Everybody, it seems, is pronouncing the death of neoconservatism”including, most significantly, the two people most responsible for its existence in the first place, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz.
Kristol has done so in his recent Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (Free Press) and Podhoretz follows suit in the March issue of Commentary with his essay “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy.” In neither case does the eulogy take on the character of an elegy: for both men, neoconservatism departs the scene not because it has failed but because it has, in large part at least, succeeded in what it set out to accomplish.
Putting the question of success or failure aside for the moment, is it true to say that neoconservatism is dead? I suspect it is”it would seem impertinent, to say the least, to argue with the founding fathers on the point”but I do want to complicate the argument just a bit.
First, some history is in order. Neoconservatism came into being mainly as a byproduct of the disintegration of the left in the late 1960s. The neocons were for the most part disillusioned liberals (or radicals) who broke with their former allies over what they considered the febrile, guilt”ridden anti-Americanism embraced by much of the left in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War movement. (A great many neoconservatives”Podhoretz notable among them”participated in the early days of the antiwar movement but parted from it in its latter radical stages.) As Podhoretz puts it, “Neoconservatism came into the world to combat the dangerous lies that were being spread by the radicalism of the sixties and that were being accepted as truth by the established liberal institutions of the day.” The neoconservatives, one might say, established themselves as the adversaries of the adversary culture.
The neocons (most of whom came to accept the term only under duress) brought to the right a measure of the intellectual recognition it had previously lacked. Prior to the neoconservatives’ emergence, liberals for the most part dealt with intellectual challenges from the right by not dealing with them, by ignoring conservative arguments and the people who made them. It was harder for liberals to disregard the neoconservatives, who had gained intellectual recognition while still on the left and who therefore could not so easily be treated as if they were not there. Neoconservative critiques of the left achieved a visibility and thus an influence that earlier criticisms”notably those of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his colleagues at National Review ”had not.
Relations between the Buckley conservatives and the neocons were, at first, often distant and uncomfortable. The two groups had different histories, different intellectual styles, different preoccupations. Many in the Buckley group (though not Buckley himself) treated the neoconservatives as interlopers and tended to suspect them of closet liberal sympathies”which, given the way the National Review of those days defined such things, was not an entirely unfounded suspicion. Many neoconservatives, for their part, could not accustom themselves to regarding as allies people whom all their lives they had considered beyond the bounds of intellectual respectability.
Neoconservatives differed with traditional conservatives on a number of issues, of which the three most important, in my view, were the New Deal, civil rights, and the nature of the Communist threat. On the New Deal, neoconservatives wanted not to dismantle the welfare/regulatory state, as did most traditionalists, but simply to prevent its infinite expansion, as in the programs of the Great Society. On civil rights, all neocons were enthusiastic supporters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, while the National Review was suspicious of King and opposed to federal legislation forbidding racial discrimination.
As to communism, traditionalists and neocons were both ardent anti-Communists; but where neocons focused on the danger of external aggression, traditionalists worried more about the threat of internal subversion”and, as Podhoretz notes, “They were not, to put it gently, always scrupulous in distinguishing among the various factions on the left.” The National Review conservatives were, in most cases, zealous defenders of Senator Joe McCarthy; the neoconservatives considered him a political thug whose demagoguery had severely damaged the anti-Communist cause.
Over the years, the distance between the two camps on these (and other) issues has narrowed considerably. On the New Deal and the role of government, the movement has come mainly from the neoconservative side. As Podhoretz says, “By now most neoconservatives have pretty well given up on the welfare state.” (Though I have yet to meet a neoconservative who considers himself a libertarian.) On civil rights, it is the traditionalists who have shifted ground. They mostly support, in retrospect, the early Civil Rights Acts, and they join with the neoconservatives in favorably contrasting Dr. King’s vision of a color”blind society with the balkanizing quota schemes of today’s civil rights establishment. Finally, of course, divisions among anti-Communists have long since disappeared and McCarthyism remains an issue only in textbooks.
This pattern of convergence means that neoconservatism has lost its ideological distinctiveness. As Kristol observes, the children of neocons”the non-rebellious ones at least”think of themselves simply as “conservatives without adjectival modification.” Neither Kristol nor Podhoretz finds grounds for regret in that. Neoconservatives have lost their particularity but won their war. Communism is dead and the left is in disarray. Podhoretz happily concludes: “I think we can claim that the defense the neoconservatives mounted of American society and its traditional values against the frontal assaults of the counterculture ended with a victory that in its own modest way resembled the victory of the West over communism in the Cold War.”
It is not surprising, in retrospect, that things should have turned out as they did. Although neoconservatives originally hoped to exercise influence among liberals”their first institutional incarnation, after all, was as the Coalition for a Democratic Majority”the direction of their movement, from the time it targeted the New Left as the enemy, was always to the right. And once Ronald Reagan won the presidency and made conservatism the political establishment, traditionalist conservatives dropped their sectarian mentality and met the neocons coming the other way.
Podhoretz somewhat misreads Reagan’s role in all this. Podhoretz says that “Reagan can . . . be considered one of the first neoconservatives.” In fact, few if any neoconservatives were early supporters of Reagan, whom they correctly viewed as a traditionalist conservative with strong libertarian leanings. Prior to 1980, most neoconservatives regarded him with a combination of condescension and mistrust. Once he was nominated, however”and even more once he was elected”virtually all of them drifted, at varying rates of speed and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to his support. It was the Reagan presidency that, in its continuous warfare with the left, consolidated the various schools of conservatism into a more-or-less unified, and more-or-less successful, ideological coalition. And in the process eliminated neo conservatism’s reason for being.
Not everyone concedes the death of neoconservatism. The so-called paleoconservatives”an odd amalgam of extreme libertarians, isolationists, anti-Vatican II Catholics, and unreconstructed defenders of the Southern Confederacy”find their reason for being in endless denunciations of the neoconservatives, and of the National Review traditionalists for having sold out to them. The idea of neoconservatism as a liberal plot to highjack conservatism for the left might seem hopelessly dated”the social democratic wing of neoconservatism disappeared long ago”but it remains vibrantly alive in the pages of journals like Chronicles and in the imaginations of ideologues attracted to the candidacy of Pat Buchanan.
I find myself in the perverse position of wishing the paleocons were more right than they are in insisting on neoconservative distinctiveness. And I suspect I am not alone.
More than a few of us who came of intellectual age in the late 1950s and early 1960s found ourselves politically isolated. We did not identify comfortably with either the liberal or conservative communities of the time. We were, in shorthand terms, neither New Republic nor National Review . Then along came Kristol’s new Public Interest and, a few years later, Podhoretz’s reconfigured Commentary , journals that redefined the possibilities of American politics and offered intellectual shelter to those of us who had been ideologically homeless.
The 1990s are not the 1960s, and Kristol and Podhoretz are right to emphasize the differences. Their journals are still there, but they no longer stand alone. Commentary and National Review are far more alike than they were then, and the differences that remain do not fit neat ideological categories.
Still, it is more than nostalgia that prompts the wish that the neoconservative impulse might remain alive. The neoconservatives were appalled by what had become of liberalism, but they understood that to break entirely with the liberal tradition would be to break with the American experiment. They were combative but not sectarian. They quarreled with modernity without supposing they could act as if modernity had not occurred. Perhaps most importantly, they fought the utopian illusions of the left without succumbing to a counter-utopianism. They were principled, but they resisted the notion that politics consists mainly of maintaining an ideological paradigm.
These elements of the neoconservative temper retain their relevance even if neoconservatism as a program does not”and any conservatism worth defending will want to hold on to them even when neoconservatism exists only in memory.