cover of American Neoconservatism

The Rise of the Power Intelligensia

American Neoconservatism: The Politics and Culture of a Reactionary Idealism; Jean-Francios Drolet

Book review by R. Alan Clanton | published Monday, September 23, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

The comedian Lewis Black tells a joke in which he offers up what he says is as good a definition as any for the term neoconservative: neoconservatives are the people who think the movie The Matrix is real. At his live performances the gag gets a hearty guffaw from those on the right and a belly-laugh from those on the left, because like any great humor, there is that delicious grain of truth to the satire no matter how absurd the imagery.

In the last decade or so, the term neoconservative has been used a lot, almost always as a quasi-pejorative phrase to label hawks—those foreign policy thinkers and wonks who were largely responsible for the rationales that led the U.S. into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—as over-reachers and unilateralists. Advocates of U.S. might and adherents of American exceptionalism, neoconservatives count among their contemporary roster the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and several others who served in key foreign policy positions in the administration of George W. Bush.

After campaigning for the presidency as a post-imperial, post-neocon candidate, Barack Obama—the conciliator and multilateralist—actually retained and even embraced many of the attributes generally credited to neo-conservative thought and practice, and his retention of strategists like General David Petreaus and others was widely seen as proof—for better or worse—of Obama’s not-so-secret kinship with neocon reality.

The problem, of course, is that the misuse and abuse of the term neo conservative—not to mention the general 30-year drift of the movement's ideological core—means that when writers, reporters and analysts refer to "neo conservatives," they are often incorrect, or, at the very least, sloppy in their longview of the movement and its applications in the current climate.

Bush era loyalists Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Rice have all been lifelong Republicans with little inclination toward liberalism on their resumes or in their records, and therefore do not meet the original definition of a neo conservative as Democrats or traditional liberals who made a migration of sorts away from fiscal liberalism or foreign policy doveism. This is why some heavyweight thinkers of the movement have suggested that the term be scrapped in favor of more specific identifiers, especially in the wide wake of recent Republican diversification on a variety of issues—both domestic and international.

A recent book by British writer, historian and lecturer Jean-Francois Drolet, American Neoconservatism: The Politics and Culture of a Reactionary Idealism (Columbia University Press), offers us a decidedly sharper, clearer definition of the neocon than Lewis Black’s darkly humorous explanation, and though its 200-plus pages are densely packed—not what you might call “light reading”—it is nevertheless an approachable and well-written handbook for the political junkie in search of a full understanding of the neocon lineage and tradition.

A brief warning to conservative and center-right readers of Thursday Review: taken as a whole, Drolet does not paint an overall flattering portrait of the neoconservative movement…but, many TR readers who define themselves as center-right may have measurable disagreements with neocon philosophy anyway, and this makes such a discussion certainly constructive for both contemporary liberals and conservatives. Indeed, for most Republicans and most conservatives of a certain generation—those, for instance, who owe their ideological compass to Ronald Reagan—no discussion of mainstream conservatism is possible without an understanding of the early neocons or their powerful intellectual influence on political thought on the right.

Though its history is complex, the deepest roots of the neoconservative movement sprang out of left-wing disillusionment with the policies and practices of Joseph Stalin during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Many of the earliest neocons (even before the term or its definition was established) were themselves former Trotskyists and leftist intellectuals disenfranchised from the utopian left and the socialists movements of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and a significant number of those emerged from the Jewish intellectual intelligentsia based in New York and the Catholic academic elite in the northeast. Their ranks included a diverse but powerful group of thinkers: Alfred Kazin, Seymour Martin Lipset, Midge Decter, Nathan Glazer, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, James Burnham and Irving Howe.

Later, by the middle 1950s and early 1960s, principal gurus of the movement included Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And though by the middle-to-late 1970s, Kristol would be considered the godfather of the academy, many neos traced much of their strongest influences to professor Leo Strauss. Strauss was a writer and philosopher who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1930s by way of teaching jobs in France and elsewhere. Two of his most influential books are Philosophy and Law, and later, after arrived in Chicago, Natural Right and History, which he wrote from a series of papers and lectures. Though the connection and the reasoning remains controversial to this day, Strauss’ works are considered the cornerstone to the intellectual reasoning which brought Podhoretz, Bell and especially Kristol to the center of conservative philosophical thought in the middle 1970s, and who themselves, many would argue, helped to reshape and shepherd the intellectual backstory of people like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, George H.W. Bush, Newt Gingrich and other politicians.

Drolet traces this movement carefully and thoroughly through the years. Drolet also illuminates how the early neocon movement was equally influential on Democrats and some liberals, most especially through the Americans for Democratic Action and the foreign policy positions of Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, social liberals who nonetheless were in general agreement over what they deemed unrealistic sentimentalist attachments to Marxist-Leninist thought at the height of the Cold War. Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a textbook example of such a Democrat influenced by early neocon strategic thinking, and later Democrats such as Georgia’s Sam Nunn and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman carried that tradition forward into the later years of the 20th Century. These Democrats, many of them liberal on certain social and domestic issues, deemed themselves realists on foreign policy issues especially in the context of Cold War struggles and tensions.

