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Neo-Conservatism and Its Critics

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

Conservatism in America has generally been a losing proposition. Although critics of left and right have questioned various aspects of Louis Hartz’s analysis in The Liberal Tradition in America, his basic point—the dominance of liberalism in the national experience—remains one of the commonplaces of American political thought. The extent of liberal domination varies according to realm: the Right has by no means gone without victories in electoral or legislative politics, but in the world of ideas, American conservatives have, in this century at least, constituted an often feeble and always beleaguered minority. Through most of recent history, conservative ideas have simply not been taken seriously; the significant division in the American intellectual community has occurred not between liberals and conservatives but between liberals and radicals. So inappropriate and foreign an influence has conservatism seemed in liberal America that use of the term has been as often pejorative as descriptive. Ever since John Stuart Mill branded the Tories as the stupid party, the suspicion has persisted that conservatives in the generality are not altogether bright, and to such suggestions of obtuseness hints of emotional rigidity and meanness of spirit have frequently been added as well. In general, then, Clinton Rossiter’s description of American conservatism as the “thankless persuasion” has seemed quite apposite.

Perhaps, however, things are now beginning to change. The turmoil of the 1960’s produced the New Left, and the emergence of the New Left brought in its turn the counterreaction broadly known as neo-conservatism. Given the traditional intellectual weakness of modern American conservatism, perhaps the most striking aspect of neo-conservatism is its impressive intellectual credentials. Journals of the new Right such as Commentary and The Public Interest maintain consistently high editorial standards, while the names of those associated with the movement include some of the nation’s most prominent academics and publicists: Edward Banfield, Daniel Bell, Daniel Boorstin, Midge Decter, Theodore Draper, Lewis Feuer, Nathan Glazer, Samuel Huntington, Sidney Hook, Herman Kahn, Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, Norman Podhoretz, Edward Shils, Diana Trilling, Robert Tucker, James Q. Wilson. Whatever neo-conservatism is, it is not the stupid party.

The relationship between the neo-conservatives and the American liberal tradition is complex and ambiguous. Most of the prominent figures identified with the new conservatism have in the past been thought of as liberals and have so thought of themselves; indeed, a number of them—perhaps a majority—still identify themselves with liberalism. In their own eyes, their attacks on the political and cultural radicalism of the late sixties and early seventies constituted essentially a defense of the liberal tradition, To them, the self-guilt and failure of will on the part of some of their fellow liberals in the face of New Left attacks were simply incomprehensible; less fathomable still was the response of those other liberals who took up the radical indictment of American society and themselves drifted leftward—rhetorically at least—into the arms of the counterculture. Thus many of those christened by others as neo-conservatives imagine themselves instead as defenders of the true liberal faith.

The problem of which political label properly applies to these old liberals/new conservatives involves current uncertainties concerning the definition of liberalism. For most of the past 40 years, political liberalism has meant an affirmation of New Deal policies and perspectives. It is still, broadly speaking, the issue of the New Deal that separates neo-conservatives from traditional laissez-faire conservatives. William F. Buckley, Jr. increasingly finds occasion to declare his admiration for men like Moynihan and Kristol, but on many basic economic issues there remains some distance between the two camps. Few neo-conservatives would feel at all comfortable in the Hoover-Taft-Goldwater tradition of the American Right. Yet the argument over liberalism has in many ways moved beyond the debate over the New Deal. Foreign policy issues aside, politics in recent years has focused increasingly on social and cultural questions: busing, quotas, crime and punishment, women’s liberation, family structure, ethnicity, cultural styles and norms, the meaning of personal fulfillment. On issues like these, the divisions between the Commentary/Public Interest revisionist liberals and the National Review traditional conservatives tend to blur and even dissolve. There are signs as well that economic issues have at long last begun to transcend New Deal perspectives, and in these new contexts neo-conservatives find themselves generally uncomfortable with the positions adopted by the contemporary Left.

