Friday, May 9, 2008

Mugged by Reality: Neocons, Paleocons and other Cons

A former class mate jokingly asked me, “What is the difference between a Trotskyist and Stalinist?” I said “What?” He responded “Stalinists have power.” Granted it is not very funny, but leftists are rarely known for their sense of humor. Nevertheless, it does speak to a certain truth about the relationship between ideology and power. Ideologies are historical constructs, and contested ones at that. This is what makes them a slippery phenomenon. Moreover, ideological labels are often misleading, making them even more ambiguous. For political reasons, individuals may conceal their true ideological leanings, and their opponents may try to make their ideology a “bad word.” Ideologies are therefore products of conflict. Typically, they are born in opposition to an established order, compete with other oppositional ideologies, evolve as the order evolves, and then either fade into oblivion or become the “New Order.” American conservatism is no different and is the subject of this piece.

What is Conservatism?

That is a damn good question. European conservatism owes much to the legacy of Edmund Burke and the remnants of the ancien regime. In reaction to the excesses of the Jacobin period of the French Revolution, Burke argued that classical liberalism and the democratic impulse is best tempered by traditional forms of authority—aristocratic privilege, the church, and the patriarchal family rooted in community. Burke was not an advocate of feudalism, but he believed that these the remnants of feudal authority provided stability and counter-balanced the revolutionary aspects of liberalism and democracy. England’s constitutional monarchy and established church are examples of Burkean conservatism in action.

Needless to say, these traditional values garnered little sympathy in the United States. The American Revolution ended the rule of kings, did not establish a church, and the westward movement and steady flow of immigrants assured that the United States would be an evolving and multi-cultural country—and one not prone to Burkean conservatism. Louis Hartz, in the Liberal Tradition in America, argued that there is only one legitimate political tradition in the United States—Lockean liberalism. So much so that Americans are “irrational” liberals, liberalism is so naturalized that we fail to even recognize it.

So what is an American conservative to do? Historically, the buckets of American conservatism have drawn from three wells. The American tradition lacks a king, but it does have a constitution—and many conservatives hold the constitution up as the “King”—the mystical authority which knows all. The closest thing to King under the constitution is the executive, and therefore, conservatives have often placed a great deal of emphasis on the executive branch. Although the strict constitutionalist argument gets traction from time to time, the problem is that the constitution is a political document, making it an imperfect text, created by imperfect humans in a revolutionary moment. Moreover, the document is probably more liberal than conservative and is constantly evolving—therefore it doesn’t make a very good “traditional authority.” The second well has been a homegrown American elitism. John Adams made the case for the “natural aristocracy,” an elite few who rise because of birth, grace, skill or happenstance. Adams watered down Burkeanism rebuked “titles” but reflected a deep distrust of the leveling impulses of democracy. Not surprisingly, this weak brand of conservatism never had a broad of an appeal beyond elite sectors. The final well is racism, xenophobia, and sexism. The US was founded as a slave nation, a settler nation, and an immigrant nation—structuring racial, ethnic, and cultural antagonism into our social realty and making white supremacy, religious intolerance, and anti-immigrant sentiment almost constant features of our society. This latter well has proven to be more fruitful in mobilizing public opinion around tradition based conservatism. Simply identify the socio-cultural traits of an extant group as being “foreign” (too Catholic, Irish, Jewish, Black, Indian) and have at it. On this point, Hartz, as with many political analysts, too readily dismiss or ignore an unsavory aspect of American society and its relationship to political conservatism. According to Rogers Smith in Civic Ideals, the US legal code has been replete with ascriptive laws, suggesting a persistent (and ugly) anti-liberal tradition. When conservatism has been its most powerful, it has rested upon this xenophobic base.

Therefore, American conservatism has always struggled to cobble together a sustainable political coalition, which, in part, accounts for its factionalism. John Dean in Conservatives Without Conscience identifies 10 strains of conservatism in the current period. In the earlier twentieth century, conservatives were split not only among class, cultural, and regional lines, but along party lines—some voting Republican, some refighting the Civil War. In the 1950s, the potential for a workable coalition began to develop around opposition to the New Deal and Cold War anti-communism. Nevertheless, the cultural, class, regional, and party divisions remained. Which party would be the new conservative party? Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Barry Goldwater all tried to answer this question, but it would not be until the Reagan Revolution that conservatives would have their day (and their party).


The rise of Reaganism coincided with the rise of neoconservatism. The term neo-conservative, like so many ideological labels is a loaded one. One can take it to mean a “new conservative”—someone who had been something else but has moved into the conservative camp. In this respect, many rank and file Republicans fit the definition of “neocon”—they supported the liberal economic policies of the New Deal Order, until those policies seemed to fail and then they jumped ship. It can also mean a new type of conservatism, markedly different from the old. This latter point is much more contentious.

