I read this morning that Irving Kristol, the godfather of neo-conservatism, has passed away. His son is Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard who used to appear on Fox News.
I first heard of Irving Kristol as a high school student. I was in my public library, and I was reading an Opposing Viewpoints pamphlet on political ideologies. There was an article on neo-conservatism by Irving Kristol, and one on neo-liberalism. To be honest, I don’t really remember what the Kristol article said, though I do recall that the neo-liberal article was open to allowing a moment of silence in public schools.
Over the years, I’ve heard various things about neo-conservatism: that many neo-conservatives were former leftists, with backgrounds ranging from the Democratic Party to Communists; that they had a hawkish foreign policy, which was against the Soviet Union and for Israel; that they believed the welfare state wrecked the African-American community; that they were against evolution, but weren’t particularly religious; and, during the Bush II Presidency, that they desired to spread democracy throughout the world.
Many of us know the names of prominent neo-cons: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, etc. But what used to intrigue me was that the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was called a “neo-conservative,” even though, at first glance, his voting record looked anything but conservative. Yet, he was the one who said that the KKK couldn’t have harmed the African-American community worse than the welfare state had.
As I read about Irving Kristol’s legacy this morning, I see that this was the big contribution of the neo-cons to conservatism and America’s national discourse (that, and perhaps also the pro-Israel stance of conservatism, though evangelicals have also contributed to that). Conservatism before the neo-cons was anti-welfare and anti-Soviet. But, unlike many conservatives of the time, the neo-cons didn’t just criticize welfare because it cost a lot and shouldn’t be a federal role; rather, they thought it had a bad social effect. But they still wanted the government to help the poor in some way, and perhaps encourage them to do the right things, like work and marry. Some conservatives critique this as paternalistic. Others call it “compassionate conservatism.”
I like what Bruce Bartlett has to say: “One of Kristol’s most important insights was that there were many academics who had generally liberal views, but came to conservative conclusions on some specific issues like crime, housing, race, labor, taxes and many others. He got them to write articles on these subjects, gradually building an impressive body of research that added depth and breadth to the conservative literature.”
When I was at Harvard, I bought Kristol’s book, Two Cheers for Capitalism. I never read it, but the wikipedia summary says he only gave capitalism two cheers because capitalism creates a spiritual malaise. Neo-conservatism seemed to have had a solid traditionalist element, one that valued family, faith, and moral values. Yet, I’ve read that many of its adherents weren’t all that religious.
I’m not sure if I’d call myself a neo-con, but I think that Irving Kristol was right to ask the questions that he did. And he did so in an intelligent manner, giving depth to conservatism and allowing liberals to think outside the box.