying—Rome does not seem to weigh in his considerations. His discomfort with Catholicism provides a backdrop to Hazony’s broad rejection of natural law as an attempt by man to know the mind of God—which is not, of course, how Christians (and hardly Catholics alone) have understood the relations among reason, nature, and God. The natural law is a thing that God has made, which man may discover through the exercise of the faculty of reason that God has given him. Man’s reason allows him to understand creation, not the mind of God himself.
Hazony is radically skeptical of what man’s reason can know. He accepts that reason allows us to reach practical conclusions through trial and error, and he considers himself an empiricist. There are strong traditions of empiricism and skepticism in Anglo-American conservatism. But the magnitude of Hazony’s skepticism leads him toward an anthropology and view of politics that bear striking parallels to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and other rather Epicurean modern thinkers.
For example, Hazony describes human beings as if they were primarily motivated by honor and the esteem of others. (Machiavelli might say “glory.”) Human beings are naturally selfish; even our love of family, friends, and country is really a form of self-love, in which we have expanded our definition of self to include those with whom we have relationships. Because we are selfish, we are prone to conflict. Hazony nearly paraphrases Hobbes when he writes that before the rise of “standing government” and “professional armies,” “every household, clan, and tribe maintained a large measure of independence in matters of war, peace, crime, and punishment, and as a consequence they lived amid constant warfare and violence.” The competition becomes less violent but no less selfish once political government is established. Only an external threat brings about unity, as squabbling families unite against outsiders and feuding tribes rally to defend the nation against other nations.
Although Hazony is known for “national conservatism,” in Conservatism: A Rediscovery, “tribes” are almost as important as the nation. Hazony dismisses talk of “mediating institutions” as “odd jargon,” but he understands tribes as being essential intermediaries between families and the nation as a whole. (“Clans,” in turn, occupy a place between family and tribe.) Unfortunately, Hazony never gives a satisfactory explanation of what “tribes” are and are not. Sometimes he associates modern tribes with “parties.” Elsewhere he gives “trade associations” as an example of tribes. Yet when he introduces the concept it is clear that he has in mind something with hereditary force, as in an actual tribe of kinship and generations-old ritual.
The language of tribe is important to Hazony because he wants all societies to be able to conform to traditional hierarchical models, or specifically to the model of Israel in the Old Testament. But in a traditional society, any person can give a clear, definitive answer to the question of what tribe or clan he belongs to, just as today every normal person can give a clear and simple answer to “What’s your family name?” or “What’s your citizenship?” If Hazony were to ask a half dozen people on the street, “What’s your tribe?,” he would receive a cacophony of responses, the most common of which would almost certainly be, “What do you mean by ‘tribe’?” Certainly not everyone belongs to a party or a trade association.
In Hazony’s philosophical schematic of political order, family and nation are meant literally, while the intermediary levels of tribe and clan (which Hazony says can today be “congregations” or “communities”) are so loosely figurative as to be meaningless. If someone were to try to apply Hazony’s terms consistently, the result would be either a hard ethno-nationalism, in which tribe and clan are as literal as family and nation, or an atomized liberalism in which family and nation are as easily redefined as tribe and clan. There is a sin of omission here as well: “Tribe” and “clan” occupy in his work the space that region and locality occupy in the genuine Anglo-American tradition. What is represented in the House and Senate is not a clan or a tribe but a place, all of whose inhabitants, even if they do not belong to the majority “tribe” or “congregation,” are entitled to a vote.
Regionalism is an inescapable historical and cultural fact of American political experience. Yet Hazony is critical of Russell Kirk for “defending the customs of the Midwest and South against American national conservatives such as Hamilton.” Though regionalism and local government can certainly impede good federal policies at times, they are indispensable to the legitimacy of the national government and the very self-conception of the United States. Even “national conservatism” must still be federal and regional if it is to be a form of American conservatism.
In his section on current affairs, Hazony observes that liberalism has proved incapable of resisting wokeism and other varieties of new revolutionary ideology. He is optimistic that some liberals, seeing this, will come to embrace conservatism. Over the last sixty years, “liberal democracy” has displaced what Hazony identifies as the “Christian democracy” that had prevailed in America from the age of the Federalists through the time of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. As liberalism crumbles, Hazony hopes to see a new “conservative democracy,” bearing a strong resemblance to the old Christian democracy (not least in its public role for religion), eventually become the philosophy of government.
