Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon

Posted: Aug 19, 2003 12:00 AM

For some months, we have been hearing a lot about how neoconservatism underpins the Bush administration's foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq. Now, some neoconservatives are saying that their philosophy underpins the administration's domestic and economic policy, as well. The evidence for this contention is strong, a fact that will undoubtedly exacerbate tensions between President Bush and traditional conservatives.

To understand what this debate is all about, one needs to know what neoconservatism is and where it came from. This requires one to know something about the early postwar intellectual environment. Liberalism absolutely reigned supreme, with no serious competition from conservatism of any stripe.

In 1954, Lionel Trilling, an important New York intellectual, famously remarked, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." No one seriously disagreed.

Conservatives retained a modicum of political power during the Eisenhower administration, but it was intellectually bankrupt. To fill this vacuum, columnist Bill Buckley started National Review Magazine in 1955. But owing to the shortage of authentic American conservative intellectuals to write for him, Buckley had to rely heavily on European conservatives and ex-communists to staff his magazine, both of which came out of traditions far different than those that defined American conservatism.

Even in the late 1960s, little progress had been made in developing a cadre of American conservative intellectuals. Advances had been made in the area of economics, where Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago made the free market respectable again. And the Cold War meant that there were plenty of anti-communists among the foreign policy elite. But on domestic and cultural issues, there was really no one articulating a sophisticated conservative position.

This is where the neoconservatives came in. All of those who came to be called by this name were conventional liberals who grew to be horrified by the excesses of liberalism. The New Left shocked many with its anti-Americanism, anti-intellectualism and embrace of violence to achieve its goals. At the same time, the rise of crime and welfare dependency and the deterioration of the cities forced many liberals to reassess their thinking. It was often said that a neoconservative was a liberal who was "mugged by reality."

In the late 1960s, Irving Kristol, a New York University professor who was editor of a small academic journal called The Public Interest, began using the journal to promote a more conservative approach to domestic policy. Some of the standout contributors included James Q. Wilson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset -- all very prominent liberal intellectuals with impeccable academic credentials. Such people could not be dismissed by the liberal intelligentsia with the casual disdain it exhibited toward the tiny remnant of conservative intellectuals.

As time went by, such people came to be called neoconservatives in order to differentiate them from traditional conservatives. In the mid-1970s, Kristol gave up on reforming the Democratic Party, perceiving a better chance of reforming the Republicans. At that time, following electoral debacles in the 1974 and 1976 elections, the latter were more receptive to change.

In a new essay in The Weekly Standard (edited by Irving's son, Bill), Kristol explains what he was trying to do: "To convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy." Most importantly, this meant making peace with the state -- accepting the inevitability of big government, but using conservative insights to improve its operation.

Kristol's essay should be read together with an article by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15. He argues that neoconservatism is essentially big government conservatism, which means "using what would normally be seen as liberal means -- activist government -- for conservative ends." He adds that neoconservatives are "willing to spend more and increase the size of government in the process." Barnes concludes, approvingly, that George W. Bush is a big government conservative.

One problem I have with this analysis is that it is too pessimistic about the prospects for genuine conservative reform. In the 1970s, when the prospects of conservative reform seemed virtually nonexistent, it made some sense to settle for halfway-measures -- an efficient conservative big government instead of an inefficient liberal big government. But today we have a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and a strong and vibrant conservative intelligentsia and media. Rather than making peace with the state, now is the time to show what real conservative reform could accomplish.

Unfortunately, I think Barnes is right. Bush is a big-government conservative. This reinforces my belief that he is more of a Richard Nixon than a Ronald Reagan. I just hope we don't suffer the same consequences.

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