Paleoconservatives and other traditional conservatives claim that neo-conservatism is a foreign animal, imported by Trotskyists and liberals who changed conservatism from what it once was. Many liberals accept this. Robert Kennedy Jr., in his afterword of Barry Goldwater’s reissued Conscience of a Conservative, argues that today’s conservatives have perverted the goals of Goldwater conservatism. Liberal radio talk show hosts like Rhandi Rhodes are also amenable to distinguishing between “true” conservatives and neocons. How much justification there is for this distinction is highly debatable.

So what is neoconservatism? The consensus among both it critics and its adherents is that is “neo” translates into “new” in both the aforementioned ways. The godfather of neoconservatism is Irving Kristol. As a young man he was a Trotskyist, later a social democrat, then a liberal, and finally a conservative. According to Kristol, it took him half his life to realize he was “a conservative all along.”

The reasons for his move rightward are complex, but are relatively well documented in his work Neoconservatism: An Autobiography of an Ideal. Kristol was always a virulent opponent of Stalinized Communism and critical supporter of the Cold War because of it. In the 1940s, Kristol became frustrated with Marxism, primarily because he did not think that it “worked” as ideology. His primary reason for this was his experience as a Trotskyist and, later, in the military. What the Trotskyists were selling the working class was not buying, which raised questions about the working class’s ability to engage in the type of revolution that Marx predicted. His suspicion of the working class’s revolutionary potential was confirmed while he was in the Army, where he discovered that a lot of his working class compatriots were “thugs,” and he found the authority of the Army to be refreshing.

In the 1950s, Kristol became influenced by the writings of John Burnham and Friedrich Hayek. He saw the “managerial revolution,” the ascendency of the “New (middle-administrative) class” around him and it alarmed him. This development alone, however, wasn’t sufficient for him to completely break with the Left. The emergence of the “New Left” was. The Cultural rebellion of the 1960s, “free love,” drug culture, rejection of traditional cultural forms and mores, compelled Kristol to totally reevaluate his analysis of capitalism.

Kristol, heavily influenced by the writings of Leo Strauss, came to see capitalist democracy as the best system available for humanity. But, it was also an imperfect system, which tended to sow the seeds of its own destruction. In contrast to Marx, Kristol did not see the working class as the gravediggers of capitalism. According to Kristol, the working class is reflexively bourgeois because bourgeois society has allowed the working class to steadily improve its economic position. This was the brilliance of Keynesian liberalism and internationalism; it provided the solution to class struggle in the form of economic growth and material abundance. The problem group is the “New Class”—or at least the portion Kristol calls “intellectuals.” These folks work in “helping professions,” universities and the arts (as opposed being business managers or accountants). Although these folks are privileged, they feel no attachment to the system that grants these privileges, and thus are prone to criticism and forming political opposition.

For Kristol, the problem of the dissident intellectual traces its origins to the very nature of capitalism. Capitalist democracy has historically demonstrated its success to “deliver the goods.” But this materialist success is not sufficient. Enduring civilizations of the past have also satiated the spirit of the people. Typically, they have done this through religion. The raison d’être of a given society is a means to a greater (often otherworldly) end for the people. For capitalism, material abundance is means to an unknown end—thus the cultural malaise, ennui, decadence, and rebellion.

If the crisis of capitalism is primarily cultural and spiritual, then it calls for cultural and spiritual responses. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neoconservatives joined with traditional and cultural conservatives in opposition to the excesses of liberalism and the New Left in their call for a return to traditional (religious) values and for economic policies that would solve the economic crisis of the 1970s through economic growth. Kristol and other neoconservatives spared no ink attacking environmentalists, feminists, and multiculturalists—often red baiting them—as enemies of American democracy. They also developed very close relationships with neo-evangelicals and other social conservatives who criticized New Deal policies for their cultural effects (out of wedlock births, welfare dependency, family breakdown). And thus, the Reagan Revolution.

Paleocons, “True” Conservatives, and other Variants

One of the ironies of paleoconservatism is that it is newer than its neoconservative kin. The term neoconservatism was coined in the early 1970s by Michael Harrington, critiquing the move rightward of former leftists. Kristol accepted the label in 1979, on the eve of the Reagan Revolution. Paleoconservatism is a product of the late-1980s. Originally the term referred to southern agrarians, hard line Catholic anti-communists and older Republicans associated with William F. Buckley and the National Review. The term took on a new meaning after the end of the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall took away one of the uniting factors of the conservative coalition (anti-communism) and eight years of Reaganomics made conservatism the new ideology of power, raising questions about what “anti-statist conservatives” do with the state at their disposal.