The final chapters of Conservatism: A Rediscovery make clear, however, that a change in governing philosophy is not sufficient. For conservatism to succeed, Americans will have to embrace a conservative way of life. Hazony poignantly describes how he and Julie, the woman who would become his wife, did so. As undergraduates at Princeton, he was Jewish but not yet Orthodox and she was an atheist with Presbyterian roots. Disgusted by the habitual drunkenness that filled the free time of other students, Yoram and Julie began to take their meals at the kosher Stevenson Hall, where they became increasingly interested in Jewish life. Yoram became Orthodox and Julie converted before marrying him. They now live in Jerusalem and have nine children.
They met in the Reagan era, and Hazony looks back on Reagan with fondness, as a leader who morally inspired the country. Hazony himself was also inspired by George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft and the essays of Irving Kristol. He relates in a footnote an extraordinary conversation he had with Kristol, which illustrates how seriously the older man took the connection between a nation and its faith. “Irving told me that as a matter of political theory, he thought only Christians should be able to vote in a Christian majority nation such as America, and that, by the same principle, only Jews should be able to vote in Israel. If someone wanted to be recognized as a member of a certain political community, they should adopt the public religion of the majority.”
Yet few of the other conservatives Hazony knew at Princeton followed the path he and Julie took. In his final chapter he asks what political conservatives who are not personally conservative, in the sense of having a large family and a devout faith, are actually conserving. Citing the examples of Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Kant, he observes that “Enlightenment rationalism was the construction of men who had no real experience of family life or what it takes to make it work.” A way of life, no less than a set of beliefs, separates right from left.
But here too Hazony glosses over the complications. Few of the heroes he hails in his chapters on Anglo-American conservatism led lives that fulfilled his criteria. The English jurist John Selden, whom Hazony calls “the greatest conservative,” lived with a widow whom he may never have married, and he never had children. George Washington was childless; Gouverneur Morris, whom Hazony treats as a true father of the Constitution, had one child from a late marriage after a long life of sexual dissipation. The degrees of religious orthodoxy among exemplary Anglo-American conservatives varied widely as well.
And would Yoram Hazony himself have the life of a conservative if he had not met Julie or a woman very much like her? One man, however virtuous, cannot make a family. A woman like Julie was rare in the 1980s and is rarer today. In a traditional society, women have different kinds and, in several respects, unequal degrees of dignity compared to men. In the modern world, women quite naturally want equal dignity in degree, which requires an education that leads toward equal dignity in kind, as workers and citizens rather than as a special class of mothers and wives. The moral component of that education tends to produce ambitions that cannot be fulfilled by an older way of life. To restore a life of tradition for more than just the lucky few would demand a change in both economic organization and the basic understanding of human equality in the West. That is much more than “conservatism” can possibly accomplish. It would be a double revolution, in morality and material provision.
A truly traditional society does not need “conservatism,” in the sense of some philosophy or strategy that is not already internalized in its habits. Conservatism is what is required when the foundations of society can no longer be taken for granted. This is why conservatism is so often a conspicuously novel defense of the ancient, and it is why conservatism is prone to heresies of surrender or solipsism. Continetti’s approach exemplifies how conservatism surrenders: by accepting liberalism as its master. Hazony’s conservatism has many admirable features, and his current “national conservative” project is a fine endeavor. But his book errs in the direction of solipsism when it fails to account for the limitations of the order under which we live today, limitations that are at least as deeply embedded in the Anglo-American tradition as any countervailing “conservative” capacities are. Conservatism means making the best of a bad situation and preventing it from becoming worse. To aim beyond that, for an order that is comprehensively good, goes beyond anything dreamt of by Edmund Burke or Alexander Hamilton.
Yoram Hazony and Matthew Continetti are serious writers who have produced serious books with serious flaws. Yet those flaws are the flaws of conservatism itself, in either its liberalism-preserving mode or its attempt to maintain modernity’s constitutional traditions while escaping the constraints of modernity’s moral and economic conditions. These books are a call to think more seriously about what the political right wants and can achieve: It wants something more than Continetti endorses, but can achieve less than Hazony hopes.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.