Bring back the real neoconservatives
Confessions of a bona fide neocon, circa 1976
In recent weeks, readers have asked me a cluster of questions about the positions I've staked out in my columns. The questions go something like this: How can you think that Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) is the worst president since the 1930s, while considering George W. Bush (a Republican) a close runner-up for that dubious distinction? Do you realize that you're spending roughly equal amounts of time bashing liberal politicians and ideas as you are conservative politicians and ideas?
And what about the apparent contradiction in writing critically about the rise of a self-dealing oligarchy and the dark sides of meritocratic striving, while also highlighting the way America is being transformed by the ideal of human equality?
In sum, readers want to know where I'm coming from. Am I being contrarian for its own sake? Am I a liberal? A conservative? A Democrat? A Republican? (Well, I'm obviously not a Republican.) Just how do I position myself ideologically?
My shorthand answer is that I'm a neoconservative, circa 1976.
Let me explain.
In its first phase, neoconservatism was forged in the pages of The Public Interest, the quarterly public policy journal founded in 1965 by sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) and essayist Irving Kristol (1920-2009) when Great Society liberalism was at the apex of its dominance over American political culture. In their co-authored editorial from the journal's inaugural issue, Bell and Kristol announced that their position was "not easily reconcilable with a prior commitment to an ideology, whether it be liberal, conservative, or radical." They went on:
[I]t is the essential peculiarity of ideologies that they do not simply prescribe ends but also insistently propose prefabricated interpretations of existing social realities — interpretations that bitterly resist all sensible revision. The Public Interest will be animated by a bias against all such prefabrications. [The Public Interest]
Over the next several years, The Public Interest strove to maintain a dispassionate distance from the intense ideological clashes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, publishing a diverse range of articles on important issues of the day by sociologists, historians, economists, and political philosophers, including Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Martin Diamond, Daniel P. Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, and many others.
Bell severed his editorial connection to the journal in 1973, correctly sensing that Kristol was becoming more interested in forging a new conservative ideology than in maintaining a critical distance from all ideologies. This is when neoconservatism entered its second phase. The Public Interest still published articles written in the old, non-ideological style, but it also began to promote more programmatic ideas that were later swept into power with the Reagan Revolution of 1980.
Today neoconservatism stands for something close to the opposite of what it once did. By the time Irving's son William Kristol founded The Weekly Standard in 1995 — the beginning of its third and current phase — the neoconservatives had become Washington's foremost purveyors of ideological thinking in both foreign and domestic policy. Where they once advocated a sober realism and deterrence in international affairs, now they recklessly encouraged presidents to start pre-emptive wars across the globe. Where they once offered an ambivalent two cheers for capitalism, now they turned free enterprise into a fetish. Where they once viewed right-wing populism with suspicion, now they sought to ride it to power by offering to serve as its philosophical enablers.
Why, then, do I consider myself a neoconservative at all? And why 1976?
Because that's when Bell published The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism — hands down the greatest intellectual achievement of neoconservatism, before or since, and the theoretically richest statement of what The Public Interest in its initial configuration was trying to achieve. (Parts of the book originally appeared as essays in the journal.)
To summarize the barest outlines of a complicated argument, Bell claimed that advanced capitalism was leading to the spread of hedonism in American culture — and that this hedonism was in turn undermining the cultural preconditions of capitalism, specifically the deferred gratification that once formed the core of middle-class morality.
In its specifics, Bell's analysis hasn't held up particularly well. Capitalism has continued on its merry way as hedonism has metastasized throughout American culture beyond anything Bell could have imagined in the mid-'70s. As Bell's student (and my teacher) Mark Lilla noted in an essay published in 1998 (available behind a paywall here), "any social 'contradiction' lasting one generation is not a contradiction, it is a social fact."
But at a deeper level, Bell's analytical approach has been thoroughly vindicated. Bell championed an anti-ideological pluralism, looking to lay bare the underlying logic that governs distinct realms of human thinking and action: Culture (high, middle, and low), science, economics, psychology, politics, morality, religion. Each of these realms needs to be understood in its own terms before one can venture a theory of how they interact with each other, let alone a theory of the dizzyingly complex social whole that combines them all.
Bell's pluralism is the ultimate antidote to ideological thinking, which is the great simplifier, proposing a comprehensive view of multiple social realms without paying sufficient attention to the tensions, contradictions, clashes, and complicated interactions among them. Ideological thinking is also at work when writers and scholars apply truths that govern one realm to other realms. Economists do this when they project economic assumptions onto non-economic spheres of life. Biologists do it when they treat all human behavior as an expression of evolutionary imperatives. Activists and intellectuals do it when they assume that politics and morality can and should be understood in identical terms. The examples are endless; there is no more common error in intellectual life. (I've certainly made my own mistakes over the years.)
Which brings me back to some of the questions I listed at the beginning of this column. I dislike Lyndon Johnson (as did many of the original neocons) because he was a liberal ideologue. I dislike George W. Bush for the same reason, though the content of the ideology is obviously different (though perhaps not as different as many liberals and conservatives would like to believe). I have a similar aversion to contemporary ideologues of the Left and Right — and look back fondly to the president who came closest to embodying the modest, skeptical sensibility of the early neocons.
As for whether it's self-contradictory of me to highlight the spread of economic inequality while also noting how the (Christian) moral ideal of equality has made gay marriage a fait accompli, I'll only note that economics and morals are separate realms of society. America is becoming at once less egalitarian and more egalitarian at the same time. Call it a contradiction; call it a social fact. It's our reality.
Bell always denied he was a neoconservative. (Though this didn't keep the author of the first book-length study of the movement from placing Bell at its center.) In keeping with his pluralism, he preferred to describe himself as a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.
But to my mind, Bell was one of the only true neoconservatives — one of the very few from the circle of writers originally involved with The Public Interest to uphold with admirable consistency the spirit of skepticism and pluralism in which it was founded. (Nathan Glazer, Bell's successor as Irving Kristol's co-editor, is another.)
It's this spirit that is sorely lacking from politics and commentary in our ideology-saturated age — and that I try in my own modest way to exemplify in my writing.
Let's bring back the real neocons.