Thursday, March 16, 2006

Political Theory: Essay on Neoconservatism

Is There Anything New About Neoconservatism? Conservatism and Neoconservatism in Comparative Perspective


With the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and his reelection in 2004, some have argued that Bush and his electoral successes are attributable to the “rise of the neocons,” within his administration. Among others, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, David Frum, Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice have all at one time or another been dubbed a neocon. The meanings of “neocon” and “neoconservatism” have largely been journalistic in origin, however, and the discipline of political science has ignored neoconservatism both as a worldview and a political movement. Neoconservatism, thus, has been defined and explored in an unsystematic fashion with attention paid to the particular foreign and domestic policies of the neocons and little attention to their historical and philosophical origins. Moreover, the term itself, like liberal, conservative, Republican or Democrat, has become so common it now has a pejorative (and generally negative) connotation that obscures its meaning and origins. This lapse in the literature is not only pause for concern but reason for a more thoroughgoing exploration of neoconservatism.

Conservatism[1], perhaps a predecessor to the neoconservative persuasion, has received more scholarly attention. Taking Edmund Burke as their intellectual forefather, conservatives, although a small fraction of political science and philosophy departments in the United States, have carved a niche not only in the literature but also have agreed upon principles that determine who or what a conservative is. Conservatives and neocons have certain political and ideological similarities, but the origins and roots of the conservative movement (and conservatives themselves) are far different than their neocon brethren. Taking seriously these differences not only draws distinctions between conservatives and neoconservatives, but also illuminates a more precise understanding of neoconservatism. I elucidate these distinctions by analyzing the core assumptions of each persuasion, and their intellectual and philosophical origins. Lastly, I examine the concept of democracy with respect to conservative and neoconservative thought, with particular attention paid to participatory democracy as explained by Dahl, Pateman, Botwinick and Bachrach. In doing so I come to several conclusions. One, distinctions do exist between conservatives and neoconservatives in intellectual and philosophical origins, but the differences associated with these underpinnings are not irreconcilable or as “new” as some have suggested. Two, the conception of democracy offered by both is completely compatible and not as dissimilar as some have thought. And thirdly, despite highlighting these similarities and differences more work needs to be done by political scientists and theorists alike to explain the phenomena that is neoconservatism. This is a research agenda for the future, but hopefully a challenge that will be taken seriously.

The Origins of Conservatism

Conservative thought in the United States owes much of its intellectual and philosophical origins to the thinking, writing and opinion of Edmund Burke. Burke, an 18th-century Whig statesmen from Ireland, became the spokesmen for a movement that would long survivehim. As Issac Kramnick remarked: “Few of his contemporaries had neutral views on this amazing public career. Burke was passionately worshiped and with equal passion hated (Kramnick 1999: xi). Burke’s most famous writings pertained to the French Revolution. The Revolution, for Burke, reflected the worst excesses of the Enlightenment, an age when men thought reason could trump revelation and tradition had no value in itself. The goings-on in France were a “monstrous tragi-comic scene” which brought to mind “alternate contempt and indignation, alternate laughter and tears, [and] alternate scorn and horror” (Burke 1999: 418). His insistence that it was wise to “conserve” the previous institutions of France anointed him the archetype conservative.

Samuel Huntington has identified several essential conservative principles based on Burke’s writings and his career as a statesman. First, the conservative order is centered on the belief in God and that religion should be the foundation for any proper society (Huntington 1957: 456). God, not man, is the center of the universe (Harbour 1982: 4). Given this starting point, conservatives are united around the view that human nature is fundamentally flawed. Conservatism posits the weakness of man and the unquestionable truth of Original Sin. Original Sin — as described in the Old Testament book of Genesis — is Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, where Eve took an apple from the tree of life against God’s commandment (Gen. 3:26). All of mankind has suffered the fate of a life of sin since. As prominent conservative William F. Buckley has argued, “such facts as that of Original Sin cannot be made to disappear” (Buckley 1959: 100).

One should not presume that the conservative wants a theocracy or a government controlled by a state church. Burke was both skeptical and dismayed by state establishment of a church, despite his moderate support for it. For Burke, “the Christian religion itself arose without establishment,” and its strength lies in civil society not in the halls of Parliament (Burke 1999: 109). It would also be a mistake to believe that being a conservative is dependent upon the faithful observance of religious beliefs. Certainly, conservatism’s Judeo-Christian origins cannot be underestimated and many conservatives adhere to the principles of the Old and New Testaments.[2] Conservatives’ view of nature is generalizable, and certainly resonates with those who were not ever particularly religious, like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. A person can accept the morals of the Christian religion without being religious themselves, for example. This view of human nature also sustains a moral order that influences legal codes, economic, and governmental practices.

