Signs of American decline are hard to miss. At home, prices are rising, crime is again blighting cities, and racial tensions threaten social cohesion. Abroad, doubts have mounted about U.S. military capability as war clouds gather by the NATO border. Some worry that the nation may be ungovernable; others even talk about a national crackup. But a coterie of heterodox right-of-center intellectuals has developed a newer synthesis. Borrowing insights from sources outside the traditional conservative canon, and using methods learned from earlier battles, these journalists, academics, and political operatives seek to break from the supposed right-wing consensus. They look not to overthrow the welfare state but to enact pragmatic reforms; they question whether the common good can flourish in a secular society; they attribute the cultural upheaval of the era to the influence of a managerial class of college-educated professionals; they decry the mutation of colorblind civil rights laws into a regime of racial patronage; and they worry that the virtues on which liberal societies depend have been undermined by the emancipation from traditional strictures that liberalism permits. One key figure in the movement, Irving Kristol, could bring himself to muster just two cheers for capitalism.
The ideas that constituted the first generation of what came to be called neoconservatism have surprising resonance in twenty-first century America. The people who developed these ideas in the 1960s and 1970s—from editors of The Public Interest Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer, to political figures such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan—brought their own intellectual and personal experiences to bear on the nation’s problems with crime, inflation, economic stagnation, and national self-confidence. Their dispassionate and serious analysis of public policy infused the conservative movement with social-science credentials that it had lacked. And that analysis is worth examining today—both in light of national conditions that in some ways recall the 1970s and as a point of comparison with the solutions on offer from today’s Right.
Others have already made the comparison between the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s and that of today. The periods differ in important and irreconcilable ways, but certain trends—rising crime, high inflation, low growth, falling religiosity, and fierce social conflict—resonate.
These factors formed the backdrop for a series of abortive presidencies that seemed to make things worse. Fiscal and monetary instability shook the U.S. economic order. Intensified by energy shortages, inflation reached 8.8 percent in 1973, continued to rise throughout the decade, and had, as Daniel Yankelovich wrote at the time, “the kind of dominance that no other issue has had since World War II.” Meantime, states and localities had long been borrowing to fund public services, and eventually came to rely on federal largesse. Growth remained tepid for much of the decade, as observers searched for structural economic conditions that explained stagnation. Libertarians such as Milton Friedman suggested the problem was monetary indiscipline and central planning, while liberals such as Fred Hirsch warned that capitalism was pushing against its natural limits and encouraging the overconsumption of “positional goods.”
Crime and disorder worsened the sense of decay. Local and state criminal-justice systems were overrun, making the issue a federal concern. The 1968 Safe Streets Act delivered block grants to states and cities to reinforce their police and jails, while social theorists debated whether changing demographics, poverty, racism, drug use, or family collapse were responsible for the chaos. Domestic terrorism was a relevant concern, as various renegade groups struck against western societies, often with clandestine Soviet support. High-profile assassinations made high-end political violence seem a new normal in American life.
Observers often attributed the surge of protest movements to a decline in religious observance. While 69 percent of respondents told Gallup in 1957 that they felt religion’s influence was growing in American life, by 1968, 67 percent said that it was declining. Strange ideologies had emerged that combined therapeutic language, a self-help ethos, cultlike devotion, and radical politics. Nor could solace be taken in America’s civic religion: critics of the nation assailed it for its past and present.
All these developments fed worries that the nation was ungovernable—worries that the political system failed to dispel. None of the five presidents succeeding Dwight Eisenhower and preceding Ronald Reagan served two full terms. They had lofty policy ambitions—from Johnson’s Great Society to Nixon’s outreach to China and Family Assistance Plan to Carter’s promise of honesty in government—but racial tensions erupted into riots, foreign misadventures persisted, preexisting disparities remained, and the country seemed to many like a helpless giant.