There is yet a deeper sense in which the old liberals have moved to a position more accurately defined as conservative. The political crises of the sixties prompted, as most such crises do, a reexamination on all sides of first principles. Many old liberals, as they witnessed the manifest ineffectuality of so many on the Left in defending themselves and their principles against radical onslaughts, began to suspect that at least part of the difficulty lay in some of those principles themselves. When liberals caved in to radicals, the problem was not simply a failure of nerve; it was often an admission that on the basis of certain proclaimed liberal assumptions, radical charges of failure and sellout were not without substance. For if, as liberals had generally assumed, human nature was readily malleable, if human institutions were easily responsive to the application of rationality and good will, and if inequalities among persons were essentially environmental in origin, what then, other than insufficient effort and concern, could account for the nation’s inability to solve its problems? Many old liberals found, therefore, that while they could continue to defend the structures and policies of the New Deal, they were less persuaded of certain of its underlying premises concerning progress, equality, and, most broadly, the proper sphere and scope of political activity. Such reconsiderations increasingly led these old liberals to the suspicion that they shared more with moderate conservatives than they did with their former colleagues further on the Left; they led, in other words, to philosophical positions that were best described as neo-conservative.

* A useful source for left-wing analyses of neo-conservatism is The New Conservatives: A Critique from the Left, edited by Louis A Coser and Irving Howe.


Joseph Epstein has suggested that, in the end, the struggle between Right and Left in politics comes down to one fundamental conflict: “the world as it is versus the world as it ought to be.” The conservative believes that the given, not the imagined, establishes the proper context for social thought, while the man of the Left argues, with Lewis Coser, that any useful discussion of current problems must be guided “by general conceptions of a transcendent ideal future.”

These opposing tendencies of realism and idealism, however difficult to apply in specific circumstances, form a central and clearly distinguishing division in the current debate over neo-conservatism. What seems to the new conservative an anti-utopian imperative, a necessary sense of limits, translates itself to the liberal or radical as complacency, lack of imagination, or worst of all, failure of human sympathy. Beyond any debate over particular issues, this essential distinction of political style—of mood, temperament, and inclination—separates neo-conservatives from the Left.

The anti-utopian instinct is a heightened expression of traditional conservatism’s general opposition to abstract ideology. From Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott, the most sophisticated conservative thinkers have warned against grand schematic theories as guides to social policy. In preference to the universal, the uniform, and the absolute, they have emphasized the particular, the distinctive, and the relative. In the conservative view, any particular society must look for social wisdom not to general theory but to its own historical tradition.

American political thought has produced a curious inversion in this matter. Because of its intellectual hegemony, liberalism in America has seldom found it necessary to construct elaborate theories in its own defense. Liberalism has, in fact, been less an intellectual position than a cultural assumption. As such, it has been able to afford the gradualism, pluralism, and incrementalism that are in any society the natural property of the dominant tradition. American intellectual conservatism, on the other hand, because of its perpetually parlous situation, has tended to the ideological dogmatism and absolutism that is the mark of a sectarian minority.

Here again the 1960’s marked a significant turning point (or at least a moment of serious aberration). Subject for the first time in a generation to a substantial threat from the Left, liberals responded with confusion and often with panic. Significant numbers of them abandoned their customary pragmatism for an intensely moralistic, ideological, and even apocalyptic style of radical politics. In so doing, they split the liberal community and offered an opening in the moderate center to more conservative forces. Richard Nixon seemed for a time shrewd enough to seize the opportunity, but then economic crisis and, more decisively, Watergate changed the political situation and even the terms of political debate. Yet whatever the immediate shape of the political landscape, the division on the political Left remained, a division that created new relationships and new complications in the definition of Right and Left in America.


General attitudes toward ideology aside, much of substantive political controversy in contemporary America involves in one way or another the issue of equality. Dennis Wrong, for example, defines the Left in terms of “programmatic demands for planned or enacted social change toward a more equal distribution of economic benefits, social status, and power,” while he associates conservatism with “resistance, on whatever grounds, to any further movement toward equality in the distribution of material satisfactions, status, and/or power.” Wrong’s distinction, while useful, is not without difficulties. It applies only partially or not at all to the various new cultural issues noted earlier, Perhaps more significantly, it combines two related but analytically distinct questions: planning and equality. For neo-conservatives, as we shall see, separation of the two issues is as important politically as it is conceptually.

