The Conservatism of Bret Stephens

Today, Bret Stephens is his own man; a conservative columnist at the New York Times open to antagonizing both left and right. But in his youth, he could easily have been mistaken for Alex P. Keaton. Raised by a father who made political conversation a dinnertime ritual, he adopted a classically liberal persuasion even before high school. Growing up, he idolized Milton Friedman, became a habitual reader of the Wall Street Journal, and took a hawkish view of the Cold War. In a Zoom interview recently, Stephens and I discussed his intellectual development. At one point, the famous aphorism falsely attributed to Winston Churchill that “If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain” arose. With a chuckle, Stephens acknowledged an inescapable conclusion: “I was heartless from the beginning.”

Shortly after Stephens’ second birthday in 1975, his parents, Charles and Xenia, moved to Mexico City to manage a chemical company. Charles, a liberal Republican, had recently failed in a bid for Congress following Richard Nixon’s resignation, but remained obsessed with politics and history. Stephens inherited his father’s interests. “My conservatism always emerged from a liberal sensibility that the most treasured possession is freedom, not virtue,” he told me. “And my father cultivated that.” By age 11, Stephens had been introduced to the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, as well as the political thought of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Observing Mexican politics as a child similarly contributed to his liberal evolution.

“During my time in Mexico, it was a one-party state, a virtual dictatorship,” Stephens recalled. “And it was a very statist economy. My father’s business interacted quite a bit with the Mexican state, particularly Pemex, the oil company, which was just massively inefficient. It was hard, even as a young child, not to have a sense that the state control of the economy was a massive impediment to progress, and party control of politics was a massive impediment to freedom.” 

Though Stephens was raised to be proud of his Jewish heritage, he chose not to receive a bar mitzvah. This was a consequence of his own detachment from spirituality rather than antisemitism in Mexico, which could again be attributed to his father’s influence. “My father was indifferent to, if not somewhat contemptuous of religion,” Stephens noted. “But he was passionately pro-Israel. Another early memory is the two of us looking at the advances of the Israeli army into Lebanon during the 1982 War on a map.” 

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