This is a two-part post. For part one, click here.
Irving Kristol is probably the most well known of the founders of the neo-conservative movement. What is less well known, however, is what that movement really stands for. While the name includes the word conservative, the movement transforms conservatism into a form of prudish socialism that would please no one but its leaders, which is why, in my opinion, they don’t advertize their true goals.
In this two-part blogpost, I cite and comment on a small selection of quotes from Kristol’s definitive book, Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. In part one, I quote Kristol’s strategic call for a “conservative welfare state;” here in part two, I offer some of his more specific ideas.
SOCIAL REFORM: GAINS AND LOSSES (1973)
Although this shocking essay, Social Reform: Gains and Losses, was written decades ago, Kristol chose to include it in this definitive anthology without revision or apology.
One wonders what would happen if all the money spent on Great Society programs had been used to institute, in however modest a way, just two universal reforms: (1) children’s allowance, as already described, and (2) some form of national health insurance? My own surmise is that the country would be in much better shape today. We would all –including the poor among us—feel that we were making progress, and making progress together, rather than at the expense of one another.
Yes such reforms are expensive and technically “wasteful,” in that they distribute benefits to all, needy or not. But to stress this aspect of the matter is to miss the point: Social reform is an inherently political activity, and is to be judged by political, not economic or sociological, criteria. When I say social reform is “political,“ I mean that its purpose is to sustain the polity, to encourage a sense of political community, even of fraternity. To the degree that it succeeds in achieving these ends, a successful social reform—however liberal or radical its original impulse –is conservative in its ultimate effects. Indeed, to take the liberal or radical impulse, which is always with us, and slowly to translate that impulse into enduring institutions which engender larger loyalties is precisely what the art of government, properly understood, is all about.
Is that what you understand government to be about? Is government an institution whose primary purpose is to be an institution? Are radical socialist policies inherently conservative because they engender loyalty to the government? Kristol is not just redefining conservatism here, he is abolishing it! Maybe if we did understand Kristol’s version of “properly understood” government, we would abolish it!
EMBRACING THE RELIGIOUS (1993)
This is an excerpt from the essay The Coming “Conservative Century.”
Coping with a religious revival, however, is something that conservatives and the Republican party are not yet prepared to do. Religious people always create problems since their ardor tends to outrun the limits of politics in a constitutional democracy. But if the Republican party is to survive, it must work at accommodating these people. In a sense, the influx of the religious into American politics is analogous to the influx of European immigrants into our urban centers between 1870 and 1914. They created many problems, but the Democrats welcomed them while the Republicans shunned them. That was the origin of the natural Democratic majority.
The Democrats are never going to be able to welcome the religious, but if the Republicans keep them at arm’s length instead of embracing them, and shaping their political thinking, a third party and a restructuring of American politics are certain. One way or another, in the decades ahead they will not be denied.
In other words, the Republican party is using the religious segment of American voters just like the Democrats use their hodge podge of special interests; and also similar to the Democrats, the Republican elite aim to “shap[e] their political thinking” to shore up its power base. Pragmatically speaking, this is politics, but I think if you are among those Kristol is targeting here you might resent that you are being manipulated and used. And you might wonder why. . . .
THE NEW POPULISM: NOT TO WORRY (1985)
These neo-conservative manipulations do not end at stitching together political factions, they also wish to direct their members’ thinking to specific ends. Kristol wishes to take what he believes to be the emptiness of voters’ minds and fill it with the propaganda that serves the neo-conservatives’ grander, international goals.
I recently attended a couple of private dinners in Washington with foreign-policy experts, both in the administration and out. These were all more or less conservatives–no”doves”–and I was shocked to hear every discussion of policy turn around such questions as: “Dare we propose such a course of action to the American people?” “What will they think?” “How will they respond?” Constant reference was made to opinion polls as indicating how difficult the making of foreign policy now is [i.e. since Viet Nam]. But surely it is evident that, on matters of foreign policy, opinion polls are not worth the paper they are written on.
The American people know–their common sense tells them–that [foreign policy] is a subject (economic policy is another) about which they know little, and that their opinions are not reasoned opinions, only shallow attitudes that are waiting to be shaped or reshaped into firm opinion. That shaping is the task of political leadership, which has to lead–to make decisions and then be judged by the results. The kind of timid deference to supposed popular opinion now visible in Washington’s elites only serves to diminish popular confidence in their wisdom and their competence.
This comment speaks for itself, but I will point out that nowhere is it clearer to me than in this passage that there is a ruling class in the Republican establishment no less insidious than the limousine liberal elitists in the Democratic party. These classes deliberately manipulate their constituents to effect outcomes the rulers know free thinking, informed individuals would not support. This is not a vision of government for the people, it is a vision of government for the ruling class.
These tactics, which seems to traditional conservatives, Constitutionalists and libertarians to be so out of place on the right, only make sense when you realize where Kristol is coming from. In his own words…
I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neoliberal, and finally a neoconservative.
The fact that this ideological progression is a natural one is obvious if you dig into what neo-conservatism actually is. The traditional conservative position, however, is not part of this line-up and never will be.