The new Republican coalition of the late Twentieth Century garnered many highly talented and zealous recruits from the ranks of the Neo Conservatives, people who were once liberal intellectuals and former leftists who joined conservative ranks in the 1970s and after. Many of them became conservative journalists or worked for the emerging network of conservative think tanks. Some who once espoused socialism became its determined critics. They were fiercely anti-communist, supported the Vietnam War, and were put off by the New Left, which opposed the war and took cultural positions, which the Neo Conservatives denounced as destructive. These refugees from the left and liberalism found it comfortable to ally with conservatives who still believed that the Cold War was not over and that the USSR was an enormous threat to the US. They have been described by suspicious conservatives as “ex-liberals, socialists, and Trotskyites, boat people from the McGovern revolution who rafted over to the GOP.”
There was an unsuccessful Neo Conservative effort in 1976 to win the Democratic presidential nomination for hawk, Henry M. Jackson. Thereafter, most Neo Conservatives migrated to the Republican Party. While still liberals of different stripes, the Neo Conservatives moved away from a critique of capitalism and capitalist culture. The vast majority of them would eventually kick off all the traces of liberalism. They decided to privilege individualism and autonomy over the community. With time and the increasing rightward drift of the party, the Republican Neo Conservatives tended to show less and less interest in economic and social justice.
As they became strong advocates of neoliberal economics, they adopted the view that allowing the poor to deal with market forces was preferable to their old New Dealish positions. They had concluded that liberal solution had not worked and described themselves as liberals who had been “mugged” by reality.
Neo Conservatives become outspoken supporters of neoliberal economics and its Social Darwinian views of society and of helping the poor be responsible for themselves. They were not adverse to some state assistance in guiding the poor toward economic independence. However, it took some time for many of them to turn their backs on the New Deal heritage. As late as 1983, Irving Kristol was defending the long-standing liberal position on welfare. It was not long, however, before he too was talking about eliminating the welfare state. In time, less was heard from Neo Conservatives about this; however, there is little evidence that the Neo Conservatives ever got over their distaste for libertarians.
In the 1970s, there was a great upsurge of "backlash populism,” or right-wing populism that swept up many of these former left-wing intellectuals in its wake. They became Neo Conservatives. In the process, some of them accepted an anti-statism, for which some unorthodox forms of Marxism had conditioned them. Others employed anti-statist language while working to enlarge governmental and executive branch power as tools for the implementation of their plans. Neo Conservatives of most stripes would gradually become somewhat less distinguishable from all but the most extreme elements in the New Right. Like the New Right, they believe they are justified in using any hardball techniques to get what they want, including dirty tricks and lies. Unlike many on the New Right, they believe in expanding the federal government, and there is evidence that over time they have converted Republican colleagues on the New Right to this view. Both Neo Conservatives have contempt for libertarians, and both have a tendency to reshape traditional views of the constitution to suit their purposes. While the New Right believes that a godly and moral elite should exercise power, the Neo Conservatives expect power to be in the hands of an elite composed of highly educated individuals who are guided by their ideology.
Neo Conservatives are essentially secularists who want to preserve what is best of the Enlightenment heritage. Most are skeptics but value religion as a guarantor of order and morality. Oddly enough, some prominent Roman Catholics are Neo Conservatives despite the fact that Neo Conservatives have been historically hostile to religion. The New Right had reason to be suspicious of the Neo Conservatives, but over time they have worked well together. In temperament, they are not as different as might be expected, as both groups tend to produce zealots and ideologues.
Many of the Neo Conservatives were followers of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. They seemed to be unscrupulous, manipulative, and perfectly willing to manufacture information to support their goals. They were idealists whose conduct suggested that they believed that great truths needed to be protected by an army of small lies. Unlike their teacher, however, they were optimistic about the future of democracy, especially if the nation’s affairs were in their hands. They were able to use the terrorist attack on the United States to persuade the president and his chief advisors to adopt their positions and proclaim them as the Bush Doctrine. They insisted that 9/11 be exploited as a justification for an attack on Iraq. Liberal critics saw a successful Straussian conspiracy to hijack US foreign policy, but it may have been just as likely that Bush and Rumsfeld used the Neo Conservatives and Straussians for their own ends. It should also be remembered that there was not a great deal of difference between Neo Conservative and Straussian views and the position of foreign policy fundamentalists and unilateralists. Of course, the NeoCons were far more convinced than the foreign policy fundamentalists that aspects of Muslim civilization were antithetical to liberal democracy, social and economic progress, and intellectual freedom.