The debate over equality involves in simplest terms the relationship between equality of opportunity and equality of condition. For American conservatives—and most neo-conservatives—the former is the essential element of a free and democratic society while the latter is approached more as a question of prudence and practicality; and when the two come or appear to come into conflict, equal opportunity is accorded precedence over equal condition. Nor is the conflict between the two seen as only a theoretical or potential one. Most neo-conservatives accept a substantial degree of economic inequality as the necessary price of a free society. Irving Kristol is representative when he argues that efforts to reduce economic differences within a framework of economic liberty sooner or later come up against the constraints imposed by the tyranny of the bell-shaped curve. In other words, the presumed random distribution of economic talents decrees that a free society is to some extent an unequal one. To most neo-conservatives, acceptable levels of inequality need to be determined not by comparison to an ideal of absolute equality but by practical considerations concerning trade-offs with associated social goals such as growth, efficiency, creativity, freedom, and social cohesion. The general good, in this view, can—and to some degree must—tolerate significant differences in economic condition, though the expected degree of inequality is kept within limits by the assumption that the bell-shaped distribution of economic skills finds most people clustered around the middle.

For an increasingly large proportion of those on the Left, this version of equality is inadequate. It is not enough to them that the economic game be played by impartial rules and without initial advantages or handicaps for particular players. They insist as well that the contest’s prizes not be distributed in significantly unequal shares, though the permissible degree of inequality varies considerably among different critics. (Too often, it should be noted, the definition of acceptable levels of inequality remains wholly imprecise: a good many writers on the subject simply denounce the existing situation as intolerable and indecent without going on to prescribe what degree of inequality, if any, might be morally or politically allowable.)

The populist version of the redistributionist argument has always argued backward from the results of the game to an inference regarding its fairness. It insists that the very fact of significantly unequal outcomes proves that the game has somehow been rigged. The populist image of social reality implicitly assumes the natural state of things to be one of egalitarian abundance; in this view, those who are rich must by definition have acquired their wealth through unfair exploitation of those who are poor.

It is not altogether clear whether most liberals see inequality as primarily a natural or a contrived condition. Although many of them speak in populist accents about the subject, they have generally managed, as in so much else, to avoid precise definition. Since most liberals combine pro-capitalist principle with anti-business practice, their position seems to imply that the economic system is basically legitimate and therefore presumably fair, while at the same time it contains enough specific injustices and inequities to justify among liberals continuing vigilance and even a frequently oppositionist stance. Thus the absence of a significant socialist movement can be seen as indicating the limits of America’s dissatisfaction with the workings of the economic system, while the powerful tradition of left-liberalism gives evidence that the acceptance of capitalism and its attendant inequalities remains qualified and even reluctant. Such a position, it might be noted, has in the past often made up in pragmatic workable politics what it lacked in theoretical elegance.

The debate over equality has taken on new sharpness in recent years, One major reason involves a shift in the definition of poverty by some on the Left from insufficiency to inequality. The old definition measured poverty in absolute terms according to specified physical needs, while the new categorizes as poor anyone whose income falls a given distance below the national median, whatever level of subsistence that income might provide. Poverty in this context becomes a question of relative deprivation, and its solution can only be found in a major redistribution of income.

In this new perspective, poverty emerges as a far more complex and contentious issue than it was formerly. If, for example, it is agreed that a free enterprise system, however productive and dynamic in the aggregate, must entail significant income disparities, then such a system cannot by definition solve the problem of the new poverty. For that, there must be major intervention in the economy by government, not just to stimulate overall growth and prosperity as in the Keynesian model, but to reduce economic differences among persons, to make the poor richer and the rich poorer. Such intervention would, according to most estimates, greatly expand the scope of the public sector and would involve as well extensive elements of economic planning. The idea of public economic planning has in recent years gained more attention than at any time since the Depression thirties. While suggestions vary widely as to the specifics of planning policy, there is no doubt that the idea itself has enjoyed a substantial revival in left-wing thought in America, (Though it may be significant that planning currently evokes more enthusiasm in intellectual than in political circles).

