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Tanenhaus I vs. Tanenhaus II on the Neocons: Conservatives or Radicals?

Sam Tanenhaus’s thoughtful Conservatism is Dead [1] in The New Republic (and the responses to it) has ignited an interesting debate here [2] and elsewhere [3] (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.”

Or here:

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, [4] 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.

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Comments Disabled To "Tanenhaus I vs. Tanenhaus II on the Neocons: Conservatives or Radicals?"

#1 Comment By Jack Tracey On February 12, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

So, is all the slicing and dicing of “Conservatism” the result of the Republican Party being discredited by its misuse of federal power, or have real and definable differences always existed? I’ve considered myself a Libertarian, a classical liberal, even a reactionary, but until recently I thought a Conservative was just someone who always voted Republican. I could never buy into the Liberal / Progressive agenda, but I have to say that it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I discovered PJB (who my Dad has voted for) and Ron Paul (who I have now voted for) that I thought I could call myself a Conservative. (No offense to you other folks.)

One of the better statements I’ve read on this site was that a foundational principle of conservatism is prudence. My reading of that is that conservatism is a philosophy of social practice and governance that is grounded in practical lessons from personal and historical experience. It is not the shared wisdom gleaned from a person’s or a people’s own legend. That rules out Obama and Hannity, who are apparently drinking together now. It does not, in my mind, rule out religion. For all its supernatural explanations, religion is profoundly practical. (Hey, pork is bad for you.)

Also, is there a Neoconservative manifesto, or is “Neoconservative” the name self-described “[insert prefix]-Conservatives” have given to Republicans who believe federal power is the first and best solution to the world’s ills? I don’t recall ever hearing anyone – pundit or policymaker – identifying himself as a “Neoconservative”.

#2 Comment By TomB On February 13, 2009 @ 12:22 am

Well, one might observe in trying to be as understanding of Tanenhaus as possible, we know things about the neo-conservatives today that we didn’t know in 2000, don’t we?

In 2000 he was liking what seemed their greater reliance on intellectualism than the more traditionalist conservatives. Today of course, when that alleged intellectualism has given us Iraq and Bush’s deficits and loving immigration amnesties, and has grown a movement of utterly mindless robots like Limbaugh and Hannity and fundamentalist religios….

Nevertheless, Tanenhaus’ warring opinions still seem to confirm my belief that there’s hardly anything today that can’t credibly be called “conservative,” which is why the brand ought to be deserted.

More and more I think the American people don’t care if you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat or a liberal or a conservative. Elsewise how do you explain them swinging so readily if not wildly from a Carter to a Reagan to a Clinton to a Bush to an Obama?

It’s not like the early and middle part of the last century anymore when people just got somewhat imprinted early on with their party choice. Both parties have blundered enough since then to have associated their names indelibly with some disasters so that people know that it’s not a matter of voting for perfect over evil, but instead just a matter of voting for whoever seems least bad at the time. I.e., people aren’t stupid.

What’s needed then in my opinion at least is a fresh, smart initiative looking to honor but also to temper and restrain traditionalism with intellectualism.

People don’t care about being slaves to cheap calls for “traditionalism” or “patriotism” or to some mythical past especially given that we are so manifestly living in different times today. (Like it or not.) Nor on the other hand do they want to be guinea pigs at the hands of intellectuals with their never-ending slew of new enthusiasms, trouncing all over what Americans have regarded as their traditional rights and sensibilities.

A middle ground, says I. A “National Libertarian” party or movement, says I. (Again, tiresomely.)

#3 Comment By Leon Hadar On February 13, 2009 @ 11:41 am

In his most recent NR Tanenhaus doesn’t focus on 9/11 and the Iraq War (which he supported) as a way of explaining why his attitudes towards the necons seemed to change. Instead, he goes back to the Reagan era and suggests that that was the turning point in the history of the conservative movement. BTW, I don’t have any problems with intellectuals changing their minds on this or that.

#4 Comment By TomB On February 13, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

Leon Hadar wrote:

“BTW, I don’t have any problems with intellectuals changing their minds on this or that.”

Oh I know that Leon. I was just trying to give Tanenhaus the benefit of the doubt. I figured anyone who don’t like neo-cons now is at least moving in the right direction, but as you showed he’s clearly been less than fully coherent.

Off-topic but interesting nonetheless: There was a piece in the LA Times the other day perhaps resolving a point that was raised in a recent Scott McConnell post. McConnell talked about Iran’s nuke program as if that recent NIE saying they didn’t *have* such a program had been superseded. Well this LA Times piece essentially has said it *has* been superseded, or at least the Obama admin is just acting as if it has been, by fiat. (With Panetta even saying outright he believes Iran has such a program.)

Can seem a bit ominous, esp. coming on the heels of that tough Biden talk about Iran recently; unless the Intell community *has* changed its formal mind, how’s this different from Bush ignoring intell he didn’t agree with? Indeed this seems even worse given it’s an NIE.

Also is a funny story in Haaretz characterizing some testimony apparently given today by the head of our Intell community. I don’t know if the guy actually put it this way, but Haaretz essentially said that he testified that yes, Hezbollah is indeed a threat to the U.S. because … if we threatened or attacked it or its patron Iran, then (sacre bleu!), Hezbollah perversely and malevolently enough would consider *us* a threat to itself. (The lunatics!)

Reminds me of the story about a sign outside this or that animal’s cage in some zoo warning that the animal inside is dangerous because it believes in the right to defend itself.

Not saying Iran/Hezbollah are friends, but geesh, *this* is the level of thinking our Intelligence Chief is operating at? Or are we just that advanced in our sanctioning and thinking about attacking Iran that we’re already just acknowledging its consequences? Hard to believe the former. Some of what we’ve done already seems act-of-war-ish.


#5 Comment By Leon Hadar On February 14, 2009 @ 12:11 am

As I’ve been suggesting, much of Obama’s Middle East policy would consist of a lot of “muddling through” including attempts to seize opportunities when they present themselves. The problem with this approach is that it does create a certain policy vacuum that allows officials and lawmakers to promote their agendas by making noise which outsiders perceive as signals that Obama is going to this or that.

#6 Comment By Leon Hadar On February 14, 2009 @ 12:12 am

oopos…”is going to DO this or that.”

#7 Comment By TomB On February 14, 2009 @ 2:47 am

Leon Hadar wrote:

“The problem with this approach is that it does create a certain policy vacuum that allows officials and lawmakers to promote their agendas by making noise which outsiders perceive as signals that Obama is going to this or that.”

Yeah that’s an interesting little side effect of that “muddling through” approach which I think you really nailed. (You could even see a clever Obama using that to his advantage in some ways.)

I would note though that the LA Times piece I referenced pointed to the fact that Obama himself has expressly indicated a belief that Iran does indeed have a nuke weapons program.

Wonder if Mr. Giraldi’s sources can tell us if the Intell community (other than Panetta whose comment might have been a throwaway line) has backed off their NIE conclusion? Again I think I read somewhere that to the contrary just in the latter part of last year it was endorsed again in some way (testimony by the Chief of Intell?), but I’m not sure.

On the other hand I dunno though; seems like maybe I’m the only person finding this stuff potentially meaningful, so….