The American Roots of Neoconservatism

In responding to C. Bradley Thompson’s essay “Neoconservatism Unmasked,” I find myself in the somewhat discomfiting position of wanting to defend neoconservatism. I do this not out of a fundamental philosophic sympathy with the broad contours of neoconservative theory—with which I have some substantive disagreements—but out of the belief that a proper criticism of a school of thought should begin with elementary and charitable accuracy. Thompson’s argument is outrageous by degrees—starting with what can only be understood to be a number of willfully inaccurate and uncharitable readings, and culminating with the jaw-dropping accusation that neoconservatism is comparable to fascism. This latter charge is so over the top that it threatens to obscure what are already a series of moderate to severe misinterpretations. Before addressing this culminating calumny, I will concentrate on attempting to provide a more accurate assessment of neoconservatism, which may then permit fairer-minded but nevertheless serious critique.

Thompson begins and ends his critique by raising the question of the nature of Americanism. He takes umbrage at the claim—taken from Irving Kristol’s 2003 essay “The Neoconservative Persuasion”—that “neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the ‘American grain.’”[1] What we realize by the end of the essay is that Thompson is most upset not because Kristol “politely excludes” such political figures as Barry Goldwater (whom he nevertheless does in fact call “conservative”), but rather that Kristol lays claim at all to the mantle of Americanism. Thompson concludes his essay by announcing that the neoconservatives are in fact the “false prophets of Americanism,” and that what is needful is a defense of “America’s Enlightenment values and the individual-rights republic created by its revolutionary Founders….” At stake, it appears, is a contest over who can lay legitimate claim to a true form of Americanism.

I have some sympathy here for the neoconservatives, inasmuch as I have sympathies for a different American conservative tradition myself. It is one that begins not with the “American Enlightenment,” but with America’s Puritan tradition and its definition of liberty as ordered and moral liberty under God. This tradition was evoked by the Anti-federalist critics of the Constitution (who were in fact responsible for securing the inclusion of the Bill of Rights after the Constitution’s ratification), and it was the one that Tocqueville so much admired in his description of the “local liberties” and “arts of association” that he witnessed in his journey to America. More recently, it has been eloquently expressed in the defense of locality and limits by authors ranging from Christopher Lasch to Wendell Berry. Yet it appears that according to Thompson, views ranging from my strong preference for robust localism to neoconservative support for vigorous nationalism are outside the bounds of legitimate American belief. Evidently the only belief that can be considered American according to Thompson is a narrowly defined form of libertarianism. Outside those bounds, fascism lurks.

This argument is clearly so willfully flawed to hardly merit response, but—resisting the temptation to throw back this accusation on Thompson by pointing out that many of his intellectual heroes tend to be foreign-born, ranging from Thomas Paine to Friedrich Hayek to Ayn Rand, if only to suggest how risible this effort is—let me instead come to the defense of the Americanism of neoconservatism by pointing out that it can trace many of its elements directly to the American Enlightenment tradition that Thompson recommends. Above all, the neoconservative defense of robust and active central government, its belief in the need for a particularly talented and wise set of political leaders who have a concern for the common good, and its recognition of the need for a citizenry that is at least informally schooled in certain civic and moral virtues are beliefs that are all manifested by the Framers of the Constitution, and especially by Hamilton and Madison in various of the Federalist Papers.

Hamilton was an especially strong defender of a robust nationalism and believed that the activities and powers granted to the central government would prove to be magnets for a “select body of men” who would be particularly drawn to opportunities to achieve greatness. In Federalist 17—seeking to assuage Anti-federalist fears of “consolidation”—Hamilton argued that the “regulation of mere domestic police of a state appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition.” Rather, he argued, it was the express powers of the Federal government that would attract the great and ambitious who would seek national greatness: “Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion: and all the powers necessary to those objects ought in the first instance to be lodged in the national depository.”[2] As Hamilton’s actions as Secretary of the Treasury would go on to reveal, he sought to realize a “national system” of ever-greater “circulation” that he had defended in the Federalist.

