For three generations, Western nations have lived in the shadow of the World Wars. The depths of the trauma have never been fully examined, nor its consequences entirely mapped. But we know that within a few years after the end of the Second World War, political life in 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 set aside, and Enlightenment liberalism became the new framework within which American political life was conducted. America was given what was, in effect, a new liberal consitution that guaranteed the civil liberties of blacks and other minorities, but also banned prayer and Bible-reading from the schools and lifted earlier legal restrictions on divorce, pornography, immigration and abortion. Academics and intellectuals even gave a new name to the regime—which they now called “liberal democracy.”
In the decades that followed, many Americans and Europeans came to believe that in liberalism they had discovered the final political theory: A regime so obviously desirable that competition among political ideologies had in effect come to an end. Soon, liberalism would be adopted by all nations. The reign of liberal ideas would last forever.
No one believes this anymore.
Five years of political upheaval—from 2016 to 2020—was all it took to shatter the hegemony of Enlightenment liberalism. Suddenly, the conflict among competing political visions is fiercely alive once more:
On the one hand, the appeal of a revived nationalist conservatism was given dramatic expression by the 2016 election of Donald Trump‘s “America First” administration in the United States, by Britain’s departure from the European Union and by the rise of nationalist conservative governments in Eastern Europe, Italy, India, Brazil and more.
At the same time, an updated Marxism (“anti-racism” or “woke”) launched an astonishingly successful bid to seize control of the institutions that had been responsible for the development of liberal ideas in America, Britain and beyond. By the summer of 2020, most important news media, universities and schools, Big Tech and other corporations, and even the government bureaucracy and the military, had adopted a policy of accommodating the new Marxism and advancing its agenda.
Meanwhile, in 2018, a rapidly rising China anointed the chairman of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, ruler for life. Persecution of religious and political dissidents followed, reaching a climax with the effective annexation of Hong Kong, until recently the very symbol of Enlightenment liberalism in Asia, in 2020. Americans abruptly found themselves facing the bleak reality of an imperialist China pursuing an increasingly credible campaign to overthrow the Western nations as the dominant power in world affairs.
The hegemony of liberal ideas, which was supposed to last forever, has come to an end after only 60 years.
What will happen next?
Many commentators have compared the crumbling of the liberal order in America to Weimar Germany. And indeed, on the far right, we can now find an assortment of personalities singing the praises of dictatorship and “white identity.”
Yet despite the grim historical parallels, America may have the resources to overcome these challenges. Many Americans still possess a strong intuitive commitment to the Anglo-American constitutional tradition. This includes the great majority of nationalist conservatives who supported the Trump presidency. To be sure, they oppose many aspects of the liberal consensus of recent decades, including large-scale immigration; the offshoring of American manufacturing capabilities to China in the name of free trade; the empowerment of international bodies, such as the UN, EU and WTO, at the expense 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 may assist in reversing the dissolution of the family and religious tradition. But nationalist conservatives support a democratic regime and peaceful transitions of power, as well as customary protections of property rights, free speech and religious liberty.
With the collapse of liberal hegemony in America, this nationalist conservatism offers the best hope for restoration of political stability and health.
But there are considerable difficulties in the way of any kind of revived political conservatism in the English-speaking world. Two stand out especially:
First, many of today’s “conservatives” know very little about what it would take to actually conserve anything across generations. True, Cold War conservatives did lead the successful effort to defeat Soviet Communism abroad and socialism at home, a struggle that reached its successful conclusion during the Reagan-Thatcher years in the 1980s.
Yet during these very same years, the political and religious traditions that had granted stability and continuity to America and Britain for centuries were being severely damaged and even overthrown. This shocking destruction of the Anglo-American cultural inheritance has involved the suppression or stigmatization of crucial ideas and institutions such as God and Scripture, nation and congregation, marriage and family, man and woman, honor and loyalty, the sabbath and the sacred. This is not only due to excessive political pragmatism or weakness of charaxcter among conservatives. There is also, at this point, an astonishing degree of ignorance. Many conservatives do not really know, anymore, why you would need to preserve these things.
Which brings us to the second remarkable fact about contemporary conservatism: The extraordinary confusion over 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 now, many “conservatives” have had little interest in political ideas other than those that can be used to justify ever greater doses of personal liberty. And if anyone has tried to point out that this exclusive focus on individual liberty is liberalism, and that it has no power to conserve anything at all, he has been met with the glib rejoinder that, after all, What we conservatives are conserving is liberalism.
This confusion over the content and purposes of political conservatism has paralyzed the conservative impulse in the English-speaking world. For the truth is that Enlightenment liberalism, in and of itself, is bereft of any interest in conserving anything. It is devoted entirely to freedom—and in particular, to freedom from the past. In other words, liberalism promises to liberate us from conservatives! That is, it seeks to liberate us from the kind of public and private life in which men and women know what must be done to propagate beneficial ideas, behaviors and institutions across generations.
As Anglo-American conservatism has become confused with liberalism, it has, for precisely this reason, become incapable of conserving anything at all. Conservatives have become bystanders, gaping in astonishment as the consuming fire of cultural revolution destroys everything in its path.
If we care about making 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 freedoms and proscribed forms of discrimination that liberals have been compiling and promoting since the 1940s. These will have to be conservative tools, not liberal ones.
However, to have such tools at our disposal, democratic nations will have to let go of their post-war obsession with liberalism. They will have to rediscover the history and philosophy of authentic Anglo-American conservatism, which is focused not on freedom but on how things propagate in time, and on what must be done if conservation and transmission is to actually take place across generations.
And they will have to rediscover the practice of conservatism—which is not only the practice of conservative government, but also, especially, the practice of being a conservative person and leading a conservative life.
Is it possible for individuals who have grown up in a liberal society, obsessed with personal freedoms, to become strong conservative men and women and to do what a conservative calling demands of them?
I believe it is possible because I have seen it happen countless times. I have seen individuals and entire families discover that they’ve been on the wrong course, repent and set out to restore the tradition with their own hands and in their own lives. And if that can happen, then it is also possible on a larger scale—at the level of congregations, cultural movements and nations.
Why hasn’t it happened until now? Perhaps because the times were not yet sufficiently deranged. Perhaps we had to see, with our own eyes, how every aspect of our great cultural inheritance is being set upon and laid low. Perhaps we had to see for ourselves that America really is poised to throw itself into the abyss, taking all the 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 lifetimes. To be sure, the potential for tragedy is very great. But the extremity of this catastrophe can also permit a rethinking and a restoration that has been impossible until now. Many will now find that they are ready for the rediscovery that I have described: The rediscovery of a conservative life.
Yoram Hazony is the chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation. This essay is adapted from his new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Regnery, 2022).
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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