Dr. Rice described the Bush Doctrine as calling for “anticipatory self-defense,” which sounds less arrogant than preemptive strikes. She is not usually considered a NeoCon, but she certainly had leanings in that direction prior to 2001. She wrote in World Affairs in 2000 condemning “the reflexive appeal … to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states –or even better, of institutions like the United Nations—is essential to the legitimate exercise of power.” These were the words of a mainstream American foreign policy expert, who simply carried some long established views farther than most. The fact is that the United States has long exempted itself from parts of the United Nations Charter and has withdrawn from international obligations on a regular basis whenever its interests seemed to demand it. There was a precedent of sorts for the Bush Doctrine in the Clinton Doctrine. The latter reserved for the United States the right to use military force to obtain “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” The Bush Doctrine of the NeoCons went a few steps beyond these precedents, and was, as Henry Kissinger said, “revolutionary.” It simply discarded traditional American homage to international principles, which the US frequently violated in practice. Previous administrations thought it foolish to make such brash assertions of power and to then implement them in a manner that would infuriate even its allies. The NeoCons and Bush claimed a right others assumed existed, but should not be claimed openly and was to be used only as a last resort. As Henry Kissinger noted, anticipatory self-defense was a right that only the United States of America possessed. The NeoCons took this so-called right out of the back pocket and used it as a tool in normal statecraft.
It has been said that the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss was the spiritual godfather of the Neo Conservatives. He had a profound influence upon Irving Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Norman Podhorentz, William Kristol, and Gary Schmitt, leader of the Project for the New American Century. Strauss was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who taught political philosophy at the University of Chicago for twenty-five years. He never accepted the label of conservative, but his thinking was to have a great appeal to conservatives. It was quite different from what constituted mainstream conservatives in his lifetime and after his death. His outlook was very critical of much in modern culture and was rooted in pre-modern thought. Strauss saw the wreckage of the Weimar Republic and came to distrust democracy, seeing that Weimar’s weakness led to the barbarism of the Nazis. He favored a hierarchal society and saw the need for a populace animated by rabid nationalism and fervent religiosity.
No doubt most Neo Conservatives have not read the works of Leo Strauss, but their thinking has been strongly influenced by him. Staussians seemed to view themselves as superior persons, perhaps because they possess esoteric knowledge and value ancient virtues Neo Conservatives are Straussians to the extent that the fear the masses and democracy, believe in a government by an elite which should enjoy special dignity, accept the notion that the wise lead by telling noble lies, and insist that the worst thing that could befall the United States would be if its people no longer believed in the superiority of the American people.
Straussian thought did not revere tradition, as did conservatives of the stamp of Edmund Burke. Though not religious, Strauss valued religion, along with patriotism, as necessary to hold states and societies together. His basic outlook was that pre-modern philosophers had found it necessary to say what they had to say “between the lines” to protect themselves from the masses and governments. Most of them had concluded that there were no truths, no natural law, and no gods. They saw morality as necessary for order but knew it was only based on customs and prejudices. Straussians shared an esoteric approach to knowledge; knew that their basic beliefs should be shared with only an elite and believed that modern philosophy, in trying to address the common man, eventually exposed ordinary people to knowledge they could not live with comfortably. This led to nihilism and relativism, which Strauss and his followers deplored, and ultimately the wreckage of modern culture and the spawning of the New Left. The Straussians opposed moral relativism, but at root they were philosophical relativists. Strauss and his followers valued authority, heroism, and creativity and believe that democracy threatens these qualities. They placed a premium on truth and justice; some saw them as salutary myths and others thought it possible to almost approximate them.
Professor Strauss and his followers thought their mission was to work to salvage what they could of liberal democracy and the best of Western Culture, but they differed among themselves on accomplish this. He had contempt for the weakness of the German Weimar Republic and taught that masses need strong leadership, which is willing to deceive them when necessary. He believed that perpetual deception was necessary to give the people the leadership they needed, and feared the disorder that could flow from excessive dissent. He noted that the best way to insure a stable political order is to bring about unity through fear of an external threat and said such a threat should be” manufactured if it did not actually exist.”
Strauss’s teachings laid the groundwork for an aggressive foreign policy that was to include unilateralism, preemptive strikes, and frequent warfare. He taught that the “liberal democracies live in constant danger from hostile elements abroad.” Given this situation, “to make the world safe for the Western democracies, one must make the whole globe democratic.” Democracies have a natural right to battle their barbarous opponents and have an obligation, as victors, to teach conquered peoples western democratic values. Strauss had a great influence on Neo Conservative thought, but it would seem that most of them overcame elements of his pessimism. If anything, they were to become very Wilsonian in their optimism over what America could accomplish in the world.
Leo Strauss told his inner circle that religion must be used by “true wise men” to control the masses and lead them in the correct direction. Strauss claimed that religion was false, but its deception must be hidden from the people. Most Neo Conservatives did not crusade against abortion or fight to restore prayer to the schools, but they developed many other themes to ingratiate conservative Christians. The Neo Conservatives found that by exploiting questions of promiscuity, drug use, rising crime, homosexuality, pornography, and assaults on traditional culture, they could activate fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. It did not matter that Strauss, himself, said the drug problem could be handled by handing out free doses on a daily basis.
Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, William Bennett, George Weigel and Michael Novak were representative of Catholic Neo Conservatives. These Catholic intellectuals had once been sympathetic to distributive justice and had worried about how capitalism nurtured materialism and egoism. In time, some like Michael Novak distanced themselves from these social concerns of their church and became apologists for relatively unrestrained capitalism. For example, Fr. Richard Neuhaus seemed to distance himself from Catholic views about private property and held that progressive taxation amounted to theft. His main concern was that strict enforcement of the First Amendment seemed to drive religious considerations from the public square. He seemed willing to embrace market economics of corporate America in return for its support in inserting religion into public discourse. Novak and papal biographer George Weigel reconfigured Catholic teachings on just warfare to justify George W. Bush’s Second Gulf War and rejected John Paul II’s clear position on that conflict because, by the 1970s, so many Catholics had distanced themselves from the natural law thought of their church. The thought of Catholic Neo Conservatives is almost indistinguishable from that of secular Neo Conservatives, except in respect to abortion. However these Catholics maintain that life begins at conception, a view grounded more in natural law than in science. On the broader question of the meaning of the First Amendment, they have coalesced around legal scholar Michael McConnell’s view that a secularist approach to the amendment denies equal consideration of the rights and concerns of religious people.
Many of the NeoCons were Jewish, and their presence in the conservative movement would eventually move it into close alignment with the most militant elements in Israel. They were strongly attached to the Likud Party and its vision of a Greater Israel. In the 1980s, they had considerable influence but did not have their hands directly on the levers of power. They greatly overestimated the Soviet Union’s military power and worked hard to convince the Reagan administration to pursue the Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) weapons system and vastly increase defense spending. They were convinced that this program brought an end to the Cold War. It may have contributed to the collapse of the USSR, but it is an open question whether the enormous expense and increased tensions were worth it.
The Neo Conservatives were to become analysts for conservative think tanks, cranking out material on foreign policy and economics, and about how the liberals allegedly destroyed traditional American culture. In no time, they appeared to have forgotten that their former friends in the academy and among liberal intellectuals had often been the strongest critics of consumerism, hedonism, and materialistic values. Their new job was to manufacture materials blaming these and other problems on liberals, and they did it well. Although they fit the profile of the hated New Class, NeoCons quickly became proficient in cranking out polemics against the so-called liberal “New Class” of elitist intellectuals who were allegedly out to soften American foreign policy and undermine foreign policy. The gist of their argument was that these people were “elitists” who somehow looked down on the views of ordinary folk. In truth, it was the Straussian Neo Conservatives who were the self-conscious intellectuals who were determined to manipulate the unwashed masses. The new conservative think tanks were established in order to create a “counter-establishment.” Over time they have succeeded in doing this, but they are not places where independent scholars can do their best to serve their country, regardless of party politics. Rather, in the words of Fareed Zakaria, they turn out “lots of predictable polemics and little serious analysis.”
The NeoCons were activists by nature and needed an identifiable enemy. By creating the “New Class” myth, they provided the necessary enemy-- those in the literati, academy, and media who disagreed with them. Later, when even they acknowledged the end of the Cold War, they threw themselves into a war against the remnants of American liberalism. Among their leaders were Michael Novak, James Q. Wilson, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and William Bennett. Mark Lillan of the University of Chicago noted in 2002 that the Neo Conservatives were animated by “ a purely political passion to challenge the intellectuals.’” Maintaining that liberal intellectuals have abandoned scholarly standards, the Neo Conservatives believe themselves justified in the “cavalier use of sources and quotations” and any kind of charge against liberal intellectuals, including treason, bad faith, and cowardice. The Neo Conservatives generally claimed to believe in fixed, absolute principles -- something they shared with their less sophisticated political allies in the evangelical churches and far right. This tendency toward anger and self-righteousness has spread so widely among conservatives, that very few conservatives were heard to question the inconsistent and clearly political decision of the Supreme Court in 2000 to stop the counting of votes in Florida and effectively give the presidency to George W. Bush. Had the shoe been on the other foot, most Democrats would have let partisanship get the better of them, but it is likely that a significant number of them would question what the high court had done. Conservatives came to possess a certainty that lent itself to zeal, self-righteousness, and passion. The liberal outlook was more pragmatic and nuanced in nature and less given to the anger and passion that fuels winning political campaigns.
Their work, and that of other in the conservative think tanks, enabled Conservatives to present their ideas in a manner that made them appear new and attractive to voters. The triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was partly attributable to their hard work on the ideological front. Very few voters have highly developed ideological perspectives, but there has been an increasing tendency for voters to locate themselves somewhere along the liberal/conservative spectrum. By 2003, their publications included the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary, The New Republic, and the Weekly Standard. They also write many syndicated columns and contribute to many magazines. The efforts of Neo Conservative writers and activists most probably account for the decision of more voters to identify with conservative outlooks than liberal one’s. To the New Right, the Neo Conservatives were suspect because they were highly educated, eastern urban dwellers and intellectuals. Nevertheless, the NeoCons served the New Right well by exploiting religious and cultural issues and helping to bring the Christian Right into the conservative coalition.
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line. http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum/
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!