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Does "Neoconservativism" Exist?

Over at his Time, inc. weblog, Justin Fox asks a good question: does the word "neoconservatism" have a meaning other than "things liberals don't like"?

The Curious Capitalist - Justin Fox: Economist Brad DeLong, as part of his long-running campaign to persuade the world that journalists are flawed (and many are; unlike academic economists, who are right about everything and also smell great!), had a post Saturday tearing into the Economist for allegedly mischaracterizing the neoconservative movement. Brad apparently thinks Daniel Moynihan and Daniel Bell weren't neoconservatives, while Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol were....

[I think] neocons were lefty, urban intellectuals who became disillusioned in the 1960s with the Great Society and the anti-war movement. They were "mugged by reality," as Podhoretz put it. Bell, Kristol and Podhoretz were all card-carrying neocons. Moynihan strikes me as a more complicated case, but... it's certainly not wrong to label him a neoconservative.

Sure, later on, Bell and Moynihan went in different directions than Kristol and Podhoretz.... But the Economist's claim that neoconservatism began "as a critique of the arrogance of power" has far more basis in historical fact than Brad's definition of the movement. He says that "real neoconservatives" combined extreme foreign policy hawkishness with supply-side economics and a belief "that African-Americans got too easy a ride in modern America, and needed to be made poorer and less powerful." As intellectual history, this is dubious (most of the neocons didn't care about economics, and I don't think it's fair to say that their anti-affirmative-action tendencies meant that they wanted blacks to be "poorer and less powerful"). But as political rhetoric, it may turn out out be brilliant.

Basically, Brad is defining neoconservatism as everything about American politics over the past 30 years that he didn't like....

Update: Brad DeLong has a comment.... I still think that, by removing Bell and Moynihan from the neocon storyline and throwing the supply siders and racists in, he's trying to define neoconservatism to match his own political dislikes. But the Kristol family is certainly helping him.... I came across an Irving Kristol essay on the "Neoconservative Persuasion" in which the senior Mr. K lists "cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth" as a key neocon policy....

And comments:

paul_lukasiak April 23, 2007: Justin, while the Economist may be correct in the "origins" of the neocon movement, its like talking about the origins of Stalinism which had its roots in utopian visions of material and social equality. The fundamental point of the neo-con is its extreme REACTIONARY nature -- its basically a form of political schizophrenia. Far leftists saw stuff they didn't like in the left, and rather than MODERATE their positions, they created a "movement" that was in opposition to everything that people they had previously agreed with stood for.

Terrapin April 23, 2007: Justin - I agree with everythig p_luk said. I would only add that you cannot talk about Neocons without mentioning Leo Strauss and Trotsky. A quick Google ought to explain why.

Justin Fox April 23, 2007: Don't really disagree with either of you, but I still think neoconservatism was mainly about being tough on the Russkies and tough on crime. Then, after both those battles were more or less won, some younger remnants of the movement regrouped around the whole Project for a New American Century platform of pre-emptive military action. Yet I see a lot of people--not just DeLong--using the term these days to describe pretty much everything about the political right that they don't like. Oh, and two more things: Leo Strauss! Leon Trotsky!

paul_lukasiak April 23, 2007: so you're basic objection to Brad's post was his mentioning Israel/Palestine policy (I'd be willing to bet that the early neo-cons did take the position Brad says they did), and had economic proposals different from those Brad describes (that's a possibility.) Because the rest of his description of the origin neocons is all about Russia, a bigger military, and .... Well, maybe you were still too young, but "Law and Order" was Wallace/GOP code for "keep those negros under our thumb".

Brad DeLong April 23, 2007: Ummmm...

I did talk to Daniel Bell about this--and to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Bell's line was that Kristol and Podhoretz came to the Public Interest from a different place than he did, and that in the 1970s they took it to a place where he didn't want to be--that in Bell's view the right mission was to improve and enhance post-WWII American Cold-War Great-Society liberalism, while Kristol and Podhoretz wanted to destroy it.

Moynihan said that he had flirted with what became "neoconservatism," especially during his stint at the UN, but only flirted with it--that he and it had never gone all the way.

Nathan Glazer, if I remember the story right--was it Jeff Weintraub's story?--characterized himself in the mid 1980s as a recovering neoconservative, on a 12-step program.

IIRC, the abandonment of Bell-Moynihan "we must cross the river step-by-step by feeling for the stones with our feet" for today's Kristol-Podhoretz-Kagan idiocies came rather swiftly in the late 1970s, when the Public Interest and its ilk endorsed Laffer, Team B, Begin and Sharon, and Reagan in one big package.

Do take a look at Irving Kristol's retrospective on neoconservatism. IIRC, Bell and Moynihan each appear once, each time pleading for analytical modesty. They are not the central players.

paul_lukasiak April 23, 2007: "I did talk to Daniel Bell about this--and to Daniel Patrick Moynihan." ohmigawd.... is like that Marshall McLulan moment in Annie Hall! ;)

Brad DeLong April 24, 2007: Justin.... As for the supply-side, you might take a look at John Ehrman's take, at Of Irving Kristol, Ehrman writes, I believe accurately:

By 1975, however, concern with what he saw as the continuing anti-capitalist influence of the New Left as well as America's deteriorating economic performance led him to publish Jude Wanniski's "The Mundell-Laffer Hypothesis--A New View of the World Economy," which proved to be the beginning of the Public Interest's promotion of supply side economics."

The Public Interest was a really big booster of supply-side economics in the late 1970s--a thing for which Irving Kristol half-apologized in the mid 1990s, writing of his own "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit.... The task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority - so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government." Papering over the split between balanced-budget Republicans (who were horrified of deficit-creating tax cuts) and tax cut Republicans (who couldn't care a fig for the long run) was a task that supply-side economics could perform, and so Kristol embraced it--not because he thought it was right (that word "cavalier") but because it was "politically effective."

Do remember: Daniel Bell was off the Public Interest masthead after 1972, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan would always bite if provoked by being called any form of "conservative"...

One thing I don't understand is the neoconservatives' descent into Straussianism--such views as the belief that fundamentalist Christianity should be encouraged because it is good for other people to believe in it...

Brad DeLong April 24, 2007: And another passage from Irving Kristol:

Though the educational establishment would rather die that admit it, multiculturalism is a desperate -- and surely self-defeating -- strategy for coping with the educational deficiencies, and associated social pathologies, of young blacks. Did these black students and their problems not exists, we would hear little of multiculturalism." ["Neo-Conservativism, The Autobiography of an Idea, Selected Essays 1949-1995"]

I think Paul Lukasiak has the right analogy: You can tell a "revolution betrayed" story of neoconservatism and say that everything would have been peachy if not for the hijacking of the movement by Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their progeny; just as you can tell a "revolution betrayed" story of Communist Russia. But complaining that William Kristol, John Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and the Kagan brothers today do not have the analytical modesty and dislike of poorly-thought-out radical leaps of Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan is like complaining that J.V. Stalin failed to properly implement Marx's vision of a free and wealthy society of associated producers. Such a story has more than a little lunacy in it.

The most interesting question to ask of the "revolution betrayed" stories is why people feel compelled to tell them. Stalin at least (mis)cited Marx at every occasion. It's been a long, long time since I've heard a neoconservative refer to Bell or Moynihan as any sort of authority.