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Irving Kristol's Other Journey

Irving Kristol, who died on Friday at the age of 89, was often called the godfather of neoconservatism. And so he was, along with Norman Podhoretz, who has actually done far more to set the (foreign-policy focused) agenda and (insistently combative) tone of recent neocon thinking and writing. Kristol's impact was felt earlier, as he led a group of moderately liberal academics and intellectuals on a rightward migration across the political spectrum during the 1970 and '80s. It's an important story that's been told countless times. What's less often recognized is that while Kristol was growing more conservative he was also undergoing a different sort of transformation--from a dispassionate analyst of American politics and culture to a fully engaged advocate for a comprehensive political ideology. Lamentably, it is this change more than Kristol's gradual drift to the right that may have done more to shape the contemporary conservative mind.   

When Kristol and Daniel Bell co-founded The Public Interest in 1965, they did so as liberals. But their liberalism differed in one important respect from the outlook that motivated Lyndon Johnson's vision of a Great Society. While the early contributors to the journal shared the goals of their fellow liberals, they were skeptical of Great Society liberalism because it was an ideology. In the editorial announcing the first issue of The Public Interest (which can be read here), Bell and Kristol voiced concern about the tendency of ideologues to "insistently propose prefabricated interpretations of existing social realities--interpretations that bitterly resist all sensible revision." The Public Interest, they declared, would be "animated by a bias against all such prefabrications."

And it was, in issue after issue, as social scientists, political theorists, and experts in public policy crunched the numbers and analyzed the outcomes of Great Society liberalism in an effort to determine what worked, what didn't, and what might work better. The tone was consistently sober, pragmatic, moderate, urbane, ironic--in a word, dispassionate. The magazine's editors and authors were obviously motivated in large part by public spiritedness. But they believed that the most responsible way to contribute to the good of the nation was to restrain the urge to promulgate an ideology, which though it nearly always "seems to go deeper, point further, [and] aspire higher" in fact frequently inspires thinking that is marked by a "bland disregard for opposing fact" and a "smug self-assurance."

The measured tone persisted even as Kristol and his colleagues turned their critical attention to the impassioned radicalism of the New Left. In their early writings on the subject they avoided polemical denunciations of the illiberalism and anti-intellectualism they detected among some elements of the counterculture. Instead, they attempted to reflect carefully and cautiously on what was happening around them. In one of their most influential theories, they argued that when modern societies reach what Daniel Bell called a "post-industrial" level of development they tend to become increasingly dependent on a "new class" of highly skilled intellectuals, including scientists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, and other professionals. Since all societies are dominated by some elite, the rise of this new class was unremarkable aside from one troubling fact: intellectual elites differ from others in their tendency to adopt an adversarial, even subversive, relation to their own societies. As literary critic Lionel Trilling noted in an important essay of the mid-'60s that significantly shaped the political imagination of Kristol and the other early neocons, the modern intellectual stakes out and occupies "a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn . . . the culture that produced him." Using these concepts to analyze America in the early '70s, Kristol and his colleagues concluded that the tumult and turmoil of the time could be traced to the influence of a decadent and subversive elite.

Given how often Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and other right-wing populist rabble-rousers make coarser versions of the same argument today, it's important to note that Kristol and his colleagues initially refused to propose a political response to the rise of new class. Adopting Trilling's ambivalent stance toward the adversary culture of the intellectuals, Kristol explicitly rejected a "populist perspective" that portrayed new class elites as "usurp[ing] control of our media" and using "their strategic positions to launch an assault on our traditions and institutions." Such a simple-minded view was, for Kristol, "misleading and ultimately self-defeating." The rise of the new class and the adversary culture could not simply be willed or wished away, since they had emerged out of and had their roots in the extraordinarily complicated dynamics of modern, urban civilization itself. The appropriate response to recent troubling trends was thus careful study and reflection on the complexities of contemporary American life--not futile and destructive calls to stamp them out through political action.

But Kristol's moderation and detachment would soon come to an end. While some of his colleagues, like Bell and Nathan Glazer, continued to keep some distance from the political fray, Kristol and several regular contributors to The Public Interest grew increasingly frustrated with the political and cultural drift of the country during the late '70s and became tempted by the prospect of using political power and cultural influence to reverse it. They began to act, in other words, as a group of non-adversary "counter-intellectuals." (The term is Mark Lilla's.) Unlike (other) members of the new class, the neocons explicitly defended the virtues of capitalism, bourgeois morality and culture, the elimination of malfunctioning social programs, and a hawkish foreign policy.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 Kristol tasted genuine political power for the first time--and any lingering admiration for disinterested reflection on social and cultural complexity quickly vanished. By the mid-'80s, Kristol had repudiated his earlier aversion to populism and had even begun to endorse an explicitly religious culture for the United States. In an important essay from 1985, he acknowledged that political philosophers from Aristotle to the American founding fathers had assumed that populism was an example of "democracy at its least rational, its least sensible." Yet for Kristol the new populism of the religious right--the populism that had helped to catapult Reagan and a coterie of neocon advisers to power--was somehow different. Instead of arising from irrational passions and resentments, the populism of the early '80s was "not at all extreme"; it was merely an expression of the "common sense" of the American people against the "un-wisdom of their governing elites--whether elected, appointed, or (as with the media) self-appointed."

Two years later, Kristol would assert that defending the American way of life against foreign and domestic enemies required that citizens develop a "religious attachment" to their country. In future years he would go even further, to claim that modern conservatism should be based on a synthesis of religion, nationalism, and economic growth--and that Republicans should give up their resistance to the transformation of their party into an explicitly religious organization--all for the sake of banishing liberalism, now flatly described as the "enemy," from American political life.

There is, of course, nothing dishonorable about political engagement. But there are many ways to contribute to the public interest. Irving Kristol once believed that a public-spirited intellectual ought to keep a critical distance from ideological distortions of reality while bringing a touch of doubt and skepticism to political and cultural debates. But that outlook eventually gave way to a diametrically opposed vision of engagement--one in which an intellectual contributes to politics primarily by fashioning, manipulating, and promulgating an ideological program. That the latter, propagandistic vision of intellectual life prevails almost without exception on the contemporary right is a (depressing) sign that conservatives followed Irving Kristol's example in more ways than one.