The Voice of Neoconservatism

"We in America fought a culture war, and we lost"


Irving Kristol, "the godfather of neoconservatism," offered a concise and somewhat myopic view of the intellectual contributions of neoconservatives to the broader conservative movement in his Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday. Kristol once famously defined a neoconservative as "a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Kristol focused on neoconservative contributions to social policy, political thought, culture, and economic policy, while declining to address foreign policy because he said there was no settled neoconservative foreign policy viewpoint. (This is a strange omission, because surely the heart of neoconservatism was its fierce anti-communism and the willingness to confront Soviet expansionism with American power around the world.)

"One thing distinguishes our culture now," said Kristol: "Our crying demand for experts, medical, scientific, foreign policy, and so on. And if we can't get experts, we'll get Hollywood actors." The AEI audience chuckled over this reference to things like having Meryl Streep testify before Congress on pesticides. "If you can't subscribe to socialism, you may as well become a sociologist," quipped Kristol. He is certainly correct when he points out that neoconservatives supplied expertise on social issues to the conservative movement. In the 1960s, traditional conservatives, according to Kristol, were mostly interested in economic policy and business and didn't spend time on issues like race, education, and welfare. Neocon academics like Nathan Glazer (who co-founded The Public Interest in 1965 with Kristol), James Q. Wilson, and Seymour Martin Lipset supplied conservatives with the critiques and data needed to counter left/liberal social policies like affirmative action and expanding welfare programs.

Kristol then went on to assess neoconservativism's effect on intellectuals and American culture. "We in America fought a culture war, and we (conservatives) lost, but not completely," declared Kristol. "One area we didn't lose, and that's religion." Probably the most remarkable part of Kristol's talk was his paean to University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss. Kristol declared himself very much intellectually indebted to Strauss, although he never studied with him. "Leo Strauss became a significant factor in the culture war," said Kristol. "And neoconservatives brought Strauss in" to that war.

Kristol noted that Strauss' contribution was to help neoconservatives to understand the importance of religion in the political life of a nation. "Religion was not part of elite culture found at places like Harvard," said Kristol. "It was not thought appropriate for highly educated people to learn too much about religion." Straussians, who were not well regarded in the academy, took religion seriously. "They played a very important role in the culture war by keeping neoconservative intellectuals pro-religion," says Kristol. This pro-religion stance gave neoconservative intellectuals a way to influence the wider American culture. Liberal and left intellectuals who disdained religious belief were distrusted by most Americans and this distrust helped check liberal influence and policies.

However, Kristol pointed out that Straussians were not generally themselves committed to religion. Kristol added that Americans "don't bother with theology. The fact is that the moral dimension of religion is what counts for Americans."

Kristol noted that many of Strauss' students couldn't find work in the universities so they made their way to D.C., where they joined the political establishment. Then, practically endorsing the old leftist slogan "the personal is political," Kristol noted that he knew "dozens of families in Washington shaped and influenced by Strauss unto the third generation."

Because of Strauss' teachings, Kristol continued, "There are in Washington today dozens of people who are married with children and religiously observant. Do they have faith? Who knows? They just believe that it is good to go to church or synagogue. Whether you believe or not is not the issue—that's between you and God—whether you are a member of a community that holds certain truths sacred, that is the issue." Neoconservatives are "pro-religion even though they themselves may not be believers."

This noble hypocrisy on the part of intellectuals is required in order to encourage religious belief in ordinary people who would otherwise succumb to nihilism without it. In other words, Kristol believes that religion, which may well be a fiction, is necessary to keep the little people in line. This line of thinking has led him and other neoconservative intellectuals to attack Darwinian evolution because they fear it undermines religious belief.

Finally, Kristol essentially dismissed conservative thought before 1960. "Until neoconservatives came along, conservatives couldn't reach college-educated people who weren't satisfied with a political philosophy based on Our Enemy the State and The Road to Serfdom. You couldn't give those books to young people and expect them to respond positively," declared Kristol. Evidently, given Kristol's intellectual odyssey from Trotskyism, he thinks that reading Marx is more fun than reading Nock or Hayek.

Kristol declared that he wanted to persuade conservatives that "the enemy of conservatism was not the state, it was liberalism. The state is neutral." Kristol noted that National Review conservatives used to say that they were against the state. "Great, you're against the state," scoffed Kristol. "The state doesn't care." Political power is not a problem for Kristol so long as those influenced by his intellectual cronies wield it.

In the end, what revealed the most about neoconservatism in Kristol's talk was a notable absence: He never once mentioned individual liberty.