Books

A bridge over the tricky waters of neoconservatism

Barbara Amiel August 13 1979
Books

A bridge over the tricky waters of neoconservatism

Barbara Amiel August 13 1979

A bridge over the tricky waters of neoconservatism

Books

Barbara Amiel

Popular journalism is not without its uses. It keeps readers up-todate on newly discovered hairline cracks in DC-l0s, informs us of the latest ex-head-of-state in sunglasses turning up in Miami and keeps us in touch with the candid confessions of Margaret Trudeau and Betty Ford—including those more properly confined to discreet chats with their gynecologists or best girl-friends. Where popular journalism falls down is in the more rarefied realm of ideas. Contrary to belief, newspapers, television and magazines don’t start trends: they hop on welloiled bandwagons. Sometimes, as in the case of this year’s news—the political philosophy of neoconservatism—the ideas have been chugging along for three decades. But it was not until Clay Felker, the now-departed editor of Esquire magazine and undisputed Lieutenant of the Latest Thing, put the neoconservative movement on the cover of last February’s Esquire that the media could fall into line with confidence. American neoconservatism was officially a phenomenon. Only one problem remained: what, in God’s name, was it?

Esquire did its best. Neoconservatism: An Idea Whose Time Is Now proclaimed the special section, which went on to include a preview from Peter Steinfels’ new book, The Neoconservatives, illustrated by pictures of key neocons like husband and wife Norman Podhoretz (author of Making It) and Midge Decter {The New Chastity & Other Arguments Against Women ’s Liberation). Then there was a handy list

telling those readers in search of a masticating member of the species where neocons like to eat (Italian Pavilion in New York, the AEI Pub in Washington) and naming things neocons could do without—the Third World, Friends of the Earth and The New York Review of Books. Such pet peeves, of course, made neocons virtually indistinguishable from three-quarters of rational folk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, to Victoria, B.C. But the publication, last month, of Steinfels’ book, Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics (Musson, $15.95), does provide an invaluable guide to the important and tricky waters of neoconservative history and literature. Steinfels’ one problem with the movement is clear: he is a man entranced by the siren song of neoconservatism but shocked to the core of his “liberal” being by this inappropriate attraction.

History: Neoconservatism is an idea whose time has come, even if Clay Felker says so. Its ideas—and practitioners—are quite distinct from the mainstream of American conservative thought. That mainstream, a trickle really, as Steinfels points out, began in the late ’40s and divided into several groups: the traditional conservatives, often with strong ties to the Roman or Anglo-Catholic Church and a clearly defined commitment to stability and order in society; the many subgroups of ex-Communists and radicals who became united as conservatives solely by their anti-communism; and finally, a small group of classical liberals much influenced by the Austrian-born economists (and refugees from Hitler) Lud-

wig von Mises and Friederich von Hayek, whose concern with the rights of the individual in the newly expanding post-war state led to the libertarian wing of conservatism. If the neoconservatives have more in common with one of these groups than the others, it is with the inheritors of von Hayek’s and von Mises’ school of thought.

Who they are: Today’s neoconservatives are largely Jewish (Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer) but even if they happen not to be, they are rarely preppie in the American East-Coast-and-Yale tradition. This permits the odd Catholic to enter the neocon ranks, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as well as urbanologist Edward Banfield and criminologist James Q. Wilson. Most neocons are converts from socialism.

They cluster around two of the most provocative magazines of ideas in the United States: The Public Interest, edited by Kristol and Glazer, and Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz. They publish—and publish—books that elaborate on their theses. Among them: Thinking About Crime by James Q. Wilson, which challenges the environmental theory of the cause of crime; Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism, which does for free (almost) enterprise what John Kenneth Galbraith did for socialism; and Affirmative Discrimination by Harvard professor Glazer, whose concerns are pretty much explained by his book’s title.

Most neocons are now close to or in their 50s. Though they may have started off as socialists, they were consistently anti-Communist both while this was a fashionable stand in America and while it was not. (In fact, among American intellectuals, anti-communism was not a fashionable position even under the late unlamented Senator Joseph McCarthy. The country’s political and social institutions may have been rabidly cold war, but the intellectuai community—with some notable exceptions—considered McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and John Foster Dulles the bigger threat. Irving Kristol could conclude with some justification in a 1952 Commentary article: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy; he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”)

What neocons believe: This is tricky. Neoconservatism cannot be understood without first understanding classic liberalism. A classic liberal is one who thinks in terms of the individual rather than the group. A liberal values liberty in every sphere—moral, cultural and economic—and restricts it only in the most extreme circumstances, or when it infringes on another person’s liberty. The spiritual fathers of this sort of liberalism were—among others—de

Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson. This is, in fact, the most ancient American political tradition, but the mainstream of American political thought has steadily drifted away from this concept of liberalism toward the planned society of democratic socialism, though it has continued to call itself “liberal.” The people who wouldn’t drift along have become the neoconservatives. Apart from being so-called, they are conservative in two senses: (1) they are literally conserving the American tradition that was classic liberalism, and (2) in the process they have been thrown together with the traditional conservatives (such as William F. Buckley Jr. of National Review and Pulitzer Prize-winner George F. Will,

author of The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts and a syndicated columnist) where they’ve picked up some conservative ideas and habits of mind.

This tends to make neocons very keen on liberty in the economic sense and a little less sensitive to it in manners and mores. Censorship of areas like pornography or legislation relating to what they would perceive as public health issues (from seat belts to marijuana) would not be as alien to the neoconservative mind as censorship of the free market. But neocons dislike: quotas for groups, the rampant welfare state, busing, egalitarianism and bureaucratic versions of do-gooding. They maintain that the failures of the Great Society to eradicate poverty, crime, inflation and bad train service indicate that the greatest good for all members of society will come not from more of the same left-liberal programs but from an emphasis on individual liberty. Conservatives and socialists may differ on what is the desirable condition in human affairs, but when they spot it the instinct of both is immediately to legislate it into being. A liberal would merely endeavor to provide the most nourishing circumstances for it to flourish. In the end, the importance of the neoconservatives may be to bring us back to the classic liberal approach.

While the thoughts of thefteoconservatives may not be new, their visibility is recent. This may be due to the fact that, though most of the society’s recent failures were predicted by von Hayek and some of his disciples decades ago, the neocons’ writing has been honed to a fine and passionate point by the terrible helplessness of the ’60s and ’70s—in the face of urban riots, the drug culture, the breakdown of the family, inflation and crime. And the craft of their writing, their superior skill as journalists and polemicists, is seen and acknowledged even by those, like Steinfels, who don’t agree with them.