A few years ago, around the time that Bob Geldof was arguing that George W Bush had done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did, I appeared on a BBC Radio Five show to try and explain this apparently mystifying, confusing, aspect of the Bush presidency. Well, it was mystifying to the BBC.
Bush's faith, much mocked in Britain, explained part of it, I suggested, and so too did the American evangelical community's enthusiasm. "Ah" pounced our friend the presenter, "so it's all about the neoconservatives".
It was at this point that I appreciated that the term neoconservative had lost all meaning and that, from now on, it would be little more useful than "fascist" or even, often, "communist".
Perhaps the news that Irving Kristol, the "godfather" of neoconservatism has died, at 89, will prompt a reappraisal of the movement or, as he preferred to think of it, the neoconservative "persuasion".
This essay, published in The Weekly Standard six years ago, is a good place to start. As Kristol makes clear, you can, at least in part, define what neoconservatism by what it is not: it is neither Tory, nor libertarian and, in fact, is frequently deeply hostile to those rival strands in right-of-centre thought. As he says, its heroes are Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. No surprise, then, that neoconservatism is a form of statist supremacy.
It was Kristol who said that a neoconservative is a "liberal mugged by reality" and, these days, the extent to which neoconservatism began as a matter of largely domestic policy is often forgotten. Foreign policy was not the initial thing; rather neoconservatism began as a critique of (American-style) liberalism from within.
Chief among its concerns were the twin, indeed related, issues of welfare and crime. Here certainly neoconservatism can point to real, pace-setting achievements. The neoconservative approach to these issues was wonky, intellectually-curious, daring and persuasive. (Even then, mind you, the neoconservative endorsement of school vouchers came more than a decade after Milton Friedman's libertarian advocacy of exactly that idea.)
It was, then, a reaction to the shortcomings of the Great Society. As Kristol put it,
The Public Interest has always been far more interested in economic mobility than in economic equality or inequality, measured in static terms. Conventional estimates of the "distribution of income," as Mark Lilla was later on to point out in our pages, disguise the all-important fact that it is not the same people who, over time, are frozen in those income brackets. People move up, people move down, and at the margins the movement is much more than marginal. Only a minority, in any generation, make spectacular moves--but, then, no one ever claimed that Horatio Alger's heroes were typical Americans, only that they were possible Americans.
The Public Interest
"Unsurprisingly, "coping" rather than "solving" lacks dramatic appeal for journalists as for politicians."
The Cold War victory both renewed neoconservatism and exposed the limitations of its particular politics of sensibility. In 2000, for instance, neoconservatives (generally speaking) backed John McCain rather than George W Bush. But this, I think, was based on the Idea of McCain and his own particular swaggering style of politics. Only politicians who lacked a sense of the grand sweep of history would be interested in things as mundane as detail and policy.
And, of course, in the summer of 2001 the neoconservatives were, many of them, disappointed by President Bush who, despite recruiting from AEI and other neocon bastions, seemed too small by far for the office he held. Candidate Bush, remember, had promised a humble American foreign policy and vowed to be a "uniter, not a divider" at home. Neither attribute held much appeal for the true neoconservatives.
September 11th changed that and gave purpose to a renewed neoconservatism. At last the United States had a mission worthy of its status as the world's only superpower. And there was, truth be told, something energising, even thrilling, about that notion in those terrible, tumultuous days.
Neoconservatism wasn't solely responsible for this and other elements within the administration played their part, but a central neoconservative idea had always been that the United States can achieve anything if only it wills it strongly enough. That's an important part of the equation, but not the only one. Detail matters too.
In truth some of the limitations of neoconservatism reflect not so much the aging of its founders as the difficulties intellectual movements experience once their ideas become widely-accepted. When insurgency wins and then becomes orthodoxy it is almost inevitable that a first-rate movement becomes less intellectually vibrant or, for that matter, coherent. The fellow travellers and the latecomers devalue the movement they pay lip service to or think they are joining. Look at Mitt Romney, for instance.
In that regard, it's interesting to note Kristol's review, published in Commentary, of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, during which he observes:
In political theory, it is much easier to be right than to be relevant; and the greatest temptation for the critic is to rest in self-righteousness. This temptation Professor Hayek is not immune to; he too often gives the impression that he considers reality to be one immense deviation from true doctrine.
In retrospect, hindsight tells us that in the 1970s the neocons vastly over-estimated the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Relatedly, they under-estimated the internal problems the Soviet leadership faced. That was an understandable, and hardly venal, failing. Less forgivable has been their subsequent hyping of every threat to the point that an innocent observer might assume that armageddon was imminent. If, that is, it is not already upon us.
Political parties rarely die but to survive they must adapt. American conservatism owes much to Irving Kristol and there's reason to hope that heterodoxy has a chance to thrive through ventures such as David Frum's New Majority and the new, Kristol-inspired National Affairs. Anyone interested in these matters must also consult Reihan Salam's blog.
Kristol played a major role in making the Republican party - and the Conservative Movement - what they are today. For that he deserves great credit.But also some blame. He was the kind of influential intellectual British pundits tend to crave, But that is matter for a diffferent post on a different day.