An important final word about the conservatives’ view of human nature is in order. For the conservative, as Buckley reminded us, Original Sin is objective fact. Likewise, the moral order that rests on this assumption is similarly objective. Right and wrong is not open to interpretation, and moral relativism, or the idea that morals are subjective constructions, offend the sensibilities of all conservatives. Jeremy Rayner has suggested that moral relativism is problematic for the conservative on two different levels. One, by arguing that values are relative destroys them as values altogether and renders them “untrue” in society. Two, if societies are kept orderly not only by law but by a specific moral order, describing morality as merely a construction leaves open the possibilities for debilitation of authority and stability in the state (Rayner 1986: 461). As Roger Scruton acknowledged: “It is a philosophical question whether relativism is true. Politically speaking, however, it is better that few men believe it” (Scruton 1984: 139).

A second tenet of conservative thought is that institutions are the product of an incremental process that embodies the wisdom of prior generations (Huntington 1957: 456). Russell Kirk’s remark that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” reflects the conservative admiration and respect for the institutions of our forefathers (Buckley 1960: 65). Huntington understood well Burke’s fears of the French Revolution with respect to the institutions of society. For Huntington, Burke’s reaction to “the social upheaval, the ideologies it advanced, and the classes it propelled towards power were undoubtedly the greatest threat to existing institutions in the history of western civilization up to that time” (Huntington 1957: 465). Although Burke was skeptical of the content of the French Revolution with its emphasis on equality and liberty, it was not what the revolutionaries were fighting for that bothered him as much as what they destroyed. France’s government was destroyed in a matter of years and regime was replaced by regime for sometime after.

Burke’s trust in prior institutions not only emanated from a practical concern about governance and order, but a moral concern for the symbolic effects of institutions on society. Institutions exist, do doubt, because they are designed to handle certain tasks: to make and enforce laws, regulate commerce, or tax citizens. And for Burke, these institutions accomplished this for much of the Western world, from Greece to Rome and throughout all of Christendom (Rossiter 1962: 17). All the while, however, these institutions promoted a certain civil, moral and cultural order. Rayner has described institutions as “surrounded by myth, ritual and ceremonies that are adequate vehicles to express [a] sense of deep obligation” to the state (Rayner 1986: 463). The institution becomes an object of pride that situates the individual within the larger community and restrains citizens from destroying something that generations before them worked hard to build. This also jibes with conservative view that patriotism and love of country, at least in moderation, is not only tolerated but encouraged (Wilson 1960: 270). Worldliness and cosmopolitanism are the enemies of the conservative and undermine the basis for the moral, political and cultural foundations of the state.

The idea of the state playing such a prominent role in the affairs of its citizens might sit uneasy with modern conservatives familiar with more libertarian strains that promote limited government and hold a general anxiety toward the activist state. Some have even argued that American conservatism is fundamentally opposed to Burkean conservatism because of this seeming tension over the role of the state. This debate, however, has manifested itself over a misinterpretation of Burke’s “strong state” principle and an overblown view of libertarian’s “weak state” principle. Burke and other conservatives were not in favor of an activist state at all, and as Wilson pointed out Burke was a fan of mixed government. He wanted ‘to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater” (Burke as cited in Wilson 1960: 461). These institutions would act to check and moderate, allowing no institution to be more powerful than another. To describe Burke’s conservatism as statist might be accurate in the sense that states for Burke, as for almost every conservative thereafter, played the most important role in international affairs.[3]

American libertarians would dispute little of these assumptions. Although libertarians might be uneasy about an institution defining a moral order, as Burke believed, they would have no qualms with mixed government, checks and balances and as is the case in the United States, federalism. Moreover, libertarian notions of “weak state” have usually been defined in terms of laissez-faire economic policy associated with the writings of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. But even this view is misleading. All successful capitalist states require a strong rule of law that will enforce contracts, incarcerate cheaters and frauds, and regulate commerce and currency. While Burke could not have predicted the vitality of capitalism, contrary to popular belief, he strongly advocated free trade and wished for the success of the commercial class over the landed elite (Huntington 1957: 462).

