Jews and the Conservative Rift

Historian Edward Shapiro, Marc B. Shapiro’s father, writes in 1999: American conservatism was enveloped in a mood of doubt and angst during the 1980s and 1990s precisely at the time when its message had seemingly never resonated more strongly. These two decades saw a worldwide movement liberating markets from governmental restrictions, even among countries identifying themselves as socialist; the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War; and widespread disillusionment with the Great Society reforms of the 1960s. During these years, however, conservative thinkers were increasingly somber rather than exultant. Part of the reason for this gloom was a long, bitter, and multifaceted struggle within the conservative camp over the meaning of conservatism and the identity of the rightful heirs of the conservative legacy. At times it seemed that conservatives believed their most notable enemies to be fellow conservatives. Despite the widely held perception that Jews, and particularly Jewish intellectuals, were people of the Left, Jews played an important role in this conflict.

One of the most important of the recent intraconservative rumbles has been between two small but influential groups of conservative intellectuals–the traditionalists, or “paleoconservatives” as they frequently were called, and the “neoconservatives.” While there were few Jews among the paleos, Jews comprised a majority of the most significant neoconservative thinkers, and Jews edited Commentary and Public Interest, the two most important neoconservative magazines. No group of conservative thinkers “had ever come close to carrying as sizable a Jewish imprint as the neoconservatives,” wrote Seth Forman, a young historian. For the first time in American history, “an identifiable group of well placed and influential Jewish thinkers had exhibited a willingness to reorder the priorities of American Jews and to suggest in the strongest terms that Jewish well-being might not necessarily be tied to … progressive social and political forces of any kind.” The rift between the paleoconservatives and the neoconservatives cannot be fully explained without considering the Jewish dimension of neoconservatism. Although it appeared to outsiders to be a tempest in a teapot, this rift is an important chapter in the history of recent American conservatism in general and the American Jewish conservative intelligentsia in particular.(1)

The hostility between the paleocons and neocons, which went back as far as the 1970s, was intensified in 1980 when the election of Ronald Reagan raised the stakes in the struggle over the conservative patrimony. A conservative government was now in power in Washington, headed by a man who thought of himself as a conservative and was interested in conservative ideas; conservative think-tanks were anxious to provide employment for right-thinking intellectuals; and conservative foundations, awash in cash, were eager to assist in this new era of conservative governance. The neoconservative and traditionalist rivalry, which had largely involved policy differences, now also became a struggle over political and academic appointments, grants from the major conservative foundations, and other emoluments. In this more hospitable environment for conservatives, the question as to what conservatism was all about and who were the true keepers of the conservative flame became more important.

Another factor in intensifying the paleocon-neocon rivalry was the collapse of communism in Europe. The fear of communism had been the single most important element unifying the notoriously fractious conservative movement. With the lifting of the Iron Curtain in Europe in 1989 and with the end of communism in Russia in 1991, conservative ideologues now had the luxury of focusing their attention on the supposed heretics within conservative ranks. And as foreign policy became less prominent on the conservative agenda, the social and cultural issues which had divided the neconservatives and the traditionalists became more important. For some paleoconservatives, their union with the neoconservatives had always been a marriage of convenience. Now it was time for a divorce.

In 1966 Jeffrey Hart, a traditionalist conservative, had anticipated and welcomed the emergence of neoconservatism. Hart, a professor of literature at Dartmouth College, predicted in The American Dissent, published during the heyday of the New Left and the counterculture, that “liberalism most certainly will undergo fragmentation. Many liberals will move to the Left, jettisoning their remaining Western cultural attachments. Others, just as inevitably, will move to the Right, becoming more conservative.” Hart was prescient. Within a few years the move to the right by a group of erstwhile and primarily Jewish intellectuals was being frequently noted in scholarly and popular magazines, and in 1979 Peter Steinfels published his critical examination of neoconservatism, The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics.

Conservatives were of two minds regarding the neoconservatives. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, the closest thing the conservative movement had to an official journal, welcomed the neoconservatives in general and Commentary magazine in particular to the conservative ranks in an editorial in its March 9, 1971 issue, titled “C’mon In, the Water’s Fine.” By then the monthly Commentary, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, had become the major journal of neoconservative thinking and the leading advocate for a move to the right by the American Jewish community. Other conservative thinkers, however, were not so open to the neoconservatives. Russell Kirk, the leading traditionalist intellectual and author of the influential The Conservative Mind (1954), described the neoconservatives as a “little sect, distrusted and reproached by many leaders of what we may call mainline conservatives, who now and again declare that most of the Neoconservatives are seeking place and preferment chiefly.” The neocons, Kirk claimed, were painfully deficient “in the understanding of the human condition and in the apprehension of the accumulated wisdom of our civilization,” preferring instead “to engage in ideological sloganizing, the death of political imagination.”(2)

