Then I ran across Mark Gerson's The Neoconservative Vision (Madison, 368 pages,, $26.95), which he has supplemented with a collection of classic neocon essays, The Essential Neoconservative Reader (Addison-Wesley, 467 pages,, $27.50
). Someone in the office suggested that I review the Gerson volumes, both as a student of the movement and as an occasional participant in its activities. (Gerson, who has read everything that every neoconservative has ever written, cites me a handful of times.) When our beloved Editor-in-Chief seconded the motion, I reluctantly agreed. Thus one last (this time I really mean it) encounter with the neoconservative experience.
The first thing to be said about The Neoconservative Vision is how good it is. Gerson has not only read everything on his subject, he has thoroughly absorbed, synthesized, and analyzed what he has read. (This is the more impressive because he is so young: he graduated from Williams College—where the book began as an honors project—in 1994, and he is currently in law school at Yale.) There are some minor errors of fact, a few questionable interpretations, and too many typos, but for the most part the book gets things right.
Gerson traces the neoconservative impulse from its prehistory in the liberal anticommunism of the fifties through its particular origins as a reaction against the radicalizing of liberalism in the sixties to its flourishing thereafter as a defense of American bourgeois democratic culture against its various critics on the left. Along the way he lays out with admirable clarity neoconservative positions on affirmative action, student radicalism, Israel, capitalism, government regulation, multiculturalism, religion, the family, and much, much else. (The essays collected in The Essential Neoconservative Reader provide an illustrative sampling of the literary flair and polemical zest of the leading neoconservative writers.)
All this is by now well-traveled territory for many of us, but Gerson provides a useful map and serves as a reliable guide to those unfamiliar with the terrain. And his coverage is so thorough that even veterans of the neoconservative wars will find themselves reminded on occasion of half-forgotten skirmishes and forays.
Particularly useful is Gerson's specification of the constituting notions underlying neoconservatism. He identifies four fundamental principles: 1) Life and politics are infinitely complex, so beware of utopian schemes and large-scale ventures in social engineering; 2) Human nature is mixed, and the political order cannot be arranged on the assumption of altruism (as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”); 3) Man is a social animal, which is to say that communities make claims on individual autonomy and that “freedom is an essential good, but it must serve the larger end of societal virtue”; 4) Ideas rule the world, and “a society that does not have the self-confidence to defend its principles will fall prey to the forces intent on subverting or altering those principles.” Others might add to that list of first principles or elaborate them in somewhat different ways, but I suspect that few neoconservatives would have any fundamental quarrel with Gerson's outline.
Gerson concedes that the neoconservatives no longer exist as a distinct movement, but he records their demise as their triumph: “Their ideological development over the past fifty years has culminated in what we now identify as American conservatism; in that sense, they have been so successful that it is now appropriate to drop the prefix ‘neo' from their appellation.” That, I think, is rather too triumphalist a judgment. A number of conservative intellectuals (most prominently William F. Buckley, Jr.) might legitimately quarrel with the implication that conservatism owes its ascendancy simply to the neocons.
Beyond that, the neoconservative drift to the right over time is not quite the unproblematic stately procession Gerson describes. Indeed, his own list of thirty-nine prominent neoconservative intellectuals includes at least three figures—Daniel Bell, Martin Peretz, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who either never joined the movement or who at some point defected from it because of disagreements over its political direction. That doesn't mean they were right, of course (I don't think they were), but it does complicate the story.
My own sense is that a number of neoconservatives found themselves thoroughly surprised—and in some cases somewhat unsettled—at how far to the right their political journey had led from its beginnings in the mid-sixties. Gerson does not note that neoconservatism's first political manifestation was as the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and most neoconservatives entertained hopes of reclaiming the Democratic Party and mainstream liberalism for their cause long after those hopes had lost touch with political reality. Even as they for so long insisted, against the evidence, that they were neoliberals rather than neoconservatives, so they went to quite extraordinary lengths to avoid identification as Republicans. I know of neoconservatives who have voted Republican for two decades who remain registered as Democrats. (On these matters, Irving Kristol, the leading neoconservative, was notably unrepresentative.)
This reluctance to admit being what they were was part political and intellectual habit, part ethnic heritage. Most of the leading neoconservatives were Jewish (only fourteen of Gerson's thirty-nine prominent neoconservatives are non-Jews) and Jews found it extraordinarily difficult to think of themselves as conservatives, much less Republicans. In the American context, to be a Jew—even more a Jewish intellectual—was to be a person of the left. Norman Podhoretz's working title for his memoir Breaking Ranks was A Traitor to My Class. Many Jews on the left considered him a traitor to his religion as well. (The same pressures existed, though to a much lesser extent, among Catholic neoconservatives.)
For most neoconservatives, then—Irving Kristol again excepted—the move from left to right was personally and intellectually wrenching. And those who made it often had the zeal of converts. That imbued the movement with energy and enthusiasm. It also made it acutely sensitive to signs of ideological backsliding.
Neoconservatism was not always the tidy and seamless affair Gerson depicts. There was more intramural bickering among its adherents than he records. There was also, among some of them, a greater concern for purity of doctrine than he seems aware of. Perhaps you had to be there: I recall attending neoconservative functions during the 1980s and being struck by the extent and intensity of criticism of the Reagan Administration for its ideological unreliability. (The Bush presidency, at least in its last two years, elicited only general contempt.) Like most intellectuals, neoconservatives had little patience for the inevitable—and necessary—compromises of politics.
But whatever its marginal flaws, neoconservatism was, in my view, a great and good cause. It mounted a spirited and sophisticated defense of the American social order against the utopian and rage-filled assaults of its radical critics—a defense that, to its great shame, the mainstream liberal community found itself unable or unwilling to provide. Neoconservatives were derided by their enemies for their nostalgia for the “American celebration” of the postwar years. Most of them did not take that criticism as an insult.
Neoconservatism was also a grand adventure. Gerson quotes George Weigel: “There is a kind of Henry V quality about all this. ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.' I mean, that really is true. [We are] people who have been together in a great moral cause. . . . It just forms very lasting bonds of affection.” For an understanding of the neoconservative adventure, Mark Gerson's two books provide an excellent place to start.