The value most shared between the neoconservatives and their kindred connections among some center-left and moderate Democrats—whose footprint was often referred to as “the Vital Center”—was a belief that in the Post World War II era, the economic and liberal democratic success of the United States must necessarily serve as the model for the rest of the world, especially in the framework of competition with a bankrupt communist model espoused and exported by the Soviet Union and its satellites. Among Democrats, this is what separated, for instance, the tempered realism of Hubert Humphrey from the more utopian visions of George McGovern. Among the principal players in the GOP, such a distinction could define the differences between Richard Nixon (a shrewd and conciliatory strategist willing to accept negotiation and diplomacy as a parallel track to hostile escalations) and the foreign policy formulations of Reagan in the middle 1970s, as Reagan became less overtly hawkish and more nuanced in his strategic thinking.

Though it is doubtful that most average Americans had heard of him (even among those who closely followed politics and Washington), Irving Kristol became hugely influential to the new Republican strategic thought, especially in the middle and late 1970s. Kristol became the Godfather of neocon intellectual progression, developing the theories and exporting them with great success into the mainstream of political conversation. And the argument can be made that without the ideas of Kristol, nor those of like-minded intellectuals such as James Burnham, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz and others, the dazzling success of Reagan would not have been possible.

Kristol—like many of his colleagues among the former leftists—became eloquent writers and vigorous debaters in American politics at the very moment when demographic changes and political shifts were in the wind. Podhoretz, Kristol, Bell, Glazer, Burnham and others became regular contributors to key right-wing journals and magazines, most notably National Review, then edited by William F. Buckley, Jr. and William Rusher. Columnist and opinion-maker George Will has often commented on this remarkable period of transition: Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 seemed, by almost all reasonable measures, to signal the demise of rightist thought in the established liberal American template. Yet within sixteen years the country would move sufficiently far enough toward the right that Ronald Reagan would win in a landslide in 1980, defeating an incumbent Democratic President. Was this the result entirely of demographic shifts and a burgeoning middle class? Or was there something more complex at work in the way that the fundamental debates were being framed?

Drolet traces this process carefully, looking closely and soberly at how the neoconservative element grew to become central to the intellectual and strategic processes of moderates and conservatives, especially within the GOP. Drolet also concentrates much of his analysis on international relations and the inevitable rebirth of American interventionism in the post-Vietnam era. Drolet’s book brings us up to date within the context of the military interventions of the George H.W. Bush years (notably Desert Storm) and the Bill Clinton years (Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia) and the War on Terror, which drew the U.S. into two major wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. Though Drolet spends precious little time examining the Clinton years and its multiple limited interventions, he discusses in great detail the neocon factors which lead the U.S. into military action after 9/11.

Of particular interest is the great split which developed between some conservatves at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crack-up of communism and Marxist-Leninist dictatorships around the world. Drolet explores those new factions within the neocons: some among their ranks, such as Podhoretz, Michael Novak and Charles Krauthammer, believe that the U.S. should exploit the global power vacuum and intervene more forcefully on the world stage to export American-style democracy and capitalism. Others take a more guarded, semi-isolationist approach, including Kristol, Glazer and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Drolet also closely examines social and domestic issues in the context of neocons who vigorously supported many of the centerpieces of civil rights legislation in the early-to-middle 1960s, but later grew dissatisfied as it became obvious that many government programs and state solutions were leading to unforeseen problems—the unintended negative results which in some cases translated into even deeper societal dysfunction, with more costly consequences to federal spending and taxpayer burdens.

Drolet’s book is not the first to examine this subject. Two books from the 1970s set the stage for much of what became the general operating template for conservative thought by the start of the Reagan years: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George N. Nash (1976); The Neo Conservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics, by Peter Steinfels (1979). These two books were deeply influential, and served as bookends of sorts for the period of greatest political transition for the swelling conservative movement. (If you are a political animal in search of a full understanding of contemporary politics, I recommend both of these books despite that they are probably out of print).*

Drolet’s book has the advantage of tightness and concision as it was developed over time through a series rewrites for his doctoral dissertation at Oxford. It is, therefore, scrupulously annotated and sourced with nearly 100 pages of notes. Despite the density and complexity of the subject, the book reads smoothly and quickly. It is, more importantly, a valuable tool for understanding the neoconservative movement and how it has shaped U.S. policy and political debate for the last 30 years.

*No further proof of my nerd bona fides is necessary beyond this fact: after seeing it promoted in National Review, and using hard-earned lawn-care money, I purchased a first edition of Nash's book at the tender age of 17 to add to my already substantial collection of political books.