Many of the leading neoconservative intellectuals were Jewish academicians who moved to the right in the 1960s in response to campus unrest, the New Left, the counterculture, the Black Power movement, the excesses of the Great Society, the hostility of the Left to Israel, and the Left’s weakening opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union. They became convinced, Mark Gerson, a perceptive student of the neoconservatives, has written, that the Left was “distinctively bad for the Jews.” Jewish professors were particularly sensitive to the campus disruptions and the attacks on academic freedom emanating from the Left. These reminded them of the 1930s, when German universities were transformed from intellectual oases dedicated to the search for truth into auxiliaries of the Nazi regime. For the neoconservatives, the academy’s role was scholarship, not the dissemination of whatever political ideology was then in fancy.(3)

Jews were also sensitive to the demands of the Left that preferential policies be instituted in academia to attract more minority and female students and professors. Jewish academicians attributed their success in academia to the merit principle, and they remembered the pre-World War II quotas for Jewish students and faculty in European and American universities. By the 1960s, however, the ideal of merit was being challenged by spokesmen for women and racial and ethnic minorities, who claimed that it was a ploy used by the academic establishment to prevent opening up the university to the hitherto excluded. Jews made up a significant percentage of academia by this time, and many Jewish professors and administrators argued that the advancement of women and members of racial and ethnic minorities should be in the same manner that the progress of Jews had taken place–by conforming to widely accepted standards of scholarship and teaching.

Jews had a deep affection for the university. Not only did it employ many Jews, but it was also believed to be the major reason why Jews had moved so rapidly up the occupational and social ladders. The university was also an oasis of rationality and freedom of thought in a world of endemic irrational and retrogressive impulses. Little wonder, then, that Jews had an almost paternalistic attitude toward higher education. In 1969 Nathan Glazer noted that he was more committed to defending the university from the assaults of the counterculture and the New Left than in rectifying its deficiencies. The problems of American society, Glazer said, “do not require–indeed, would in no way by advanced by–the destruction of those fragile institutions which have been developed over centuries to transmit and expand knowledge. These are strongly held commitments, so strong that my first reaction to student disruption … is to consider how the disrupters can be isolated and weakened … and how they can finally be removed from a community they wish to destroy.”(4)

The opposition of Jewish neoconservatives to affirmative action was not restricted to the academic world. Coming from poor and lower-middle class families, they had prospered by dint of hard work, and they assumed that blacks and other minorities could succeed in the same manner. The neoconservatives were strong proponents of the early civil rights movement, which sought to eliminate racial barriers in voting, employment, and social life. But they were equally opposed to affirmative action, which, they believed, was un-American because it assumed the most important thing about people was not their individual qualities but their ethnic or racial group, because it Balkanized the country by dividing the population into hostile groups competing for the favors doled out by government, and because it led inevitably to quotas in education and employment. There were few specific public issues which gave an unambiguous answer to the classic question “Is it good for the Jews?,” but affirmative action seemed to be an exception.

The Jewish neoconservatives also claimed that the Left was a threat to Jewish interests even when Jews were not singled out. “All the roles that Jews play are roles that the New Left disapproves of, and wishes to reduce,” Nathan Glazer wrote in 1971. The Left is critical “of all private business, and of its whole associated institutional complex–lawyers, stockbrokers, accountants, etc.–in which Jews are prominent. The kinds of society it admires have no place for occupations in which Jews have tended to cluster in recent history.” Nor was the New Left and its fellow travelers in the counterculture sympathetic to those middle-class values which Jews respected and handed down to their children. Finally, the New Left was hostile to that most important of all Jewish interests–the state of Israel.(5)

The Six Day War of 1967 was a watershed in the attitudes of American Jews toward Israel, even among those Jewish intellectuals who prided themselves on their acculturation and assimilation. It was difficult, if not impossible, to be unaffected by the prospect during late May and early June 1967 that a second Jewish Holocaust within a quarter of a century was a real possibility. Leftists sympathetic to Third World liberation movements and critical of Zionism and the creation of Israel as manifestations of Western imperialism and colonialism were among Israel’s enemies in 1967. Among Israel’s leading defenders, by contrast, were conservatives, for whom the Jewish state was an outpost of Western civilization and a bulwark against Communism and radical Arab nationalism. The fact that in 1967 Israel used arms manufactured in the West to defend herself and that America supported Israel caused many Jews hitherto on the Left to rethink their knee-jerk opposition to American military and diplomatic policy. The Six Day War was particularly influential in the evolution of Commentary, edited by Norman Podhoretz, from a magazine supportive of the New Left to America’s leading conservative monthly.

