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The Neoconservative Persuasion
Weekly Standard ^ | 2003 | Irving Kristol

Posted on 05/24/2004 4:42:38 PM PDT by churchillbuff

WHAT EXACTLY IS NEOCONSERVATISM? Journalists, and now even presidential candidates, speak with an enviable confidence on who or what is "neoconservative," and seem to assume the meaning is fully revealed in the name. Those of us who are designated as "neocons" are amused, flattered, or dismissive, depending on the context. It is reasonable to wonder: Is there any "there" there?

Even I, frequently referred to as the "godfather" of all those neocons, have had my moments of wonderment. A few years ago I said (and, alas, wrote) that neoconservatism had had its own distinctive qualities in its early years, but by now had been absorbed into the mainstream of American conservatism. I was wrong, and the reason I was wrong is that, ever since its origin among disillusioned liberal intellectuals in the 1970s, what we call neoconservatism has been one of those intellectual undercurrents that surface only intermittently. It is not a "movement," as the conspiratorial critics would have it. Neoconservatism is what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers, called a "persuasion," one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect.

Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. The fact that conservatism in the United States is so much healthier than in Europe, so much more politically effective, surely has something to do with the existence of neoconservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation, resolutely refuse to consider this possibility.

Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the "American grain." It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing and could not care less about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies One of these policies, most visible and controversial, is cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth. This policy was not invented by neocons, and it was not the particularities of tax cuts that interested them, but rather the steady focus on economic growth. Neocons are familiar with intellectual history and aware that it is only in the last two centuries that democracy has become a respectable option among political thinkers. In earlier times, democracy meant an inherently turbulent political regime, with the "have-nots" and the "haves" engaged in a perpetual and utterly destructive class struggle. It was only the prospect of economic growth in which everyone prospered, if not equally or simultaneously, that gave modern democracies their legitimacy and durability. The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy--because it seems to be in the nature of human nature--that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth. It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.

This leads to the issue of the role of the state. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on "the road to serfdom." Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his "The Man Versus the State," was a historical eccentricity. People have always preferred strong government to weak government, although they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of overly intrusive government. Neocons feel at home in today's America to a degree that more traditional conservatives do not. Though they find much to be critical about, they tend to seek intellectual guidance in the democratic wisdom of Tocqueville, rather than in the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.

But it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives--though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government's attention. And since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

AND THEN, of course, there is foreign policy, the area of American politics where neoconservatism has recently been the focus of media attention. This is surprising since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. (The favorite neoconservative text on foreign affairs, thanks to professors Leo Strauss of Chicago and Donald Kagan of Yale, is Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.) These attitudes can be summarized in the following "theses" (as a Marxist would say): First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Finally, for a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial. To a large extent, it all happened as a result of our bad luck. During the 50 years after World War II, while Europe was at peace and the Soviet Union largely relied on surrogates to do its fighting, the United States was involved in a whole series of wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. The result was that our military spending expanded more or less in line with our economic growth, while Europe's democracies cut back their military spending in favor of social welfare programs. The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully, so that its military collapsed along with its economy.

Suddenly, after two decades during which "imperial decline" and "imperial overstretch" were the academic and journalistic watchwords, the United States emerged as uniquely powerful. The "magic" of compound interest over half a century had its effect on our military budget, as did the cumulative scientific and technological research of our armed forces. With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

The older, traditional elements in the Republican party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Editorial
KEYWORDS: antiwarsquawking; generalmcclellanbuff; irvingkristol; joooooooos; kristol; neocatfighting; neocons; neoconservatism; neonamecalling
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1 posted on 05/24/2004 4:42:38 PM PDT by churchillbuff
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To: churchillbuff

Oh boy, what's a day without a Chamberlainbuff thread.


2 posted on 05/24/2004 4:44:27 PM PDT by CWOJackson
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To: churchillbuff

I find that description of neo-conservatism particularly uncompelling.


3 posted on 05/24/2004 4:48:31 PM PDT by MrShoop
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To: MrShoop

This is the second such thread trying to define neo-con. The other boiled down to anyone who doesn't support the defeatist position on the war in Iraq is a neo-con.


4 posted on 05/24/2004 4:50:05 PM PDT by CWOJackson
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To: CWOJackson

I thought a neo-con was someone who thought we should secure Iraq's/Afghstains' borders and leave our borders unsecured. ;->


5 posted on 05/24/2004 5:35:30 PM PDT by inflation (Cuba = BAD, China = Good? Why, should both be treated the way Cuba is?)
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To: inflation

Same difference...same people using the term.