Part of the problem, it seemed, was that the public was making demands of the federal government that it struggled to meet. The triumphant achievement of legal equality yielded to demands for authorities to eliminate inequality altogether. The more the people asked government to do, the greater their hopes became, and the more disappointed they felt when it failed. “The vitality of democracy in the United States in the 1960s produced a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in governmental authority,” wrote Samuel Huntington in 1975, describing a self-reinforcing dynamic that raised “questions about the governability of democracy in the 1970s.” Congress tried to circumscribe executive power, took on environmental issues, and tackled racial achievement gaps, but the federal government’s performance prompted stubborn questions about the inherent limitations of the American system.
It was into this context that the first wave of “neoconservatives” emerged. The principal figures have been the subject of much attention, from biographies and oral histories to journalistic tributes and academic studies, but even contemporaneous figures struggled to define the label. Wall Street Journal opinion editor Robert Bartley used it as a neutral descriptor to explain the political vision advanced by the constellation of writers for The Public Interest, Dissent editor Michael Harrington used it as a strategic turn of phrase to anathematize dissident socialists, Kristol embraced the term and sought to supply it with a specific set of views, and certain colleagues tried to distance themselves from it.
Nineteen sixty-five, historian Justin Vaisse submits, is the earliest plausible year that neoconservatism can be said to have been born. That was when Bell, then a professor at Columbia, and Kristol, then a professor at NYU, started The Public Interest, a high-brow public-policy magazine with limited circulation. Bell and Kristol had technocratic ambitions. They wanted to use cutting-edge social science to explore the intractable problems of the era. In the first issue, editors Kristol and Bell summarized their intended approach: “It is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality, and it is exactly such preconceptions that are the worst hindrances to knowing-what-one-is-talking about.” The statement of purpose recalled Bell’s 1960 The End of Ideology, which declared that totalitarian political projects such as Fascism and Communism had run out of steam and that the future lay in a humbler, more pragmatic approach to governance. It also reflected Kristol’s recent encounter with Leo Strauss’s exposition of Aristotle, charting an approach to politics that, instead of interpreting the world through abstract universals, would grapple with facts as they came. “We thought that the role of social scientists in public policy,” James Q. Wilson, a frequent contributor, later said, “was to sit down and figure out whether a policy that the government is undertaking will or will not achieve the results the government has stated.” In the first issue, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, having just left the Johnson administration, wrote that an expert-oriented revolution in social science, enabled by new technology and a growing fleet of white-collar professionals, was allowing policymakers to amass and evaluate massive quantities of information—and thus scale up their policies.
Events tempered this enthusiasm. By 1967 The Public Interest began moving from case-by-case evaluation of public policy to the data-driven skepticism that became its hallmark. “Managing social problems was harder than we thought,” reflected Glazer years later, because “people and society were more complicated than we thought.” That year, the magazine published an essay by Adam Yarmolinsky, a former Johnson domestic-policy official, on the government bureaucracy’s labyrinthine process of turning ideas into policies. And the magazine began publishing pessimistic assessments of federal programs. Glazer wrote a 30-page analysis of Great Society housing policy, concluding, in a characteristic formulation, that “It has done little for a substantial minority of poor families who have not had the resources to achieve what the society considers (and they do, too) minimally desirable housing.”
The neoconservatives developed an economic appraisal that fell somewhere between the reactionary anti-capitalism of conservative traditionalists and the principled libertarianism of Hayek and Friedman. In a 1970 special issue on capitalism, Kristol attributed the declining moral legitimacy of the American state to a sense that getting rich had nothing to do with being good. What was once a “capitalist, republican community, with shared values and a quite unambiguous claim to the title of a just order,” had become “a free, democratic society where the will to success and privilege was severed from its moral moorings.” Bell went further in the next essay, which he would later expand into the landmark book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, blaming capitalism for society’s emerging tendency to reward hedonistic behavior and thus threaten social stability. Rejecting his former materialist assumptions, Bell saw a complex interplay between the evolution of modernist culture and the development of corporate capitalism, with both reinforcing the other. As Glazer would later note, “the concern over an economic order whose incentives meant that it steadily promoted hedonism was a steady one” for The Public Interest, “evident at the beginning, still evident at the end.”
