Sam Tanenhaus’s thoughtful Conservatism is Dead in The New Republic (and the responses to it) has ignited an interesting debate here and elsewhere (as it should). I’m not interested in nitpicking Tanenhaus’s writing on the future of the conservative movement. But I’m a bit confused.
In his recent piece which calls on conservatives to return to their “Burkean” roots while preserving the foundations of the New Deal — marrying the political instincts of Disraeli with the institutional legacy of FDR — he seems to suggest that the neoconservatives were/are part of the reactionary radical right.
The Burkean moment was dissipating, and not only because of New Right populists. In 1975, the same year Phillips’s, Buchanan’s, and Rusher’s manifestos all were published, Irving Kristol, the onetime elegist of the non-ideological “reforming spirit,” identified a “new class” of liberal enemies. They were “not much interested in money but are keenly interested in power,” Kristol wrote. “Power for what? Well, the power to shape our civilization–a power, which, in a capitalist system, is supposed to reside in the free market. The ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed to government, where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised.” And who, exactly, populated this new class? “[S]cientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communication industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of the government bureaucracy.”
This formulation mirrored “the antinomianism and anti-institutionalism” Bell had attributed to the countercultural left. The right, it appeared, was nursing its own version of anti-Americanism. In fact, it had been festering for many years. As Garry Wills, who broke with the movement in the 1970s but continued to call himself a conservative, observed: “The right wing in America is stuck with the paradox of holding a philosophy of ‘conserving’ an actual order it does not want to conserve.”
The attack on the “new class,” rooted in cultural hostility, dominated movement conservatism for the next 30 years, up through the administration of George W. Bush. On one side, as Rusher described it, were “businessmen, manufacturers, hard-hats, blue-collar workers, and farmers.” On the other: “a liberal verbalist elite (the dominant media, the major foundations and research institutions, the educational establishment, the federal and state bureaucracies) and a semipermanent welfare constituency.”
The right, which for so long had deplored the politics of “class warfare,” had become the most adept practitioners of that same politics. They had not only abandoned Burke. They had become inverse Marxists, placing loyalty to the movement–the Reagan Revolution–above their civic responsibilities. In 1995, the time of Gingrich’s ascendancy, Kristol buoyantly spelled out the terms of revanchist strategy: “American conservatism is a movement, a popular movement, not a faction within any political party. Though, inevitably, most conservatives vote Republican, they are not party loyalists and the party has to woo them to win votes. This movement is issue oriented. It will happily meld with the Republican party if the party is ‘right’ on the issues; if not, it will walk away.” By this calculus, all the obligations flow in only one direction. Parties are accountable to movement purists, while purists incur no reciprocal debt. They determine the “right” position, and the party’s job is to advance it. Kristol does not consider whether purists might be expected to maneuver at all or even to modify their views–for the good not only of the party but also the larger polity.
Kristol went on, in this essay, to extol the contributions of two movement subgroups, the neoconservatives and the evangelicals. It was of course this alliance that most fervently supported George W. Bush during his two terms and remains most loyal to him today.
But then, in late 2000, in what could be described as a song of praise and worship for neoconservativism, When Left Turns Right, It Leaves The Middle Muddled, in The New York Times, Tanenhaus’s narrative about the conservative movement and the neoconservatuves sounds very, very different. He appaluds what de describes as the Republican party and the conservatiive movement being taken over by the neocons and celebrates “the fusion of left and right, a legacy of 1970′s-style neoconservatism.’”
It was the tension between liberal sentiments and conservative analysis that gave the neoconservative movement its distinctive flavor. Its first wave of thinkers — people like Irving Kristol (often referred to as ”the godfather of neoconservatism”), his wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, the sociologist James Q. Wilson and the art critic Hilton Kramer — often sided with traditional (or paleo) conservatives on policy questions but offered strikingly different lines of argument. Where paleos decried ”Godless Communism,” neocons framed the issue in terms of global totalitarianism. Where economic conservatives protested that antipoverty programs amounted to ”creeping socialism,” neocons pointed instead to evidence that the programs only worsened conditions for the poor. Where old-line conservatives equated affirmative action with Big Brother-style social engineering, neocons said that a system of quotas violated the spirit of the civil rights movement and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a color-blind society.
Several of the neoconservatives rose to highly visible positions in government: Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the United Nations; William J. Bennett as secretary of education. Others achieved influence mainly as writers, editors, teachers and publicists. But after so many years at center stage, does this aging band still deserve the prefix ”neo”? Many, both inside the movement and out, think not.
The main villains in that storyline are the paleo-conservatives and a few neo-liberals who resist what is seen — and being applauded — as the inevitable hegemony of the neoconservatives, their agenda of National Greatness, and their favorite politicians (Bush W., McCain, Lieberman) over American politics.
Still, if the neoconservative movement has dwindled or died, neoconservative ideas are flourishing as never before. Last year Mr. Podhoretz praised President Clinton for having ”de-”McGovernized” the Democratic Party and steering it back to the political center. And Joseph I. Lieberman, a friend of Jerry Falwell and William J. Bennett, has over the years taken positions — like his well-publicized criticisms of Hollywood culture — that come straight from the neoconservative play book. It seems that on a wide array of issues — from crime to schools to welfare reform — neoconservative thinking is not difficult to reconcile with either conservative or liberal aims. Recently Robert B. Reich, the former Secretary of Labor and a consistently liberal voice in the Clinton Administration, proposed an ambitious plan for school vouchers, which he sees as a means of achieving the classic liberal goals of integrating classrooms and improving education for the poor.
In this sense, the legacy of neoconservatism seems secure. ”Neoconservatism has had a trickle-down effect on the political culture, and its influence on both major parties is evident even today,” Mr. Podhoretz says, with considerable satisfaction. Or perhaps, as David Brooks puts it, ”We’re all neoconservatives now.”
Or apparently not, according to Tanenhaus II.