6 posted on 05/24/2004 5:37:30 PM PDT by CWOJackson
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To: CWOJackson
In defining neoconservatives, it is all too easy to list the leading neo names: Podhorwitz, Krystol, Krauthammer, Ledeen, Wolfowitz, etc. IOW, there is a statistical over-abundance of Jewish Americans in the neocon leadership.

Please don't jerk that knee, it's not anti-semitism to state an obvious fact. This gives the opportunity to real anti-semites to claim that Dubya has been taken over by the Jewish neocons and to invade Iraq was not in U.S. interests. And the rest of the world claims that Israel runs U.S. foreign policy because of the predominant iterest of neocons in the Bush administration. If you don't believe it, just read some foreign newspapers.

7 posted on 05/24/2004 6:02:06 PM PDT by xJones
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To: churchillbuff

I'm a conservative and don't need the "neo" label to identify my persuasion. At the same time, I think conservatism is the stronger for the contribution of disaffected liberals, since we used to be them and know how they think. In no small part, the Left is infuriated by people who successfully steal the thunder out of their arguments. As a result, the Left has been left with nothing to say. In no small part, the neocons have helped to make America, in Micklewaithe and Wooldridge's apt phrase, "The Right Nation."


8 posted on 05/24/2004 6:05:22 PM PDT by goldstategop (In Memory Of A Dearly Beloved Friend Who Lives On In My Heart Forever)
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To: xJones
Which papers, the french or the Arab?

I really don't much care what foreigners believe.

9 posted on 05/24/2004 6:09:57 PM PDT by CWOJackson
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To: churchillbuff

I've seen a couple of definitions:
one is a conservative Jew;
two is a Reagan democrat.


10 posted on 05/24/2004 6:12:42 PM PDT by Chi-townChief
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To: churchillbuff
First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed. The number of intelligent men who could not count the Soviet Union as an enemy, even though this was its own self-definition, was absolutely astonishing.

Agree? Disagree?

Finally, for a great power, the "national interest" is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests.

"The business of America is business." - Calvin Coolidge.

11 posted on 05/24/2004 6:25:21 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
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To: xJones
How did you forget to leave the names of good Jewish boys like Victor Davis Hanson, Fred Barnes, Don Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney. Oh wait, that's right. They're not Jewish. And the last two folks are two of the most powerful men in the administration, not "undersecretaries." Yeah, I can see how logical it is to equate neo-conservatism with Jewishness. Makes perfect sense.

By the way, one last question: Why can't posters warning about the Jewish conspiracy at least spell the names of the conspirators correctly? Or do you just copy their names from foreign newspapers?
12 posted on 05/24/2004 6:35:49 PM PDT by asmith92008 (If we buy into the nonsense that we always have to vote for RINOs, we'll just end up taking the horn)
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To: churchillbuff

code word for JOOZ


13 posted on 05/24/2004 6:36:52 PM PDT by cyborg (tit for tat butter for fat hillary is ugly that's a fact)
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To: Tailgunner Joe
Perhaps a definition of neo-con is a Republican more comfortable in the salons of Wall Street than a barbecue no Main Street.
14 posted on 05/24/2004 6:57:34 PM PDT by asmith92008 (If we buy into the nonsense that we always have to vote for RINOs, we'll just end up taking the horn)
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To: goldstategop
I'm a conservative and don't need the "neo" label to identify my persuasion.

Then complain to Kristol or Podhoretz, because it's their word - one of them (I don't know which) coined it, if I understand correctly.

15 posted on 05/24/2004 7:12:55 PM PDT by churchillbuff
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To: cyborg
code word for JOOZ

Oh, that's why Irving Kristol uses it to describe a certain political philosophy. He's a notorious anti-semite. (sarcasm)

16 posted on 05/24/2004 7:15:53 PM PDT by churchillbuff
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To: churchillbuff

http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=1189

Perhaps I should have been more clear. Here's the type of talk about neocons that I'm referring to.


17 posted on 05/24/2004 7:19:18 PM PDT by cyborg (tit for tat butter for fat hillary is ugly that's a fact)
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To: CWOJackson; cyborg; Pukin Dog; Texasforever; Miss Marple; Howlin; Catspaw; MeekOneGOP; ...
Would this be a good place to say how DAMNED TIRED I am of so many people seeming to want to fracture the Right into little competing groups?