A pillar of this view was an assault on the “new class,” a group of culturally dominant, well-credentialed professionals who sought to arrogate control of capital to themselves. The argument borrowed from onetime socialist-turned-National Review editor James Burnham’s concept of managerialism, which noted that bureaucrats exercised influence over capital that they did not formally own. And the term dated to 1957, when Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian socialist who served under Tito, criticized Soviet bureaucrats for acting in their own interest by taking control of nationalized property controlled by the proletariat. As the historian Gary Dorrien notes, the neoconservatives never explicitly paid tribute to Burnham’s influence. But like Burnham, they thought that a well-credentialed and burgeoning group of professionals was advancing its class interests by taking control of capital that it didn’t own.
What distinguished the neoconservative new-class theory—versions of which had cropped up across the political spectrum—was its focus on the malign cultural influence of bureaucrats. Libertine New Left student radicals who attended expensive private schools and went on to work white-collar jobs in big cities “celebrate individual liberty of speech and expression and action to an unprecedented degree,” Kristol wrote in 1975, “so that at times it seems almost anarchistic in its conception of the good life.” These adherents of “anti-bourgeois values,” Bell wrote in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, “dominate[d] the media and the culture.”
If the theory was intuitively plausible, it went in different directions and never quite cohered in a systematic way. Bell lamented that the new class was a “muddled concept,” defining it not by its cultural habits but in terms of its educational credentials. Yet he alternately worried about and praised the expertise of the “technical and professional intelligentsia,” whom he believed had made the “information society” possible. For Kristol, the class was defined by its proximity to government. Kristol tallied off as members “scientists, lawyers, city planners, social workers, educators, criminologists, sociologists, [and] public health doctors . . . a substantial number of whom find their careers in the expanding public sector rather than the private.” Meantime, figures not on the political right, such as David T. Bazelon, described with equal parts trepidation and excitement the emergence of such “forward-looking intellectual types” as composed the group.
In any case, deploring the influence of the new class became an animating notion of conservative politics. In 1990, social theorist Christopher Lasch surveyed the concept in Chronicles magazine (and found it wanting). In 1992, the paleo-libertarian Murray Rothbard—no friend of neoconservatism—wrote a “strategy” for “right-wing populism,” whose basic insight was that “we live in a statist country and a statist world dominated by a ruling elite, consisting of a coalition of Big Government, Big Business, and various influential special interest groups.” As Rothbard saw it, the “old America of individual liberty, private property, and minimal government has been replaced” by a coalition of traditional holders of capital and the tastemakers of the new class. The paleoconservative Sam Francis—an intellectual disciple of Burnham—used the concept of the new class to explain the totalizing growth of the Leviathan state and its malign cultural influence.
But the neoconservative appraisal of the new class tended to have different implications. For the philosopher Michael Novak, it was defined not by its cultural habits or its curriculum vitae but by its support for public-sector expansion, and its interests ran contrary to those of private business—and therefore society. In Novak’s words, the new class sought to empower “an activist federal government committed to ‘change’” by transferring authority to itself. And that assessment was easily compatible with a defense of the private sector against government overreach. What had begun as an update of Burnham’s own update to Marxism had become a reason to oppose the growth of the public sector. “One need not . . . be an admirer of the large corporation to be concerned about its future,” Kristol wrote. Despite Kristol’s reservations about American capitalism, he ultimately sought to defend it.
Neoconservatism also came to be characterized by a social traditionalism, opposition to countercultural radicalism, and fear of a spiritually desiccated society. Neoconservatives forged a synthesis of traditional social values and a cautious approach to federal policymaking that remains influential.
Concerns that liberalism had undermined the habits and constraints on human behavior that were necessary for its emergence in the first place were a common feature. Reflecting in 1976 on the American Founding, Kristol wondered whether an excessively libertarian conception of government was at odds with the Framers’ conception of republican virtue, in which a people could govern themselves only if they could literally govern themselves. “The idea of self-government,” Kristol wrote, “stands in opposition to any social and political system which fails to link popular government or individual liberty to a set of accepted values.” Even in the late eighteenth century, the Framers were aware that the U.S. was too large and heterogeneous to be a true republic—but the republican institutions that they nevertheless erected had been rendered unintelligible to the late-twentieth-century citizen, living as he did in a sprawling, prosperous, dynamic society. “It would seem that today,” Kristol concluded, “we are in a sense victims of [the American Revolution’s] success.”
