If there is one message that we hear repeatedly from our intellectual class, it is that “tribalism” is poisoning our politics. But according to Yoram Hazony’s new book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” tribalism is an ineradicable feature of human nature and is therefore necessary, even good, for a flourishing society.
This is because we are by nature social beings, meaning that tribal affiliations emerge organically from the nexus of meanings and traditions we cultivate through family, social groups, religious organizations, legal entities, national identities, and even our political associations. To be sure, tribalism can be ugly, even destructive, if a sense of mutual respect and honor are not upheld by the rival tribes of a nation. Thus Hazony, who has emerged as a leading voice of the “New Right” and who has become critical of aspects of modern conservatism, maintains that embracing traditional conservatism is so vital for our country. But what is traditional conservatism?
Perhaps the best way to understand it is by contrast with the dominant paradigm today, liberalism, or as Hazony calls it, “Enlightenment Liberalism,” which is the worldview that most people are taught in school nowadays. Liberalism emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries from theorists like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it has influenced thinkers in every generation up to and including our own. It begins with the “rationalist” premise that, through abstract reason alone, or reason untethered from human experience, we can discover universal truths about both man and the world, and that implementing them will result in a free, prosperous, strong, and cohesive civil society. But according to Hazony, this is sheer delusion.
Principles from Experience
Take ideas like “freedom,” “equality,” or “individual rights,” which we are all familiar with and which liberalism regards as “self-evident,” or so obviously true that anyone who thinks about them will immediately understand them as applicable to all men at all times, and that government is established to protect them. Now what philosopher, Hazony invites us to wonder, has ever lived entirely isolated from society and deduced these principles from logic alone?
Of course, no philosopher has ever done so, because no philosopher has ever lived completely outside of social contexts. Rather, Hazony contends, principles become clear through experience, the most enduring of which emerge after decades or even centuries of practice, meaning that a nation’s traditions develop within a social milieu over time. This “empiricist” view is what Hazony sees as central to traditional conservatism, and he traces it back to English thinkers such as William Blackstone and Edmund Burke, and founding fathers such as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other early “Federalists.”
Jefferson No Strict Rationalist
Now, while there is much to appreciate about this account, the reader cannot help but wonder whether it has its drawbacks in certain respects. For example, the book is quite critical of Thomas Jefferson, regarding him as an Enlightenment liberal who, because of his universal proclamations in the Declaration of Independence, betrays a commitment to rationalism that places him in the same camp as the French revolutionaries.
But this is a strained comparison. For one thing, even though Jefferson had (qualified) sympathy for the French Revolution, he was quick to stress the importance of virtue, religion, and local custom for his country, which French radicals were not. For another thing, Abraham Lincoln, whom Hazony upholds as an exemplar of conservatism, heavily channeled Jefferson and the universal principles he put forth in the Declaration of Independence, both prior to and during his presidency. So if Jefferson stands condemned as a “rationalist liberal,” it would seem by Hazony’s standard that Lincoln must be too.
But in fact, Jefferson does not deserve such condemnation, because he was no strict rationalist (at least not of the French Revolutionist type). For that matter, he was no strict empiricist either. In fact, it can be argued that he belonged to a third category, which is a combination of the two, and which holds that universal truths are abstracted from experience.
Take Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal.” How might this timeless principle be drawn from experience? Consider that as we grow up under the care of our parents and come into contact with others in society, we learn (from experience) that all people share a common human nature. From this, we see (the abstract truth) that all people are equal in terms of their shared nature. In other words, the principle that we are all “created equal” is indeed a universal truth, but one that is ultimately grounded in experience and not in reason alone. This hybrid combination of rationalism and empiricism is in fact how human knowledge works, despite the fact that the book tends to insist that the two share almost no overlap.
Liberalism Clears a Path for Marxism
But be that as it may, there are many other important insights in the book that we would do well to recover. One such insight concerns Marxism, which we see in gender and race ideologies today, and its relationship to liberalism.
As Hazony explains, because liberalism is singularly focused on freedom and equality, it ends up clearing the path for Marxism’s advance. Why? Because any instance of perceived lack of freedom or equality, which is to say, any instance of constraint or hierarchy within society, can be pointed to as an example of oppression, which then provides an opportunity to demand new “rights.” Slowly, then, liberalism gives way to the very Marxism it denounces, and the result is the desiccation of our time-tested institutions, traditions, morality, and even our identities.
Thus, in order to defeat Marxism, Hazony admonishes us to first understand its appeal, which is most fundamentally that it provides its adherents with a profound sense of belonging through its grand moral vision of the world. Overcoming it therefore requires an even more compelling moral vision, one that acknowledges the realities of human nature and its yearnings for identity, cohesion, and community. It requires, in other words, a rediscovery of conservatism. And for that, Harzony’s book is a great place to start.