Watch on the Right: Conservative Intellectuals in the Reagan Era
by J. David Hoeveler, Jr.
University of Wisconsin Press, 333 pages, $24.95
The dust jacket of Watch on the Right, which consists of chapter-long essays on eight different conservative intellectuals, advertises that the hook “dramatizes . . . the breadth of the conservative coalition,” and that the subjects of the book “represent a very wide spectrum of conservative thought.” Nor does the publisher’s understanding of the book differ from that of its author. In his Introduction, J. David Hoeveler, Jr., a Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, describes his book as one that “explores the variety of conservative thought in the United States,” and that “confirms the pluralist nature of conservatism.” Because “conservatism comprises many moods and many voices,” writes Hoeveler, “I have . . . selected on the basis of variety.”
These statements are misleading, for they give the impression that the eight principals of Watch on the Right span the American conservative spectrum, and that Hoeveler has chosen representatives from each of the major factions: the Old Right, the New Right, neoconservatism, and libertarianism. In fact, however, Hoeveler’s group of conservatives consists of five neoconservatives and three fellow travelers. While Hoeveler is by no means oblivious to the existence of the other versions of conservatism—he briefly discusses the Old Right and the New Right in an introductory chapter—Watch on the Right is effectively a book about neoconservatism.
The five neoconservatives to whom Hoeveler devotes a chapter each are Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Hilton Kramer, and R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. The fellow travelers are George F. Will, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Robert Nisbet, who, despite ties to the Old Right, and despite the absence of a radical—or even liberal—past, all have a great deal in common with neoconservatives. Will, Buckley, and Nisbet, moreover, are all distinguishable from the paleoconservatives insofar as none demonstrates the hostility toward neoconservatism that is currently such a prominent feature of the Old Right.
Thus, though George F. Will’s occasional expression of discomfort with modernity—Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983) is a sustained example of this phenomenon—may appear to place him in the paleoconservative camp, Will is in perfect agreement with the neoconservatives on the major issues. Like the neoconservatives, and unlike the paleoconservatives. Will is a defender of a “conservative welfare state” (to use Irving Kristol’s phrase) and of the (original) goals of the civil rights movement. Like the neoconservatives, and unlike the paleoconservatives. Will champions an interventionist foreign policy and is unambiguously and unfailingly pro-Israel.
Upon the death of the neoconservative hero Henry Jackson in 1983, Will wrote a column entitled “The Finest Public Servant I Have Known,” which was similar in substance and tone to Michael Novak’s moving remembrance in Commentary. While a number of attempts have been made to define the term “neoconservative,” perhaps the most plausible definition is “Jackson Democrat.” In his column Will pronounced himself a “Jackson Republican.”
And if neoconservatives are willing to claim Will as one of their own, paleoconservatives apparently are not. In The Conservative Movement, a 1988 analysis of American conservatism written from an Old Right perspective, Will makes a single appearance—in the chapter on neoconservatism. (Paul Gottfried, incidentally, who coauthored that book with Thomas Fleming, would undoubtedly dismiss Senator Jackson in the same way he dismisses virtually every other neoconservative—as a “social democrat.”) A strong case can be made that George Will is a de facto neoconservative.
So, too, with William F. Buckley, Jr.—though to a lesser degree. At one time, Buckley’s National Review regularly published articles and editorials critical of modernity in general and liberal democracy in particular. But Buckley and his magazine have long since made their peace with modernity; rather than attacking liberal democracy from the right, National Review now defends it against attacks from the left. Buckley’s magazine, for example, once opposed the principle of colorblindness from the right; it now defends that principle against its opponents on the left. Thus, thirty years after publishing an editorial defending segregation on the grounds that whites are “the advanced race,” National Review published a sympathetic obituary for the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
Normal Podhoretz and Commentary came to neoconservatism by way of the radical left. It might be said that William F. Buckley and National Review have come to neoconservatism by way of the reactionary right. Today the principal distinction between National Review and Commentary is one of form rather than substance.
Robert Nisbet is the only conservative in Watch on the Right whom paleoconservatives are willing to claim as one of their own. This fact is consistent with the fact that Nisbet, as Hoeveler correctly notes, is the conservative in Watch on the Right who is “most directly situated in European conservatism,” and that Nisbet’s conservatism, as Hoeveler again correctly notes, “register[s] a cautious and skeptical attitude toward liberal democracy.” According to Midge Decter, who certainly knows a neoconservative when she sees one, Nisbet “is not now and has never been a neoconservative.”
Nevertheless, Nisbet does have some neoconservative connections. He is, for example, a long-time contributor to neoconservative periodicals. The Public Interest published an article by Nisbet in its inaugural issue, and parts of The Twilight of Authority (1975), one of Nisbet’s best-known and most important books, originally appeared in The Public Interest, Commentary, and Encounter. Though Nisbet is a paleoconservative, he is not a paleoconservative of the anti-neoconservative variety.
It is therefore incorrect to say, as Hoeveler does in his Afterword, that “the eight individuals studied in this book . . . differed significantly in their ideas.” For the principals of Watch on the Right in fact represent a rather narrow spectrum of American conservative thought: with the possible exception of Robert Nisbet, there are no differences of a fundamental kind among the eight conservatives discussed in this book.
Despite the false advertising, however, Watch on the Right is in many respects an impressive book. First, it is clearly the product of hard work. Hoeveler conducted interviews with each of the principals of his study, and the footnotes make it clear that he has read virtually everything these conservatives have written (as well as much that has been written about them).
