Judging Neoconservatism: Reading and Misreading the ‘Modern Cultural Situation’

The Neoconservative Persuasion, Selected Essays, 1942–2009

  • By Irving Kristol; edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb
  • Basic Books, 2011; 390 pages, $29.95

There aren’t very many neoconservatives anymore. It’s a label that serves no purpose except to identify evil-doing and evil-thinking. So now’s the time to assess the achievements and the failures of what we must say, at this point, was “the neoconservative persuasion.” I don’t have the talent to make neocons young and beautiful again, but I can show the most eminent neocon public intellectual, Irving Kristol, was a wonderful man who knew who he was and what he was about. While our country could still use a lot more like him, he does seem to have been somewhat blind to the limits of the very conscious neocon effort to reconstruct America’s self-understanding.

Kristol was an urban-bourgeois Jewish-American intellectual. This book’s autobiographical reflections affirm as real and good each of these parts of his identity. He charmingly celebrates the success of his long and loving marriage as well as his complete tone-deafness to the bohemian longings and lifestyles of his fellow urban intellectuals. Few things repulse him than the bohemian “countercultural” degradation of American popular culture and intellectual life of the 1960s.

Kristol is a decent man and a genuine friend of common decency. When he talks about his indebtedness to Leo Strauss, he is referring to Strauss’s distinction between exoteric and esoteric writing. The genuinely liberated thinker has, of course, all kinds of unconventional thoughts, but he expresses them in such a way as not to erode morality through sophisticated skepticism. The truth is that the idiosyncratic life of the rare philosopher is no “bohemian” reason to deny the nobility or goodness of the virtues associated with the “bourgeois” life or with family responsibilities or with religious faith and citizenship. Kristol certainly did not think that Socrates’ instructively tyrannical “city in speech” was supposed to be a model for American or any other government. Contrary to claims made by his detractors, he certainly didn’t think that being a Straussian neoconservative was all about telling “noble lies” to people languishing in some “cave.”

Kristol never pretended to be a Socratic philosopher or literary genius or inspired prophet. He wrote a novel that wasn’t—and shouldn’t have been—published; he wasn’t suited for that kind of literary life. He planned to write a comprehensive, philosophic account of American democratic life along the lines of Tocqueville, but soon he found he lacked the analytical rigor or patience to execute that plan. He may also have lacked the passion. His worked drifted, for the most part, from cultural commentary toward social and political analysis. His witty and penetrating essays are informed by both social science and political philosophy, but he never employed a footnote and hardly ever a sustained analysis of a text. His modest goal became making conservatism—meaning what we call these days moderate social conservatism and the supply-side version of economic conservatism—acceptable to as many Americans as possible. He had some influence, at least, in getting some urban liberals—especially Jews—to become fairly reliable Republicans, just as he had some influence in getting religious conservatives to think politically. He also had a role in persuading libertarian or anti-statist Republicans to move beyond merely economic criticism toward broader cultural analysis, just as he seems to have convinced some more agrarian traditionalists to think more economically—that is, to think more about the conditions favorable to the economic growth indispensable for sustaining democratic decency.

Kristol’s analysis of “the modern cultural situation” centers on the decline in the quality and responsibility of his fellow public intellectuals. The first stage was dominated by a highbrow elite whose “declared purpose” was to maintain standards. They took responsibility for culture as an aristocracy of talent and virtue. The second stage was the replacement of the highbrow intellectual by the scientific “expert,” who replaced personal opinion with what “studies show.” That expert is, unwittingly, corrosive of morality by constructing therapeutic explanations of crime and other human failings, explanations that denied the reality and dignity of virtuous personal choice—as well as the justice of punishment—and that authoritatively declared the relativity of all values. The third stage was the kind of modernism—later called postmodernism—in the arts and letters that denied the legitimacy of any kind of authority—personal or scientific—that might restrain the kind of uninhibited creativity that emerged in the 1960s counterculture. The function of the public intellectual then shifted to that of waging war against popular inhibitions—such as chastity, loyalty, piety, and every other view of virtue that might interfere with the enjoyment of free sex and pornography.

