Yoram Hazony: A New Conservative Brand and the Man Behind it
By Rafael Hoffman
Some of the most prominent politicians, policy makers, media personalities, and thinkers on the American political right gathered for three days in mid-September for the National Conservatism conference in Miami.
Headlining the event was rising conservative culture-warrior, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Other speakers included both of Florida’s senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, and Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley. Others were syndicated columnists like Josh Hammer and heads of think-tanks like Kevin Roberts, who took over leadership of the Heritage Foundation last year.
The “NatCon” gathering was the third of its kind in the United States, with annual conferences held in Europe as well. The organization’s mission is to provide an intellectual and policy-minded foundation to the brand of conservatism closely associated with former President Donald Trump and those who have attached themselves to the change in the American right that his ascendency heralded.
At the core of what NatCons profess is the integrity of the nation-state center and a society guided by Western religious and national traditions.
What most who read about the NatCon convention might find surprising is that the foundation guiding this movement is led by an Orthodox Jew who has lived in Israel for over 30 years, Yoram Hazony.
He spent decades studying and advocating for conservatism and nationalism, first as a student in the United States and later through a set of Israeli think-tanks he co-founded. Then, in 2016, amid the Trump campaign and Brexit, a colleague and mentor urged him to lend his expertise to what he saw as a new wind blowing in the U.S. and Europe.
“He said, ‘Drop what you’re doing and pool what you have on nationalism because everything is about to change.’ So I started writing a book on nationalism. It wasn’t my intention to become a leading figure in the U.S. or Europe on political theory, but I felt I knew a lot about the subject and that maybe I could help,” said Dr. Hazony. “I thought I would write what I knew and that would be the end of it, but that’s not what happened.”
Two such books, one U.S.-based think-tank, and several conferences later, Dr. Hazony finds himself among a diverse group at the helm of a movement they hope will reorient the Western right and redeem what they see as a civilization in peril.
As the title of Dr. Hazony’s most recent book, Conservatism; a Rediscovery, implies, he does not consider this political vision novel, but rather an effort to untangle the American right from decades of intellectual confusion.
In his telling, after a long struggle over the movement’s identity, the West’s victory in the Cold War brought a nearly single-minded dedication to exporting U.S.-style democracy and free trade to the rest of the world. In the process, many self-described conservatives lost their appreciation for national identity.
Emblematic of the brand Dr. Hazony is working to extricate America from was George W. Bush presidency’s foreign policy; under the “Bush doctrine,” the U.S. engaged in two foreign wars and several diplomatic efforts aimed at establishing democracies in nations viewed as hostile to the West.
Before and after his administration, a globalist vision was embodied by sweeping international trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), both of which were supported by most elected Republicans at the time. Concurrently, many in the conservative camp backed off social issues, focusing on robust defense, low taxes, and small government.
To Dr. Hazony, this shift signaled a takeover of conservatism by liberal values.
“The NatCon grouping is an attempt to return conservatism to where it should be after 30 years of being completely confused with liberalism,” he said. “There were many people who called themselves conservatives, who were not interested in conserving anything, they were only interested in individual freedoms.”
The struggle NatCons are engaged in might have sharpened with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but its roots stretch back to the beginning of America’s modern conservative movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
Then, amid an ascendant liberalism, William Buckley and a small group of thinkers forged a coalition united by their opposition to the proliferation of communism abroad and big government at home. This big tent grouped libertarians whose essential commitment was to expansive personal liberties with traditionalists who sought a nation steeped in Anglo-American constitutional tradition and Western religious morality.
The coalition was successful in creeping onto the American political scene marked by Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 presidential run and eventually Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Yet, traditionalists felt that between a diluted right and a dominant left, their defining priorities got swept away.
“The confusion is something that happens after the Second World War when there’s this utopian impulse to fix all the world’s problems, so that a world war never happens again,” said Dr. Hazony. “This involved some things that we still support, like ending the persecution of Blacks in America, but it also involved eliminating religion and nationalism from the public space.”
The 1940s and ’50s saw several Supreme Court decisions that banned prayer and Bible lessons from public schools, transforming them into secularist entities. The 1960s brought a tumultuous cultural revolution that left most of what traditionalists sought to preserve in shambles.
