Neo-conservatism: Irving Kristol’s living legacy

Cas Mudde
23 September 2009

The death of Irving Kristol on 18 September 2009 at the age of 89 has stilled the most powerful and effective voice of the first generation of neo-conservatism. The term was used (with pejorative intent) by the leftwing writer-activist Michael Harrington in 1973, but came to be embraced by Irving Kristol and many of his followers. Kristol - the "godfather" of a movement that included such diverse figures as Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, and James Q Wilson - leaves a complex legacy of political influence and intellectual achievement, mixed with a degree of confusion about where exactly neo-conservatism now stands.

Cas Mudde is associate professor in political science at the University of Antwerp, and (from June 2009 - May 2010) a visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies of the University of Notre Dame.

His books include Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

The social and biographical roots and evolution of the first generation of neo-conservatives is well documented in such studies as Jacob Heilbrunn's authoritative book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons (Anchor Books, 2009). Those who came to earn the sobriquet began as a group of (predominantly) Trotskyist graduate students at City College, New York in the fevered political atmosphere of the late 1930s. Their early leftism and anti-Stalinism gave their opposition to communism a particular twist when this became the defining political attitude of the American political establishment in the cold-war years.

Several of the founding group would never cease to identify themselves as Democrats. Their trajectory was however marked by an overall move to the right, characterised in Kristol's famous phrase as the experience of "liberals mugged by reality". The essence of the neo-conservatism that bound them - and won more and more adherents as the American political right sought a new intellectual foundation in the 1960s and 1970s - continues to be heatedly debated; it can be broadly characterised as an ideology that fused market economics, social traditionalism, and aggressive democratic interventionism against chosen authoritarian adversaries.

A figure of influence

The neo-conservative mindset may have been forged in the context of the global politics of the 1930s-1950s, but the first major journal co-founded by Kristol was mainly focused on domestic politics: The Public Interest, which began publication in 1965. Its foreign-policy counterpart, The National Interest, followed only in 1985.

The Public Interest, an enterprise in which Kristol was joined by the renowned sociologist Daniel Bell (who would never fully embrace neo-conservatism), was at the outset a politically broad-based publication featuring both conservative and liberal authors. It published accessible social-scientific analyses of the relevant policy-issues of the day, with a particular emphasis on welfare. The basic intellectual framework was a kind of conservative liberalism: the goals conservative, the means to achieve them quite liberal. This generation appeared to be seeking a blueprint for a "conservative welfare state" (as one of Kristol's prominent essays was titled); opponents on the right would label it "big-government conservatism".

The Public Interest in its early years encompassed a range of political positions, and tended to be quite cautious in its recommendations. It exhibited a high degree of trust in social science (in sharp contrast to traditional conservatism); at the same time authors were aware of the complexities of human relations and society, and avoided overly strong and simplistic conclusions. All this was much less the case with The National Interest, which from the start pursued a more rigorous anti-communist agenda and published a more ideologically cohesive set of authors.

Irving Kristol's prodigious work went far beyond founding and/or editing these influential magazines - and others, such as the London-based journal Encounter (which survived exposure of its funding by the CIA). He also revitalised and transformed existing organisations, such as the publisher Basic Books and the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, making them bastions of neo-conservatism.

Kristol's enormous influence on the American political landscape includes many elements: intellectual, financial, institutional, and personal. Indeed, the successor generation of neo-conservatives consists of many children of the first. Irving's own son (with Gertrude Himmelfarb, the influential historian of Victorian England) is William (Bill) Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard; the pattern is echoed in the editorship of Commentary by John Podhoretz, the son of the influential neo-conservatives Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter.

Across generations

There are obvious continuities between the two generations of neo-conservatism. But there are also four clear and substantial differences in their priorities and positions:

* the children, unlike their parents, have never been on the left

* this second generation might still feel (as a result of lingering cultural, ideological and religious tensions) somewhat at an angle to the broader conservative movement; but it has become entrenched in the American right in general, and the Republican Party in particular. Its publications - notably The Weekly Standard - tend to be uniformly rightwing and overwhelmingly partisan

* the successor generation is predominantly, if far from exclusively, focused on foreign affairs (in part perhaps as a result of its parents' success in the domestic arena, in part reflecting the greater problems for American power in the new era)

* the second generation lacks the caution of the first. Irving Kristol, for example, remained sceptical about seeking "regime change" as a United States foreign-policy goal, a crucial idea for contemporary "neocons" and one that came to inform the policies of the George W Bush administration.

Thus the modern neo-conservative movement has in a sense strayed from its originating outlook and priorities - though this was also true of Irving Kristol himself, who became increasingly partisan in later decades (to the extent of aligning with the religious right). In any event, Kristol and his contemporaries' achievement is considerable; it could be said with only a touch of exaggeration that while their foreign-policy agenda has been to a degree tainted by their offspring, their domestic agenda has become established at the heart of American politics and society.

Indeed, while many commentators have identified the Ronald Reagan era as the highpoint of neo-conservative power (notwithstanding contemporary criticism of the "feelgood president" from the ideological right), there is a case for arguing that Bill Clinton's administrations in the 1990s were a closer fit with the formative neo-conservative agenda of conservative liberalism. More generally, virtually all administrations since Reagan's have based their domestic agenda on the key values of initial neo-conservatism: including a strong belief in the market coupled with a conservative welfare state, as forces that together are expected to regulate socio-economic change and socio-cultural manners.

This bipartisan consensus appears today to be assailed by a pincer-attack from the moderately statist Barack Obama administration and the emerging anti-statist coalition represented by the "tea-party" movement. It is tempting to read into current events the demise of conservatism as such, let alone its more radical variants (as does Sam Tanenhaus's The Death of Conservatism [Random House, 2009]). But the pressures of economic crisis and unsettling social change are as likely to revivify as to bury it.

Indeed the neo-conservative infrastructure remains strong outside of the current structures of power, and its central propositions continue to have great purchase on the inside. Neo-conservatism's greatest exponent has passed away, but it is far too early for any obituaries of the movement and the ideas that Irving Kristol pioneered.

Also in openDemocracy on the ideas of the political right in the United States:

Godfrey Hodgson, "America's world: from frontiersman to neocon" (24 April 2003)

Danny Postel, "Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neocons, and Iraq" (16 October 2003)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Ronald Reagan and America: the real legacy" (10 June 2004)

Stefan Halper & Jonathan Clarke, "Neo-conservatism and the American future" (7 July 2004)

Anatol Lieven, "America right or wrong" (8 September 2004)

Anatol Lieven, "Bush's choice: messianism or pragmatism?" (22 February 2005)

John J Mearsheimer, "Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq war: realism versus neo-conservatism" (19 May 2005)

Francis Fukuyama, "After the 'end of history'" (2 May 2006)

Sidney Blumenthal, "Neocon fantasy, Iraqi reality" (20 September 2006)

John C Hulsman, "Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future" (21 September 2006)

Sidney Blumenthal, "Jeane Kirkpatrick, shadow of the present" (20 December 2006)

Jim Sleeper, US neo-cons jump the conservative ship (10 February 2009)

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