Second, Watch on the Right is balanced: unlike many analysts of the American right, Hoeveler manages to avoid the extremes of obsequiousness and scornfulness. Hoeveler’s essays are always respectful (and occasionally admiring), but never uncritical.
Third, Hoeveler writes intelligently about a range of subjects. Though he is not an expert in foreign policy, sociology, or art, the historian Hoeveler displays a command of these subjects (in his essays on Kirkpatrick, Nisbet, and Kramer, respectively) exceeding that of most educated laymen.
Fourth, Hoeveler makes a significant contribution to the literature on American conservatism by providing sustained and systematic treatments of conservatives about whom there has not been a great deal written. Though it has become increasingly difficult to say anything about Buckley, Will, Kristol, or Kirkpatrick that has not been said already, even readers well-acquainted with American conservatism will be educated by Hoeveler’s essays on Kramer, Novak, Tyrrell, and Nisbet.
Finally, by including a brief biographical section in each essay, Hoeveler permits his readers to learn about his subjects’ backgrounds as well as their ideas, and to discover how their conservatism has developed.
Still, there are some omissions and some mistakes. Conspicuous in its absence from Hoeveler’s essay on William F. Buckley, Jr. is any discussion of what might be the most interesting development in Buckley’s thought: his transformation from reactionary anti-liberal to conservative liberal. The young Buckley was an opponent of two of the hallmark principles of a liberal polity: academic freedom and colorblindness. In God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley defended the right of a university to demand intellectual orthodoxy from its faculty; his thesis was that professors should be prohibited from teaching anything but Christianity and laissez faire. In Up from Liberalism (1959), Buckley defended race-consciousness—i.e., the view that the accident of skin pigmentation has social, political, and legal relevance; on the issue of segregation, he sided with the southern whites. Today, of course, it is the anti-liberal left rather than the anti-liberal right that leads the attack against academic freedom and colorblindness. And it is the so-called conservatives, joined by an older Buckley, who now defend these principles.
Hoeveler’s book also overlooks some interesting changes in the foreign policy thinking of Irving Kristol, who, in response to the decline and fall of Communism, has moved away from an ideological approach to foreign policy, and toward a realist approach. Writing in the inaugural issue of The National Interest in the fall of 1985, Kristol argued that a conservative foreign policy must have “a significant ideological dimension.” He had apparently changed his mind, however, by the time that magazine was celebrating its fifth anniversary. In the Fall 1990 issue of the journal, Kristol described a conservative foreign policy as one that is “defined in ‘national interest’ terms.”
The author of Watch on the Right appears to have missed this change in Kristol’s views. Kristol, according to Hoeveler, is one who “spoke out as forcefully as any of the conservatives in denouncing the realist concept of foreign policy”; while “some conservatives warned” that realpolitik was simply not effective, Kristol condemned it in principle.” Hoeveler’s book may have gone to press too early to take account of this change in Kristol’s foreign policy thinking (though it must be said that Kristol has been moving steadily toward realism for the last several years). The change, in any event, is a significant one, since neoconservatives have long been criticized by paleoconservatives for excessive foreign policy idealism and for their support of “global democratic revolution.”
So much for the omissions. As for Hoeveler’s mistakes, most of them have to do with the Straussians and their place within American conservatism. In his introductory chapter, for example, Hoeveler writes that the Straussians “significantly extended the intellectual reach of the Old Right,” that they “reinforced the parameters of the Old Right,” and that they “extended the ontological foundations of the Old Right.” Hoeveler apparently identifies the Straussians with the Old Right because Leo Strauss himself, like many paleoconservatives, was critical of modern political philosophy. Yet it seems clear that Straussians have far more in common with neoconservatives than with paleoconservatives. In fact, there is considerable overlap between the neoconservatives and the so-called “eastern” Straussians.
William Kristol, for example, currently Chief of Staff to Vice President Quayle, is a neoconservative by birth (he is Irving Kristol’s son) and a Straussian by education (he studied with Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.). And both Walter Berns and Robert A. Goldwin, each of whom studied with Strauss himself, are affiliated with the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. Neoconservative periodicals, moreover, regularly publish articles by Straussians. Contributors to the Winter 1987 issue of The Public Interest, for example, which was devoted to the bicentennial of the Constitution, included not only the neoconservatives Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and James Q. Wilson, but also the Straussians Walter Berns, Harvey Mansfield, and Thomas Pangle.
And if there is affinity between Straussians and neoconservatives, there is discord between Straussians and paleoconservatives. Straussian students of the American Founding—of both the “eastern” and “western” variety—view the Declaration of Independence as the central document of the American regime. Reverence for the Declaration, however, is not a common paleoconservative attitude. On the contrary: reading that document out of the American Founding has been a continuing project of the Old Right. For paleoconservatives, the Straussian idea that equality is a “conservative principle” (to use Harry V. Jaffa’s phrase) is heretical. Abraham Lincoln is a Straussian hero, but a paleoconservative villain.
Hoeveler’s treatment of the Straussians’ relationship to American conservatism, which is an interesting and somewhat complicated issue, is thus rather careless. But this carelessness is an anomaly in what is otherwise a careful book. Though it is not a comprehensive study of the “conservative movement,” Watch on the Right does what other books—such as Peter Steinfels’ The Neoconservatives (1979) and Sidney Blumenthal’s The Rise of the Counter-Establishment (1986)—do not: it provides a thoughtful and sympathetic analysis of neoconservatism.
Dan Himmmelfarb , a new contributor to First Things , is a former Assistant Managing Editor of The Public Interest.