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The Conservatism of Bret Stephens
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The Conservatism of Bret Stephens

The New York Times columnist discusses his political evolution and classical liberalism in modern America.

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.” 

At 14, Stephens chose to attend Middlesex, a boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts, to reconnect with the United States. “I was fully bilingual, and could have easily finished high school and even gone to university in a Spanish speaking environment,” he said. “But I sensed that America was my future.” 

“We were reading Dante and Homer and Sophocles,” Stephens said of his rigorous high school education. “I had a wonderful history teacher named Elliot Trommald, who introduced me to Alfred Thayer Mahan and various other schools of interpretation. I developed an interest in the literature of totalitarianism.” In short, Stephens read constantly, devouring the clumsy science fiction of Robert Heinlein with the same fervor as the exotic philosophy of Czesław Miłosz. His distaste for theology endured, however, and he did not begin to sincerely explore the subject until 1991, when he enrolled at the University of Chicago.

As Stephens began to assess his options for higher education, the New York Times published a profile of Hanna Holborn Gray, the University of Chicago’s then-president and the only female head of a major American university. “My mother read the profile and said, ‘You’re applying here,’” Stephens told me, remembering Gray as a “formidable lady” and “every inch that sort of German Jewish intellectual.” 

Looking back on the application process, Stephens recalled that the school was searching for “oddball intellects”; though he found the unusual essay questions burdensome to complete, he was eventually accepted. Visiting Chicago in person and witnessing its intense approach to academic instruction proved a transformative experience. 

“I remember sitting in on a seminar on Marx,” Stephens said, “and I was just hooked by the fact that you had senior professors teaching undergraduate students in small seminar-style classes. I remember walking out of that class, seeing my parents who were also on the tour with me, and saying, ‘This is where I’m going to school.’ Everyone says Chicago is the place where fun goes to die. Maybe there wasn’t fun in me to even be killed. But I think it is the greatest university in America and quite possibly the world.” 

At the beginning of his freshman year, Stephens intended to major in anthropology, but his understanding of the discipline was informed more by Raiders of the Lost Ark than academic texts. After an introductory course revealed that the degree would concern grim matters of world politics rather than car chases and booby traps, he began to consider alternatives. Taking a compulsory course on the history of Western political thought inspired him to embrace political philosophy, putting him on a path toward a career in political commentary. 

“Chicago trains you in a certain kind of thinking,” Stephens said. “It pushes you to ask very large questions like, ‘What exactly are we doing in this regime?’ That’s something you only get after you’ve spent a lot of time reading Plato and Aristotle and meditating on Machiavelli and the contract theorists.” He believes this decision to major in political philosophy afforded him a unique outlook that has defined his writing. “When I think of, for example, Iran,” he continued, “I think of it not simply as a nation state with a set of interests, but as a virtue-centric society that has a very different concept of what the human good is than Western societies. And that frame of mind fundamentally shapes my approach to writing about Iran today.”

Over the next three years, Stephens studied alongside professors on Chicago’s renowned Committee on Social Thought, including Leon Kass and Nathan Tarcov. Under the former, he took a course on the Book of Genesis and experienced a profound intellectual awakening. “[Kass] allowed me to see the Bible as something more than just a collection of fairy tales,” Stephens recalled. “Because when you have a teenager’s view of the Bible, it’s just some nonsense about God creating the earth in six days.” 

Kass granted Stephens an appreciation for the Bible’s edifying qualities and rich insight into human aspiration, inspiring him to seriously explore the teachings of Judaism for the first time. The pair enjoyed such a strong relationship that Kass referenced Stephens in The Beginning of Wisdom, a study of Genesis published in 2003. “You can find my name in the index right next to Leo Strauss,” Stephens said, “which for years I thought was just the coolest thing in the world.”

Initially, Stephens was uncertain of where his education would lead. Though journalism appealed, he and his friends referred to the campus newspaper as the Chicago Moron rather than the Chicago Maroon. Demanding course requirements, meanwhile, left little time for extracurriculars until the end of his sophomore year, when he was published for the first time.

“I had read a book called Sick Societies by a UCLA anthropologist named Robert Edgerton, who basically took readers on a tour of what so-called primitive societies are actually like,” Stephens recalled. “It pretty much exploded the view of primitive societies as these Rousseauian Edens where people got along in harmony. The book intrigued me, and as a thought experiment, I wrote a review of it in the style of the book reviews I was reading at the time, just to see if I could perform the exercise.”

