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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 initial implausibility. It relies too heavily on the experience of the late Sixties and hardly at all on the experience of the late Seventies. The authority of presidents, in the aftermath of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Watergate, may still be precarious, and understandably so, but the authority of professors seems fully restored. That probably has more to do with the economy than with our own virtue or pedagogical success. Still, students have never in the past twenty years been as deferential as they are today. Conservatives are supposed to dwell happily in the past; the present is torment for them. Our neoconservatives dwell miserably in the past, reliving every undergraduate outrage; the present might be a relief.

But let us accept their vision, or at least take it seriously. That is Steinfels’s strategy, and it is surely right. These neoconservatives are eminent scholars and intellectuals; they are widely read (because they have interesting things to say); they have ready access to foundations and government agencies. Though they differ among themselves in ways I mostly won’t be able to explain in this review, they constitute a common and increasingly influential current of opinion. Steinfels claims that they have created at last that “serious and intelligent conservatism that America has lacked, and whose absence has been roundly lamented by the American Left.” Though the adjectives are right, the claim is dubious, for these writers, on Steinfels’s own reading, have not resolved the basic dilemma of conservative thought; nor are they genuinely committed to the world that is passing away. Still, their argument is worth pursuing. Even if we don’t experience the contemporary crisis with the intensity conveyed in their essays and books, we do after all have intimations of its reality.

It is odd, however, to represent that reality as the decline of liberal civilization. I would suggest instead that what we are living with today is the crisis of liberal triumph. Capitalism, the free market, governmental laissez-faire in religion and culture, the pursuit of happiness: all these make powerfully for hedonism and social disintegration. Or, in different words, they open the way for individual men and women to seek satisfaction wherever they can find it; they clear away the ancient barriers of political repression, economic scarcity, and social deference. But the effects of all this are revealed only gradually over decades, even centuries. Today, we are beginning to sense their full significance.

The foundation of any liberal society,” Bell has written, “is the willingness of all groups to compromise private ends for the public interest.” Surely that is wrong; at least, it is not what leading liberal theorists have told us. The root conviction of liberal thought is that the uninhibited pursuit of private ends (subject only to minimal legal controls) will produce the greatest good of the greatest number, and hence that every restraint on that pursuit is presumptively wrong. Individuals and groups compromise with one another, striking bargains, trying to increase or “maximize” private interest. But they don’t compromise for the sake of the public interest, because the public interest—until it was resurrected as The Public Interest—was not thought to be anything more than the sum of private interests. From this maximizing game, however, large numbers of men and women, the majority of men and virtually all women, were once excluded. They were too poor, too weak, too frightened. It is this exclusion, I suspect, which figures in neoconservative writing as the moderation and civility of times gone by. And what is called hedonism is in reality the end of that exclusion as a result, largely, of economic expansion, mass affluence, and a “liberating” politics which does little more than exploit the deepest meanings of laissez-faire.

Hedonism certainly isn’t new. One has only to think of America in the gilded age or in the 1920s. Nor is it newly cut loose, as neoconservative writers frequently suggest, from the Protestant ethic. If one wants to understand the consumption habits of earlier Americans, one would probably do better to read Veblen than Max Weber. But it is true, and important, that hedonism as a way of life is newly available outside the upper classes. More people pursue happiness, and they pursue it more aggressively, than ever before. Workers, blacks, women, homosexuals: everyone is running. Everyone’s entitled. It makes for a lot of jostling, but isn’t this the fulfillment of the liberal dream? No one reading Hobbes and Locke, and foreseeing the economic expansion of the years since they wrote, would be surprised. And yet how much we miss those old social gospel Christians, populist reformers, socialist agitators, who forgot themselves and pursued other people’s happiness! And how much our neoconservative colleagues miss all those men and women who never realized that they had a right to run!

What is true in the economy is also true in politics. “The effective operation of a democratic political system,” writes Samuel Huntington, “…requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups. In the past, every democracy has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not participated in politics.” This marginality, “inherently undemocratic,” is nonetheless one of the conditions of democratic success—or at least of governmental effectiveness. The argument might be put more baldly. In the past, government was able to respond effectively to the demands of the powerful and the well-organized, but it is threatened (and authority and civilization with it) when demand is universalized, when everyone gets into the political act. Yet liberal democracy tends toward universality of exactly that sort. What is to be done?

A similar story can be told about religious life. Laissez-faire in religion works wonderfully when it is a matter of creating a structure within which well-established creeds, with well-disciplined adherents, coexist. But as the established religions slowly fade away (in an atmosphere of radical disestablishment, hostile to institutional pretensions), they are replaced by a proliferation of sects and cults, and the stability of the general structure is strained. All sorts of people want to be saved, right now, and as there are many paths to the house of the Lord, so there are many hawkers selling maps. Contemporary sectarianism is simply the latest product of the market. Its leaders combine charisma and hustle, and one can read in their activities all the signs of entrepreneurial energy and, sometimes at least, of consumer satisfaction. Watching the Hare Krishna people on the streets of New York or Cambridge, I probably have feelings very similar to those of a seventeenth-century Puritan minister (the neoconservatives probably feel like Anglicans) listening to a Ranter or a Fifth-Monarchy man. But I still value religious freedom—as do the neoconservatives. And so again: what is to be done?


In an impressive sentence, Irving Kristol has written that bourgeois society lived for years off “the accumulated capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy”—capital it did not, as Steinfels emphasizes, effectively renew. The point can be generalized. Liberalism more largely, for all its achievements, or as a kind of necessary constraint on those achievements, has been parasitic not only on older values but also and more importantly on older institutions and communities. And these latter it has progressively undermined. For liberalism is above all a doctrine of liberation. It sets individuals loose from religious and ethnic communities, from guilds, parishes, neighborhoods. It abolishes all sorts of controls and agencies of control: ecclesiastical courts, cultural censorship, sumptuary laws, restraints on mobility, group pressure, family bonds. It creates free men and women, tied together only by their contracts—and ruled, when contracts fail, by a distant and powerful state. It generates a radical individualism and then a radical competition among self-seeking individuals.

What made liberalism endurable for all these years was the fact that the individualism it generated was always imperfect, tempered by older restraints and loyalties, by stable patterns of local, ethnic, religious, or class relationships. An untempered liberalism would be unendurable. That is the crisis the neoconservatives evoke: the triumph of liberalism over its historical restraints. And that is a triumph they both endorse and lament. A small illustration: Kristol writes angrily that in the contemporary world, “to see something on television is to feel entitled to it.” “He nowise hints,” Steinfels comments, “that this is exactly the reaction that someone has intended, in fact spent considerable sums of money to create.” Free men and women, without strong roots in indigenous cultures, are open to that sort of “creativity,” and liberalism by itself offers no protection against it. Do the neoconservatives propose to protect us? Though Kristol has urged the censorship of pornography—one more product of the free market—he has not, so far as I know, urged the censorship of advertising. Still, he is uneasy with the consequences of freedom.

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