A third characteristic of conservative thought is that prudence, experience and habit are more important than abstract logic and reason as a guides to discover the truth. We might also describe this as the conservative critique of the Enlightenment, an age that placed faith in man to discover the truths of the universe.[4] As previously mentioned, conservatism instructs that morals are objective, God and religion are vital for any functioning society, and human nature is fundamentally flawed. The Enlightenment questioned each and every one of these assumptions. The Enlightenment was the epicenter of liberal thought, emphasizing man’s role as alone in the world as a “creator of his own fate” (Harbour 1982: 19). If man controls his own fate and can discover truth through reason, there is no need for God. Revelation is anti-rational folly. Buckley remarked that for the liberal rationalist, “method is king — because things are real only in proportion as they are discoverable by the scientific method; with the result that method logically directs all intellectual traffic” (Buckley 1960: 114).

The conservative’s disenchantment with Enlightenment thinking not only stemmed from a disbandment of the traditions of yesteryears. The Enlightenment brought with it an arrogance that man could remake institutions over and over, continually progressing towards a more just society. Put to the extreme, this arrogance and disregard for habit and tradition brought forth bloody revolutions, the rise of Nazism on continental Europe, and the gulags and labor camps of the Soviet Union and China, all in the name of the “just” society. As Burke wrote: “We know that we have made no discoveries; and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the idea of liberty, which were understood long before we were born” (Burke as cited in Buckley 1960).

A fourth aspect of conservative thinking is that the community (or the group) supercedes the rights of the individual. This tenet is not unique to conservatives, however. Fascism is animated is their disproval of individualism and classical liberalism. The essence of communism sought to rid distinctions between individuals. And recent literature in political science has sought a rebirth of the community. Robert Putnam’s work on social capital — which argues that stronger societal ties via community organizations and social clubs are vital to a healthy democracy — has inspired presidents Clinton and Bush (See Putnam 1999). And those familiar with Michael Sandel’s “communitarian school” know that liberal individualism is limited as a prescriptive for good government (Sandel 1993: 11).

Conservatism’s distrust of liberal individualism is correlated with its distrust of utilitarianism. Inspired by the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is the principle that actions are judged based on what produces the “greatest good for the greatest number” (Mill 1859). All actions are open so long as none are hurt by a particular action. Morals are not objective principles revealed from God or arrived at from years of tradition and habit. Morality is nothing but a calculus. One weighs the pros and cons of this or that and arrives at whatever principle suits them. Morality becomes a collection of individuals — not a community mind you— each with their own “view” of morality. Parlance in the field of philosophy has described utilitarian inspired ethics as “consequentialism”. Something can only be judged right or wrong based on the consequences that arise from some action. Kirk described the utilitarians and Bentham as Burke’s “most powerful intellectual antagonist[s]” (Kirk 1967: 84).

Individualism was another unfortunate spillover from the Enlightenment age. Morality for the reasoned man is not fixed for all of time. Rather, what is moral and good can be derived from logic and reason. The individualist moral code is a completely rationalist one: whatever does not hurt others is reasonable, rational and moral. The individualist has no duties to fellow citizens, no obligations exist, and morality is situational, functional and void of meaning. The conservative, with an emphasis on community and family, is abhorred by such logic. English conservative Michael Oakeshott has argued that moral association specifies “moral right and wrong in conduct” and are “prescriptions of obligations” (Oakeshott 1983: 132). Moral obligation and moral duty does not allow for man to be completely atomistic. Man is situated within the family, the community, and the society at large (Sandel 1993: 13). The individual embedded in a community is not an extremist or egoist, and wishes not to abandon or destroy it to maximize his utility (Wilson 1960: 272).

A fifth fundamental aspect of conservative thought is the truism that equality between men, except in God’s eyes, is superstition. Men are born equal, are given equality of opportunity and are equal before the law, but societies reach a grave danger when the “rage for equality” becomes more important than stability, order, tradition, and even liberty (Rossiter 1962: 23-24). “Equality is intellectual and biological nonsense,” wrote Viscount Kilmuir. “Even in the French Revolution it took only five years for the concept of equality to change into that of equality of opportunity” (Kilmuir as cited in Wilson 1960: 270). In Burke’s mind the cries for equality promoted by the French Revolution was secondary to the “sprit of liberty,” good government, morality, peace and order (Burke 1949: 285). Equality was appealing to the masses and a government that could promise as much was worth citizen support. But regimes which appealed to the masses with promises of equality all ended the same — in disorder, instability and worse off than before.