The final factor in the emergence of neoconservatism was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program to alleviate the economic and social ills of urban America. The Jewish intellectuals who were to become leading neoconservative thinkers had been raised in the metropolis, most notably in New York City. They had a deep affection for the cosmopolitanism, diversity, and sophistication of city life, and they welcomed policies which would improve urban life. But the Great Society, they believed, was exacerbating rather than relieving urban problems. They blamed the Great Society and its municipal counterparts for decreasing the urban housing stock, exacerbating ethnic and racial tensions in the cities, and undermining urban schools. The problem, neoconservatives believed, ran deeper than mistaken policies. The ultimate source was the reformist mentality, which underestimated the intractability of human nature and failed to take into consideration the tendency of even the best-intended programs to run amuck. Liberal policies also threatened the interests of Jews, whether by introducing high-rise public housing into a Jewish neighborhood in Queens, decentralizing the New York City school system, which lead to the teachers’ strike of 1968-9, or ignoring examination scores and seniority rules in municipal hiring and promotions.

Irving Kristol founded the quarterly Public Interest in the mid-1960s to give voice to the increasing number of people who saw themselves as liberals but were disturbed by the leftward turn of what then purported to be liberalism. The term “conservative” had too many negative connotations for the future Jewish neoconservatives, and at first they shied away from applying it to themselves. Conservatives, they believed, belonged to country clubs, disliked blacks and immigrants, and came from the Protestant hinterland. They were not likely to be found on the Lower East Side, in the East Bronx, or on the west side of Chicago. In fact, the first use of the word “neoconservative” was not by any neoconservative but by the socialist Michael Harrington, and he used it an invidious manner. It would take several years before Jewish neconservatives would be comfortable being grouped under the conservative rubric, and some would continue to deny that they were ever conservatives, neo or any other variety. Thus, in 1979 Irving Kristol could publish an article titled “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed–Perhaps, the Only–`Neoconservative.'”(6)

The historian Richard H. King described neoconservatism as “less a new ideological departure than a hardening of mood within the liberal consensus.” Initially, at least, the neoconservatives saw themselves not as conservatives but as liberals disenchanted with the radical poisons which had been infecting liberalism beginning in the 1960s. As Kristol noted, the neoconservatives merely wished “to return to the original sources of liberal vision and liberal energy so as to correct the warped version of liberalism that is today’s orthodoxy.” His famous description of a neoconservative as “a liberal who had been mugged by reality” accurately captured the mood of the neoconservative pioneers. The neoconservatives praised the liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman for providing a modicum of economic security for the poor and lower middle class, for opening up American society to racial and ethnic minorities, including Jews, for aiding England prior to America’s entry into World War II, and for supporting the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. By contrast, they identified the later-day liberalism of George McGovern and Jesse Jackson with ethnic and racial quotas, radical economic and social planning, and isolationism. The liberalism that brought Jews “into modernity, that gave us our freedom as individuals and tolerated us as Jews,” the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote in 1980, “has been replaced by a new liberalism that is inhospitable to us both as individuals and as Jews. We may conclude that a quite different philosophy is required if we are to survive in the modern world, survive as individuals and survive as Jews.” But even she was unwilling at this time to describe herself as a conservative.(7)

It was this liberal provenance of neoconservatism which was responsible, more than anything else, for the doubts of traditionalist conservatives regarding their new allies. Neoconservatism appeared to the traditionalists to be a schism of the Left, not an authentic variety of conservatism, and they suspected that the neoconservatives remained unreconstructed social democrats. The embittered paleo historian Paul Gottfried, for example, claimed that the hearts of the neoconservatives “are with the Left even if their expense accounts come from the Right.” They “have never made a secret of their fear and loathing of that part of the Right which they cannot reshape or convert to their views.” Thomas Fleming, the editor of the paleo magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, called the neoconservatives “well- groomed lap dogs who bark but never bite.” The conservative historian George H. Nash put it more delicately. He described neoconservatism as “rightwing liberalism.”(8)

The traditionalists had a point. As former liberals, the neoconservatives lacked that reverence for the past and the contempt for “progress” which had characterized conservatism for two centuries. Kristol noted that neoconservatism, in contrast to other variants of conservatism, was “resolutely free of nostalgia.” The neocons did not distrust modernity, but welcomed it. They did not share the traditionalists’ misgivings regarding capitalism, democracy, and the bourgeois social order. Nor did they long for that premodern social order revered by Edmund Burke and the other pioneers of conservative thought, a world which had ostracized Jews to the fringes of society.(9)

