Buckley said that the neocons' greatest contribution to conservatism was "sociology." The early National Review conservatism was more Aristotelian, Buckley observed, while the neos brought the language of social science to the debate. National Review might first ask whether a government initiative was warranted under the Constitution or whether it violated some immutable moral law. The neocons were less abstract. "The legitimate question to ask about any program," according to Kristol, "is, 'Will it work?'"
Starting at the height of LBJ's Great Society, Kristol unleashed a cadre of America's finest social scientists -- James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom to name a few -- to ask that question, and the answers usually confirmed that the Aristotelians were right all along. (No wonder the "law of unintended consequences" became the neocons' motto.)
Kristol argued that there were two basic orientations on the right: those who are anti-left and those who are anti-state. An anti-statist would say the government shouldn't be running the schools. The Kristolian would say public schools are fine; it's what they teach that's the problem. If anything, today's conservatism is an imperfect fusion of these perspectives. Kristol himself became far more of a traditionalist, noting toward the end of his public life that the work of neoconservatism was largely done. The staffers at the Public Interest -- not to mention his own son, Bill -- were simply "conservatives" now.
There is a tendency among liberals to believe that the only good conservative is a dead conservative. They don't wish violence on their opponents. Rather, once a prominent conservative dies -- Goldwater, Reagan, Buckley and now Kristol -- liberals use their memory to bash living conservatives. "Why can't you be more like those civil, high-brow types?" goes the refrain.
That's already begun with Irving. Liberal intellectuals sorrowfully ask what he would make of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the tea partyers. My hunch is that the man who defended Joe McCarthy's anti-communism (while detesting the man) and saw the evangelical Promise Keepers movement as a healthy sign of America's moral restoration would offer qualified praise. After all, the singular neoconservative duty, Kristol wrote, was "to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong."
That's the Irving Kristol I will always be nostalgic for.
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