The Big Idea


Irving Kristol saved the right from intellectual bankruptcy in the ’60s. Who will save it now?

The passing of Irving Kristol last month at the age of 89 coincided with the death, at a much younger age, of the intellectually serious conservatism he did so much to foster. As a liberal who was fond of both, I’ve been feeling the loss.

In the heyday of Kristol’s influence in the 1980s, Republicans styled themselves the party of ideas. Whatever you thought of those ideas—challenging Soviet power, cutting taxes, passing power back to the states, ending affirmative action, cutting off welfare benefits to the undeserving poor—they represented a genuine attempt to remodel government around a coherent vision. Today, as during the pre-conservative stage of Kristol’s career in the 1950s, the Republican Party takes itself much more lightly. It has fallen back upon what Lionel Trilling once called “irritable mental gestures“—crankily rejecting liberal attempts to come to grips with the country’s problems without offering any plausible alternatives. Since the last election, it has been the brain-dead home of tea parties, pro-life amendments, and climate-change denial.

Those on the right frustrated with the paltry politics of today’s GOP may find some inspiration looking back at Kristol’s best work, which was done in the late 1960s and 1970s, when he was hovering somewhere between left and right. With his friend Daniel Bell, Kristol in 1965 founded the Public Interest, one of the really important American political magazines, and went on to edit it for the next 40 years. The circle around the Public Interest—including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, and Nathan Glazer—was composed of liberals disturbed by the drift of then-regnant liberalism. Kristol and his colleagues accepted FDR’s New Deal as both a political reality and a minimum standard for an advanced society but worried that the 1960s drift toward value-free social policy was undermining it. They wanted to fix government, not break it further.

The Public Interest’s full archive has been digitized by National Affairs, a self-styled successor, and it’s a good place to ponder what a sophisticated challenge to dominant liberalism might look like today. A typical issue from 1967 includes a piece on the failure of Pruitt-Igoe, the notorious public housing project in St. Louis that was later dynamited. Another article argues that little progress had been made in the previous two decades in reducing poverty, defined in relation to median income. A series of essays asked whether LBJ’s attempt to apply cost-benefit analysis to federal programs would really result in more effective government. (It didn’t.) The magazine’s stance, rooted in empirical social science, was one of scholarly skepticism about whether liberal goals were attainable through Democratic programs.

As that skepticism deepened, the democratic socialist writer Michael Harrington dubbed the tendency neoconservatism. A brilliant publicist, Kristol claimed the slur as a badge of honor and sought to define it as a political philosophy. “Neo-conservatism is not at all hostile to the idea of the welfare state, but it is critical of the Great Society version of the welfare state,” Kristol wrote in Newsweek in 1976. His more famous formulation was that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged—sometimes softened with the grace note “by reality.” But the goal of the neoconservatives—who in those days were still principally focused on domestic rather than foreign policy—remained better government, more mindful of tradition, and respectful of the values of the people.

How did this prudent outlook devolve into the spectacle of ostensibly intelligent people cheering on Sarah Palin? Through the 1980s, the neoconservatives became more focused on political power and less interested in policy. They developed their own corrupting welfare state, doling out sinecures and patronage subsidized by the Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations. Alliances with the religious right skewed their perspective on a range of topics. They went a little crazy hating on liberals.

Over time, the two best qualities of the early neocons—their skepticism about government’s ability to transform societies and their rigorous empiricism—fell by the wayside. In later years, you might say Kristol and the neoconservatives got mugged by ideology. Actually, they were the muggers. “It becomes clear that, in our time, a non-ideological politics cannot survive the relentless onslaught of ideological politics,” Kristol wrote in 1980. “For better or for worse, ideology is now the vital element of organized political action.”

There was no clearer sign of that shift than the effort by Kristol’s son, William, to prevent any health care reform legislation from passing in 1993—on the theory that the political benefit would accrue to the Democrats. Today, that sort of Carthaginian politics has infected the entire congressional wing of the GOP, which equates problem-solving with treasonous collaboration. Though the president has tried to compromise with them in crafting the last missing piece of the social insurance puzzle, even allegedly moderate Republicans are not interested in making legislation more effective, less expensive, or in other ways more conservative. They are interested only in handing Obama a political defeat.

This is no good at all. Without a substantive challenge, liberals grow smug and lazy. They overreach and overspend. Conservatives need to return to civic responsibility, not just to check their opponents, but to offer the country a valid alternative. They need some new neoconservatives. They need the old Irving Kristol.