The modernity which Kristol and the other neoconservatives praised was abhorred by the traditionalists. Modernity meant secularism, materialism, individualism, and faith in technological progress, and it was hardly something which conservatives should celebrate. George A. Panichas, editor of the traditionalist journal Modern Age, noted that the crisis brought on by modernity “is an inclusive one. Its power and scourge are such that even those movements that seek to defend the sanctities of tradition and the values of order find themselves increasingly beleaguered.” The theology of conservatism, Panichas avowed, was being sacrificed “to the new morality of modernity” under the assault of neoconservatism, a “tinsel, opportunistic, and hedonistic conservatism.” This spurious conservatism was “unable to affirm the standards and certitudes that must be resolutely affirmed if an authentic ethos-centered conservatism is to survive.” The neoconservatives, with their policy reviews and policy studies, Panichas asserted, “lack a basic apprehension of the `permanent things’ and are responsive to the empirical ambitions that reflect the tastes and power-drives of a technologico-Benthamite world.” Their brand of conservatism “belongs almost exclusively to the world and is impervious to the primacy of God as the measure of the soul.” To confront the curse of modernity, Panichas said, there was “need of an unconditional conservatism, lean, ascetical, disciplined, prophetic, unswerving in its censorial task, strenuous in its mission, strong in its faith, faithful in its dogma, pure in its metaphysic.”(10)

Panichas’s statement reveals the deep religious strain within traditionalist conservatism. Traditionalists believed that conservatism was a product of Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism. While not all of the traditionalists were personally religious, they were invariably

deeply respectful of orthodox Christianity. In attacking liberalism, they frequently referred to it as “secular liberalism.” Jewish neoconservatives, by contrast, praised secularism, pragmatism, and the experimental method, and they were unsympathetic to the traditionalists’ enthusiasm for religion in general and for Christianity in particular. The neoconservatives were familiar with the church’s history of anti-Semitism, and they realized that Jewish emancipation would never have taken place without the secularization of European society.

While the Jewish neconservatives were interested in the phenomenon of religion and recognized its social utility, they were generally not religiously observant themselves, and they wondered what role Jews would have in a country in which Christianity played a larger role or in a conservative movement redolent of Christianity. They feared that the traditionalist talk abut religion could be an entering wedge for the Christianization of America and of the conservative movement. Nor, by and large, were neconservatives initially concerned with the moral issues which disturbed traditionalists, such as abortion and homosexuality. They were troubled by Pat Buchanan’s call in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention for a cultural war to retake American culture from feminists, homosexuals, and secularists, and by the proposal of the conservative religious magazine First Things in 1996 that the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of abortion must be ignored. For the neoconservatives, this was too suggestive of the intolerant religious impulses which had brought so much grief to Jews in the past.

The traditionalists, in turn, believed that the neoconservatives, as modernists and utilitarians, had little sense of a transcendent moral and religious order. While the traditionalists talked about right and wrong, the neoconservatives talked about good and bad. If the traditionalists provided conservatism with its philosophic and religious core, the neoconservatives provided it with answers to contemporary social and economic problems. Public Interest published articles by sociologists and economists pointing out the failures of liberal social planning and refuting liberal social and economic nostrums, but it did not publish essays demonstrating the erroneous philosophical and theological premises of liberalism itself. Contemporary liberalism was wrong not because it was philosophically flawed but because its proposals did not work and harmed their supposed beneficiaries. Thus the neoconservatives showed how welfare increased dependency, rent control laws diminished the housing stock, and sex education in the schools increased promiscuity. But, in contrast to the traditionalists, they did not consider whether the scope of government should extend to welfare and housing in the first place, or whether education should be freed from government control and left to private institutions such as the family and religious bodies.

Nathan Glazer claimed that the differences between neoconservatives and liberals “do not have anything to do with deep underlying philosophical positions. They have to do with fact and common sense. Very often the people we disagree with, or who disagree with us, don’t seem to have the facts.” The same could not be said regarding neoconservatives and their traditionalist foes. The traditionalists’ objection to neoconservatism was, in fact, over “deep underlying philosophical positions,” and not over whose facts were correct.(11)

The neoconservatives, by and large, were economists and sociologists immersed in the latest findings of the social scientists, and the factual orientation mentioned by Glazer came naturally to them. Alan Wolfe, a leftist observer of the conservative scene, shared the traditionalists’ distrust of the social science orientation of the neocons, and for the same reason. He claimed that while the neconservatives “have had enormous impact on economics and law, in which technical agility tends to be favored over speculative thought,” they have been less successful in dealing with the more speculative and important questions of morality and society or in explaining the moral and policy implications of their work. “Abstract microtheorizing … has limits as a public philosophy.” While some conservative academics will be attracted to the rigor and logic of hard, tough-minded, empirical conservatism, Wolfe predicted, others will be turned off. “Since conservatism has historically been a moral philosophy, opposed to the pragmatism of empirical analysis, the inability of right-wing model-builders to transcend their own methods is both a paradox and a serious handicap.”(12)

The traditionalists were less indebted to the social sciences than the neoconservatives, and had been more influenced by philosophy, history, theology, and literature. As a result, they tended to talk abut principles, eternal verities, moral certitudes, and the ultimate ends of life and to disdain the neoconservatives as tinkerers and utilitarians. “Deficient in historical understanding and familiarity with humane letters,” Russell Kirk wrote, “most of the Neoconservatives lack those long views and that apprehension of the human condition which form a footing for successful statecraft. Often clever these Neoconservatives; seldom wise.” Melvin E. Bradford, a professor of English at the University of Dallas and a disciple of Donald Davidson and Richard Weaver, agreed. Conservatism, he said, was “more than opportunism, pop sociology, and a series of position papers.”(13)

