Everything Old Is Neo Again

Article excerpt

Everything Old Is Neo Again [The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, Irving Kristoi, Basic Books, 416 pages]

WHAT IS a neoconservative?

From the etymology of the word, it should refer either to someone who has newly become conservative - having been bom a little liberal - or to someone who has revised conservatism into something new, without causing it thereby to cease to be conservative. It should, perhaps, refer to a political perspective that takes U Gattopardo's maxim, "everything must change so that everything can remain the same," very much to heart and to whatever lengths necessary.

But the Leopard was a member of the old order. The original neoconservatives, though they may have come to appreciate and ultimately defend the old order, came originally from the other side - indeed, from radicalism. Yet the term does not refer to the experience of political conversion; one can, apparently, be born a little neoconservative. (And with Bill Kristol's children in their twenties, we are on the brink of the third generation of hereditary neoconservatism.) Moreover, many of the original neoconservatives claim to find a high degree of continuity in their own thinking from their earlier liberal or even radical left-wing days.

Irving Kristoi, godfather of the neoconservative movement and, indeed, the man who claimed to be the only selfacknowledged neoconservative in existence - the term was invented by a critic, intended to be pejorative - was famously unwilling to define the word. But in a late essay, he harkened back to a book review he wrote more than 50 years ago to dredge up, if not a definition, then at least a proper taxonomy. Neoconservatism was not an ideology, nor was it the result of a personal conversion experience. It was a "persuasion":

The word 'persuasion' ... [Professor Meyers] defines as 'a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment,' [which] hits off exactly the strange destiny of ideas in American politics. Parties do not have anything so formal as an ideology, but they do, and must, profess something more explicit than a general ethos. 'Persuasion' is a most apt term for what in fact issues from this predicament.

The quote is from a 1958 review of a book on the rise of Jacksonian democracy, a piece included in the recently published posthumous collection, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009. This is not the first collection of Kristol's essays, and the inclusions were selected by his widow, Gertrude Himmelfarb. The book is a kind of monument, raised by her on his behalf, intended, presumably, to give us a complete picture of the man rather than an anthology of his most important work. But the line between the man and the movement, particularly a movement organized around a sensibility or "persuasion," cannot be very sharp, and Kristol, who titled the collection of his works that he organized himself Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, would seem to agree. If we are to try to answer my initial question, then, this new volume would not seem a terrible place to start.

In 1976 Kristol asked, "What is a 'Neoconservative'?" and answered, in so many words, someone who wants to make liberalism work. Someone with a preference for incorporating market mechanisms into regulatory policy rather than operating by bureaucratic fiat. With a hostility to the erstwhile "counterculture" and a preference for art or "quality." Who believes in providing equality of opportunity rather than mandating equality of result. And who holds to a conviction that a world hostile to American values will also be hostile to American interests. He concludes the essay: "if the political spectrum moved rightward and we should become 'neoliberal' tomorrow, I could accept that, too. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if just that happened."

And that is, in fact, what happened. Some version of the above convictions were clearly manifest in the policies of the last Democratic administration, as they are in the policies of the current one as well. …