It is at this juncture between equality and planning that many old liberals turn into new conservatives. Almost without exception, today’s neo-conservatives have in the past supported the interventionist state in its New Deal guise; that is, in its efforts to remedy specific political, social, and economic injustices, to limit the power of certain private groups and institutions, to provide social welfare benefits to those who, for whatever reason, cannot entirely provide for themselves, and to help bring growth and stability to the economy. Some neo-conservatives in former days went beyond this to a generalized support of widespread government planning, the kind of planning that the New Deal so frequently invoked but only mildly and intermittently practiced.

Although the perceived failure of many of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs has aroused new—-and old— doubts concerning the ability of government easily to effect major social change, most neo-conservatives still affirm old-style government intervention. Very few, however, any longer speak the language of planning, and even fewer display much enthusiasm for widespread redistribution of income under government aegis. The issue is not opposition to equality as such, as Dennis Wrong suggests, but opposition to the degree of government direction and control that neo-conservatives see as inevitably accompanying any programmatic emphasis on equality of condition. While it might well be argued that movement toward equal economic condition represents a logical extension of the New Deal impulse into a period of prosperity, neo-conservatives are unwilling so to extend their aims, They fear both that major government efforts toward equality would have negative consequences for the economy as a whole (from which all, including the poor, would suffer) and that, in any case, such efforts would necessarily involve excessive coercion. In this particular context, they indicate the classic conservative preference for freedom over equality.

Neo-conservativepositions on economic issues often occupy an ambiguous middle ground between traditional economic conservatism and the more advanced schemes of the Left. Few laissez-faire conservatives could be found who would accept neo-conservative Daniel P. Moynihan’s important proposal for a guaranteed annual income. Moynihan himself, in defending his plan, has frequently adopted the language of those farther left, describing his proposal as a program of income redistribution. Examined closely, however, the Moynihan plan appears more traditional than his rhetoric might indicate. Its primary purpose is to raise the incomes of families currently below the poverty line as near to that line or above as economic prudence and political possibility will allow. Such efforts would necessarily involve some (though probably not much) redistribution, but the plan remains clearly within the tradition of the welfare state and not part of any neo-socialist drive towards equality for its own sake. Moynihan’s intentions seem plainly directed to the elimination of actual economic deprivation rather than to the lessening of income disparities on principle.

The reawakening of the debates over equality and planning stems, more than anything else, from recent preoccupations with the problem of growth. Concern over the environment, actual and potential energy shortages, Third World militancy over the gap between the rich and poor nations—these and other developments have led many Americans to the conclusion that the nation must adjust its institutions and values to a new situation in which there will be for the foreseeable future little or no economic expansion. As neo-conservatives recognize, the implications of such a prospect are virtually impossible to overemphasize: a no-growth situation would have the most profound impact on the American political economy.

From the very beginning, the success of the American experiment has depended heavily on economic expansion. Throughout the national experience, the dream—and to a considerable extent the reality—of a continuously expanding economy constituted the fundamental cement of social cohesion. All the most positive elements of the American system— social mobility, political democracy, individual freedom— rested more or less directly on the bedrock of economic growth and on the accompanying assumption that growth’s benefits were available to all according to talent and effort. The great American consensus, the absence of deep or permanent class conflict, grew out of the belief that an ever-expanding economy would allow particular individuals or groups to improve their situation without that improvement requiring an equivalent loss for other individuals or groups. In America the rich would, to be sure, grow richer, but so also would the poor; the political economy did not take on the nature of a zero-sum game in which one player’s advantage had to mean another’s reversal.

In a no-growth situation, all this would change. Take, for example, the issue of poverty: in a growth economy, a drive to end poverty (measured in absolute terms) need not be socially threatening since it could be assumed that the rise of the poor would be accomplished without substantial cost to those higher on the socio-economic ladder; in a static economy, any such effort would have the most divisive effects and would be certain to be fought intensely by those out of whose income the benefits to the poor would have to come. In graphic terms, the traditional image of the economy could be likened to an ever-expanding pie, whose continuous growth rendered debates over the size of particular slices relatively unrancorous and manageable; one would worry less over his neighbor’s larger slice if he could be reasonably assured that his own would continue to grow. But with a pie of constant size, invidious comparisons between unequal slices would generate the deepest social envies and conflicts. America would then face the prospect of what it has for so long successfully avoided: the Europeanization of its politics.

