Skip to comments.The Neoconservative Persuasion
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.
Don't worry there Lord Haw Haw...I'm having a great day. You have a fine little defeatist day yourself there Quisling.
Still keeping your views on abortion, taxes, etc. under wraps. .... I understand. You wouldn't want to expose where you really stand, would you?
Dumber than a box of rocks
That's an understatement!
I'd say just based on his rhetoric, he's dumber than a box of used kitty litter.
Not at all...this is an anti-war defeatist thread. I like to keep things in perspective there Lord Haw Haw.
I think he's a DNC agent provocateur whose mission here is to cause deep divisions among true conservatives.
How else can you explain his DemoRAT-esque posting style?
I can live with that.
Gasp...not the true conservative title. Who can dispute the anti-war defeatist "true" conservatives?
Thanks sparky...I always get a chuckle out of it when you folks wrap yourself in that title.
"Not at all...this is an anti-war defeatist thread."
That's funny, I thought this was a thread to expose fake-conservatives for what they are, socialists at heart?
The thread's title is: "The Neoconservative Persuasion".
Seems like the thread has been very good at highlighting more of the anti-war crowd...the "true" conservatives for Michael Moore.
CWOJackson? I don't think so. He's just a liberal who's obsessed with Middle East issues and the war in Iraq, but doesn't agree with freepers on other issues. Have you ever seen him post on any issue that doesn't concern the Middle East? Abortion? either he could care less about it, or he's on Kerry's side. Taxes? Either he could care less or he's on Kerry's side. Racial quotas? Either he could care less or he's with Kerry. IRAQ? HE's positively obsessed.
Naw...I just have a natural dislike for the anti-war crowd. Always have.
As for the diversity of my posting, if you seem to get the perception that I might spend more time on defeatist anti-war threads, that would probably be due to the fact that that's pretty much the only cards in your deck these days.
Zinni was opposed to taking military action against the terrorists who murdered the USS Cole sailors, because he thought it would harm our relations with Muslim Pakistan. Seems he has a track record of being opposed to taking military action, even when the USS Cole sailors died because of him. I wonder what his reasons where then?
Perhaps it was the $150 million sweet heard deal he had with his Pakistani Muslim friends after he retired. Yep, Zinni what a hero for the anti-war crowd...the lives of his sailors don't come cheap.
When was your friend's property taken away from him?
Keep having a nice day!
Very interesting...being illegal in construction will get someone only so far. I went to a legal day laboring hire office and the demand for skilled legal labor is very high. I am beginning to realize whining won't solve this issue. I have better things to do.
It was the NAZIS,who wanted to "see your papers"...so no,you've still lost this debate and can no longer "play".
Because this is an anti-war thread...you should know that, you're here. (Come to think of it, you and Michael Moorse are on the same page on Iraq. He's an anti-war pig too.)
And who said being a Quisling didn't pay.
Nope, it's a threat about conservatism. Read the title of the article, Mr. Magoo. Sheesh, you're not worth conversing with, no reading comprehension skills! (And a phony conservative to boot!)
As opposed to you "true" conservatives who are opposed to the war on terror...the Michael Moore conservatives.
I asked you why I never see you on any threads that DON'T relate to the Middle East -- and, of course, you didn't answer. You haven't said that I'm wrong when I infer that you're a liberal on most issues (Abortion, taxes, quotas, immigration, environmental looniness, judicial tyranny). You're never on any threads that address those issues -- that tells me a lot.
You really should get out more often. If you didn't spend 99% of your time pushing your anti-war propaganda you might have a better understanding of the rest of the world.
What's your position on abortion?
What's your position on illegal immigration?
What's your position on homosexual "marriage?
What's your position on racial quotas?
What's your position on environmental regulations that stop people from using their land?
What's your position on gun control?
He must be an inspiration to you people.
My position on those rank lower then my position on the war that threatens our country...and those who actively work to defeat us.
Even on a thread that's concerned with conservative thought, you're afraid to say what you think about most issues of the day. (If I were a liberal on abortion, taxes, environmentalism, immigration, guns, I might also want to hide it on this forum)
America was NEVER considered to be a "force",until WW I and even after that,there was a concerted effort made to convince the Europeans that the USA was NOT some third world country,but one which was filled with intellectuals and "artists" worthy of sophisticated tastes.