The attraction of the ambitious and men of “speculative minds” was thought by Madison to ensure that political leaders at the national level would more readily perceive and advance the public good. As he famously wrote in Federalist 10, by means of an electoral system that would enlarge the areas from which national representatives would be drawn, it was to be hoped and expected that such representatives would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” Such representatives in effect would improve upon the political views of the populace in a manner “more consonant with the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for that purpose.”[3] While Thompson’s use of scare quotes around phrases like “common good” and “public interest” are meant to foreshadow the purported fascistic tendencies of neoconservatism, we do well to note that such evocations are well within the bounds of use by main figures in the American Enlightenment, including even James Madison—no student of Strauss, he—who defended the pursuit of “true interest” and “public good” perceived by a “chosen body of men” endowed with particular gifts of “wisdom.”

The Framers were also aware that a society composed solely of self-regarding individuals would not ultimately suffice for the demands of republican citizenship. While the Constitution is silent about the duty of educating a citizenry in virtue—a source of concern among the Anti-federalists—it was clear that the Framers did not believe that the virtues or vices of the citizenry could simply be a matter of civic indifference. As Madison wrote in Federalist 55, “as there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”[4] The Founders in general assumed the persistence of local forms of education in virtue, particularly within the contexts of communities and churches. They understood that the civic virtue of self-sacrifice in particular was always a requirement of civilized society, if not especially a republic—even at times in charmingly incoherent ways. Consider John Adams, who argued (in defense of the British soldiers charged after the Boston Massacre) on behalf of the unqualified claims of self-preservation and the right to kill anyone who threatens one’s life: “that’s a point I would not give up for my right hand, nay, for my life.”[5] It is at best curious to witness this Adams scholar sneer at the legitimacy of “the higher ideal of service to the common good,” when this was widely understood as an underlying republican requirement by most of the major “revolutionary Founders” who we do well to recall pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in defense of a higher ideal of service to the nation.

In my view, not only are the major figures of neoconservativism well within the mainstream of the American tradition, but in general neoconservatism has a stronger claim to the overarching philosophy of the Founders than Thompson’s somewhat incoherent imaginings of their positions. It is at the very least peculiar to encounter an argument that defends a version of Republican Party isolationist free-market libertarianism by appeal to “Jeffersonian principles,” particularly given Jefferson’s creation of the Democratic Party, which supported a more agrarian, populist, non-commercial and localist society, in contrast to the Republican Party’s longstanding mainstream identification with the expansion of commerce that relied upon an active and vigorous central government devoted to “internal improvements” and drawn to imperialism in the nineteenth century. I begin to suspect that Thompson has conjured up his own vision of Americanism to which, it turns out, no-one can precisely conform because it is largely a figment of Thompson’s wishful thinking.

I greatly admire the frank concerns of many early neoconservatives, and Irving Kristol in particular, over the corrosive tendencies of market capitalism upon the healthy cultural preconditions of a republican society. Thompson confuses genuinely thoughtful and reflective efforts to redress some of those corrosive and inegalitarian tendencies with “socialism” (it’s clear that for Thompson, nearly any government role in the economy is socialism). Kristol states clearly in his essay “What Is a ‘Neoconservative’?” that a fundamental premise of neoconservatism is “a great respect … for the power of the market to respond efficiently to economic realities while preserving the maximum degree of individual freedom.[6] One can admire the legitimate sphere of market activity while recognizing that market assumptions and activities may generate consequences can have a baleful effect on the cultural underpinnings of liberal democracy. Even Aristotle and Aquinas— hardly socialists—argued that public goods could rightfully trump the claims of commerce.

