Neoconservatism Unmasked

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal declared “We are all neocons now.” The claim is exaggerated but not by much. Neoconservatism has been, for better or worse, the most influential political philosophy of the last generation. But what exactly is it? My new book Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea attempts to answer that question.

Defining neoconservatism is no easy task given that its exponents deny that it’s a systematic political philosophy. Neocons such as Irving Kristol prefer to characterize neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” a “mode of thinking,” or a “mood.” At best, they say, it’s a syncretic intellectual movement influenced by thinkers as diverse as Plato, Trotsky, and Hayek. Daniel Bell captured the syncretic nature of neoconservatism when he described himself as a “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture.” On one level, neoconservatism certainly is a syncretic “mode of thinking,” but I shall demonstrate here that neoconservatism is in fact a comprehensive political philosophy shaped most fundamentally by the ideas of Leo Strauss via Irving Kristol.

First, though, let us examine how the neocons present themselves, particularly in relation to the broader conservative intellectual movement and the Republican Party. Irving Kristol once boasted that neoconservatism is the first variant of twentieth-century conservatism that is “in the ‘American grain.’” The implication of this extraordinary claim is that Goldwater conservatism—with its proclaimed attachment to individual rights, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism, and its rejection of the modern welfare-regulatory state—is somehow outside the American grain. The neoconservatives are and always have been, by contrast, defenders of the post–New Deal welfare state. Not surprisingly, the neocons support, in the words of Ben Wattenberg, a “muscular role for the state,” one that taxes, regulates, and redistributes—and, as we shall see, one that fights. This, apparently, is what it means to be in the American grain.

What really bothers the neocons about small-government Republicans is that they lack a “governing philosophy.” The neocons have long urged the Republicans to reinvent themselves by giving up their Jeffersonian principles and developing a new “philosophy of governance.” Ironically, though, the neocons’ conception of a “governing philosophy” is not one defined by fixed moral principles. Instead, it’s an intellectual technique defined by pragmatism. The neocons’ “philosophy of governance” is a philosophy for how to rule or govern. It’s all about “thinking politically,” which means developing strategies for getting, keeping, and using power in certain ways. The neocons therefore urge the GOP to become chameleon-like and to adapt themselves to changing circumstances.

The neocons’ pragmatic statesmanship is grounded in two basic assumptions: first, the identification of the “public interest” with some kind of golden mean and, second, the conceit that they—and only they—have the practical wisdom by which to know the golden mean. The neocons therefore believe it to be both necessary and possible for wise statesmen to find the golden mean between altruism and self-interest, duties and rights, regulation and competition, religion and science, socialism and capitalism. Norman Podhoretz, for instance, has argued that neoconservative statesmen should be able to figure out the “precise point at which the incentive to work” would be “undermined by the availability of welfare benefits, or the point at which the redistribution of income” would begin “to erode economic growth, or the point at which egalitarianism” would come “into serious conflict with liberty.” In the end, the neocons’ strategy is to accept the moral ends of liberal-socialism, but with the caveat that they can do a better job of delivering “social services” or that they can direct those services toward conservative ends.

Neoconservatism is much more, however, than just pragmatic political thinking. It is a systematic philosophy with deep philosophical roots. At the core of my book is the claim that the political philosopher Leo Strauss was the most important influence on Irving Kristol’s intellectual development. Neoconservatism reveals for the first time the importance of Kristol’s 1952 review of Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. Strauss, according to Kristol, had “accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history, and most of us will—figuratively, at least—have to go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past we thought we knew.”

What did Kristol learn from Leo Strauss?

  1. There is an unbridgeable chasm between theory and practice, philosophy and the city, the wise few and the vulgar many. That is, there is a radical disjunction between the “realm of theoretical truth” (i.e., the realm inhabited by philosophers) and the “realm of practical moral guidance” (i.e., the realm inhabited by nonphilosophers). What this meant for Strauss is that Platonic idealism is compatible with Machiavellian realism.
  2. The West is in a state of intellectual and moral decline as seen by the rise of philosophic nihilism. Strauss identified the source of modern nihilism with Enlightenment liberalism—the liberalism of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Strauss was a trenchant critic of modern rationalism and science, natural-rights individualism, and laissez-faire capitalism, all of which, he argued, turned man away from a supranatural reality to nature, from faith to reason, from community to the individual, from duty to rights, from inequality to equality, from order to freedom, and from self-sacrifice to self-interest. The result is that man and society have come unhinged from the natural order and from the religious faith necessary to sustain moral and political unity.
  3. Platonic political philosophy is a necessary antidote to the maladies of modern society. Classical natural right was defined by four principles. First, the political community is the primary unit of moral value, which means the “common good” is the end of the regime and coerced “unity” is the means to that end; second, a truly just political order should mirror the “hierarchic order of man’s natural constitution,” which means that some men are more fit to rule than others; third, that which is naturally right for any given society is always changing depending on necessity and circumstances, which means that philosophic statesmen should not be hampered by conventional morality or the rule of law; and fourth, virtue and the public interest represent the end or purpose of the city, which means that wise statesmen must use “benevolent coercion” to make their citizens virtuous.
  4. Platonic statesmen should ground the regime on certain ancestral pieties and political myths. The cardinal virtue for the vulgar many is self-sacrifice.