For some on the Left, the no-growth situation is simply a matter of the way things are or are shortly going to be: the question is one not of preference but of inevitability. For others, however, the end of growth presents itself, for all its difficulties, as a positive opportunity, much in the way that an earlier generation on the Left could contemplate with some hopefulness the social uses of the Great Depression. In either case, economic crisis could be seized upon as the opportunity for the transvaluation of social attitudes and conditions: the lessening of competition and materialism, the increase in public sector spending and communal control of economic processes, the drive toward equality of condition. There can be little doubt that a no-growth situation, or anything close to it, would greatly increase pressures for permanent controls and planning and for more centralized and politicized allocation of resources, income, and wealth.

Neo-conservatives have displayed little enthusiasm for the end-of-growth argument, They have, in fact, taken special pains to expose the political predilections they find lurking behind ostensibly economic arguments. Their preference for social cohesion over social conflict, their distaste for class politics, their skepticism over the sometimes apocalyptic visions of the end-of-growth theorists, their distrust of government’s ability both to manage an economy and maintain freedom, and their sense that market forces—however imperfect and in need of occasional modification—still offer the best available mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources— all combine to make most neo-conservatives opponents of the opponents of growth.

It is not yet clear to what extent the limits-of-growth argument will dominate political controversy in the years to come: whether, as some expect, the central policy argument of the near future will be the relative emphasis given to making the economic pie grow larger or to dividing it more evenly. Politics in America seldom takes a polarized or unambiguous cast, and it is likely that, as in the past on major issues, political leaders will avoid absolute commitment or choice. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the forces which have produced the interrelated concerns over equality, planning, and growth will soon disappear. It is entirely possible that over the final quarter of the century this great triad of issues will constitute the context in which political debate most frequently and crucially occurs. In that debate, neo-conservatives will likely find themselves more firmly and clearly on the Right than ever.

* In non-economic spheres, neo-conservatives give the same priority to the exercise of equal opportunity and choice over the achievement of equal condition. Thus, while supporting laws outlawing racial discrimination (which laissez-faire conservatives frequently oppose), they resist efforts to force racial integration, as by busing of school children; similarly, they approve efforts to forbid job discrimination by sex, but oppose imposition of quotas in employment practices. As in economic areas, they fear that government efforts in such fields involve both negative side-effects (e.g., reverse discrimination or attacks on excellence) and improper interference in the legitimate exercise of personal freedom. These topics, important as they are in the rise of neo-conservatism, have received extensive treatment elsewhere and so are noted here only in passing.


Unlikely as it might at first appear, the question of patriotism opens up some of the most interesting and significant areas of division between neo-conservatism and its critics. The opportunities for demagoguery on such an issue are obvious, but that should not obscure the genuine and even profound differences in attitudes and values revealed over this matter. The issue is not between those who are patriotic and those who are not—though the Left tends to be suspicious of appeals to patriotism while neo-conservatives find them natural and usually healthy—but between conflicting definitions as to the form patriotism should properly take.

The Left, unlike the Right, tends to couch its sentiments toward the nation in the language of moral urging, in an emphasis on what America at its best might yet become. Such language implies at least some measure of criticism of the society’s past record. The Left’s hesitancy to dwell on former achievements reflects its overwhelming concern with the dangers of moral complacency; thus it characteristically shrinks from anything that might be construed as national celebration. Neo-conservatives, while sensitive to the dangers of chauvinism, are far less uneasy with expressions of satisfaction over America’s accomplishments.

