Conservatives New and Old

April 1, 2008
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Benjamin Balint

Neoconservative has lately become a term of abuse referring to the supposed cabal that brought about the Iraq war. The neocons became in the public imagination a group of hubristic imperialists, determined to spread democracy through conquest. They were said to be guided by Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish émigré philosopher at the University of Chicago described in The Boston Globe as a “disguised Machiavelli, a cynical teacher who encouraged his followers to believe that their intellectual superiority entitles them to rule over the bulk of humanity by means of duplicity.” According to Der Spiegel: “They are not new conservatives. They’re Jacobins. Their predecessor is French Revolution leader Maximilien Robespierre.”

The striking feature of this frenzied post-9/11 attention, most of which came from the anti-war left, was the way it drew from an old well of resentment filled to brimming by the old right, a group known after the neoconservative ascendancy as the paleocons.

But first, a little history: The term “neoconservative” used to be deployed more descriptively, to refer to liberal anticommunists who, having failed to halt the leftward drift of the Democratic Party, came in the 1970s to feel more at home on the right, where they took it upon themselves to battle Soviet expansionism abroad and anti-Americanism at home, and to fault the overreaching social programs of the Great Society.

Not that the neoconservatives immediately joined conservative ranks. Seeing themselves as the true heirs of the liberal tradition, they instead endeavored to remain faithful to cold war liberalism, to what Arthur Schlesinger had called the vital center. Still committed to social reform, they clung to a belief in the welfare state and to the hope of somehow redeeming the Democratic Party from its descent into McGovernism after the Chicago convention in 1968.

But after McGovern’s landslide 1972 defeat, when their efforts to keep the Democrats faithful to the party’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson wing failed, the neocons felt they no longer had a home in the Democratic camp. By 1980, waking up to the conservative implications of their own line of thinking, they threw their support behind Ronald Reagan.

Yet far from finding a welcome reception from the conservatism to which they had defected, neoconservatives suffered a new kind of vilification. The paleocons accused the newcomers of attenuating conservatism, of corrupting the true faith. As one paleocon (Stephen J. Tonsor) put it, “It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” Pat Buchanan added that the neoconservatives’ tactics “left many conservatives wondering if we hadn’t made a terrible mistake when we brought these ideological vagrants in off the street and gave them a warm place by the fire.”

The most telling feature of the new criticism of neoconservatives, then, is also the one that most tightly binds it to the old attacks from the right: the focus on Jewishness. Some of the post-9/11 critics, like Jacob Heilbrunn, have defined neoconservatism as an “ineluctably Jewish” mentality that derives from ethnic experience — “as much a reflection of Jewish immigrant social resentments and status anxiety as a legitimate movement of ideas.” Others claimed that the neoconservative takeover was engineered by Jewish intellectuals who put Israel’s interests before America’s. Harvard historian Stanley Hoffman said neoconservatives “look on foreign policy through the lens of one dominant concern: Is it good or bad for Israel? Since that nation’s founding in 1948, these thinkers have never been in very good odor at the State Department, but now they are well ensconced in the Pentagon.”

But the paleocons had already traversed this territory, having decades ago charged the neocons with dual loyalty. The country-club conservatives saw themselves as a Christian old guard beleaguered by power-hungry interlopers, sons of Jewish immigrants who had insinuated themselves into positions of power. Neocons were often criticized as arrivistes, as parvenus, as overanxiously Americanized Jews.

They were also seen as “Likudniks” who uncritically supported Israel. As Russell Kirk said in 1988: “Not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” In short, paleocons felt crowded out by what Kirk called a “little sect” of upstart usurpers, Johnnies-come-lately who had taken over the paleocons’ estate just as they were about to inherit.

Like Esau complaining that his birthright was stolen by the deceits of Jacob, critics both left and right will continue to find in neoconservatives a convenient mark.

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Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is working on a book about Commentary magazine.

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