Straussianized neoconservatism is defined by what Irving Kristol called a “new synthesis” of ideas—a synthesis he characterized as “classical-realist” in nature and temperament. At the core of neoconservatism is a fundamental dualism that combines what Strauss called “the way of Socrates with the way of Thrasymachus.” Platonic natural right (the “realm of theoretical truth”) provides the ultimate standard of justice for neoconservative statesmen. Yet the messy day-to-day reality of politics means that conventional morality and sometimes even Machiavellian prudence (the “realm of practical moral guidance”) are both necessary and salutary. Philosophically, Strauss thought it possible to advocate the “shrewd ‘power politics’” of Machiavelli within a larger Platonic framework that separates theory from practice. Thus Kristol learned how to reconcile Platonic idealism (the “classical” thesis) with Machiavellian prudence (the “realist” antithesis) to create the neoconservative synthesis.

What, then, are the core principles of neoconservatism?

  1. Neoconservative Metaphysics: The neocons take the “political community” or what Irving Kristol called the “collective self” as the primary unit of moral, social and political value. They accept Plato’s premise that the polis or the nation is the only community adequate for the fulfillment of man’s natural end or telos, which they associate with what they variously call the “public interest” or the “common good.” The actual content of the “public interest” is whatever wise and benevolent men say it is, which is precisely why it should never be defined. The highest task of neoconservative statesmanship is to superimpose ideological unity on the “collective self” in the name of an ever-shifting “public interest.”
  2. Neoconservative Epistemology: Neoconservatives begin with the Platonic assumption that ordinary people are irrational and must be guided by those who are rational. According to Irving Kristol, there are “different kinds of truth for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.” The highest truth in Strauss and Kristol is restricted to the philosopher, while the common man is and must be limited to “knowledge” of a different sort: to myth, revelation, custom, and prejudice. Neoconservatives believe the opinions of the nation must therefore be shaped by those who rule. To control ideas is to control public opinion, which in turn is to control the regime as a whole. Ultimately, the vulgar must be ruled by faith and by faith’s necessary ally, force.
  3. Neoconservative Ethics: If you believe, as Straussianized neocons do, that there are “different kinds of truth for different kinds of people,” then you must believe that there are and must be different moral codes as well. Ordinary people need some form of conventional morality that is easily learned, followed, and transmitted from one generation to another. The vulgar many need piety and patriotism as the ordering myths by which to live. For the neocons, morality is conventional and pragmatic. Because they regard the nation as the primary unit of political value and because they identify the “public interest” with the purpose of government, they regard moral good and virtue to be that which works—not for the individual, but for the nation. Morality is therefore defined as overcoming one’s petty self-interest so as to sacrifice for the common good.
  4. Neoconservative Politics: Central to the neoconservatives’ philosophy of governance is the conceit that it is possible, in the words of Kristol, for a small elite “to have an a priori knowledge of what constitutes happiness for other people.” Because common people cannot possibly know what they really want or what constitutes their true happiness, it is entirely appropriate for a philosophically trained political elite to guide them to their true happiness and to prevent them from making bad decisions. The highest purpose of neoconservative statesmanship is therefore to shape preferences, form habits, cultivate virtues, and create the “good” society, a society that is known a priori to those of superior philosophic wisdom. The neocons therefore advocate using government force to make “good” choices for America’s nonphilosophers in order to nudge them in certain directions—that is, toward choosing a life of virtue and duty. As Strauss made clear in his most influential work Natural Right and History, wise statesmen must learn to use “forcible restraint” and “benevolent coercion” in order to keep down the selfish and base desires of ordinary men.

The culmination of the neoconservatives’ political philosophy is their call for a “national-greatness conservatism.” Following Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, David Brooks, William Kristol, and a new generation of neocons proclaimed the “nation” as the fundamental unit of political reality, “nationalism” as the rallying cry for a new public morality, and the “national interest” as the moral standard of political decisionmaking. This new nationalism, according to Brooks, “marries community goodness with national greatness.”

The moral purpose of national-greatness conservatism, according to David Brooks, is to energize the American spirit; to fire the imagination with something majestic; to advance a “unifying American creed”; and to inspire Americans to look beyond their narrow self-interest to some larger national mission—to some mystically Hegelian “national destiny.” The new American citizen must be animated by “nationalist virtues” such as “duty, loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice.” The neocons’ basic moral-political principle is clear and simple: the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the nation-state.

Politically, Brooks’s new nationalism would use the federal government to pursue great “nationalistic public projects” and to build grand monuments in order to unify the nation spiritually and to prevent America’s “slide” into what he calls “nihilistic mediocrity.” It is important that the American people conform, swear allegiance to, and obey some grand central purpose defined for them by the federal government. The ideal American man, he argues, should negate and forgo his individual values and interests and merge his “self” into some mystical union with the collective soul. This is precisely why Brooks has praised the virtues of Chinese collectivism over those of American-style individualism.

