A review of The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, by Irving Kristol
The art of persuasion rarely succeeds without a leap of imaginative sympathy. Identification tends to precede assent: to embrace any worldview, any philosophical position, one must first imagine oneself as the kind of person who could become a Christian or an atheist, a Marxist or a libertarian.
Thus autobiography is often the most compelling form of argument, and few polemics are quite so potent as a well-told conversion story. Whereas lesser writers merely hector the unconverted, the intellectual convert identifies with them, and inspires identification in return. As you are, I once was, he reminds the reader—a reassurance that makes it infinitely easier to proceed with the argument that As I am, you should become.
No writer understood this better than the late Irving Kristol. He was a serial convert: "I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neoliberal, and finally a neoconservative," he wrote in one of the heretofore-uncollected essays included in The Neoconservative Persuasion, a compilation, assembled by his wife Gertrude Himmelfarb, and son William, spanning Kristol's six decades in the public square. The last of those conversions was of course his most influential one, and he helped guarantee its influence by weaving elements of his conversion story into almost every public argument he made.
Most of his peers, Kristol noted wryly, regarded his Nixon-era rightward turn as "the equivalent of a Jew ostentatiously eating pork on Yom Kippur." These were precisely the people whose minds his most effective essays set out to change. By my count, 9 of the 48 pieces in The Neoconservative Persuasion are explicitly devoted to discussing why Kristol ended up a neoconservative, and what that "persuasion" means to him. (This includes the 2003 piece written at the height of liberal anxiety over the "neocon" influence in the Bush Administration, which lends the book its title.) Many more deploy his conversion more subtly: the first person singular may not explicitly intrude, but one constantly has the sense of Kristol's own persona and life story hovering over the argument, as a perpetual reminder to the wavering reader—who is presumed to share Kristol's cosmopolitanism, and perhaps his Jewish roots as well—that the views being urged upon them belong, not to some Orange County burgher or Bible Belt philistine, but to the very model of an Upper West Side Jewish intellectual.
Consider an essay like 1984's "The Political Dilemma of American Jews," written during Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign. Addressing the widespread Jewish dismay over Jackson's anti-Semitic forays, Kristol begins by suggesting that his co-religionists are facing an intellectual crisis that combines "the three critical stages in the life cycle of the individual," as defined by "Erik Erikson, in his biography of Martin Luther."
The explicit (and characteristically provocative) analogy here is between American Jews in the age of "Hymietown" and a Protestant reformer known for his own anti-Semitic excesses. But when Kristol quotes Erikson's claim that "in some phases of his life cycle…man needs a new ideological orientation as surely and as sorely as he must have air and food," anyone who knows anything about the essay's author understands that the model being invoked isn't Martin Luther, but Kristol himself. His personal reorientation is being held up, implicitly but obviously, as the potential answer to the collective crisis of his people.
Or consider Kristol's two essays on supply-side theory, 1977's "Toward a ‘New' Economics?" and 1981's "Ideology and Supply-Side Economics." Not content simply to defend the supply-side idea against its critics, he expends as many words explaining the historical genesis of the position as he does arguing for its merits. Again, the autobiographical element is implicit but absolutely crucial. Here is how I, a man like yourself, came to embrace these controversial notions, Kristol seems to be saying. Perhaps you might consider embracing them as well.
Not every reader was swayed by such appeals, of course. (Most American Jews remain staunch Democrats, and supply-side economics never gained a mass following among the New York intelligentsia.) And somewhat fewer, perhaps, are swayed by them today. For all its strength as a polemic, the conversion story inevitably becomes a little less persuasive once the world that it describes has passed into history, and the convert himself has passed to his reward.
Without Kristol here to defend it, then, it's not surprising that neoconservatism has fallen lately into a kind of disrepute—not only among his longtime liberal antagonists, but among many conservatives as well.
On the Left, neoconservatives get the blame for the various foreign policy debacles of the past decade, and particularly for the Wilsonian fervor that accompanied some of the Bush Administration's lower moments. On the Right, they often get blamed for the Republican Party's un-conservative spending record during the Bush era, which Tea Partiers and libertarians trace to neoconservatism's unseemly comfort with the post-New Deal welfare state. (The admirers of Ron Paul, of course, advance both of these critiques at once, linking statism at home to utopianism abroad and blaming the neocons for both.)
At times, the essays in The Neoconservative Persuasion suggest that these critics have a point. Neoconservatism may not be a rigid ideology, but even as a "persuasion" it comes with certain defining attributes, which recur throughout Kristol's repeated explanations of his worldview. In domestic policy, these include a preference for economic growth over balanced budgets, a belief that the post-New Deal welfare state should not be torn up root and branch but rather "reconstruct[ed]…along more economical and humane lines," and a sense of the importance of religion and public morals that extended naturally to a sympathy for the post-1970s Religious Right. In foreign affairs, they include an emphasis on military strength and moral clarity, a skepticism of international institutions and a hostility to anything that looks remotely like world government, and a definition of the national interest that's both geographically expansive and includes "ideological interests in addition to more material concerns."