Differences on this issue transcend questions of political or aesthetic sensibility, There exist, in the first place, decidedly contrasting perceptions of the moral possibilities of politics. The 20th-century Left defines politics very decisively in moral terms, and it has over a long period gradually shifted its public moral concerns from personal to group behavior. It perceives society as having a moral will and personality, as regularly acting morally or immorally both in specific instances and in general practice. Above all, it takes with great moral earnestness the collective decisions societies must constantly make, Neo-conservatives assess the moral content of politics quite differently. They define political morality, at least within very broad limits, more in terms of individual behavior than of creed. They believe that the art of politics, the balancing and resolution of legitimate but conflicting interests among a great variety of persons and groups, involves a very high degree of moral ambiguity; only on rare occasions, they argue, does politics present opportunity or necessity for clearly-focused moral choice. The concept of social justice does not, in this view, have self-evident meaning to all men of good will; people of equally humane sympathies can have very different conceptions of the nature and shape of the good society, and those differences are best resolved through pluralistic and pragmatic compromise, not through confrontation between mutually-exclusive moral perceptions and demands, Given these fundamental differences over the place of moral judgment in politics, it is not surprising that neo-conservatives and their critics view very differently the record of national achievement and the degree of pride that might legitimately be felt over that record.

Politics defined essentially in moral terms is an illimitable enterprise. It speaks the language of moral anguish and of the bearing of one’s neighbor’s pain: it involves at its heart the concept of self-sacrificing love. In the name of such love there can be, at least in the Christian scheme of things, no such thing as “doing enough.” Politics so conceived, according to neo-conservatism, confuses public and private moral duties and imperatives. As E. M. Forster remarked of the inappropriateness of love in politics, “We can only love what we know, and we cannot know very much.” The state disposes not of individual goods but of collective ones; it cannot take all that it has and give it to the poor without arrogating to itself the right of moral decision in the name and in the place of its citizens. For neo-conservatives, the proper moral realm of the state is not sacrificial love but proximate justice. It must operate not on an ethic of supererogation—not at least if it is to preserve private moral judgment—but on an ethic of prudence. From the neo-conservative perspective, then, it is an extraordinarily precarious venture to presume to strike a moral balance sheet for a nation; better to keep political judgments more modest and limited.

The evaluation of national performance involves more than the relationship between politics and morality; it involves as well the more limited but still controversial judgment as to what politics can reasonably be expected to accomplish in the way of social change. Neo-conservatives tend far more than the Left to a somber view of the limitations and intractabilities of people and the institutions they create. They would insist that a primary rule of politics is that not everything that can be willed can be accomplished; in that sense, they do espouse that “counterrevolution of declining expectations” that their critics find so faint-hearted and objectionable. Expectations govern evaluations: thus neo-conservatives, who assume that government in a free society has as its primary economic duty the encouragement of overall growth and prosperity, look at the American economic boom since 1945 with its impressive reduction of absolute poverty and find the government’s record laudable; those farther left, who expect government to provide for greater economic equality, note that over that same post-World War II timespan there has been virtually no income redistribution and find the government’s record deplorable. Examples could be expanded infinitely.

The neo-conservative conclusion that there are limits to what government can do is, of course, not unrelated to the conviction that there are limits to what government should do. The new Right is strongly inclined to what might be called the anti-Promethean view of politics. It is mistrustful of governments with overarching goals and of leaders with grand designs; it prefers that dreams of human fulfillment and happiness be centered in private lives and not in public policy; and it holds that the concept of limited government properly includes checks on scope and ambition as well as on procedures and power. For neo-conservatives, politics rightly understood involves a never-ending process of mutual accommodation rather than the pursuit of transcendent ends. Finally, with Professor Oakeshott, they put a very high premium on social cohesion and so argue that it is more important that society move together than that it move far or fast.


There is an obvious irony involved in any discussion of a “new” conservatism, since conservatism by its nature has to do with preservation rather than innovation, The American context compounds the problem because, as is so often noted, tradition in America is liberal. The conflicts in American political thought and practice have been less between liberalism and conservatism than between varieties of liberalism. This is true at both ends of the political spectrum: American radicals have normally been impatient liberals while American laissez-faire conservatism is not only rooted in 19th-century liberal assumptions but has continued to share fundamental liberal traits of optimism concerning men and institutions and of faith in inevitable progress—at least so far as America is concerned.