Kristol was an elitist in the sense that he saw that democratic decency depended on a highbrow intellectual class that wrote on behalf of shared high moral, artistic, and cultural standards. Studies show he was right. More agrarian, localist, religious, and traditionalist conservatives might add though, that Kristol was fooling himself even to imagine for a moment that the American elite that he believed in could be sustainable in an increasingly cosmopolitan and globalized world. To be a neoconservative, Kristol said, is to at least respect traditional values and institutions, and to live in some ambiguous and incomplete way under their guidance.

Neoconservatism’s most glaring failure is the ineffectiveness of its relatively unreligious and sophisticated strategy for preventing the countercultural, bohemian values of the 1960s from becoming institutionalized. It turns out to be beyond the ability of the public intellectual to preserve bourgeois moral decency while managing the change in traditions, customs, and norms set in motion by the cultural sea change of the Sixties. Kristol is proud that he helped turned some economic conservatives toward thinking about the cultural issues important for the happiness of ordinary people. But more libertarian public intellectuals now pride themselves on their success in reconciling bourgeois productivity with bohemian avant-gardism in their free time. Few public intellectuals these days are now especially concerned with the moral and cultural degradation of the American middle class.

Religious Morality without Theology

Because of the intrusive irresponsibility of the increasingly decadent American elite, Kristol—from a somewhat wary distance—gave two or even two and a half cheers to the rise of the Christian Moral Majority as a populist movement on behalf of God, morality, and personal responsibility. He understood the evangelical revival to be a moral and not just a purely religious transformation; he even encouraged American Jews to start their own revival. The return to religious community is the only alternative to the moral nihilism of modern secularism—meaning the only alternative to either neo-pagan Epicureanism or therapeutic self-surrender. If the Jews simply accept the low birthrate and indifference to intermarriage that accompanies upper-middle-class urban life, Kristol contended, they will disappear as a people. Americans, in general, have the choice of committing demographic suicide or returning to the morality of religious community. Kristol also didn’t think that political devotion to America, although good and necessary, could flourish without religion. He observed that the Europeans, very short on both religious community and “manly” political devotion, are, in fact, committing a kind of moral or political suicide.

In Kristol’s mind, the return to religious community could be free of theological fanaticism or even any certainty about the truth of the existence of a personal God. It could be, in his mind, a decision that was partly this-worldly and partly existential, if not other-worldly. We are ennobled and deepened by our religious longings, which is why Kristol thought that the later, religious poetry of T. S. Eliot was better than his earlier work and why he thought far more highly of C. S. Lewis than Max Weber. But our basically bourgeois souls need not be all that concerned with the actual truth of religious doctrines to find the mixture of community and personal freedom we need to live well here and now.

Kristol was raised an observant Orthodox Jew by parents who showed no interest in whether the Jewish rituals and practices reflected any genuine truth. He was taught to spit on churches and to hate Christians. Kristol himself seems to be more Orthodox in one way—at least in his sense of thoughtful communal identification—than his parents. But in another sense less Orthodox—perhaps not Orthodox at all—in his observance of religious ritual and practice. He thought the point of his religion was a utilitarian one: to locate him in a particular community and to support moral behavior; he repeatedly dodged the question of his personal belief in the God of the Bible. Kristol also asserted that, for Jews, “the moral behavior by believers in other religions trumps the official religious doctrine of those religions.” From that view, he didn’t think American Jews could be anything but grateful to American Christians, whose country had welcomed Jews in a way no other country ever has, and who became progressively less anti-Semitic and more supportive of Israel than many Jews. The behavior of serious American Christians had, in fact, improved morally, while that of the liberal secularists had grown worse, as they slid in to open hostility to the particular claims of any religious community, including those of the Jews in America and Israel. America, it follows, becomes a better, more sustainable place insofar as both Christians and Jews become more religious. And self-aware and politically attuned Jews had more reason to appreciate, say, the views and behavior of evangelical Protestants than those secularized, hyper-liberal Jews.