Even if liberalism “worked” and increased the gross national product and raised people out of poverty, the traditionalists argued, it was still wrong because it undermined moral principles and debased American society. From their perspective, the goal of the neoconservatives was to purge liberalism of its excesses and to dominate the conservative movement by pushing it to the left. Clyde Wilson, a paleoconservative historian at the University of South Carolina and an authority on John C. Calhoun, complained in 1986 that traditionalists were being pushed aside to make room for neoconservative Johnnies-come-lately. “The offensives of radicalism have driven vast herds of liberals across the border into our territories. These refugees now speak in our name, but the language they speak is the same one they always spoke. We have grown familiar with it, have learned to tolerate it, but it is tolerable only by contrast to the harsh syllables of the barbarians over the border. It contains no words for the things that we value. Our estate has been taken over by an impostor, just as we were about to inherit.” Conservatives, Wilson concluded, must “not to be taken in by any interloper, no matter how plausible, finely turned out, and full of seductive promises.” Mel Bradford agreed. “Our first priority is to refuse firmly and vigorously to surrender our hard-won identity to those who would use it as a cloak for policies contrary to what we intend. Lines of demarcation must be drawn, and swiftly.” Pat Buchanan also urged fellow conservatives to defend their movement from this invasion of neoconservatives, “the ex-liberals, socialists, and Trotskyists who signed on in the name of anti-communism and now control our foundations and set the limits of permissible dissent.”(14)

In the eyes of traditionalists such as Wilson, Bradford, and Buchanan, the neoconservatives were the catbirds of the conservative movement, hatching the conservative eggs which had been laid by the traditionalists during their many years in the political wilderness. Now that the conservative time had come, the neoconservatives were seeking to seize the center stage. For Russell Kirk the neoconservatives were overly ambitious and impatient to push aside the conservative elders. They were eager for “power, skillful at intrigue, ready to exclude from office any persons who might not be counted upon as faithful to the Neoconservative ideology. Often, backstairs, they have seemed more eager to frustrate their allies than to confute those presumptive adversaries, the liberals and radicals.”(15)

Paul Gottfried was the most indignant of all the traditionalists over this supposed neoconservative seizure of the conservative legacy. He blamed a neoconservative conspiracy headed by Irving Kristol for his failure to receive an appointment in Catholic University’s history department after he resigned as a senior editor of the magazine The World and I. In his book The Conservative Movement, Gottfried vented his rage at the neoconservatives. They were, he charged, “ideologically motivated pursuers of power. The neoconservative accomplishment was an exercise not in Platonic meditation, but in the accumulation of power through the use of money and intimidation.” Gottfried was particularly bitter that the neoconservatives now controlled the great conservative foundations and only dispensed funds to their ideological compatriots, ignoring the paleos who were left with crumbs. “The concentration of power and money within its neoconservative wing, together with savage reprisals against suspected heretics,” Gottfried warned, “has not brought a conservative peace.”(16)

The traditionalists also accused the neoconservatives of being social democrats who posed as conservatives. The neoconservatives did not disguise the fact that they did not share the paleos’ ideological abhorrence of the welfare state, labor unions, and the government in Washington. If the traditionalists believed the welfare state was philosophically wrong, the neoconservatives believed its modern incarnation in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was too bureaucratic and unworkable. Instead of stressing the welfare state’s threat to liberty, they emphasized the perverse unintended consequences of welfare programs. Kristol noted that the neoconservatives did not wish to dismantle the welfare state but merely to make it less statist and paternalistic, to provide “the social and economic security a modern citizenry demands while minimizing governmental intrusion into individual liberties.” Kristol and other neoconservatives favored what traditionalists believed to be a contradiction in terms–a conservative welfare state. Such talk was anathema to the traditionalists. They were convinced that, despite their obeisance toward conservatism, the neoconservatives were leftists who had no serious quarrel with income redistribution, egalitarian social legislation, and centralized government. Gottfried called them “welfare state ideologues,” while Kirk noted that their creed “is no better than a latter-day Utilitarianism.(17)