The ironies partially disappear in the perspective of recent American developments. The New Left of the sixties directed its protests and ideological challenges at the liberal establishment; as noted at the outset, many neo-conservatives saw themselves as defenders of the American liberal tradition against the onslaught of radicals and the failure of will of many mainstream liberals, On such issues as busing and quotas, neo-conservatism continues to argue in the name of a long liberal tradition favoring individual freedom and equal opportunity and opposing discrimination—however benign in intent—on the basis of race or sex. The political fevers of the sixties have largely subsided, and liberals have substantially recovered their balance, but neo-conservatives still harbor suspicions concerning liberalism’s ability to defend the best of its own past.

Yet it would be misleading to portray neo-conservatives simply as upholders of a pristine liberalism against contemporary critics of right and left. As was earlier indicated, the upheavals of the sixties prompted a reassessment in many quarters of political first principles, and a number of traditional liberals emerged from that reassessment with their faith severely shaken. Some of them have moved to political positions difficult to distinguish from any other American conservatism, and even that majority of them who continue to affirm all or most New Deal policies do so in a newly conservative temper. It seems clear, in fact, that the neo-conservative philosophy is more fundamentally conservative in a Burkean sense than is its laissez-faire counterpart.

Although the rise of the New Left was the immediate occasion for the emergence of neo-conservatism, it was not the only cause. There were broader tendencies at work, and their continuing influence on American society suggests why the idea of a new conservatism is less odd than it at first seems. In terms of self-perception, America entered the sixties a young and innocent nation and left it sunk in middle age, its innocence departed. However oversimplified, such imagery captures an important psychological truth about recent American history. Both at home and abroad, the nation has found itself frustrated, baffled, and increasingly cautious: things no longer come easy to America. The traditional national assumptions of unconstrained energy, innocence, and accomplishment do not currently fit either expectation or reality. America has encountered the burdens of history and the limits of policy. Whether this means, as some would have it, that the nation has sadly lost its purpose and idealism or, as others see it, that it has wisely shed its illusions about itself and the world, it does seem clear that a more moderate temper is abroad in the land.

Most neo-conservatives welcome the new mood (though some worry that in foreign policy there may be an over-reaction leading to an inability or unwillingness to defend important national interests). In the broadest sense, neo-conservatism argues for an end to the dream of American exceptionalism, to the vision of a nation unlike other nations, with a special covenant and special destiny. In their different ways, neither liberals, radicals, nor laissez-faire conservatives appear ready entirely to forsake the old dreams and to accept this distinctly conservative analysis of the national situation. The future of neo-conservatism depends on the accuracy of its reading both of objective conditions and of the subjective public reaction to those conditions. It seems safe at the least to observe that the possibilities for a genuine American conservatism have never been more promising than they are at present.

The distance of neo-conservatism from American liberalism in both philosophy and politics is considerable, but it should not be exaggerated. In the first place, conservatism in America could never be simply a transplant of the European Right, and it is difficult to imagine neo-conservatives finding it possible or desirable to promulgate such staples of anti-liberalism as aristocracy, organicism, hierarchy, or the sanctity of tradition. Neo-conservatives also feel affinity for that strain of American liberalism devoted to empiricism and particularity, to the avoidance of general theory and the concentration instead on devising specific solutions to specific problems. At the level of public policy, neo-conservatives can, whatever their differences with the Left on theories of poverty or income distribution, work together with liberals on a whole range of actions to ease the conditions of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They will avoid what they consider the sentimentalizing of the state of the poor—as through crude notions of oppression or exploitation—but they will not simply abandon the poor to their fate. Neo-conservatism maintains major reservations concerning the virtues of big government, but unlike the traditional American Right, it harbors no secret preference that government might find a way of going out of business. Few if any neo-conservatives, finally, desire any substantial Left-Right polarization in America. They have a strong aversion to the conduct of politics as warfare, and they are persuaded that the dialectic of liberal and conservative works best for society when it takes place as much within individual citizens as between them.

Neo-conservatism, if it is to have any significant or enduring impact on American society, will always have to remember where it is; it will, that is, have to find a way of making conservative uses of a liberal tradition. To that end, it will want to do what conservatism at its best has always done: avoid the pernicious abstractions of ideology and dogma and direct its energies to the creation and preservation not of the New Jerusalem but of a tolerable society.


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