Dr. Hazony said that what began as stripping America of its long-established Christian identity and placing the nation on an overwhelmingly liberal path has wrought the U.S.’ present moral quagmire.
“This started with the United States Supreme Court declaring that absolute separation of church and state is America’s position. … Now, the grandchildren of the liberals that fought those battles are having difficulty with the most basic concepts of human biology,” he said.
The NatCon Vision
In the political arena, battles continue between Democrats and Republicans on a slew of issues surrounding morality and what defines America. At the same time, NatCons are campaigning to define the future of the nation’s right, using the nation’s present state as evidence that conservatism untethered from religious tradition and nationhood has failed.
“Now that we see what the end of the liberal idea in America and Europe looks like, it’s important to ask, ‘What have we done wrong that we can’t conserve anything, we can’t preserve any values of the civilization we are a part of?’” he asks.
In place of what they see as a failed vision, NatCons base themselves closely on values of the traditionalist camp that entered into the conservative coalition, but that held fast to a distinctive set of principles and often criticized what they viewed as a compromised conservatism.
“We see the tradition of independent, self-governed nations as the foundation for restoring a proper public orientation toward patriotism and courage, honor, and loyalty, religion and wisdom, congregation and family, man and woman, the sabbath and the sacred, and reason and justice,” reads the preamble to the NatCon Statement of Principles, authored by nine of its leaders, including Dr. Hazony. “We emphasize the idea of the nation because we see a world of independent nations — each pursuing its own national interests and upholding national traditions that are its own — as the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.”
NatCons do not cast themselves as traditional isolationists, but believe foreign intervention should be tightly based on national interest, decrying what it labels “liberal imperialism,” an attempt to force American-style democracy on other nations. They are also suspicious of the effect membership in international bodies like the U.N., NATO, or the EU has on national independence and identity.
The NatCon movement recognizes the historic value of immigration but argues that Western nations are not currently in a confident and stable enough state to continue their levels of absorption and recommend more restrictive policies.
One of the movement’s sharpest breaks from a position that long dominated the American right is its critical eye toward big business. While stridently capitalist, NatCons see the dominance of global corporations as detrimental to national economies. They are also on a mission to convince conservatives that large corporations are no longer the allies to traditional values they were decades ago.
Governor DeSantis’ fights with Disney (in defense of his state’s laws aimed at protecting young school children from progressive social curriculums) gained this shift national attention and highlighted the right’s new combative stance toward megacorporations. His remarks at the NatCon convention would have seemed out of place at most conservative gatherings a decade ago, but were emblematic of the movement’s present political orientation. High on the list of targets are big tech and its frequent attempts to promote left-wing narratives and bury right-wing ones.
“If private corporations are abusing their power to interfere in a harmful way in the election process or any other crucial process, the answer has to be to regulate or break up these corporations,” said Dr. Hazony.
This willingness to use government to curb big business extends to efforts to beat back the deluge of lewd material available in media and the internet.
“The country needs a basic idea of public morality and it’s the job of government to uphold standards of moral decency,” said Dr. Hazony. “There will be a debate what those standards are, but let’s agree that the Republican Party is saying all-freedom-all-the-time is over.”
The steepest climb NatCons endorse is an effort to return religion to the public role it occupied before World War II in realms like education, and as a guide for the nation’s moral compass. In nations like America, this would largely mean Christianity, but the NatCon Statement of Principles says that even so, “Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions,” as well as from ideological coercion.
“This is a simple distinction between a conservative and a liberal,” said Dr. Hazony. “[The conservative] starts from a position that we have a tradition, we have some basic ideas of good and evil, and that’s what society should look like.”
Much of Dr. Hazony’s recent writing and lecturing focuses on defining what he views as conservatism’s true identity and on digesting hundreds of years of history that offers roots to that tradition.
Central among his tasks is unraveling conservativism from seeing itself as rooted in 18th-century champions of liberty like Jeans-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.