For the paleo columnist Samuel Francis, the neoconservatives were worse than utilitarians. They were, rather, proponents of the modern managerial state and were being used by the American political and economic elite to consolidate its power. Influenced by twentieth-century European social theorists such as Mosca and Pareto, Francis argued that the historic role of the neoconservatives had been to disarm potential critics of the elite by co-opting the militant activists of the Right and by convincing intellectuals of the Left of the soundness of the managerial system. “Moderation, gradualism, empiricism, pragmatism, centrism became the watchwords of neoconservatism,” Francis contended, “whereby confrontation with the fundamental mechanisms and tendencies of the managerial system and fundamental changes suggested by either the Right or the Left were avoided.” This neoconservative ideological thrust was not disinterested. The managerial regime which the neoconservatives legitimized and rationalized provided them with “the social force to which they belong with its social functions and power.” Thanks to the neoconservatives, hegemonic liberalism was stronger than ever. The neoconservative goal had never been to challenge liberalism “but simply to make it work more efficiently than it did in the 1960s and 1970s.” From Francis’ perspective, the neoconservatives were the quislings of American conservatism.(18)

Traditionalist conservatives also objected to the neoconservative espousal of an activist foreign policy designed to spread American principles around the world. They were particularly opposed to the National Endowment for Democracy, a pet neoconservative project. The neocons were hardline anti-Communists, and some believed the United States should encourage a global democratic revolution in opposition to Communism. This anti-Communism had been shaped by the intense struggle within the American Left between Communists and their fellow travelers and democratic socialists. While the traditionalists believed the major conflict in the modern world was between naturalism and religion, the neoconservatives believed it to be between tyranny and freedom. For the traditionalists, Communism was the enemy of religion and tradition; for the neoconservatives it was the foe of liberty and democracy.

To the paleos, this neoconservative clamor for a global democratic revolution was reminiscent of Leon Trotsky’s call for a worldwide Communist revolution. Paul Gottfried accused the neoconservatives of seeking “a worldwide, secular, politically egalitarian society with a mixed economy” accompanied by land reform, democratic elections, unionization, and economic modernization. The neoconservatives, the paleos charged, wished to make the world over in the American image. William Kauffman, a conservative sympathetic to libertarianism, was equally opposed to this neoconservative foreign agenda. “Today, under neoconservative sway,” he said, “the American Right is the bastion of Rooseveltian globalism; of moralistic-militaristic crusades, a la Woodrow Wilson, to bring state capitalism to the Third World; of Kennedyesque eagerness to `pay any price, bear any burden’ in the defense of regional powers like Japan and West Germany.” The conservative historian John Lukacs agreed. “Our conservatives,” he wrote, “are not conservatives but global ideologues. What is Good for America is Good for the World. Indeed, America Must Rule the Heavens, no matter what the cost.”(19)

This traditionalist skepticism regarding international involvements included American Middle East policy. In contrast to the neoconservatives, the paleos did not have an instinctive empathy for Zionism and Israel. They viewed the Jewish state simply as another foreign country with its own distinctive interests, interests which frequently conflicted with those of the United States. Nor did they believe American Middle East policy should be based on such a flimsy ideological consideration as the fact that Israel was a western democratic state. The paleos criticized the reflexive support of Norman Podhoretz and other neoconservatives for Israel, and they believed it exemplified the neoconservative tendency to encourage a fanciful democratic globalism rather than true national interests. In a frequently quoted statement, Russell Kirk complained that frequently “it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” Midge Decter, the wife of Podhoretz, was furious at this charge, claiming that it echoed the old anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty.(20)

The paleo critique of interventionist foreign policy came to a head in 1999 with the publication of Patrick J. Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny. This book was published by Regnery, a conservative publisher which had brought out many books by prominent paleos, including the American edition of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Buchanan’s volume defended the noninterventionist “fortress America,” America First type of thinking popular prior to World War II. (In a previous book he had made the case for a protectionist economic policy.) There was little in A Republic, Not an Empire that surprised those familiar with Buchanan’s view of foreign policy. Since the 1980s he had attacked the global democracy and Pax Americana espoused by some neoconservatives. It is folly, Buchanan wrote, “to think that we can convert all nations to U.S.-style democracy or should squander the public treasury in so witless an enterprise.” Such thinking was a “prescription for endless wars and eventual disaster … and great wars are the death of republics.” Buchanan here was echoing what students of diplomacy and military affairs, including the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, and paleo intellectuals such as Paul Gottfried had been warning against for decades.(21)

The most controversial part of Buchanan’s volume concerned his critique of American foreign policy prior to December 7, 1941. He claimed that American national interests would have been better served had the country remained neutral rather than forging an entente with England to defeat Nazi Germany. Buchanan was not the first person to broach such a seemingly heretical idea. Indeed, the eminent historian Charles A. Beard had made precisely this point in two polemical books analyzing Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy, and after the war a small group of conservative and radical historians had continued to make the case for a noninterventionist foreign policy. These historians, however, were unknown to most Americans and had little impact on public opinion. Buchanan’s critique of Roosevelt’s diplomacy was different. Buchanan, a seemingly perennial candidate for president, had been a controversial figure in American politics for two decades, and A Republic, Not an Empire laid out the foreign policy rationale for his latest run for the presidency. In questioning the wisdom of American diplomacy of the 1930s, Buchanan unwisely challenged one of the most deeply held beliefs of the American public–the rightness and necessity of American involvement in World War II. Movies, novels, histories, and personal memories of the conflict had argued that the war was, in the title of Studs Terkel’s book, “the good war.” The growing impact of the Holocaust on the thinking of Americans in general and Jews in particular was particularly influential in this definition of the war as a righteous struggle against a totalitarian and genocidal Nazi ideology.(22)