Conservatives after Burke that attacked the political and moral basis of Marxism fought similar battles. In Clinton Rossiter’s critique of Marxism, he suggested that the appeal of communism lied in its promise “of an end to unjust privilege and degrading discrimination” (Rossiter 1960: 89). For Rossiter these dreams were dashed in communist regimes all throughout the world. In the Soviet Union the pursuit of equality was replaced by the pursuit of technology. Conservative critic Dinesh D’Souza has pinpointed in accurate fashion the current divide between American conservatives and American liberals with respect to equality. The conservative favors equality of rights, where deficiencies and inequalities manifest from different capabilities. The liberal favors equality of outcomes where inequalities are the result of a society that is rigged in favor of some and against others (D’Souza 2002: 8).

Lastly, the sixth and perhaps the most well-known of conservative principles, “efforts to remedy existing evils usually result in even greater ones” (Huntington 1957: 456). This maxim needs little qualification. Recognized as the essence of conservative thought, the conservative is content with the institutions of old in the fear that the institutions of new could bring undesirable — and unknown — results. Oakeshott has described this as nonideological conservatism. “The purpose of politics was to tend to societiy’s arrangements, keeping the existing social fabric in good repair” (Dorrien 1993: 103). Surprisingly, the most known of conservative principles is not really a principle at all. More of a reminder, a prediction, a warning to future generations that all that glitters is not gold. Being the most well-known of edicts, it is also the most derided and critiqued. Conservatives are equipped with an “authoritarian personality,” are merely “reactionaries”, or scared of the possibilities of a “progressive” future (See Adorno 1949, Hirschman 1991). It would be a mistake to consider Burke’s conservatism as simply traditionalist, or reactionary. Indeed, Burke was fond of order and preservation, but he was not an outright apologist for the sins of prior generations. He described slavery as an unfortunate “weed that grows in every soil” (Burke 1949: 93). He was also critical of British expansion onto the Indian continent and blamed the American Revolution on the misgovernment of the colonies by Prime Minister George Grenville (Hoffman and Levack 1949: 43). There is neither time nor space to discuss Burke’s and other conservatives’ critics at length. But hopefully thus far I have sketched out a thorough composite of the conservative position.

Neoconservatism’s Roots

The intellectual and philosophical origins of neoconservatism, or “new conservatism,” are not nearly as old as Burke’s, but in a short time have become almost as influential. The term neoconservative was first coined by left activist Michael Harrington in the socialist journal Dissent in the early 1970s (Dorrien 1993: 1). Looking for a word to describe a number of former Trotskyists and leftists who had left the fold and increasingly shifted to the right, Harrington dubbed them “neoconservatives” because they were completely new to the political scene. Being former leftists who shifted to the right made for an interesting intellectual odyssey. Unlike other mainstream conservatives, their forefathers were not Burke or Oakeshott, Buckley or Kirk. They were better read in Das Kapital than “Reflections on the Revolution in France”. In short, Harrington’s description was not inappropriate. These were very different conservatives, if not in content, then certainly in origin.

The origins of neoconservative thought have been accredited, oddly enough, to two different sources. One mode of neoconservative thinking is said to have developed in the literary journals and intellectual community of Manhanttan from the 1950s onward. These men (and some women) were the intellectual torchbearers for whom Harrington gave the title, “neoconservative”. These were the neocons that were said to have started on the left and drifted to right — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Novak, Daniel Bell and James Burnham are just a few of the names associated with the foundations of this neoconservatism. A second mode of neoconservative thought is attributed to the teachings and scholarship of Leo Strauss. Strauss, a German √©migr√© who taught almost his whole life at the University of Chicago, was the mentor for many of Washington D.C.’s most prominent policy makers and think tank intellectuals. Strauss’s legacy has been revived by the so-called “Straussians,” some students of Strauss, and others who were inspired by his work. Some have described the relationship between the New York intellectual community and Strauss as inextricably intertwined (Drury 1997: 137). For certain, Strauss intrigued Kristol and other neoconservatives. But the starting points of their intellectual journeys were different. For the purposes of this essay, I will treat this distinction as important.

Neoconservatism and Conservatism: Compatibility or Conflict?

For the conservative, writers from Burke on have highlighted the essential principles of what it means to be a conservative. These principles are rooted in various assumptions about human nature, God, reason, and history. From these maxims a conservative has the tools with which to make policy decisions on any topic. To this point, no agreed upon principles have upheld the neoconservative outlook.[5] As is obvious by now, neocons prefer certain policies over others — in foreign affairs, domestic affairs and so on. But a deficiency of the neoconservative position is a glaring one. What are the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of this “new” conservatism? I accomplish this by situating the neoconservative case within the framework of conservatism’s six major principles. If neoconservatism is as indebted to its predecessor as some think, the evidence will show as much.

