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The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology
by gary dorrien
temple university press, 500 pages, $34.95

In a sense, modern American political thought is a battle for the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. With the exception of the most committed paleoconservatives and the most ideological libertarians, a consensus has developed in American thought that accepts civil rights, the New Deal, and the goal of equality of opportunity. These cornerstones of the liberalism of old—“when Democrats were Democrats”—are supported by most conservatives and even exalted by some: Ronald Reagan, for instance, who consistently quoted Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy and who never sought to repeal Social Security or to reinstitute a traditional understanding of states rights. By and large, American conservatives seek to conserve both the policies and the society wrought by men who were considered liberals just three decades ago.

Interestingly, when the word “change” is applied to modern American intellectual life, it is generally associated with the neoconservatives. The traditional conservatives, as represented by National Review, now support civil rights—after once having considered them a violation of Burkean notions of traditional order—and now advocate basic government social welfare programs—having once vilified them as a negation of freedom and a harbinger of collectivism. Liberals, on the other hand, who once championed civil rights, pluralism, and equality of opportunity, now all too often support quotas, multicultural Balkanization, and equality of outcome rather than opportunity. In contrast to both liberals and old conservatives, neoconservatives have consistently supported a limited welfare state buttressed by an understanding of human nature based on religious values, a strong military, and a desire to allow communities to decide for themselves how best to balance their needs with the demands of individual freedom. Thus, while contemporary liberals abandoned the neoconservatives, National Review conservatives joined them. It is the neoconservatives who have, for the most part, remained in place.

Yet, because most neoconservatives were once called “liberal” and are now called “conservative,” the literature of modern political thought is filled with discussions of how the neoconservatives have changed. Theories abound: Was it the counterculture? Israel? The excesses of the New York Review of Books ? Was it a desire to work in spacious offices at the American Enterprise Institute, sit on corporate boards, and receive lucrative grants from conservative foundations?

In The Neoconservative Mind , Gary Dorrien accepts all of these explanations and more as reasons why a core group of intellectuals have abandoned the true faith of liberalism and carved out for themselves a new conservatism which, in his view, is really no better than the old. Dorrien selects four neoconservatives”Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Novak, and Peter Berger”whose careers he finds emblematic of the neoconservative intellectual movement.

The Neoconservative Mind is more a rebuttal of neoconservative political positions than a philosophical exploration. Dorrien, a professor, Episcopal priest, and theological advisor to the National Council of Churches, waxes indignant about various neoconservative violations of political correctness, especially those respecting the Third World, blacks, gays, and women. For someone who professes a desire to understand neoconservatism because it is “the most instructive opposition that any reconstructed progressive politics is likely to encounter,” Dorrien often overlooks the ideas of his subjects in order to impugn their motives and question their moral rectitude and even intelligence. To expropriate an old line from Irving Kristol, Gary Dorrien, morally opposed to capital punishment, has decided to moralize neoconservatism to death Nowhere is his moralizing more stringent than with the issue of feminism. In the introduction to the book, Dorrien writes that feminism is the issue about which he most disagrees with the neoconservatives, and with few exceptions he characterizes neoconservatives as obsessive antifeminists. He writes:

It was uncomprehending [to neoconservatives] as to why so many obviously intelligent and compassionate people would become feminists. The experiences of discrimination, exploitation, and abuse described by feminists were abruptly dismissed by neoconservatives as either unbelievable or childish. The differences between difference-oriented and equality-oriented feminisms were treated by neoconservatives as contradictions . . . .

And he employs similar language in confronting Peter Berger on Third World development, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter on homosexuality, Irving Kristol on the United Nations, and Michael Novak on liberation theology.

Into his moralizing, Dorrien weaves attacks on the character and intelligence of many of his subjects. He asserts, for instance, that Irving Kristol and Michael Novak are hypocritical in their warnings about the new class because they have neither renounced their chairs at the American Enterprise Institute nor forsworn all grants. He thus ignores the clear and simple truth that the neoconservatives do not object to the professional class in general, but only to those who in various ways accept the largesse of business and government only to subvert the ideas of republican democracy and capitalism and the bourgeois values that sustain them.