One need not succumb to the lazy anti-neocon paranoia of the mid-2000s to see some of the Bush Administration's failures foreshadowed in this list. The neoconservative emphasis on growth over balanced budgets, for instance, contributed to a dangerous Republican insouciance about deficits, and a naïve assumption that tax cuts could always pay for themselves. The neoconservative preference for what Kristol termed "strong government over weak government" anticipated the expansion of federal spending and power under Bush's "compassionate conservatism." The neoconservative insistence on the ideological element in American foreign policy helped inspire a naïveté about our ability to reshape distant societies to our liking, given voice in Bush's implausible Second Inaugural assertion that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."
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But a careful reading of The Neoconservative Persuasion also suggests that Kristol would be ready with two rejoinders to this indictment, were he returned to us to face it. The first would be directed at those on the Right (libertarians, Tea Partiers, Glenn Beck watchers, and so forth) inclined to dismiss neoconservatism as a kind of intellectualized RINO-ism-a hopeless sell-out to big government, a watering-down of the true conservative faith. Yes, Kristol might agree, neoconservatism is not so pure as libertarianism, and not so stalwartly anti-government as the Goldwater-era Right. But this is precisely why it has been effective, in politics and public policy alike, where other conservatisms have often failed. Most Republican politicians "could not care less about neoconservatism" as a doctrine, he wrote in 2003, but it has not passed their notice that "it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies."
As the last line rightly suggests, the Bush White House was not the first Republican administration to be informed by the neoconservative persuasion. If the neocons deserve the blame for what went wrong with Bush, then they get to claim the credit for what went right with Ronald Reagan—a president, it should be recalled, whose inaugural address included the eminently neoconservative promise not to "do away with government," but to make it "work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back." And not only Reagan: From Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich to Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan, the most effective conservative politicians have always heeded Kristol's admonition that "you can't beat a horse with no horse," and the policies they've championed—from supply-side economics to welfare reform to Ryan's famous Roadmap—have generally sought to reform rather than abolish the post-New Deal edifice.
Perhaps the Tea Party will prove the exception: a case where conservatism without anything "neo" about it succeeds at finally overthrowing the welfare state entirely. But a glance at the polls showing strong Tea Party support for Medicare and Social Security suggests that even in a Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann presidency, the neoconservative persuasion will still have an important role to play.
The second plausible rejoinder to neoconservatism's critics, meanwhile, would double as a warning to the conservative movement as a whole—to Kristol's heirs as well as to his critics, to supply-siders and interventionists and social conservatives as well as libertarians and deficit hawks. The neoconservative impulse, Kristol might remind them, originated in a skepticism of both left-wing and right-wing orthodoxies, and a willingness to grapple with complexities that neither party platform seemed to be addressing. To the extent that neoconservatism went astray in the Bush years, it was precisely because it lost touch with this original skepticism, and became a party line unto itself—as much of a bubble, in certain ways, as the one that still encloses much of the liberal intelligentsia today.
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The best way for today's right-wingers to break out of this bubble, then, isn't to repudiate neoconservatism entirely. Rather, they would do well to revive its heterodox spirit, and remind themselves of what Irving Kristol's persuasion originally meant. Here certain essays in The Neoconservative Persuasion offer an excellent place to start. Today's more zealous foreign policy hawks, for instance, would do well to revisit the Kristol who wrote, in 1993, that "a renascent nationalism" should be accompanied by "a renascent neo-realism in foreign policy," which would look somewhat askance at the Wilsonian dream of "benign humanitarian imperialism." The more naïve supply-siders would do well to note that in 1981 Kristol invoked the Laffer curve in support of cutting the top income tax from 70% to "say, 40 percent," rather than insisting that every decrease in the marginal tax rates will yield a revenue windfall. And Obama-era conservatism's many Ayn Rand devotees might profit (if you will) from his 1979 essay "No Cheers For the Profit Motive," which defends capitalism while raising an eyebrow at the moral valorization of profit-seeking—an impulse, Kristol notes, that's no less shadowed by original sin than the quest for sex or power or any other earthly good.
In these moments of clarity about the excesses to which conservatives are heir, no less than in his long argument with liberalism, Irving Kristol proves his great worth as a public intellectual. He was sometimes an enthusiast but rarely a pure cheerleader, and at his best he managed to advance a compelling critique of left-of-center politics without losing sight of the places where the right-wing alternative tends to go astray.
This combination, rare in our intellectual life, offers something to both critics and his comrades, and it makes the rich material in The Neoconservative Persuasion worth returning to for as long as Left and Right endure.