“We should look at liberalism as a distinct worldview and political theory from conservativism. If you think politics can reduce to freedoms of the individual, you’re a liberal. Conservatives can be interested in questions of freedoms of individuals, but we begin in a different place,” said Dr. Hazony. “Our starting point is that you’re born into a family, a tribe, and a nation, and that comes with obligations. … The starting place is a nation of people asking what can be done for this nation so that it can propagate through the generations?”
Many thinkers before Dr. Hazony began their story of traditionalist conservatism with Edmund Burke, the 18th-century member of Britain’s parliament whose treatise against the French Revolution championing national heritage and incremental change served as a core text for the American and English right. Burke plays a central role in Dr. Hazony’s telling, and the organization which directs NatCon; its conferences bear his name.
Yet, Dr. Hazony dug hundreds of years earlier to define Anglo-American conservatism. Prominent in this earlier segment of traditional thought are a set of English 16th- and 17th-century thinkers who, in an effort to formulate a mode of government distinct from Catholic-influenced models, turned to Tanach and Jewish sources.
Dr. Hazony and another Israel-based NatCon scholar, Ofir Haivry, have shone a light on John Selden, a prominent jurist in the 1600s who authored a commentary on seven mitzvos of bnei Noach and on Maseches Sanhedrin. Much of this tradition was carried on by America’s early settlers and held considerable influence on the authors of the Constitution.
“They were looking to reshape their view into something more authentic and many of them turned to Tanach and to Jewish learning to understand how G-d wants them to organize English life,” said Dr. Hazony. “Universities don’t study that because they want to say that everything good in the U.S. was invented by pure reason in the late 18th century, but if you study the sources, you’ll see this is not the case.”
Too Late or Just on Time?
As appealing as the NatCon vision might seem to many traditionalists, it is difficult to envision reversing the trajectory of over 70 years of a secularization and liberalization in America, even of its political right.
Dr. Hazony, however, sees the extreme place that “woke” progressivism has taken America to as a rallying call for National Conservatism.
“Right now is a moment of opportunity because it is a moment of clear disaster,” he said. “In 2020 the liberal control of institutions in America collapsed. From the 1960s there was consent about liberal hegemony, but in 2020, this came to an end and control went to woke neo-Marxism. There are still plenty of liberals out there who are interested in individual rights, but when people get fired from The New York Times essentially for being liberals, when Princeton University erases the name of Woodrow Wilson who was president of Princeton and this great liberal President of America, something fundamental has changed.”
The anti-police rioting of 2020 and the tearing down of American symbols that accompanied it, together with the acceptance of Critical Race Theory and mainstreaming of progressive social values in American institutions, Dr. Hazony feels, are what shocked many people into realizing that they face an existential choice.
“This is a very dangerous moment; it’s very possible that America will not survive as we know it and if that happens, it will take other democratic countries with it,” he said. “I’m seeing many young Christians and Jews looking at this and saying, ‘We need to do something, we need to retake our country.’”
At the same time, Dr. Hazony said that he saw more signs of a willingness to fight for traditional values on the right. Key to this growing confidence, he said, was the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision which achieved a nearly 50-year conservative goal of overturning Roe v. Wade. Additional evidence he pointed to was that after 47 GOP Congress members voted to pass the “Respect for Marriage Act,” a bill that would write the 2015 Obergefell Supreme Court decision into federal law, the Heritage Foundation penned a letter to GOP senators warning that they would back a primary challenge against any of them if they voted for the bill.
“I’ve been hearing for 25 years from conservative Christians that they’re defeated. Dobbs is only one topic and there are a lot more, but it put a lot of new wind in their sails and there’s now a possibility for a deep change,” he said.
Elephant in the GOP Room
Hovering over the NatCon discussion is Donald Trump, his presidency, and his continuing role in American conservatism. His 2016 candidacy and subsequent administration heralded a decidedly nationalist orientation in the Republican Party. Among Mr. Trump’s first acts in office was to pull the U.S. out of the TPP and, over the next year, NAFTA was renegotiated. A trade war with China and some protectionist policies replaced decades of Republican-endorsed free trade orthodoxy.
Mr. Trump’s border wall and tough immigration policies defined his campaign and presidency, wedded to the MAGA credo which, while loosely defined, carried a message of national pride.