The Left has its factions, too, but when the election happens, you better know that they ALL vote together by a large margin. They don't whine abour someone not being "Liberal Enough" on election n day, and skulk off to some whacko third party in a useless snit, or say "Good Riddance", they do whatever is necessary TO WIN the next election! Once in power, they figure, everything else works itself out if only their agenda is advanced, even a little.

Just THINK where we'd be now if conservatives - of ALL types - thought that way. We MIGHT even have avoided 8 years of Slick and his harridan wife. We MIGHT have not had to deal with 2000 and its aftermath, or the constant threat of the Dims taking the Senate, or even their still-powerful influence there. We MIGHT have enough pull AS ONE to kill stuff we find offensive, like amnesty and prescription drugs, in the cradle.

But NOOOOOoooo, we attack each other like dogs after a bone while the Dims just chuckle and encourage it.

Here's the facts...The President is a conservative leaning Republican. Is he perfect? No. However, he IS the best we can hope for in the current American political landscape. I hope no one has forgotten the influence of the media, Hollywood, academia, etc. nowadays. Ronald Reagan himself would have been demonized to a level you could not believe today. Oh, wait, sorry, he HAS been lately, hasn't he? His great fortune was that those he ran against were so incompetent and loathsome to voters then, he shined like the star he was through it all. We can't count on that today.

In November, one of two men will emerge as President...George Bush or John Kerry. Rail about that FACT all you want, but it is still the truth. What do you want, a comitted Leftist who wouldn't give a conservative's views the time of day, or a Right-leaning Republican who will at least listen to the Right? Which one do you want choosing judges, appointing government officials, or prosecuting the Terror War? You have ONLY those two choices, you know, and sorry, staying home is not only intellectual and political laziness, but in time of war, is a near-criminal abrogation of your responsibilities as a citizen.

Current poll numbers indicate that the President is in a tight spot at best. He SHOULD be running far in the lead, with the economy picking up steam, and the public rallying around him in wartime. His ENTIRE side of the political spectrum should be behind him now. Rest assured, the Dims are fully behind Kerry, and don't expect Nader to save us this time...they're already well into their attacks on HIM, and their other means to confound him. To put it bluntly, we are now facing "Broken Glass Democrats". If the President was as much of a Liberal as some claim, why are they so fired up to defeat him?

We need to get some clues, and a grip. Those who think that a Kerry presidency wouldn't be too bad, because THEN we'd get a "REAL conservative" replacing him, are living in 1980.

Thinking like that gave us Clinton's second term.

It is my personal belief that Pat Buchanan himself thinks this, which is why he's doing his level best to help Kerry by fracturing the President's base...he fancies HIMSELF the "conservative white knight" who will ride in and save us all. He would look just fine in a Napoleon suit. This is NOT 1980, folks. Like it or not, the country has changed since then, and those on the Left have done everything they can to eliminate the possibility of another Reagan humiliating them like that once more.

Religious, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, Republican, we are ALL "The Right". We either stick together, and advance our agenda (one step at a time if need be) or we give up and let the Dims have everything. We'll have no one to complain about but ourselves, then.

For God's sake, END this stupid "eating our own" crap. It gets us NOTHING but defeat, at the hands of those we ALL are SUPPOSED to be resisting.

A so-called Neo-Con can also be expected to vote for lower taxes, if politely persuaded. Likewise, he is amenable to less gun control. A libertarian supports MOST of the things we do, why not find the common ground and give a little once the Left is defeated? At least they can be talked to about these things, the Left most assuredly cannot.

My version of paradise is an America with NO "Leftists", whom I believe are an anomaly anyway. Wouldn't it be great if the Left were so discredited and defeated that they never posed a serious threat again, and the main argument was between Libertarians, say, and Conservatives? Or between Conservatives and Neo-Cons? Sure, we'd have some disagreements, but we'd ALL get at least SOMETHING we wanted. Most of the disagreements PALE in comparison to those we have with the Left, anyway.

And isn't the thought of Hillary, Pelosi, and Kennedy having to finally WORK for a living a nice one?

We CAN make it happen, folks.

18 posted on 05/24/2004 7:32:41 PM PDT by Long Cut ("Fightin's commenced, Ike, now get to fightin' or get outta the way!"...Wyatt Earp, in Tombstone)
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To: churchillbuff

I am just as sick of the likes of you as I am of the media.


19 posted on 05/24/2004 7:35:50 PM PDT by Howlin
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To: asmith92008
Perhaps a definition of neo-con is a Republican more comfortable in the salons of Wall Street than a barbecue no Main Street.

Sounds like class warfare rhetoric to me.

20 posted on 05/24/2004 7:36:14 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
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