Stephens submitted the piece to Commentary magazine, and it was published in June 1993. With a connection established, he joined Commentary as an assistant editor after graduation. In the role, he spent considerable time devouring back issues of the magazine, becoming familiar with the writings of such thinkers as Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz. 

This experience provided “a very useful way of thinking about political ideas and political differences,” Stephens told me. “The neoconservatives were a very specific and interesting group of people who broke with the liberalism of the late 1960s and then travelled in a variety of directions. And those differences are significant, even though now they seem kind of arcane. There are all kinds of shades that you don’t necessarily appreciate when you think that the world divides between Republicans and Democrats.”

In 1996, Stephens left Commentary to pursue a master’s in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. At the time, he believed a graduate degree would prove professionally beneficial. “I don’t know if it was, to be honest,” he said. “LSE has this outsize reputation in the United States. I was stunned by how small a place it is. I can’t say I was blown away by the quality of the teaching or the teachers.” The most enjoyable period of Stephens’ British excursion ironically came when he visited Istanbul to conduct research for his thesis, which examined secularization in Turkey and Mexico at the turn of the 20th century.

While in London, Stephens impulsively submitted an editorial to the Wall Street Journal based on a news story that had attracted his attention. Following its publication, the Journal offered him an internship in its Brussels headquarters, which spawned a job offer after two weeks. Stephens remembers his time in Brussels from 1999 to 2002 as a “period of real intellectual growth,” shaped by the unique opportunity to inhabit an environment where peers moved seamlessly between languages and maintained an awareness of various cultures. Throughout that time, he was able to observe the establishment of the European Union (EU) and a broader European identity first hand. “I remember the day the euro emerged, going to an ATM machine around midnight, just off the Grand Place, and no longer getting Belgian francs but these crisp new euro bills,” he told me. 

Reporting on the EU gave Stephens a skeptical view of its construction. Although he supported the project and the creation of a free trade zone, he feared that developing Europe into a common political bloc at such a rapid pace would ultimately corrode the stability of the continent. “I was also very struck that when you met European commissioners and other officials individually, they were always very impressive,” he said. “And yet you could go from one to the other to the next and they would have exactly the same things to say, even if one person was ostensibly center-right and the other person ostensibly center-left. Brussels persuaded me that an intellectual or political monoculture is very destructive.” 

“Europe was constantly being surprised by things that should have been obvious to it,” Stephens said. He attributes the EU’s current volatility to an absence of debate on exigent issues that have animated separatist movements within the bloc, such as immigration, levels of integration, and tax competition. “The things that have torn Europe apart are things that it should have seen coming if there had been more room for contrarian voices,” he continued, noting that the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote did not come as a great shock.

During his time in Europe, Stephens began to cover foreign affairs more broadly, and took a particular interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following then-President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to resolve the dispute at the 2000 Camp David Summit, Stephens visited Gaza, where he met with political leaders, dissidents, and members of Hamas. When the Second Intifada began later that year, he covered the uprising extensively for the Journal. On the strength of his reporting, he was invited to become editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post in 2002.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Stephens supported the Iraq War and espoused the international liberalization agenda promulgated by then-President George W. Bush. “At the moment 9/11 happened, it seemed every bit as consequential as Hitler’s invasion of Poland or the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Stephens recalled. “It showed that this easy assumption that we were moving inexorably in a more liberal direction was over, and we had to rethink where the world was to go and what people want. Interesting ideas flourish in periods of darkness.”

Though Stephens remains a staunch proponent of liberalization, his experience living in Israel at a moment of extreme global tension led him to oppose the idea of democratization. “The problem with democracy is that time and again when there have been elections in the Middle East, the parties that win are illiberal,” he told me. “They are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, the AKP in Turkey. Simply staging elections or holding elections is actually a recipe for achieving exactly the result you don’t want, which is popular endorsement of illiberal politics.”

Stephens maintains that illiberal nations in the Middle East require social compacts that emphasize freedom of action and delineate a more modern understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state. “The great challenge of Middle Eastern politics is how do you gradually move countries toward that in a way that doesn’t elicit furious counter-reactions,” he observed. “This is a challenge that is not a 10 or 20-year challenge. It’s a 100-year or 200-year challenge. Is it insurmountable? I don’t think so, because no one would have predicted 100 years ago that Japan and Germany would be the two most pacifist-minded nations in the world. The United Arab Emirates is good evidence that there’s a way of shuffling in that direction at a moderate pace.”