Principle One: the conservative order is centered on the belief in God and that religion should be the foundation for any proper society. Neoconservatism generally would accept this maxim but with some qualification. On a strictly moral dimension, both conservatives and neoconservatives believe that human nature is flawed and they recognize the same enemy: moral relativism. Allan Bloom, a student of Strauss, was distressed by such a notion. “Historicism, cultural relativism, and the fact-value distinction have eroded the bases of conviction,” Bloom explained, “that this regime is good or just, [and] that reason can support his claims to our allegiance” (Bloom 1975: 648). This disease has particularly afflicted the academy where, put to the extreme, all morals and all cultures are suggested to be equal. In Buckley’s Man and God at Yale, he exposes of the decline of religion on college campuses and the influence of moral relativism. Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind draws similar conclusions about relativism and the decline of American culture. For both, the transformation in the academy does not emanate from a change in the student body but from the content taught by their professors.

One a more specifically religious level, there is some variation in the conservative and neoconservative vantage point. Kristol, anointed as the “godfather” of neoconservatism, suggested that his neo-orthodox religious views significantly influenced his political thinking (Kristol 1995: 3). Strauss, in Jerusalem to talk about philosophy, remarked that, “I shall not for a moment forget what Jerusalem stands for” (Strauss 1973: 10). Religion for Kristol and Strauss played an important role as the moral center for any government. Prominent in Strauss’s mind was the weakness of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Liberal regimes, void of any public philosophy, will wither and decay. Unlike Burke or Buckley, all of the major neoconservative thinkers —Strauss, Kristol, Podhoretz, and Glazer among others— were Jewish, and most were not particularly observant. Kristol admired religion but rarely observed. Strauss was a self-identified agnostic. Podhoretz, who attended Jewish seminary for a short time at the behest of his father, was not religious at all. For him, seminary was a “stifling” and “morbid” place of little sophistication (Dorrien 1993: 134).

For the neocon, religion is “symbolic” of tradition and order that serves a particular function in society. The Trotskyite beginnings of several of the neocons might explain their view that religion is transformative in societies.[6] For Strauss, almost any religion would do because at a minimum almost all religions are moderate, would reject extremes and would be hostile to the many manifestations of liberalism (Drury 1997: 11). Burke’s conservatism would reject this almost utilitarian approach to religion. Although traditional conservatives would recognize that religion can provide such stability for society, Judeo-Christian thought fundamentally informs the foundations of conservatism. Original Sin as described in the Old Testament is not just an instructive guide about human nature but revealed truth. The Ten Commandments for the conservative is the objective moral code, passed down from generation to generation. And for the Christian, who believes that redemption lies in Christ in Heaven, he is not fooled by extreme or utopian attempts to recreate Heaven on earth.

Principle Two: Institutions are the product of an incremental process that embodies the wisdom of prior generations. Neoconservatives generally accept this principle, but once again there exists room for some qualification.[7] For the conservatives of Burke’s age, the French Revolution was the object of their despair. For the neoconservative, their target was the social upheaval of the 1960s and the rise of the “New Class.” Unlike traditional conservatives who were hostile to the Civil Rights movement writ large, those that would become the neocons were accepting of most of the reforms and ideals of the movement. But when the Civil Rights movement transformed into concerns for women’s rights, homosexual rights, and the peace movement, these ex-radicals were left disillusioned, wondering what went wrong. Who were the “New Class,” and why did the neoconservatives loathe them so? Based on James Burnham’s classic The Managerial Revolution, Burnham observed that there was “the emergence of a new social system in which control over the means of production…was passing not the working class, but to a new class of mangers” (Dorrien 1993: 34). The New Class was composed of lawyers and bureaucrats, consultants and academics. They spoke in lofty goals of progressivism, egalitarianism and as spokesmen for the poor and working class. In the end, the language of compassion disguised their thirst for power and prestige (Dorrien 1993: 14-15). The New Class threatened the institutions of old by seeking to transform them to fit the politics of new. They were the neocons’ great adversaries.

