What I'm reading

The Neoconservatives by Peter Steinfels. This book, written in 1979, is billed as the first major study of neoconservatism and covers both the obvious names (Kristol, Bell, Podhoretz, Decter) and some who now seem a bit surprising (Moynihan, Brzezinski, Jackson). It strikes me that there have been two main changes affecting the neoconservatives since Steinfels wrote.

First, the rise of the centrist ‘New Democrats’ associated with the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s attracted the support of the more moderate neoconservatives (confusingly, DLC supporters like Clinton are often called ‘neoliberals’ in the US, a term which is used in an entirely different sense elsewhere, much closer to neoconservatism in its meaning). The remaining neoconservatives are now strictly Republican partisans and have continued moving to the right.

Second, the Jewish element in neoconservatism (more dominant as a result of the first trend, which was more significant among non-Jewish neoconservatives) changed its character. Prior to Oslo, the general position was one of support for Israel, normally interpreted to mean support for the general position of whatever Israeli government was elected by the Israeli people. The neoconservatives in general took a rejectionist position on Oslo and became partisans of its opponents, Likud, the settler parties and the maximalist advocates of Eretz Israel. There was a piece by Podhoretz in Commentary about the time of Oslo making all this explicit. It will be interesting, in this context, to see how the neoconservatives react if Sharon finally comes to blows with the settlers. I predict that they will be bitterly divided.

10 thoughts on “What I'm reading

  1. The first generation of neo-cons originally high ranking Old Left wing intellectuals and politicians who turned to the New Right during the sixties and seventies, on the basis of empirical observation of the perverse effects of progressive government social programs. They thus maintained ideological support for Left Enlightenment values, whilst shifting organisational support to Right Enlightenment policies. This distinguished them from Old Right wingers, who were committed to pre- or counter-ENlightenment values (ie family, fatherland and faith) on principle. Of course, many neo-cons did wind up supporting family values, patriotism and religion, but on pragmatic grounds.

    (And they had one major inconsistency, in that they distrusted Big Government at home, since they opposed the Great Society, but they entrusted Big Government abroad, since they supported the Vietnam war.)

    The second generation of neo-cons demonstrated, literally, regression towards the, less-gifted, mean. They did not achieve great scientific merit in academia or civic achievement in government, relying on patronage and partisanship as modes of adveancement in a network of think tanks and lobby groups. The loss of intellectual ability and moral valency shows up especially on debates where scientific evidence and common moral sense are at odds with partisan committments.

    Steve Sailer quotes Jonah Goldberg describing Charled Murray’s book on Human Accomplishment as an example of the way the Old Left morphed into New Right:

    “This is an astoundingly neoconservative book. Back in the days before the left transmuted the word “neoconservative” to mean war-mongering Jew, a prevailing understanding of the term was that it referred to a certain group of intellectuals who imported the sociological method to conservatism. What made, say, the Public Interest a neoconservative magazine was that it attacked issues of public policy with social science–then the lingua franca of the serious left–in order to reach conservative conclusions.”

    This is an important point, because, by recalling the good old days of neoconservatism, it demonstrates the dismaying decline in the intellectual quality of neoconservatives. Until just the last few years, I was proud to call myself a neocon because I associated the term with master empiricists of my youth such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Andrew Greeley, and Nathan Glazer. I was dismayed to see the term come to be associated with the chest-thumping know-nothings who plunged us into a guerilla war in Iraq through intentional ignorance.

  2. Most post-Oslo Jewish neo-conservatives are essentially US-front men for the Likudniks. But most pro-Israel and semito-philes (like me) remain extremely dubious of the Likud’s political program of colonising the Trans-Jordan. So there will be tears when Israel has to decide between partisan and national interests.

    US neo-cons have never really got over the bad scare they got when Israel almost lost the Yom Kippur war. They became US super-patriots when Nixon pulled the IDF’s chestnuts out of the fire. They shed their left wing skin because, as Dr Knopfelmacher observed at the time, “blood is thicker than ideology”.

  3. Why is it surprising that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a neo-con?

    ‘Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding’, his book on community action and the war on poverty is a text-book example of how neo-cons approach social problems.

    Paleo-cons might have opposed government spending on anti-poverty programs but they’d never have appealed to sociological research to make their point.

    Australia seems to lack anything like America’s neo-cons. We’ve got anti-intellectual conservatives and economically literate classical liberals but very few conservatives who can (or want to) mount a serious intellectual argument.

  4. I think you have to be careful not to overstate that Don, but in general I’d agree. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that institutionally, the main vehicle for conservative thought in Australia has been the Liberal party (post-WWII) and that is necessarily a pragmatic rather than an ideological organisation? Just a thought. Like I said, I wouldn’t want to overstate any of this.

  5. Tim,

    I’m probably exagerating. The CIS has Owen Harries for example.

    And thinking about political parties… some of the US neo-cons appeared to move right when what actually happened was that political parties changed the issues they emphasized and the stands they took.

    For example, FDR was a strong opponent of both poverty and welfare (he wanted jobs not hand outs) and a strong supporter of the use of military force against foreign threats.

    But by the 1970s it wasn’t clear that someone who thought this way would support the Democrats. Nixon’s social policies would outrage many of today’s right wingers and the Democrats had shifted to the left on the military force issue.

  6. Don, what I meant is that Moynihan does not seem to have a lot in common with the salient features of neoconservatism today even though, in 1979, he was as you say a quintessential neoconservative.

    I see him as someone who would have been broadly supportive of the DLC and Clinton (can’t recall if he actually lived long enough to express a view)

  7. given that a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton suddeeded him as US Senator for New York I would have thought he did live long enough.

  8. Don,

    What about Quadrant, the magazine for Australian conservative intellectuals? Some of it is good. Unfortunately, a lot of it is also unmitigated crap. Too many of their articles follow the standard denunuciations against “P.C.” using strawmen arguments.

    D.P Moyniham may have been an intellectual giant – but I will remember him as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN when Indonesia annexed East Timor – playing interference on any attempt by the UN to resolve the conflict. His job was to render the UN ineffective during the time (a success), and he described later the genocide as “10% of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. ” His exact words.

    At least Moyniham was honest with himself, if ruthless. That cannot be said of later neoconservatives, who mix ruthlessness and self-deception in equal quantities.

  9. John,

    Homer’s right. Moynihan died last year and was a Democrat Senator until 2000.

    He did express a view about Clinton’s welfare policies. Clinton’s welfare reform ideas for the ’92 campaign were based around David Ellwood work. When Clinton won Ellwood joined the administration. Ellwood recounts a meeting with Moynihan:

    ‘When I met with him shortly after arriving in Washington in February of 1993, he said, “So you’ve come to do welfare reform. . . . I’ll look forward to reading your book about why it failed this time.”‘

    When the Ellwood plan (which looked a lot like Keating’s Working Nation) collapsed in a heap Clinton ended up supporting the Republican push to end welfare. Moynihan didn’t think much of that plan either. He argued the reformers had no idea what the consequences would be and that welfare was necessary in order to protect children. He cited the views of the Catholic Bishops in support of his position.

    Moynihan would always argue that problems like welfare dependency and poverty would take a long time to solve. Social problems were complex and nobody knew enough to be able to predict the consequences of drastic reforms.

  10. And let’s not forget the IPA, which basically invented the Liberal party and has been a constant source of policy thought. But again, the bent is more naturally pragmatic than theoretical. Personally, I think this is a good thing and we often underestimate Australian intellectual work because of a bias amongst the intellectuals who judge such things against this sort of pragmatic bent.

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