Upon his departure from Israel in 2004, Stephens returned to New York and resumed covering foreign and domestic affairs for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Subsequently, few shifts have occurred in his political outlook. To the chagrin of religious practitioners, much the same can be said of his perspective on faith.

“A succession of rabbis have suggested that we should, as they like to put it, ‘learn together,’” Stephens said when I asked if he has ever felt inclined to embrace Jewish spirituality. “And I keep telling them to come back to me in 10 years. This is not something I say proudly. I think in some ways it’s a defect of character that the philosophical questions interest me very deeply, the spiritual ones a little less so.” 

Stephens’ first book, America in Retreat, was published in 2014. In it, he argued that a bipartisan desire for the United States to recede from its standing as a world power would jeopardize national interests and threaten the safety of foreign allies. “I think that thesis has held up well,” Stephens told me, citing Donald Trump’s presidency as proof that the right has acquired an appetite for quasi-isolationism and chaos in the Middle East as vindication for his support of Pax Americana. 

“Inevitably, though, any current events book is like a pizza—delicious when it’s hot and less appetizing when it’s been sitting on the table for 24 hours,” Stephens continued. For his next book, he intends to produce either a philosophical exploration of free speech or a sprawling family history. The latter will concern the broader plight of the Jews in the 20th century, “from massacres in Latvia to immigration to Mandatory Palestine to success and adventure in North America. And that’s a big project. But the good thing about writing family histories is you might discover new things, but the facts aren’t going to change.” 

In 2017, Stephens left the Journal to join the New York Times as an opinion columnist. His tenure with the publication has been defined by pointed criticism of both the Trumpist right and authoritarian left, directed toward an audience that broadly does not share his premises or frames of reference. “The Journal is sort of a cult paper if you’re into it,” Stephens said of the distinction between the two publications. “I compare it to the difference between the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. If you’re into the Grateful Dead you’re really into it, but most people could barely name a song or two. But everyone knows the Stones, and I’m still adjusting to the scale.” 

“Even though I write in English, I may as well be speaking a foreign language half the time,” Stephens continued. “But as Lincoln once said, ‘A drop of honey attracts more flies than a gallon of gall.’” Among progressive readers, Stephens intends to provoke thoughtful consideration of his arguments rather than raw hostility. He hopes to demonstrate that these arguments are, at least, grounded in reason; successfully persuading those who disagree is simply a bonus. Above all else, he believes it vital to defend the imperiled principles of classical liberalism in a moment of illiberal temptations.

“My ambition is to hold up the flag for a healthy right-wing,” he told me. “I think Trump has debased the conservative movement almost beyond recognition, [but] I am as persuaded as I ever was that some of the things the conservative movement offers are things the United States and the Western world deeply need.” Stephens stresses that the validity of these ideas—free trade, originalism, a muscular foreign policy, and a belief that economic and political freedom are inseparable among them—has not been compromised by the mercurial temperament of Donald Trump. Equally, he is keen to assert that Trump’s influence should not impel principled conservatives to abandon their beliefs in support of modern progressive ideals antithetical to the American Founding.

“I fear the progressivism that I now see becoming ubiquitous on the streets of Portland and Seattle and so on,” Stephens said. “There’s always going to be a conservative strain in society. It matters whether it’s a healthy conservative strain or an unhealthy one.” Whatever changes fate may bring, it seems certain that Stephens’ vision of a healthy American conservatism will remain rooted in classical liberalism rather than aggressive nationalism. Though the outcome of his self-imposed mission to uphold this vision cannot be predicted, he will clearly remain undeterred in his ambitions.

Correction, August 9, 2021: An earlier version of this article stated that Stephens moved to Mexico before his first birthday. His family moved there shortly after his second birthday. The article also stated that Stephens started his position with the Wall Street Journal in Brussels in 1998; he began working in Brussels in 1999. A transcription error caused one of Stephen’s quotes to read “extensively center-right” and “extensively center-left,” when the modifier used was, in fact, “ostensibly.”

Correction, August 10, 2021: Stephens’ family moved to Mexico in 1975, not 1974 as originally stated.

Guy Denton is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the co-host of "The Wrong Stuff" podcast with Matt Lewis.