The rise of the New Class, and the response by neoconservatives, highlighted a subtle difference between neocons and conservatives, however. As I argued earlier, the Trotskyite and socialist beginnings of neoconservatism’s founders resurrects itself despite the shift from left to right. Whereas the conservative was ultimately dismayed at the revolutionaries’ penchant for destruction of order, tradition and habit in society, the New Class because of its penchant for power was what troubled the neocons. The concept of power was utilized little in conservative texts. Power was an afterthought, a given, that needed little examination. But for the Marxist and former Marxist, power sets the agenda, shapes the culture and influences politics and economics. The neoconservative agenda must be then to take the power away from the New Class — infiltrate think tanks, bombard Washington with their own managerial class and win the intellectual battles that conservatives had conceded to the liberal. The conservative movement had become but a disposition according to neoconservatives with no ties to policy-making and little influence on Capitol Hill. Who were the great conservative presidents, a neocon might ask? The institutions of society — the church, the government, rule of law — were defended passively at best. The neoconservative, not shy about his own desire for power, could pull the reigns back in the right direction. As Shadia Drury wrote: “A neoconservative regime must do much more than maintain order and secure liberty under law. It must address the spiritual disorder of modernity; it must defeat the reigning nihilism, and reinvests life with meaning” (Drury 1997: 160).

Principle Three: Prudence, experience and habit are more important than abstract logic and reason as guides to discover the truth. This principle is where we see some split between the conservatives and the neoconservatives, and between the Straussians and other neoconservatives. On one plain there is general agreement. As Michael Novak remarked: “Persons who believe that the truth is easily discovered often react with moral revulsion against conservatives or reactionaries who disagree with them. (Novak 1982: 63). For all varieties of conservatism there is a general distrust of Enlightenment reasoning. Strauss was disillusioned, for instance, by the behavioral revolution in political science.[8] The belief that truth could be discovered using the tools of positivism or rationalism was suspect (Strauss 1973: 16, 18). This positivism was first value-neutral and second rendered little in terms of actual political knowledge. As such, Strauss, like conservatives before him, was fine with a pre-Enlightenment outlook on the world. Knowledge was passed on from great mind to great mind, and wisdom existed in the great books of history and literature. Philosophers could not “discover” truth via reason.

But for neoconservatives like Kristol, in order to impact and transform society, man had to confront modernity head-on. Burke, Oakeshott, and Buckley had avoided well the ideological debates that, they felt, crippled their liberal, Marxist, and fascist foes. Kristol was not enthused by much of the progress associated with the Enlightenment and the revolution in France — the emphasis on equality over liberty and the destruction of tradition and order. However, conservatives and neoconservatives had to be in Kristol’s words, a “politics armed,” and had to not only preserve existing political structures but be willing to shape the future (Dorrien 1993: 104). This answers part of the question as to why the neoconservatives have been more successful in accomplishing their policy agenda than conservatives have, whatever that agenda might be. Kristol’s goal for an armed politics answers a question of course, about our Sixth Principle, “that efforts to remedy existing evils usually result in even greater ones.” Kristol might be sympathetic to this but ultimately not persuaded.

Principle Four: The community (or the group) supercede the rights of the individual. Superficially it would seem as though conservatives and neoconservatives agree on this point. Upon closer examination it appears that neoconservatives are less concerned about this principle. On the one hand, the conservative and neoconservative worry about the ego and arrogance associated with individualism. The extreme individualist has no respect for the tenets of tradition, or the values of the community. Politically, communities are at the mercy of a federal government that erases community standards and puts in its place invented, secular principles. A traditional community must accept the edicts of Washington or a federal court because of “individualism run amok” (Dorrien 1993: 308). And while neoconservatives speak less so in the language of moral obligation, they nevertheless are skeptical of utilitarian morality.

Individualism in the arena of the economic sector, however, has not troubled neocons as much. Capitalism is a preferred economic system for all conservatives compared to its merchantilist, socialist and totalitarian counterparts. It is also a system that is most compatible with the American political tradition (Rossiter 1960: 135). But for conservatives, capitalism is fundamentally immoral in some ways— its ripe with greed, predicated on commodification, morally depraved and has the potential to destroy communities. But neoconservatives reject most of these claims. Adam Smith’s premise that the selfishness of some works for the good of all is a central starting point. In Novak’s research on democratic capitalism, he argues that capitalism does not destroy communities, it could actually facilitate and stabilize them. The democratic capitalist community is a “community of colleagueship, task-oriented, [and] goal-directed” (Novak 1982: 136). Moreover, capitalism, when compared to its alternatives, is best equipped to remedy the morally, spiritually and culturally depraved society. Kristol’s overwhelming support for the free-market order in Two Cheers for Capitalism reflected a similar vein.

