Nervous Liberals

The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America's Politics

by Peter Steinfels
Simon and Schuster, 335 pp., $11.95


A genuine conservatism expresses a sense of crisis and imminent or actual loss. Its tone is perfectly caught in the opening lines of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where Hooker explains his purpose in writing: “Though for no other cause, yet for this, that posterity may know that we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream….” And, more stridently, in the gothic prose of Edmund Burke: “But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold…” etc.

Our own neoconservatives express a neo-sense of crisis and loss. Though they sometimes write in the gothic mode, they cannot approach Burke’s wholeheartedness. For they themselves stand in the ranks of the economists and calculators. They are committed to the arrangements and processes that cause the transformations they bewail. As Peter Steinfels writes in his excellent study of neoconservative thought, they live with a “basic dilemma”: “The institutions they wish to conserve are to no small extent the institutions that have made the task of conservation so necessary and so difficult.”

What is the nature of the “crisis” that American neoconservatives have been complaining about? Among the writers Steinfels considers, the crisis is differently described and with very different degrees of analytical rigor. I can only suggest a rough and quick summary. Steinfels provides a careful analysis, skeptical, but always true, I think, to the best of their arguments. The crisis is first of all a collapse of authority in governments, armies, universities, corporations, and churches. Old patterns of trust and deference have broken down. Political leaders, military officers, factory foremen cannot command obedience; professors cannot command respect. Alongside this is a radical loosening of social bonds in communities, neighborhoods, and families—perhaps best summed up in the common metaphor of “splitting.” Once only Protestant sects and radical political movements split. Now families split, couples split, individuals split. Splitting is the ordinary and casual way of breaking up and taking one’s leave, and leave-taking is one of the more remarkable freedoms of contemporary society.

Finally, there is a deep erosion of traditional values, not only deference and respect, but moderation, restraint, civility, work. All this makes for a pervasive sense of disintegration. It creates a world—so we are told—of liberal decadence, of rootless, mobile, ambitious men and women, free (mostly) from legal and social constraint, free too from any kind of stable intimacy, pursuing happiness, demanding instant satisfaction: a world of graceless hedonists.

This picture obviously depends upon implicit comparisons with some older and different social order and, as Steinfels makes clear, the precise historical reference points are rarely given. So the picture is crudely drawn, a disturbing combination of insight and hysteria. As expressed in the writings of Irving Kristol, Robert Nisbet, Aaron Wildavsky, Samuel Huntington, Daniel Moynihan, S.M. Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Bell—professors or former professors all—it has to my mind an…

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