Neoconservatives were open to solving certain cultural problems with state power. A common worry was that civil liberties, left unfettered, would degenerate into license—and that that danger justified government actions to constrain the exercise of those liberties. In 1970, Walter Berns, a professor at the University of Toronto who would spend much of his career at the American Enterprise Institute, made the case for censoring pornography in The Public Interest, updating an argument he had originally made in 1957’s Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment. Attacking the civil-libertarian position on the matter, Berns conceded that judgments discriminating between obscene material and art were difficult to render before advancing an argument that has recently seen a comeback in certain conservative legal circles. What began as a prudent circumspection in light of those difficulties had evolved into judicial nihilism—the willful refusal to render any moral judgments in jurisprudence. “We began with a proper distrust of the capacities of juries and judges to make sound judgments in an area that lies outside their professional competence,” Berns lamented, “but led by the Supreme Court we went on improperly to conclude that the judgments should not be made because they cannot be made, that there is nothing for anyone to judge.”
For others, the social-conservative critique functioned alongside an economic vision. In landmark works such as The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak argued that free markets could work in tandem with a strongly moral culture, one rooted in religious faith—and indeed that they couldn’t work long-term without it. In this, he rejected Bell’s idea that capitalism inexorably undermined the very moral culture that made it work. For Kristol, markets could erode culture, but that didn’t undermine their use.
In any case, neoconservatives tended to remain pessimistic about the ability of policymakers to fix problems that ultimately flowed from cultural pathologies. Few advocated a muscular vision of government, in which social policy corrects bad habits and the law acts as a social teacher. Any “successes in shaping a better and more harmonious society,” Glazer observed, would have to depend on “a fund of traditional orientations” more than on “social engineering.” For all their thinking about capitalism and heterodox political economy, and for all their worries about liberty degenerating into license, neoconservatives often returned to the argument that social policy was no panacea for what ailed Americans.
Part of the reason is that these onetime socialists no longer believed that social and political developments were downstream of economic arrangements. Indeed, neoconservatives had jettisoned their past materialist assumptions in favor of a conviction that ideas and culture drove events. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism noted the destabilizing tendencies of the capitalist system, but it also argued that the modernist turn in culture itself shaped the economic order. Meanwhile, Kristol saw immense power in intellectual combat to shape society, writing in 1973’s “Utopianism, Ancient and Modern” that ideas undergirded the basic divisions in American society. As Matthew Continetti has recently argued, Kristol came to think increasingly of American political divisions as rooted in a religious division: that between Gnosticism, which believed that humans were perfectible and thus held out hope for programs that could adjust their behavior for the better, and Orthodoxy, which took the world as it was and counseled humility about what could be done to fix it.
All of this renders neoconservatism an interesting study in light of contemporary debates on the Right.
As the conservative coalition becomes increasingly working-class, politicians and pundits wonder whether the Republican Party should more forthrightly use state power and public money to deliver material gains for its constituents. An updated version of the new-class critique views twenty-first century political clashes as happening between the “managerial overclass,” working in business and professional services in dense cities, and dispossessed workers and independent owners of capital, dispersed throughout the heartland. If corporate managers have immiserated workers and wokeified society, then shouldn’t the state attack their sources of power and prestige?
Meantime, as the cultural coarsening of American society accelerates, conservatives wonder whether the state has a role to play in shaping social values. Where movement conservatives once saw drug overdoses, manufacturing declines, decreasing religiosity, and barriers to family formation as an emergent order driven by individual choices, populists see them as conditions emerging from bad policy choices. And if public policy caused these problems, can’t better policy also ameliorate them?
Early neoconservatives anticipated many of the concerns of the dissident Right. But these figures were less persuaded that government mechanisms could solve cultural problems. Their writings may provide early glimpses of the new ideas percolating on the contemporary right wing. But their work can’t easily be marshaled on one or the other side of current debates.
Top Photo: Irving Kristol (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)