Staying in the Muddle
September 19, 2000
In the late 1960s,
a small but influential group of liberal intellectuals, revolted by the New Left
and the leftward turn of the Democratic Party, jumped off the train. They were soon in
alliance with traditional conservatives, with whom, however, they continued to have
These people were dubbed neoconservatives.
They are the subject of an admiring article in the New York Times by Sam
Tanenhaus: When Left Turns Right, It Leaves the Middle Muddled.
The best-known members of the group were Irving
Kristol (editor of The Public Interest) and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb;
Norman Podhoretz (editor of Commentary) and his wife, Midge Decter;
James Q. Wilson; Jeane Kirkpatrick; and William Bennett, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan
and Nathan Glazer on the margins.
Despite some conservative sympathies, these were
basically liberal intellectuals who had had enough of liberalism. They hadnt
renounced liberalism; they had, precisely, had enough of it. They still favored the New
Deal and its programs, and they didnt necessarily oppose the legacy of the Great
Society, though they had reservations about it. But they felt that the country had
adopted all the liberal programs it could bear for the time being. And they were fiery
anti-Communists. So they gravitated toward conservatism without becoming
full-fledged conservatives. Before long they were keeping friendly company with
William F. Buckley Jr. of National Review and being welcomed at
gatherings of more traditional conservative intellectuals.
As a younger member of the group, David Brooks of
The Weekly Standard, triumphantly puts it, Were all
neoconservatives now. The theme of Tanenhauss article, in fact, is that
neoconservatism today defines the mainstream of American politics. Not only
Republicans, but Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman have adopted
something of the neoconservative posture. Podhoretz has praised Clinton for
de-McGovernizing the Democratic Party.
The result is indeed a
muddle. Neoconservatism has no essence, no defining principle. Its
a melange of gestures and attitudes, such that Bill Clinton can pass for a centrist by
making noises about the end of the era of big government and Joe
Lieberman can actually pass for a conservative Democrat by expressing
the mildest reservations about the countrys moral decline. Even Norman Thomas,
the old American Socialist leader, would probably be called a neoconservative today.
Not that the neoconservatives, especially Kristol
and his wife, dont have many interesting things to say. They do. But their
insights dont add up to a distinctive philosophy. At their best, they are in accord
with an older conservatism. At their worst, they accept the status quo of the limitless
state, unrestricted by the Constitution. They are pragmatists with conservative
An older conservatism, now nearly forgotten,
insisted on confining government especially the federal government to a
few well-defined functions. It sprang from the specific American political genius for
dividing power, which is the central idea of federalism. It was suspicious
of centralized power, in either the liberal welfare state or the nationalist warrior
Franklin Roosevelt promoted both the welfare state
and the warfare state, turning the federal republic into an empire, less democratic than
bureaucratic. Presidents became Caesars, and citizens dealt less with their elected
representatives than with the career bureaucrats of the executive branch, where the
real power was. Without realizing it, the country underwent a second revolution that
undermined the legacy of the original one.
Roosevelts great critics such men
as John T. Flynn and Garet Garrett have now been consigned to oblivion. They
saw that the United States was adopting a new set of principles that contradicted,
while pretending to continue, the principles of federalism. The New Deal and World War
II brought omnipotent centralized government; we now take it for granted, as if there
had never been any alternative.
But our ancestors would have considered it tyranny.
Federalist Papers, with their constant warnings against consolidated
government. They were trying to prevent what Roosevelt brought into being.
Neoconservatism has nothing to say about this most
profound change in the American political system. It has no aspiration to reform it,
because it sees nothing amiss. It regards those who do see a problem as
extremists. Thats what they would have called Jefferson. After
all, Were all neoconservatives now.
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