This argument over foreign policy was part of a broader debate between the paleos and the neocons over the nature of America. The traditionalists argued that American culture was already in place prior to the great social and economic transformations brought on by the immigration, industrialization, and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “So long as this was fundamentally an Anglo-American country with Anglo-American culture, language, and heroes,” Thomas Fleming said, “we knew who we were as a nation, whatever our individual backgrounds were.” The paleos denied that America was an experiment, the results of which were still up in the air. Their view toward immigration was reflected in the title of a collection of essays, Immigration and the American Identity, which originally appeared in Chronicles. The use of “the” rather than “an” reflected the traditionalists’ essentialist view of America. America, Fleming asserted, has “its own history, its own particular set of virtues and vices, its own special institutions.” Samuel Francis agreed. “Americans who wish to preserve the historic America will have to insist “on the greatness of who they are, where they come from, and what they have achieved.”(23)

For the Jewish neoconservatives, children and grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern Europe, this was far too narrow a view of American culture. They emphasized the pluralism and openness of America and claimed that Americanness was less a matter of biological descent and European culture than of civic values and political ideology. Just as the neoconservatives stressed the ideological content of American diplomacy and asserted that American political ideology had well-nigh universal applicability, so they underscored the plastic character of American identity. Anyone was potentially a good American just as long as he or she affirmed the fundamental American political precepts of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Gettysburg Address. The neoconservatives, the traditionalists responded, exaggerated the appeal of American political principles to the rest of the world, and they underestimated the powerful hold which culture has, or should have, on its citizens.

This disagreement over American nationality was reflected in the quarrel between the neoconservatives and the traditionalists over immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The neoconservatives welcomed this immigration, believing that the immigrants were ambitious, socially conservative, and freedom loving. Commentary published several articles which argued that the danger from large-scale Third World immigration to the United States came not from the immigrants themselves or from the culture they brought with them but from the impact on the immigrants of an ideology of victimization and ethnic favoritism emanating from a native liberal elite. The paleos, by contrast, did not oppose immigration from Europe, particularly from Western Europe. But they were dubious about immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, claiming they were cultural aliens. The experience of Los Angeles and South Florida suggested that the immigrants would not assimilate, and parts of America would come to resemble the Third World. For the paleos, the important consideration was not whether immigration from the Third World would result in a higher gross national product but how it would impact the nation’s culture, language, religion, literature, art, and politics. Clyde Wilson feared that traditional American culture was being overwhelmed by this immigration. “We have not lost control of our borders,” he argued. “Rather in a sense we have lost control of our land.” The neconservatives failed to grasp the effect that this immigration had on “traditional and consensual values.” We were bequeathing to our descendants “a society intolerably lacking in moral, religious, political and cultural cohesion.” It was not important that these immigrants could quote the Declaration of Independence. Their values were not our values, and their culture was not our culture.(24)

In a perceptive 1988 essay in Commentary, Dan Himmelfarb, the managing editor of Public Interest, stressed that the traditionalists and the neoconservatives were heirs to two different intellectual legacies. The paleos were in the tradition of European conservatism, which emphasized religious belief and social hierarchy. The leading figures of this strain of conservatism included St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, and Thomas Carlyle. The neocons, by contrast, were in the classic liberal tradition, and favored free markets, democracy, individual rights, cultural and religious pluralism, and equality of opportunity. Himmelfarb questioned whether the neoconservatives were conservatives at all. They were viewed as conservative only because liberalism had moved so far to the left. A better name for them would be “paleoliberals.” Himmelfarb was also skeptical that the traditionalists were truly conservatives because they had so little affection for historic American institutions and so little connection with traditional American values and principles. Himmelfarb concluded that the true conservatives were, in fact, the neocons since they, and not the paleos, wished to preserve that which is authentically American, its heritage of liberal democracy. “Indeed,” Himmelfarb said, “it might with some justification be argued that it is neoconservatism, and not paleoconservatism, that is both genuinely America and genuinely conservative.”(25)

Himmelfarb’s conclusion was typical of the widespread belief during the 1980s, both within and outside the conservative movement, that the gulf between the neoconservatives and the traditionalists was virtually unbridgeable. And yet despite the animadversions of paleos such as Paul Gottfried, the things which divided the neocons and paleos were far less important than that which united them. Midge Decter, a pioneering neconservative, was an early and eloquent critic of the feminist and gay movements, while Commentary and the Public Interest during the past three decades have published articles defending traditional conservative verities. Despite his claim that the essence of neoconservatism is the defense of bourgeois democracy, Irving Kristol, the so-called Godfather of Neoconservatism, has always sounded like a traditionalist. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between neoconservatives and traditionalists since erstwhile neoconservatives now sprinkle their language with words such as “civil order,” “authority,” and “tradition.”