Equality, Democracy and Participation

Thus far I have sought to explain the differences between conservatism and neoconservatism by situating neoconservative thought in some of the basic maxims of conservatism. While there are general agreements on some of these principles there is also merit to the notion that these are indeed “neo” conservatives. In this section I explore the fifth, and for my purposes, last principle — Equality between men, except in God’s eyes, is superstition — with a theoretical exploration of democracy, and more specifically the concept of participatory democracy. The fifth principle actually needs little prodding. Both conservatives and neoconservatives accept this generalization. Part of the neoconservatives drift to the right was the awareness that man could not be made equal except in terms of opportunity. Their support for Civil Rights, for instance, but not affirmative action recognizes this difference. But equality is wrapped up in notions of democracy and participation and some have wondered whether these notions mean very different things to conservatives and neoconservatives. Simply put, however, the conservative and neoconservative orientation to democracy is completely compatible. Conservatives in the Burkean tradition are sympathetic to democracy but highly skeptical. Neoconservatives are less skeptical but certain that full faith in democracy accomplishes little.

“Participatory democracy” is the notion that democratic participation exists not only in an electoral sense, but should filter down to other aspects of society like our workplaces or educational institutions (Pateman 1970: 104). In other words, participatory democrats seek to “democratize” aspects of society that previously were closed off to such participation. The participatory democrat is concerned about the distribution of resources in an unequal society. Dahl argued that “the extent to which political equality and democracy [were] attainable depends, among other things, on the distribution of access to political resources and the willingness to employ them to achieve one’s goals” (Dahl 1996: 639). Seeking alternate venues to achieve more equitable resources for all, participatory democrats seek to close the gap between participation and equality. “The theory of democratic participation,” so wrote Bachrach and Botwinick, “is based upon the assumption that there is a close linkage between participation and equality” (Bachrach and Botwinick 1992: 23). Participatory, or workplace democracy, also is logical, in the sense that most of our lives are actually spent at work, and our electoral participation is limited to voting once every four years (Dahl 1987: 327). Surprisingly, the literature on participatory democracy was written largely in response to liberal conceptions of democracy. Bachrach and Botwinick were responding to the liberal view that participation is not in itself valuable for the full development of citizens (Bachrach and Botwinick 1992: 20). And Dahl wrote almost entirely without the conservative or neoconservative in mind.

Some obvious conservative objections would arise to the participatory democratic case. First, Dahl’s acknowledgement that equality is “in its moral meaning… a goal, an aim, an ideal, a hope, an aspiration, an obligation,” would abhor the conservative and the neocon alike (Dahl 1996: 539). Second, the view that democracy should be filtered through other sectors of society would also be suspect. If it could be demonstrated that, for example, a democratic workplace would be more productive and the means would justify the ends then certainly the neoconservative might listen.[9] On the other hand, the conservative’s reverence for tradition and authority would resist shifting power from one hand to another. Thirdly, and most critically, participatory democracy would affront the divide between the private sector and the government. If the government could influence the way businesses operated, at what point would government intervention stop?

Some final comments are needed to further flesh out the conservative and neoconservative viewpoints. With respect to democracy, European conservatism is different than American conservatism in the sense that in America no feudal tradition or monarchy ever existed. Therefore, the particular order that Burke thought to keep in Europe for traditional reasons — the state church or the aristocracy — he never suggested for his American counterparts. Simply put, America’s traditions were their own and they could build them how they saw fit. Nevertheless Burke’s influence could be seen in the country’s founding. The Founders were skeptical of mass participation and supportive of representative institutions, not the chaos of “pure” democracy (Harbour 1982: 140).

American conservatism’s views on democracy reflect the temperament of Burke and could be succinctly described as simultaneously minimalist and elitist. By minimalist, I am referring to Joseph Schumpeter’s classic definition of democracy as merely a means for “producing” and “evicting” leaders. This definition has been most influential on modern American conservatives like Buckley, who described “democracy [as] nothing more than a procedural device aimed at institutionalizing political liberty. It has no program. It cannot say to its supporters: do thus, and ye shall arrive at the promised land” (Buckley 1960: 115). Democracy is just one of several ways to produce a government. It is not valuable in and of itself. It is special only in what it can accomplish, simply a means to an end.

The conservative is also elitist, fearing, as Burke did in the French Revolution, the pulses of the masses can change as quickly as the blowing wind. For the conservative, encouraging voting and trying to get “all” involved in the democratic process would not only be antithetical to the democratic spirit but dangerous to government and society. Elitists like Hayek were fearful of popular sovereignty and even more scared of majority rule (Kukathas 1998: 24). The spirit of the people could be equally tyrannical as any other “arbitrary” form of power. A second, but less obvious reason that conservatives favor elitism to unmitigated democracy is that narrow groups of elites could easier enforce a particular religious or moral order. With the production and eviction of leader after leader, the conservative is ultimately concerned, like his communitarian counterpart, that the nation will lack a public philosophy.