Dorrien attempts to rebut the neoconservatives by trapping them in the interviews that they agreed to give him. The most striking example of this involves Peter Berger, whom Dorrien casts as the neoconservative with a human face by comparison with the rudely ideological Podhoretz, Novak, and Kristol. Questioning Berger’s support for capitalism as the key to economic development, Dorrien asks him about some obscure socialist scheme in Sweden with which Berger is apparently unfamiliar. Dorrien proudly quotes Berger’s reply, “If they go ahead with it, and it works, this would falsify my argument . . . . Of course, I don’t think this would work, either . . . . But it sounds like a fascinating empirical case to me.”

In his opening chapter, Dorrien asserts that the forerunners of neoconservatism are the anti-Communist writers James Burnham and Sidney Hook. While Burnham and Hook were powerful and important thinkers, their influence on the neoconservatives was primarily limited to anticommunism. After renouncing first Marxism and then liberal anticommunism, Burnham became a columnist for National Review, which had a less than happy relationship with the nascent neoconservatives until the 1970s. Hook, while the premier anti-Communist theorist of his day, maintained an allegiance to socialism and a hostility to religion about which the neoconservatives occasionally, albeit lovingly, despaired.

Rather than Burnham and Hook, the true philosophical underpinnings of neoconservatism can be better traced to thinkers like Lionel Trilling and Reinhold Niebuhr. The concepts of what Trilling termed “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty,” developed in seminal works such as his The Liberal Imagination and Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness , betrayed grave doubts about the meliorist assumptions of the liberal view of human nature. While Trilling’s opposition to what he termed the “adversary culture” and “the orthodoxy of dissent” and Niebuhr’s emphasis on the need for religion to supplement bourgeois values directly influenced the neoconservatives, their broader theories regarding the limits of human action and the inefficacy of utopianism provided neoconservatism with a philosophical framework upon which many of its most crucial tenets and positions would be based.

As a result of missing the formative stages of neoconservatism, Dorrien misinterprets and ignores many of the most important tenets of neoconservatism. In a study of intellectual history, a solid grasp of philosophical foundation is essential because thinkers directly build upon those who inspire them. In his misconstruing the roots of neoconservatism, Dorrien’s failure to understand the real framework of his subject was inevitable.

Especially striking in this regard is Dorrien’s discussion of religion. He writes, “The neoconservatives were too theologically diverse to make common theologically based arguments and too utilitarian to make the effort . . . . They did not agree . . . on the role that religious institutions should play in society . . . .” In fact, however, one of the few points of universal agreement among neoconservatives is the importance of a religious foundation both to bourgeois morality and democratic capitalism. Indeed, an interesting and unstudied aspect of neoconservatism is how people of backgrounds as diverse as that of Norman Podhoretz and Richard John Neuhaus could come to such agreement on issues of religion and public life. While Dorrien does not mention it, Michael Novak happens to be not only one of the great economic philosophers of our era, but one of the most profound and powerful philo-Semitic gentiles writing on Judaism today. To ignore the role of religion in neoconservatism is to overlook crucial tenets of neoconservatism relating to morality, community, and the spiritual requirements for fulfillment in contemporary society.

Unfortunately, Dorrien’s book on neoconservatism fits into a mold of writing about the subject to which James Q. Wilson alluded as early as 1980. Since World War II, he said, serious, thinking liberals have bemoaned the absence of a Coleridge for their Mill”a good American conservative school of thought to challenge them. National Review came along in 1955, but for most of these liberals National Review was not what they had in mind. Perhaps because there are many neoconservatives who do not like the label and hence will not openly defend what it stands for, the defenses of neoconservativism have been greatly outnumbered by attacks. Here we have one of those attacks, personally nasty and”or maybe because”intellectually thin.

Yet it is necessary to defend neoconservatism for reasons that go beyond protecting the reputations of the men and women tough enough to carry their fight, as it were, to the street. To agree with Gary Dorrien that “neoconservatism had become too conservative to reclaim a place in the Democratic party,” rather than to assert that the Democratic party had become too liberal for the neoconservatives, is to accord present-day liberalism the intellectual roots it does not have, the continuity it has not maintained, and the legitimacy it has not earned. Rather, it has been the neoconservatives, with a view of human nature chastened by the admonitions of Trilling and Niebuhr, who have sought to craft a philosophy responsive to the rough matter of human nature and the American imperative of progress. It is this philosophy and the legacy which it represents that demands a defense in the chronicles of modern intellectual history.

Mark Gerson, a new contributor to First Things, is a senior at Williams College.

Image by The Library of Congress via Creative Commons. Image cropped.