The King of Pompeii

Irving Kristol was the godfather of neoconservatism. Scott McLemee goes to the mattresses.

September 23, 2009

The term “neoconservative” is now routinely applied to any right-wing policy wonk inside the Beltway or the mass media. This usage reflects no understanding of the movement's history – or, just as often enough, a largely delusional notion of it, based on third-hand guesses about the influence of Leo Strauss and Leon Trotsky. Such rumors tend to be circulated by people who would be hard pressed to name a single book by either of them, let alone to grasp that their ideas were utterly incompatible.

Properly used, the label applies to a rather small cohort of social scientists and journalists who, during the 1950s and ‘60s, became anxious about Communist influence abroad – but equally uneasy at movements for black power, women’s liberation, and (a bit later) gay rights within the United States. “We regarded ourselves originally as dissident liberals,” wrote Irving Kristol, who died last week at the age of 89.

Kristol is often, and rightly, called the godfather of neoconservatism (in something akin to the Marlon Brando sense). An editor at the CIA funded journal Encounter during the 1950s, he was later one of the founders of the journal The Public Interest, and a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

“We were skeptical of many of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives," he wrote in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (Free Press, 1995), "and increasingly disbelieving of the liberal metaphysics, the view of human nature and of social and economic realities, on which those programs were based. Then, after 1965, our dissidence accelerated into a barely disguised hostility. As the ‘counterculture’ engulfed our universities and began to refashion our popular culture, we discovered that traditional ‘bourgeois’ values were what we believed all along, had indeed simply taken for granted.”

Translating this self-perception of themselves as the very guardians of civilization into a politically efficacious movement was not a swift or simple matter. Nor was the Republican Party its obvious or immediate destination. With Kristol as its helmsman, the movement built up a network of magazines, think tanks, and mass-media perches for punditry. These amounted to a counter-counterculture. Thirty years ago, Peter Steinfels’s intelligent and well-researched book The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics provided a group portrait of the movement on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election – an ideological cohort with one foot planted in each party.

This wide stance cannot have been comfortable. And in any case, the political realignment of 1980 settled the matter. Reagan was, Kristol wrote in 1995, “the first Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt whose politics were optimistically future-oriented rather than bitterly nostalgic or passively adaptive. The Congressional elections of 1994 ratified this change, just as the person of Newt Gingrich exemplified it. As a consequence, neoconservatism today is an integral part of the new language of conservative politics.”

Indeed it is, for better or worse. But not from the sheer intellectual firepower alone. As that flourish of tribute to “the person of Newt Gingrich” may suggest, the progress of neoconservatism has also involved cultivating the courtier’s grace. There is a knack for knowing just when to apply one’s lips to the fundament of power.

In the early 1990s, it was still possible for Gary Dorrien, now a professor of ethics at Union Theological Seminary and of religion at Columbia University, to write a critical but sympathetic book called The Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture, and the War of Ideology (Temple University Press, 1993) that treated it primarily as a movement of ideas, locked in struggle against the prevailing drift of American society. It would be difficult to write about the intervening years in similar terms. Neoconservatism itself became part of that prevailing drift.

Whatever elan its intellectuals once displayed in challenging accepted ideas and trends turned into the kind of second-hand energy available from just going with the flow. This is not good for anyone's critical faculties. A new book by Sam Tanenhaus called The Death of Conservatism, published by Random House, spells out some of what has happened.

Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, might fairly be called a fellow-traveler of neoconservatism, if not a full-fledged member of its counter-counterculture. His criticism is presented, not in the spirit of polemic, but with the tone of someone grappling with home truths. “During the two terms of George W. Bush,” he writes, “conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity, though few conservatives will admit it, just as few seem ready to think honestly about the consequences of a presidency that failed not because it ‘betrayed’ movement ideology but because it often enacted that ideology so rigidly: the aggressive unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive ‘culture war’ waged against liberal enemies.”

There is a considerable nostalgia to Tanenhaus’s evocation of an earlier period, when argument “about the nature of government and society, and about the role of politics in binding the two” conducted by “a small group of thinkers and writers” whose ideas “then ramified outward to become a broader quarrel that shaped, and at times defined, the political stakes of several generations.”

But now this is all just a memory. “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii,” he writes, “trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.”

I picture them clutching signs that read “Keep the government out of Medicare,” in Latin.


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