Neoconservative thought is minimally different. For neoconservatives, as I pointed out earlier, the Founders were wise and accomplished statesmen that knew the pitfalls that lied ahead for the young country. Democracy succeeded not because it was a purely perfect mechanism, but because the American founders were superior intellects who succeeded at the democratic experiment. Like Buckley, Kristol was appreciative of democracy as a means to produce government, but democracy was not worth “our love and honor,” only our obedience (Kristol 1972: 66). In practice, neoconservative foreign policy makers have supported the “democratic peace theory,” not necessarily because democracy is the best form of government for its citizens but because democracies are presumed not to fight one another (See Kirkpatrick 1979). Lastly, neoconservatives were also elitist in orientation, troubled by the liberal’s goals of egalitarianism and equality (Drury 1997: 134). The masses were not stupid, but prone to passions that could disrupt society and erode order and tradition.


Gary Dorrien, in the concluding chapter to his work on the neoconservative mind, posited that, “the high-water mark for neoconservatism has undoubtedly passed. Neoconservatives are unlikely to regain the political influence and power they attained during Ronald Reagan’s presidency” (Dorrien 1993: 368). To argue that Dorrien was perhaps premature to issue such a grandiose statement goes without saying. As is well-known , the neoconservatives are as important as ever. But despite their importance, little is known about the intellectual and philosophical origins of their movement, and still yet, no core assumptions have been explicated that define “who” or “what” a neoconservative is. I have tried to fill these gaps with a preliminary try, comparing it to conservatism on a number of dimensions and exploring democracy at length. If this attempt was successful we should be closer at understanding the neocon. If not, we have gained and lost nothing. At worst, neoconservatism is woollier a concept than when we began. Exploration into neoconservatism offers a promising agenda for theorists, philosophers and political scientists alike.

[1] In light of neoconservatism some have chosen to describe traditional conservatism as “old” conservatism or paleoconservatism. (See Dorrrien 1993).

[2] Many prominent conservatives including Burke, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley are all followers of Christ.

[3] Borrowing on the literature in international relations, American conservatives have distrusted international institutions like the United Nations because these institutions undermine American sovereignty and the role of states in world affairs.

[4] Interestingly, conservatives and social constructivists share in common their suspicions of the Enlightenment but for different reasons. Those of the Enlightenment thought objective knowledge could be discovered through the lens of reason and observation. Constructivists critiqued this rationalist ontology because it ignored the “intersubjective” meanings of society and was too positivistic in origin. (See Richard K. Ashley 1986)

[5] In a recent C-SPAN debate on The Neoconservative Reader, a 2005 book compiled of speeches and essays favorable towards neoconservatism, the editor of the book Irvin Steltzer remarked that, with trepidation, he proceeded to describe the “fundamentals” of the neoconservative persuasion. Looking around the room as if worried he might sum up these essentials wrong, or leave one out, Steltzer proceeded to ramble off some elements of neoconservatism.

[6] Of course for the Marxist, religion is important because it keeps people from revolting, overthrowing the established order and keeps society in a continued state of “false consciousness”

[7] Indeed Neoconservatives and Straussians have been the biggest defenders of the Founding Fathers and the spirit of the American Revolution. The founders were men of extraordinary intellect and wisdom, not just nameless cogs in the dialectic of history. Bloom detailed an episode he had with his undergraduate history professor. “I asked my first history professor in the university, whether the picture he gave us of George Washington did not have the effect of making us despise our regime. ‘Not at all,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t depend on individuals but on our having good democratic values.’ To which I rejoined, ‘But you just showed us that Washington was only using those values to further the class interests of the Virginia squirearchy.’ He got angry and that was the end of that” (Bloom 1987: 29). Kristol suggested that “we are arrogant and condescending toward all ancestors because we are so convinced we understand them better than they understand themselves (Kristol 1995: 236).

[8] Strauss was one of the more outspoken critics in the field of political science towards more “scientific” understanding of politics.

[9] Michael Novak has argued that participatory democracy is doomed to failure for this reason. “Participatory democracy requires too many meetings, and it suits neither the needs of most citizens nor the purposes of a free society…Enforced participatory democracy would be, for most, less attractive than obligatory attendance at church” (Novak 1982: 209).

No comments:

Post a Comment