Ultimately, Thompson builds a distorted version of collectivist neoconservatism that trades on Kristol’s youthful attractions to Trotsky (without acknowledging Kristol’s frequent repudiations of his youthful indiscretions),[7] while altogether neglecting neoconservativism’s larger embrace of market capitalism. If anything, a subsequent generation of neoconservatives became far more ardent supporters of unfettered market capitalism, particularly the generation who came of age during the Reagan and subsequent Republican administrations. If they remained proponents of national greatness and an assertive foreign policy—Thompson is right on those scores—they also became more comfortable than the first generation with a significantly freer market. Further, the later generation of neoconservatives became among the most vocal proponents of the American Enlightenment, fundamentally departing in critical respects from Strauss’s preference for the ancients and concluding instead that the liberal democracy prescribed by modern natural right—and its particular product, America —was the only practicably defensible regime in modernity. A prominent school of neoconservative thought—centered at Claremont McKenna College and overseen by Harry Jaffa (who, not incidentally, was a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, showing that even first-generation students of Strauss could include Goldwater, not to mention Reagan, in the first rank of the conservative pantheon)—has argued vigorously for fidelity and reverence toward the Constitution and spawned a small industry of adulatory studies of the Founders and Lincoln. Imputing to neoconservatives a reductive version of Strauss’s complex argument in favor of ancient philosophy is a remarkable distortion of developments in the Straussian school. If anything, many contemporary neoconservatives would reject Strauss’s purported “polis-envy” in favor of an embrace of a natural rights philosophy.

In sum, it seems that Thompson seeks to create a socialist straw man to soften his audience into a willingness to accept his eventual accusations of neoconservative fascistic nationalism. The pity is, it is when it comes to neoconservative foreign policy—and its attendant tendencies toward forms of cultural, political, and even military imperialism—that Thompson has the opportunity to score some real criticisms, but instead has already so widely wandered in his attacks that his accusations of fascism are fired from the wrong field at the wrong target. In fact, it is my suspicion and conclusion that he seeks to create this fictive enemy in order to obscure what are the true wellsprings of the imperialistic impulse of the neoconservatives—neither fascism nor socialism, but the very philosophy of the European and American Enlightenment. As has been noted by any number of observant critics, ranging from G.K. Chesterton (who described America as a “creedal” nation) to more recent studies by Walter Russell Mead, Walter McDougall, Ronald Steel, and Niall Ferguson, among others, Enlightenment philosophy proposes a universal ideal of liberal democratic legitimation that places all other regimes under suspicion.[8] It was Alexander Hamilton in the first of the Federalist Papers who differentiated between governments based upon “accident and force” and “reflection and choice,” and proposed that it was the latter that would be founded on a “new science of politics.” By arguing that new republicanism was a product of philosophizing (not also a result of culture, religion, or tradition), and that it could be applied to any place, time, and suitably large scale, an imperialistic kernel was planted that came to full fruition in the Second Inaugural Address of George W. Bush. It is not fascism that is to be feared, but the universalizing and even imperialistic logic internal to Enlightenment philosophy itself that significantly inspired the Founders and animates neoconservative foreign policy.

Thompson has done us a service in inviting a reconsideration of the legacy of neoconservatism. It will be left to a better and fairer critic do the harder work of providing a rigorous and balanced assessment, but perhaps Thompson’s broadside will inspire just that—and if only for that prospect alone, he is to be thanked.


[1]Irving Kristol, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays , 1942-2009. Edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb. (New York: Perseus Books, 2011).

[2] Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist. Edited by George Carey and James McClellan (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Press, 2001 ), #17, p. 80.

[3] The Federalist, #10, p. 46.

[4] The Federalist, #55, p. 291; emphasis mine.

[5] The Legal Papers of John Adams, L. Kinvin Wroth and Hillel B. Zobel, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 3:254.

[6] The Neoconservative Persuasion, p. 148.

[7] E.g., “Socialism has never had much of a presence in America, and besides, having gone through a brief Trotskyist phase in my college days, I needed no instruction on socialist illusions or the evils of Soviet Communism.” The Neoconservative Persuasion, p. 183.

[8] Chesterton, What I Saw In America; Mead, Special Providence and Dangerous Nation; McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State; Steel, Temptations of a Superpower; Ferguson, Colossus.

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.