Mr. Trump’s core team and 2016 primary bid initially touted a vision more akin to secular Western European nationalist movements, but after winning the nomination, he quickly formed a typical Republican coalition with social conservatives.
His administration placed several traditionalists in prominent positions, was responsible for adding three staunch originalists to the Supreme Court, and issued executive orders and rule changes aimed at protecting religious liberty.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s personal history and style hardly model the old-world virtue NatCons endorse. Likewise, his frequent attacks on American institutions seem to run contrary to the reverence for the norms of governance they advocate.
Dr. Hazony acknowledged that the former President was a mixed bag for his movement.
“Donald Trump hurts and helps,” he said. “He’s a very important figure because he’s willing to reject things the entire political establishment, left and right, insisted you have to accept. …There are also disadvantages to someone who doesn’t play by the rules. Sometimes that means not accepting the results of an election which is something that no one should do. … We should be grateful for much that [Trump’s] done, but this movement is larger than any figure.”
Good for the Jews?
A key principle of Dr. Hazony’s vision is that a redeemed West is predicated on individuals living “conservative lives,” rooted in family, faith, and association with organized religion.
To demonstrate his point, part of his recent work contains much of his own autobiography about his undergraduate years at Princeton University. There, he embraced Reagan-style conservatism, founding a campus publication, The Princeton Tory, which publishes to this day. At the same time he connected himself to the campus’ Orthodox community and committed himself to a life of Torah umitzvos.
After graduating, Dr. Hazony and his wife (who had traveled a parallel journey at Princeton) moved to Israel where he focused largely on research on what he saw as ideas of nationalism found not only in secular writings but also largely in Torah sources with the goal of influencing Israeli politics and society.
Dr. Hazony said that after raising his family in Yerushalayim and concentrating on the Israeli scene for decades, a return to America was not what he had envisioned.
“This was not the way I planned my life out,” he said. “We moved to Israel and assumed we would devote our lives to Am Yisrael. … And that’s basically what I did until 2016.”
Dr. Hazony has warned of the antisemitic threat that exists from the far-right, which bases its ideology primarily on white identity and NatCon made it clear that such voices are not welcome in their movement. However, he also cautioned conservative-minded Jews not to follow the lead of some Jews on the left who have used accusations of antisemitism to smear their ideological opponents.
“There are Jewish leaders who accuse Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio of antisemitism, which is ridiculous,” he said. “When you have accusations against people who are good friends of the Jews and of Israel, these accusations lose their meaning. In this context, we have a responsibility that when decent people are accused of antisemitism, we have to defend them.”
While there is an undeniable irony in an Orthodox Jew championing a movement that partly calls for a Christian rebirth in America, Dr. Hazony said that, in addition to helping create a more moral nation, the process is in the Jewish People’s best interests.
“It’s hard for Jews to imagine what the world would be like if Christianity ceased to exist,” he said. “I don’t think a world dominated by woke progressives and the Chinese Communist Party would be particularly friendly to Jews.”
Much of the present landscape could be used to back up this view. In Western Europe and at a slower, but steady pace in America, progressive secularism has looked to squeeze Jewish practices and belief — from campaigns against shechitah to efforts to force religious institutions to conform to the cultural zeitgeist. At the same time, Christian-led advocacy groups and law firms are the ones defending religious liberty for a broad swath of traditionalists.
Dr. Hazony also stressed that many Christian leaders involved in NatCon are eager to have more input from Jewish voices.
“Frum Jews have a very important role to play here; these are people who want them to be comfortable with what they are doing,” he said. “They will feel much more confident if they have the support and input of Jews who realize that neo-Marxism is out to destroy Judaism too.”
Despite the unexpected turn that Dr. Hazony’s involvement in NatCon has had on his career, he feels it is the call of the present moment.
“When you realize how far America and Europe have drifted from any basic connection to Hashem or the idea of a nation being based on their traditions, it’s not so simple to say, ‘I wrote my book, now I’m going back to Israel because I have things to take care of,” he said. “I don’t go where I’m not invited, but my ideas and writings are in very great demand these days.” n
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