Monday, January 31, 2005

The True Meaning of Neoconservatism

This blog is not and never will be political (even if I do revamp it, which at this point is looking unlikely, it'll never, ever be a political blog), but it is about culture n' stuff, and I wanted to write a bit about the term "neoconservative," because that's become almost as much a part of culture as a part of politics.

I remember in college, one of the people in my dorm was a campus conservative activist, fit every stereotype of the college conservative: hated Clinton, worshipped Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr., drank a lot of beer. Anyway, he'd never heard the term "neoconservative" before I mentioned it to him,land he'd never heard of most of the people whom I identified as neoconservatives. The term didn't seem to be very big then, in part because no one had any idea what it was supposed to mean; and the stuff that "neoconservatives" believed tended to be the stuff that conservatives believed, so what was the difference? That's still true today, even after the term has become so popular. (That is, the opinons that the "neocons" hold tend to be opinions that the just-plain-cons hold as well.) But I'd argue that there is such a thing as a neoconservative, only the term refers to two distinct groups of people: one group that doesn't exactly exist any more, and another group that is part of a larger trend on both sides of the so-called culture wars.

The first group of "Neoconservatives" were thinkers, often social scientists, who decided that the liberal approach to social policy wasn't working, or at least was flawed. This group included Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Bell. Many of these people never accepted the term neoconservative, let alone conservative; they were just people who came to believe in the "law of unintended consequences" -- that just because a policy has good intentions or is meant to achieve social justice doesn't mean it will actually make things better. This is very different from a conservative. A conservative or a liberal has certain basic principles that don't change depending on social utility. So a conservative is presumably opposed to social programs because he or she (usually he) thinks they're wrong in principle, and only secondarily because he believes they don't work. The original "neoconservatives" had no objection in principle to social programs; they just came to believe that they weren't helping, or at least that not all of them were helping.

This group is no longer thought of as "neoconservative" because in a sense, we're all neoconservatives now. That is, it's quite common nowadays for people -- of whatever political persuasion -- to have doubts about the ability of government programs to solve social problems, or to believe that a policy should be judged by results, not intentions. In 1963 it was common to assume, for real, that society's problems could be solved by throwing money at them; that's what the original neoconservatives were reacting to. Now almost everyone accepts that that's not true, so the designation "neoconservative" no longer applies to anyone who believes in the so-called law of unintended consequences.

But there's another type of "neoconservatism" that is still very much with us. This is the type of neoconservatism represented by intellectuals who weren't really focused on social policy -- the Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz types, who moved rightward in response to what they saw as the unacceptable deterioration of the culture, especially in the late '60s. To some extent these writers accepted the social-policy neoconservatives' positions (that the Great Society just wasn't working), but their primary interest was in cultural matters: they hated the cultural upheavals (tm) of the '60s, and the way liberals capitulated to the radicals -- on cultural issues, anyway -- turned them against liberalism altogether. This is a type of neoconservatism that has no real policy agenda of its own, and these types of neoconservatives are all over the policy map. The point of this neoconservatism is not about policy, it's about being against the left. The philosophy was best summed up by Kingsley Amis, a British neoconservative of this particular stripe, who wrote:

I am not a Tory, nor pro-Tory (who could be pro- this Tory party?)... I am anti-Left.

Similarly, most of the American neoconservatives, of the second stripe, were not Republicans until well into the '80s and sometimes beyond (some of them voted for Clinton in 1992, since most "neoconservatives" -- and, perhaps, most conservatives -- despised George H.W. Bush). They just disliked the Left. The positions they took tended to be anti-Left more than anything with a positive agenda. For example, unlike Kingsley Amis, who supported the Vietnam War (a major reason for his break with the Left), most of the American neoconservatives opposed the war and would argue, even after their break with the Left, that the war was a mistake, at least the way it was executed. But they were so anti-Left, and so against what they saw as the Left's attempt to label Vietnam as "not merely a mistake but a crime," that many of them came off sounding like they were, in retrospect, defending the war -- even though they really didn't have much to say in favor of it. And that's true of a lot of the thinking that's now labeled "neoconservative": it is the thinking of people who aren't really all that interested in politics, in the nuts-and-bolts sense of policy and philosophy (the things that drove the policy-oriented neoconservatives); they're mostly taking positions that are the opposite of the Left, likely to weaken the influence of the Left, likely to annoy the Left. The new "neoconservative" is more anti-Left than he or she is in favor of anything.

The downside of this is that it leaves people arguing for nothing except the downfall of the other guy. Norman Podhoretz's gaseous articles, which basically ignores all facts that are inconvenient to an argument that he never really bothers to make in any coherent way, are an example of this: the majority of the essays are spent not on outlining a positive agenda, let alone making an argument for why it's right, but on railing against the political and social Left. The New Criterion, founded by one-note sourpuss Hilton Kramer and run by one-note sourpuss Roger Kimball for the benefit of other one-note sourpusses (or sourpi) is the same way when it comes to the arts: much more time is spent railing against the Left's influence on the arts, or the Left's idea of what art should be, than in outlining what a particular author thinks art should be. (Sam Lipman, the music critic who co-founded the magazine with Kramer, was a perfect example of this: though he claimed to be interested in challenging modern music, and no doubt he was, in his criticism he tended to spend much of his time defending old-fashioned retro-Puccini music, mostly because the cultural Left seemed to be against it.) It's tiresome stuff. I'm no conservative but I'd much rather read the writing of someone who thinks, philosophically, that high taxes are wrong and immoral, than someone who just wants tax cuts because the Left is against them. The former will feel a need to argue his case. The latter will spend all his time telling us how terrible the other side is.

There is an equivalent to this on the Left; it's found most often in the blogosphere and sites like Many of the liberal bloggers and websites are not really left-wing or even all that liberal; they tend to be young professional types who like balanced budgets and Bill Clinton. The so-called "hard Left" tends to turn up more in the comments sections; most of the liberal bloggers are essentially moderates in their politics, just as many "neoconservatives" are not particularly right-wing in their political views. What gives the neo-somethings (I can't say "neoliberal" because that term basically means the same thing as neoconservative) the appearance of being more to the Left than they are is that they really hate conservatives; their passion is mostly against the Right. The ultimate representative of this, in politics, was Howard Dean: a not-particularly-liberal politician who hated the political Right, and both achieved and inspired passion by opposing the Right. There's a lot of this anti-Right sentiment going around lately, and like neoconservatism, it often seems divorced from a political agenda: i.e. the goal is to defeat the other side, not to push for anything specific ourselves. Talk to a college campus activist in the '60s and he just as likely would be protesting against liberals as against conservatives ("Hey, hey, LBJ..."). Talk to a Goldwaterite around the same time and he would just as likely be against Republicans as against Democrats. Today more and more people seem to define their politics and their culture in opposition to the other side, the other political party. Maybe we're all neo-somethings now.

I must admit that I find many of the moderate liberal, anti-Right bloggers more fun to read than the pure-left writers or the anti-Left conservatives. But that might be my own bias talking.

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