Two leading neoconservative intellectuals have acknowledged recently that there are no longer any significant differences between the neoconservatives who write for Commentary and the more traditionalist conservatives who publish in National Review. Beginning in the 1970s, Irving Kristol wrote in 1995, “there was a gradual convergence of conservative activist and neoconservative critics so that, though the accents differ even to this day, there is more comity than friction.” The next year Norman Podhoretz argued in a Commentary essay that neoconservatism no longer existed as a distinctive phenomenon. Titled “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” Podhoretz’s piece claimed that neoconservatism was now part and parcel of the conservative movement, and it had no need for any prefix. With the former neoconservatives having given up on the welfare state, and with other conservatives having adopted much of neoconservative thinking, Podhoretz said, there was little now to distinguish the neocons from their former traditionalist adversaries. The conservative work which remained “will be marked and guided and shaped by the legacy neoconservatism has left behind. That legacy has wrought a profound change in the scope and the character and the ethos of American conservatism.” Neoconservatives could take satisfaction in “a just war well fought, and a time for rejoicing in a series of victories that cleared the way and set the stage for other victories in the years to come.”(26)

If some neocons and paleos still quarrel, this attests to the phenomenon frequently noted by sociologists that as differences between people narrow, the remaining differences assume much more importance. There was always something artificial about the neoconservative-paleo rift since both groups agreed on the most fundamental of conservative principles. As Robert Nisbet, the eminent conservative sociologist, noted, “If there is one identifying element of the conservatism that began with Burke in the late eighteenth century, it is opposition to the extension of political power into the social order.” The origins of conservatism date from the protests of Edmund Burke and the French opponents of the French Revolution against this aggrandizement of public power at the expense of the private sector, and this defense of the family, private associations, and local social and political institutions has remained the distinguishing feature of conservatism. Whether the contemporary resistance to the intrusive modern state was derived from philosophical-historical sources (paleos) or from the social sciences (neocons) was less important than the common opposition to the intrusive state.(27)

Strife within the conservative movement is nothing new. During the 1960s there was an often contentious debate between traditionalists and libertarians. This never got out of hand because both groups had a common enemy, the collectivists on the Left. An emphasis on fusionism, espoused particularly by Frank S. Meyer, one of the founding senior editors of National Review, enabled conservatives to mute their programmatic differences. As John P. East, the political scientist and future United States Senator, noted at that time, “If traditionalists and libertarians agree on the crucial matters of individualism and anti-collectivism … then optimism concerning a viable and effective conservative movement is warranted. Of course, there will remain areas of troublesome conflict triggered by extreme posturings from various quarters, yet the petulance of a few need not be allowed to abort the task of forging a conservative vital center.”(28)

A new version of conservative fusionism occurred in the 1990s, only in this case the participants were the neoconservatives and the traditionalists. An excellent example of this new fusionism was David Frum’s 1994 book, Dead Right. Frum, a neocon, argued that there was no inherent conflict between the neoconservative emphasis on free markets and the traditionalist emphasis on traditional virtues. He also argued that the internal conservative dissension over issues such as immigration, feminism, and race diverted attention away from what should be the major conservative target–big government. Big government was the common enemy of all conservatives, whether they be libertarians, neoconservatives, or traditionalists. Big government’s interventionist policies undermined economic growth, and its welfare programs threatened economic freedom and weakened self-reliance, thrift, prudence, and orderliness. The expansion of government beginning in the 1960s, Frum avowed, was accompanied by ethnic conflict, higher rates of drug usage, crime, family dissolution, illegitimacy, and lower educational standards, particularly among the poor. This was because the modern welfare state has emancipated “the individual appetite from the restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastrophe.”(29)

All true conservatives have supported political decentralization, the ownership of property, and the prerogatives of religion, the family, the private corporation, and the neighborhood. In defending society against the encroachments of the modern leviathan state, neoconservatives and traditionalists have followed in the footsteps of the greatest of all conservative commentators on American culture. In Democracy in America, published over a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed both fear and admiration for American democracy. He worried that democracy resulted in standardization and egalitarianism. In a democracy, he wrote, the passion for equality “is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible … [Democracies] will put up with poverty, servitude, and barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy.” But Tocqueville also believed that America could escape these democratic vices which had quickly spread throughout his native France. He noted the barriers in America to excessive political centralization–the nation’s numerous churches, powerful local governments, vigorous private economic life, an influential legal establishment, and, above all, the private organizations he called “associations.” As conservatives, neoconservatives and traditionalists alike are heirs to Tocqueville’s ambivalence regarding American democracy.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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