Kristol told his fellow Jews not to care that Christians sometimes didn’t believe that they couldn’t be saved. Jews, after all, don’t believe in the Jesus who does the saving, much less any specific Christian doctrine about the requirements of personal salvation. But he admits that he always thought it “rather bizarre” and “pointless” for Christians to want to convert Jews. A lot of spilling of blood and spiritualized cruelty could have been avoided had Christians been satisfied with the moral behavior of Jews, as well, of course, as that of other Christians who differed with them merely on points of doctrine. Observant Christians and Jews lead morally—and Kristol even claims, existentially—very similar lives. It’s true enough, after all, that our serious, “orthodox” Jews and Christians have reason to unite in opposing a secular cultural elite now using government to give teeth to its hostility to the moral way of life our religious communities share in common.

American Christians would be better off, in Kristol’s mind, if they stopped talking about Christian or theological truth as the highest truth—or as truth at all. “Truth” should be reserved for what we can all know together about the temporal world. What someone can know through faith is neither true nor false in the scientific or rational sense. That’s why Kristol endorses the movement from speaking of “communities of belief” toward speaking of “communities of faith.” Belief is dogma, or something claimed to be true. Faith is more than and can’t be reduced to dogmatic propositions. Faith is caused by and causes prayer, but it isn’t given to everyone and is fundamentally a mystery beyond scientific verification. Kristol is right that those who speak of this or that “faith tradition” aim not to understand them in terms of exclusive claims of truth. He didn’t appreciate sufficiently the fact that, for many Christians that way of speaking is a sign of religious decline, a decline in both faith and community.

Kristol holds that theological relativism is perfectly sensible, but moral relativism is not. His own life seems to have been governed by that distinction. Kristol seems not to have realized that while it is possible to be Jewish and have no real relationship with God, it is not possible to be a Christian without a relationship to God. The truth, any serious Christian would respond to Kristol, is that the evangelicals he admires continue to talk about the absolute truth of the biblical worldview, while regarding the secular worldview as relativistic and nihilistic. Even their devotion to Israel and the Jews is based on an interpretation of the Bible not shared by Jews. Kristol advises Christian communities to abandon theological claims about exclusive truth when it comes to redemption, and he praises liberal theological progress in that direction. The truth is—as sociologists of religion know full well—that such movements haven’t been so good for observant and faithful Christian communities, and the Christians Kristol admires will still want, in principle at least, to share the good news with their Jewish neighbors.

Kristol hasn’t really shown that religious toleration can dispense with certain theological premises. He’s never clear on whether Jews or Christians should believe in any moral or existential principle accessible only through biblical revelation. Nor is he even clear on whether mankind needs special revelation—such as the claim in the Book of Genesis that man is created in the image of God—which may be affirmed but not discovered by reason. Kristol seems so certain that we’re basically hardwired for innately bourgeois values that personal decency and identity, for him, doesn’t seem to depend on believing certain truths revealed to us by God.

Consistent Anti-Utopian Thinker

Kristol’s certain claim that moral relativism can be fended off without messy theology doesn’t seem even to have satisfied his fellow Straussians, who often believe that the notion of moral truth, from a rational or philosophic view, is an oxymoron. The followers of “West Coast” Straussian Harry Jaffa have criticized Kristol for not affirming the absolute truth of the natural theology of the revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Only such civil-theological absolutism, Straussians think, can fend off the deadliness of the moral relativism inspired by modern philosophy and science. For Kristol, the future of decent moral behavior in the United States doesn’t depend on that kind of civil-theological devotion, and he made no effort to articulate theological/philosophical doctrine that could hold all Americans together. He did say the United States is a creedal nation, but he regarded that creed as a fairly vague mixture of this-worldly elements and not some definite set of doctrines. Kristol, of course, didn’t explicitly dismiss the Declaration and did affirm its idea of equality, but he largely—if not completely—ignored its foundation in the revolutionary ideology of the modern philosopher John Locke. He talked about “natural rights” mainly when prudently distinguishing between equality of rights and promiscuous egalitarianism.

The American Revolution, for Kristol, is distinguished by its this-worldly sobriety, its relatively modest and therefore decent and achievable aspirations. It was the least revolutionary and least utopian or least secular-theological of modern revolutions. Kristol understood every form of modern utopianism as a kind of monstrous secularization of the unrealistic aspirations of Christian otherworldliness, and he was distinguished by his uncompromising opposition to them all. So he was a ferocious opponent of Communist ideology as a chain of political logic always leading to cruel, murderous despotism.