What REALLY pushed America into first world status was WW II.
As soon as he fails to make his property tax payment.
In my book, that includes the ACLU, homosexual radicals, pro-abortion extremists, high-tax politicians, gun-grabbers. But not in your book. You don't have a problem with them, I have to assume, because you're afraid to say what you think about those issues.
Have a nice day, Mr. Undercover Liberal!
All in perspective. Those who attempt to defeat us in war come first...it is a real war. Our troops can't be defeated in combat, only by being stabbed in the back by the likes of the liberals, the Michael Moores and EVERY element that attempts to either ruin troops morale or undermine the necessity of this war.
Fine, but what IS your position on them? Why are you afraid to be candid and honest? I don't hide my opinions on any of these issues - or on the war in Iraq - - - but you hide your opinions. Has to be because you're a liberal. Fine, you have a right to be - - but be an honest liberal, please!
Like I said, all in perspective. Defeat the most immediate enemies of our troops and nation first...then worry about the rest.
Michael Moore disagrees with me on abortion, taxes, immigration, quotas, and most everything else. Funny, though, you won't tell us what you believe about those issues - - you refuse to reveal your position on abortion, taxes, immigration, guns, quotas - - - Could it be because you agree with Michael Moore on those issues?
Until you're honest enough to say where you stand on the issues that Michael Moore rants about (and not just on Iraq), please stop talking about Michael Moore, because for all we know you and he agree on most things other than Iraq.
Don't deny it; everybody here knows it's true................
That's it! You won't fess up to your policy views, because you're an undercover Michael Moore Liberal! Pro-abortion, pro-quotas, pro-taxes, pro-illegal immigration, pro-ACLU. Am I right? Yes or no.
His bloodlust is overwhelming.
A sure sign of a "phony conservative" is when they're rushing to abandon core conservative values for they personal fetishes.
If it was up to him and his ilk, we'd still be in Vietnam.
I know for a fact that most of them have very strong opinions on those matters, so do I...but they just don't have the immediate urgency that other issues do.
Then some of these young soldiers over there that I helped fill out paperwork...I just don't see them stopping in the middle of a fire fight and turning to their buddy to inquire on their opinion regarding abortion.
Oddly enough, the most common things they all seem to be most concerned about is will their family be taken care of properly, that they don't really want to go but also they do...what they are doing is important.
Oh, and one other issue does pop up on occasion...the anti-war pieces of crap that makes what they are doing seem cheap.
Like I said, all in perspective.
Naw, if it were up to my ilk, you're ilk wouldn't have been spitting on soldiers returning from Vietnam.
Don't worry there Chamberlainbuff...we all know who's working hand-in-hand with Michael Moore.
And if it wasn't for your ilk(lefty appeasers,i.e kerry, jane fonda)), millions of people wouldn't have died at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
Careful, he's a self-proclaimed "true conservative". How do you argue with credentials like that?
True,true...but some people like to pretend things are gloomier than it actually is.I guess they think that FR has a section for "QUEEN FOR A DAY"/"THE SWAN" candidates. :-)
Michael Moore, John Kerry...BLAH BLAH BLAH.
You should just throw several leftist demigods names on your tagline, it would save you having to type it everytime you post.
Have you ever thought of a career in yellow journalism? You seem perfected suited.
Naw, I prefer a career in pest control.
I guess the "true conservatives" think by shouting "true conservative" that people will act like the knights in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and scream "run away".
They(true conservatives) should put sown their remotes, put down their beer, get out of their E-Z chairs, and look at the real world once in a while, IMO.
Our troops can't be defeated in battle, only at home.
JMO, the vast majority of people on FR can see through the fake condemnation of your heroes.
The Swan is appropriate since the women can't see themselves for month at a time. When they finally get a look at themselves after all the fussing and surgery, many don't recognize themselves. A conservative who whines and whines probably will confuse their own reflection with Al Franken.
Things are bad but not that bad. This is America where bad can turn into fantastic without firing one shot.