In the end, the neocons want to “remoralize” America by creating a new patriotic civil religion around the idea of “Americanism”—an Americanism that will essentially redefine the “American grain.” The neoconservative vision of a good America is one in which ordinary people work hard, read the Bible, go to church, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, practice homespun virtues, sacrifice themselves to the “common good,” obey the commands of the government, fight wars, and die for the state.

The neocons’ national-greatness philosophy is also the animating force behind the their foreign policy. Indeed, neoconservative foreign policy is a branch of its domestic policy. The grand purpose of national-greatness foreign policy is to inspire the American people to transcend their vulgar, infantilized, and selfish interests for uplifting national projects. The neoconservatives’ policy of benevolent hegemony will, according to William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic.” In other words, the United States should wage war in order to combat creeping nihilism. In the revealing words of Kristol and Kagan, “The remoralization of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy.” Going to war, sacrificing both treasure and blood in order to bring “democracy” to strangers—this is a mission worthy of a great nation.

The neocons therefore believe that a muscular foreign policy—one that includes military intervention abroad, war, regime change, and imperial governance—will keep the American people politicized and therefore virtuous. By saving the world from tyranny, America will save herself from her own internal corruption. And there’s more. By keeping America perpetually involved in nation-building around the world, neoconservative rulers will have the opportunity to exercise their statesmanlike virtues. There can be no statesmanship without politics and there can be no truly magnanimous statesmanship without war, so the neocons fear and loathe moral principles that might deny them this outlet. A condition of permanent war, a policy of benevolent hegemony, and the creation of a republican empire means that there will always be a need for politics and statesmanship.

Neoconservatism is a systematic political philosophy. The neocons’ talk about moderation and prudence is really only meant to disarm intellectually their competitors in the conservative-libertarian movement who want to defend the Founders’ principles of individual rights and limited government. The neocons preach moderation as a virtue so that ordinary people will accept compromise as inevitable. But a political philosophy that advocates “moderation” and “prudence” as its defining principles is either dishonestly hiding its true principles, or it represents a transition stage on the way to some more authoritarian regime—or both.

My deepest fear is that the neoconservatives are preparing this nation philosophically for a soft, American-style fascism—a fascism purged of its ugliest features and gussied up for an American audience. This is a serious charge and not one I take lightly. The neocons are not fascists, but I do argue they share some common features with fascism. Consider the evidence:

  1. Like the fascists, Strauss and the neoconservatives reject the values and principles associated with Enlightenment liberalism—namely, reason, egoism, individual rights, material acquisition, limited government, freedom, capitalism, science, and technology. They are repulsed by the moral ethos associated with liberal-capitalism, and they praise the nobility of the “barbarian” virtues such as discipline, courage, daring, endurance, loyalty, renunciation, obedience, and sacrifice.
  2. Like the fascists, Straussianized neocons are metaphysical collectivists: they take the nation as the primary unit of political value; they view the body politic as an organic whole; they promote social duties over individual rights; they support using the coercive power of the state to promote order and unity; they demand that individuals subordinate themselves to the “public interest” and serve some fuzzy notion of “national greatness.”
  3. Like the fascists, Strauss and the neocons are statists who strongly oppose a depoliticized—that is, a night watchman—view of government in favor of a paternalistic, corporatist, omnipotent state. They advocate using the coercive power of the state to regulate man’s economic life and his spiritual life.
  4. Like the fascists, Straussianzed neocons downplay the importance of constitutional rules and boundaries, and they glamorize the virtues of great statesmen.
  5. Like the fascists, Strauss and the neocons believe that life is or should be defined by conflict and that a state of ongoing peace and prosperity is morally degrading; they advocate keeping the American people in an agitated state of permanent fear and loathing against internal and external threats; they want to militarize American culture; they romanticize the virtues of war and empire as regenerative; and they support a foreign policy of perpetual war in order to restore America’s national destiny and sense of greatness.

In sum, I worry that the neocons are paving the road to a kind of soft despotism that might even lead one day to a type of fascism. They make us feel comfortable with certain fascist principles by Americanizing them—by draping them in traditional American manners and mores and in the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln.

The neoconservatives are the advocates of a new managerial state—a state controlled and regulated by a mandarin class of conservative virtucrats who think the American people are incapable of governing themselves without the help of the neocons’ special, a priori wisdom. They are the conservative version of FDR’s brain trust: they want to regulate virtually all areas of human thought and action. They support government control of the economy, as well as government regulation of people’s moral and spiritual lives. The neocons want to regulate the bedroom as much as they want to regulate the boardroom.

The neoconservatives are the false prophets of Americanism. Those who wish to defend America’s Enlightenment values and the individual-rights republic created by its revolutionary Founders must therefore recapture from the neocons the intellectual and moral highground that once defined the promise of American life.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussian influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussian neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

  • Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

  • Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.