Kristol also opposed the dystopianism of American conservative libertarians, who believe we have to take drastic action to get ourselves off that road to serfdom, just as he was opposed to the dystopianism of the Americans who thought technological progress had put us on the road to some Brave New World. Kristol wasn’t above even outing the libertarian purity of Austrian economics as theological in some sense: “If one reads the National Review, one would think it a gross impiety for the nation’s economic life to be suited to the habits, character, and piety of the people who inhabit it, rather than the divine commandments handed down by (or is it only to?) Professor von Mises.” If it weren’t for the enthusiasm he eventually developed for supply-side economics, Kristol might have regarded himself as a singularly consistent anti-utopian thinker, avoiding even the utopianism of the more prophetic parts of the Bible in favor of those that deal with moral law.

One of Kristol’s anti-utopian positions is the view that the welfare state can, but need not, produce demoralizing dependency. A neoconservative, claims Kristol, is for the American welfare state that’s not the paternalistic state, for the welfare state purged of most of the misguided Great Society social engineering. From this view, something like the New Deal is the realistic mean between the extremes of the pure capitalism that exists only in the economist’s classroom and the socialism that’s all about planning every detail of the lives of imaginary beings. That realistic moderation, prudently managed, supports the decent, bourgeois lives of American family men and women, whether Christian or Jewish.

Today, the most penetrating criticism of neoconservatism seems to be of the utopian, post-9/11 foreign policy of the neocon-dominated Bush administration. The goal was (Straussian) “regime change” throughout the Middle East in the direction of liberal democracy, drawing upon the “natural right” and natural longing of all human beings for liberty. This expression of American natural greatness would make the world safer for America and safer for Israel. One result of this idealistic overreach was the huge national debt the country now faces—a mess that can’t be fixed with supply-side economics alone. The old Republicans who worried about deficits now seem to be, to a significant degree, vindicated. Even conservatives now see the need to revisit the issue of the military-industrial complex.

Kristol, of course, supported the Iraq War. But his analysis indicates that neoconservative principles did not necessarily dictate support for that Middle East intervention. Kristol was a consistent opponent of isolationism. Americans have many reasons to be concerned that the world not be too hostile to us, and we should exercise our beneficial influence against ideological and religious fanaticism whenever we can. But it’s inevitable that neocons will disagree on the specifics of foreign policy. They went, Kristol remembers, “every which way” on Vietnam, and certainly they disagree now on what to make of our unexpectedly long, expensive, and at-best inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even some neocons say we showed insufficient respect for the customs and traditions of particular peoples.

In the last essay of this book, Kristol acknowledges that the American idea of national greatness will be “muted for some time ahead” by inconvenient facts in the Middle East. But “muted,” of course, is far different from “abandoned”; isolationism of the Ron Paul variety remains dangerously utopian.

What’s alive in Kristol’s analysis and of special relevance for conservatives today? There’s the connection he made between population growth and economic growth, and his vision of decent, bourgeois-religious Americans that support them both. The main reason for the entitlement crisis is sophisticated people living longer but having fewer and fewer children. That demographic issue is the cultural product of our excessively individualistic moral behavior, and so it may not yield to any simple political or policy fix. With the concerns of ordinary Americans foremost in mind, we need not end our entitlements, but rather mend them appropriately, keeping the support of the family and children especially in mind. The Tea Party idea that we’d be better off without them altogether is utopian.

Without some kind of cultural shift that can neither be counted on nor engineered into existence, we can no longer count on economic growth to save the country. A prudent neocon today has to acknowledge that we have to take the deficit more seriously than they did in the glory days of Reagan. The safety nets on which we’ve come to rely are all eroding, and Kristol, thinking especially about families and middle-class culture, would not regard that fiscal reality as good news. Yet the bad news is that his profound, humane, and astute insights fall short of delivering the personal, loving words that would lead to the moral, virtuous behavior that might restore either the American family or American culture.

Dr. Lawler, the Dana professor of government at Berry College, Mt. Berry, Georgia, served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics. Editor of the quarterly Perspectives on Political Science, his latest book is Modern and American Dignity (ISI Books).