Is “neoconservative” on its way to becoming the new “liberal”?

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Economist Brad DeLong, as part of his long-running campaign to persuade the world that journalists are flawed (and many are; unlike academic economists, who are right about everything and also smell great!), had a post Saturday tearing into the Economist for allegedly mischaracterizing the neoconservative movement. Brad apparently thinks Daniel Moynihan and Daniel Bell weren’t neoconservatives, while Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol were. He writes:

This isn’t rocket science people. This intellectual history isn’t hard to get straight–if you care, and if you try.

My background in this particular chapter of intellectual history is limited to having read, long ago, Norman Podhoretz’s Making It and Sidney Blumenthal’s Rise of the Counterestablishment, but it seems like Brad has even less of a grounding in this stuff than I do. The neocons were lefty, urban intellectuals who became disillusioned in the 1960s with the Great Society and the anti-war movement. They were “mugged by reality,” as Podhoretz put it. Bell, Kristol and Podhoretz were all card-carrying neocons. Moynihan strikes me as a more complicated case, but he was writing for Kristol’s and Bell’s The Public Interest and it’s certainly not wrong to label him a neoconservative.

Sure, later on, Bell and Moynihan went in different directions than Kristol and Podhoretz (they also didn’t have sons who made careers of stomping loudly in their fathers’ footsteps). But the Economist‘s claim that neoconservatism began “as a critique of the arrogance of power” has far more basis in historical fact than Brad’s definition of the movement. He says that “real neoconservatives” combined extreme foreign policy hawkishness with supply-side economics and a belief “that African-Americans got too easy a ride in modern America, and needed to be made poorer and less powerful.” As intellectual history, this is dubious (most of the neocons didn’t care about economics, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that their anti-affirmative-action tendencies meant that they wanted blacks to be “poorer and less powerful”). But as political rhetoric, it may turn out out be brilliant.

Basically, Brad is defining neoconservatism as everything about American politics over the past 30 years that he didn’t like. Which is, you might remember, how conservatives began defining “liberalism” back in the late 1970s–with great success, mind you. So just you wait: Pretty soon, Republicans will start getting railroaded out of office for being “neocons.” This will, in most individual cases, be entirely unfair. But it will also be kinda funny.

Update: Brad DeLong has a comment in which he makes pretty clear that my crack that “it seems like Brad has even less of a grounding in this stuff than I do” was unfair. I still think that, by removing Bell and Moynihan from the neocon storyline and throwing the supply siders and racists in, he’s trying to define neoconservatism to match his own political dislikes. But the Kristol family is certainly helping him: the link Brad gives to William Kristol’s essay appears to be broken, but I came across an Irving Kristol essay on the “Neoconservative Persuasion” in which the senior Mr. K lists “cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth” as a key neocon policy. (Although he quickly adds, “This policy was not invented by neocons, and it was not the particularities of tax cuts that interested them…”) I can testify that Jude Wanniski, Mr. Supply Side himself, despised the neocons. But he was a pretty quirky fellow.

Update 2: Brad DeLong … aww, just read the comments.

Update 3: It has, to adopt the terminology of commenter CMike, gone past the first round. (Not that I’d say I’m winning or anything.)

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