Bill Kristol is one of America’s most famous neo-cons, but it is increasingly uncertain whether “neo-con” stands for neoconservative or neo-Confederate. As the political battle over the Confederate flag has heated up, Kristol has been curiously ambivalent. In theory he supports the removal of the flag from public buildings, but he has qualified this position with so many provisos about honoring the heritage of the slave South that it is not clear where his sympathies actually stand.
On The Weekly Standard’s podcast, Kristol confessed that he had “mixed feelings” about the issue. “There were admirable people … who led the Confederacy,” Kristol said on the podcast. “They were Americans.” Kristol went on to express fear of a “jihad” to impugn the memory of figures like General Robert E. Lee. And on Twitter, he fulminated:
Kristol’s tender feelings toward the memory of Lee, echoed in the New York Times by fellow neo-con David Brooks, is striking because historically neoconservatives have been suspicious of, and even hostile to, Southern traditionalism. American conservatism, like American culture as a whole, is divided along regional lines. Neoconservatism has largely been a Northeast affair (with a few stray seeds sprouting up in California, like the late sociologist James Q. Wilson). Whereas neoconservatives find their roots in Cold War liberalism (which exalted the national state) and Straussian political philosophy (which upholds Abraham Lincoln as a supreme American leader), Dixie conservatives are an outgrowth of the Southern Agrarian tradition, which prizes regional diversity.
As paleo-conservative scholars Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming noted in their 1988 book The Conservative Movement, neoconservatives tend to equate “the Southern agrarian point of view” with “anti-Semitism and rural reaction.” (Gottfried and Fleming add that these imputations are made “quite unfairly in most cases.”)
In the 1979 book Breaking Ranks, a volume in his unending sequence of memoirs, the formative neoconservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz carefully distinguished his politics from that of the Southern Agrarians whom he described as being nostalgic for “the South of the great plantations, the South of the old mansions, and, it is worth bearing in mind, the South of Negro slavery.” The political philosopher Allan Bloom, in his seminal Straussian polemic The Closing of the American Mind (1987), also expressed disgust for the Southern intellectual tradition, whose “hostility to ‘mass society’ with its technology, its money-grubbing way of life, egoistic individuals and concomitant destruction of community, organic and rooted, appealed to malcontents of all political colorations.” Writing in Commentary in 1985, Joseph Epstein expressed relief that “the Southern part of the United States has risen and shaken off its medieval torpor and, if you happen to have been black, cruelty.”
In the early days of the Reagan administration, Irving Kristol—neoconservative doyen and also father of Bill Kristol—put the kibosh on the move to appoint the Southern Agrarian scholar M.E. Bradford for a position at the National Endowment of the Humanities. Bradford, who once compared Lincoln to Lenin and Hitler, was a polarizing figure, much loved by Southern traditionalists but distrusted by neoconservatives. The behind the scenes battle between Irving Kristol and Bradford was one of the great inter-conservative squabbles of the last few decades.
Bill Kristol is aware this history of neoconservatives battling Southern traditionalists. He tries to play to both sides of the divide by describing himself in a tweet as “Lincoln-Grant-Sherman guy”:
This self-description is meant to shore up his links to the older neoconservative stance on Civil War history and counterbalance the praise Kristol elsewhere gives to Robert E. Lee. And yet both Kristol himself and the Weekly Standard as a whole are increasingly receptive to the ideas of Southern traditionalists and Confederate nostalgists. A 2013 Weekly Standard article by screenwriter Winston Groom heaped sarcastic scorn on the idea that responsibility for the Civil War rested “at the feet of a rabid mob of lash-wielding, daughter-raping, family-separating Southern slavers.”
Why has Bill Kristol abandoned neoconservatives’ historical hostility to Southern traditionalism and Confederate nostalgia? The answer seems to lie in electoral politics. In the same podcast where he expresses “mixed feelings” about the Confederate flag, Kristol warns that if Republicans shy away from Donald Trump, “a lot of his supporters will be unhappy.” Keeping the diminishing Republican coalition together seems to be a key priority for Kristol. As the Republican Party faces a difficult demographic terrain in national elections, Kristol seems to feel that fans of Robert E. Lee are too important a constituency to offend. Ultimately, for Kristol the 2016 election is more important than staying true to the ideas of his neoconservative forefathers.