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Staying in the Muddle

September 19, 2000

In the late 1960s, a small but influential group of liberal intellectuals, revolted by the New Left and the leftward turn of the Democratic Party, jumped off the train. They were soon in alliance with traditional conservatives, with whom, however, they continued to have muted disagreements.

These people were dubbed neoconservatives. They are the subject of an admiring article in the New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus: “When Left Turns Right, It Leaves the Middle Muddled.”

The best-known members of the group were Irving Kristol (editor of The Public Interest) and his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb; Norman Podhoretz (editor of Commentary) and his wife, Midge Decter; James Q. Wilson; Jeane Kirkpatrick; and William Bennett, with Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer on the margins.

Despite some conservative sympathies, these were basically liberal intellectuals who had had enough of liberalism. They hadn’t renounced liberalism; they had, precisely, had enough of it. They still favored the New Deal and its programs, and they didn’t necessarily oppose the legacy of the Great Society, though they had reservations about it. But they felt that the country had adopted all the liberal programs it could bear for the time being. And they were fiery anti-Communists. So they gravitated toward conservatism without becoming full-fledged conservatives. Before long they were keeping friendly company with William F. Buckley Jr. of National Review and being welcomed at gatherings of more traditional conservative intellectuals.

As a younger member of the group, David Brooks of The Weekly Standard, triumphantly puts it, “We’re all neoconservatives now.” The theme of Tanenhaus’s article, in fact, is that neoconservatism today defines the mainstream of American politics. Not only Republicans, but Democrats like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Joe Lieberman have adopted something of the neoconservative posture. Podhoretz has praised Clinton for “de-McGovernizing” the Democratic Party.

[Breaker quote: Are we all 
neoconservatives now?]The result is indeed a “muddle.” Neoconservatism has no essence, no defining principle. It’s a melange of gestures and attitudes, such that Bill Clinton can pass for a centrist by making noises about the end of “the era of big government” and Joe Lieberman can actually pass for a “conservative” Democrat by expressing the mildest reservations about the country’s moral decline. Even Norman Thomas, the old American Socialist leader, would probably be called a neoconservative today.

Not that the neoconservatives, especially Kristol and his wife, don’t have many interesting things to say. They do. But their insights don’t add up to a distinctive philosophy. At their best, they are in accord with an older conservatism. At their worst, they accept the status quo of the limitless state, unrestricted by the Constitution. They are pragmatists with conservative leanings.

An older conservatism, now nearly forgotten, insisted on confining government — especially the federal government — to a few well-defined functions. It sprang from the specific American political genius for dividing power, which is the central idea of “federalism.” It was suspicious of centralized power, in either the liberal welfare state or the nationalist warrior state.

Franklin Roosevelt promoted both the welfare state and the warfare state, turning the federal republic into an empire, less democratic than bureaucratic. Presidents became Caesars, and citizens dealt less with their elected representatives than with the career bureaucrats of the executive branch, where the real power was. Without realizing it, the country underwent a second revolution that undermined the legacy of the original one.

Roosevelt’s great critics — such men as John T. Flynn and Garet Garrett — have now been consigned to oblivion. They saw that the United States was adopting a new set of principles that contradicted, while pretending to continue, the principles of federalism. The New Deal and World War II brought omnipotent centralized government; we now take it for granted, as if there had never been any alternative.

But our ancestors would have considered it tyranny. Read The Federalist Papers, with their constant warnings against “consolidated government.” They were trying to prevent what Roosevelt brought into being.

Neoconservatism has nothing to say about this most profound change in the American political system. It has no aspiration to reform it, because it sees nothing amiss. It regards those who do see a problem as “extremists.” That’s what they would have called Jefferson. After all, “We’re all neoconservatives now.”

Joseph Sobran

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