American Conservatism 1945-1995
Kristol, Irving, The Public Interest
The Public Interest was born well before the term "neoconservative" was invented, and will - I trust - be alive and active when the term is of only historical interest. That time may even be now, as the distinction between conservative and neoconservative has been blurred almost beyond recognition. still, the distinction has not yet been entirely extinguished - it still turns up when Jeane Kirkpatrick's views on foreign policy are mentioned - so this may be a suitable moment to look back and define the role that neoconservatism, and The Public Interest specifically, has played in the history of American conservatism since the end of World War I). (A quite different, but equally useful, essay could be written on its role in the history of postwar liberalism.)
In that half-century, as I see it, American conservatism has gone through three stages.
First there was the renewal of what might be called traditional conservatism, centered around William F. Buckley's National Review and having the goal of reprogramming the Republican publican party into a solidly conservative political instrument. This led to the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the ensuing electoral debacle. That debacle, however, had the result of consolidating and expanding conservative influence within the Republican party. This is not as paradoxical as it appears. After all, the comparable debacle of McGovern's defeat in 1972 resulted in the left wing of American liberalism, whose candidate he was, gaining effective control of the Democratic party. Inner-party dynamics can be far more important than election results, on which the media and public attention naturally focus.
Second, there was the influence of the neoconservative impulse. Originally, this impulse looked to the Democratic party for political expression, but by the mid-1970s that was obviously an expectation difficult to sustain, and a gradual, often reluctant, shift toward the Republican party got under way. where are still quite a few Democratic neoconservatives, most of whom by now quietly vote Republican.) The Public Interest was the focal point of this neoconservative impulse, though much of its impact was the result of its influence on the younger men and women who were ensconced in the editorial and "op-ed" departments of the Wall Street journal. Neoconservatism differed in many important respects from traditional conservatism, but had no program of its own. Basically, it wanted the Republican party to cease playing defensive politics, to be forward-looking rather than backward-looking. Some of us actually dared to suggest that the party should be more "ideological," although "ideology" is not a term pleasing to American ears. in the end, the notion of an activist "agenda" has become ever more integral to Republican political thinking, doing the work of "ideology" though in a peculiarly pragmatic American way. The substance of any specific agenda may not have much to do with neoconservatism, but the moving spirit does.
Third, there has been the emergence, over the past decades, of religion-based, morally concerned, political conservatism. in the long run, this may be the most important of all. Though the media persist in portraying the religious conservatives as aggressive fanatics, in fact their motivation has been primarily defensive - a reaction against the popular counter-culture, against the doctrinaire secularism of the Supreme Court, and against a government that taxes them heavily while removing all traces of morality and religion from public education, for example, even as it subsidizes all sorts of activities and programs that are outrages against traditional morality. The religious faith behind this reaction has been steadily gaining in both intensity and popularity, especially among Protestant evangelicals, and may well now have a dynamism of its own. It is not at all unimaginable that the United States is headed for a bitter and sustained Kulturkampf that could overwhelm conventional notions of what is and what is not political. …