Although there are number of key figures in the paleoconservative movement, few are better known than Pat Buchanan. Buchanan, a staunchly Catholic anti-communist, was political strategist for the Nixon Administration and helped to develop the social conservative revolt against the Democrats. An equally devout Cold Warrior, he was a firm supporter of the Reagan administration. Subsequently, he ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1992 and 1996. Although a lifelong Republican, he ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, doing abysmally (which probably helped Bush win), then rejoined the Republican Party.

Buchanan's paleoconservatism is distinguished by its strident criticism of neoconservatism. According to Buchanan, in Where the Right Went Wrong, neocons have “subverted” the Reagan revolution. They are “leftists” and Jews who are using conservatism to forward an agenda antithetical to actual conservatives. He is particularly critical of neoconservatives aggressive foreign policy organized around “democracy promotion,” their free trade policies, and their apparent tolerance of illegal immigration.

So what are the differences between paleocons and neo-cons? Let’s start with what is not different. Both neocons and paleocons claim Ronald Reagan; both are convinced that the radical Left has taken over the Democratic Party (I wish!); both are opposed to recent cultural changes including the tolerance of homosexuality, feminism, abortion, multiculturalism; both support “traditional” family values;, neither believe in “coddling” criminals and welfare moms; both are pro-capitalist and pro-corporate; both support a strong US military; and neither dispute the United States proper role is the preeminent economic and military power in the world. So what is the problem?

Historically, American politics have been characterized by ethnic, religious and regional conflict, so there is no reason to think that conservatism would be any different. Paleocons are dived regionally, between latter day southern partisans and northern social/cultural conservatives. Paleocons also tend to be xenophobes. As neocons are often Jewish, the ascendency of the neocons could prove that the World Jewish Conspiracy has finally seized the most powerful nation in the world. Additionally, many northern paleocons are Catholic, producing a nice little Catholic-Jewish rivalry. And finally, most theocons are protestant and side with the Jews rather than the Catholics (so much for not getting involved in internecine European religious conflicts). At least part of the problem can be explained by these differences.

There are some significant differences that go beyond ethno-religious-regional conflict. There are significant tactical differences between neocons and paleocons. Neocons believe that it is in the best interest of the United States to promote democracy overseas based on the theory that democracies (if properly run by pro-US elites) are the least likely forms of government to degenerate into totalitarianism and aggression. Therefore, if the United States has to be aggressive (and manipulative of its own people) to achieve that end, it is worth it. Paleocons, like Buchanan, disagree. They see democracy promotion, particularly among non-European peoples, as a fools errand for two reasons: first because it won’t work, some people simply aren’t up to the task of democracy and trying to impose democracy will only legitimize jihadism and other radical anti-American ideologies; secondly, because if it does work, there is a strong chance these democracies will produce anti-American governments. Both approaches are aggressively nationalistic, but express their nationalism differently.

Ironically, both neocons and paleocons look for inspiration from liberal Cold War foreign policy, they just draw different lessons. Palecons yearn for the day when supporting overseas dictatorships was considered acceptable, so long as the bastards were “our bastards.” Neocons are more sympathetic to Free Trade (IMF, World Bank) policies because they see it as a way to foster capitalist development overseas and also as a way to subsidize the lifestyle of working class Americans, muting potential class conflict. Paleocons oppose free trade because they see it as subsidizing the growth of potential enemies like China. Also, protectionism allows for a semi-autarchic economic structure which they see as the key to national power (I think it’s called “capitalism in one country”). Both are hostile to the UN, but for different reasons. Paleocons see it as a nascent World Government threatening to undermine American liberty, neocons see it as too weak to sufficiently aid the US in its foreign policy goals.

Domestically, there are also some significant differences. Paleocons are aficionados of the small government, anti-New Deal, rhetoric of the 1950s and 1960s. This is a popular theme among many conservatives because it serves many purposes. Racists see “Big government” as the originator of “forced integration,” intrusive civil rights laws, and similar evils which might produce miscegenation. Right Wing Libertarians see the “government as regulator” as the opening wedge of an anti-capitalist totalitarianism. Some paleocons rewrite the history of the Revolutionary Era, with the anti-Federalists winning, and proceed to argue that the Founders intended a states rights government (the constitution as King argument, even if it is the wrong constitution). Although neocons are were critical of the New Deal and Great Society policies for their social and cultural affects, they don’t have anything against “big government” per se. Kristol viewed the welfare state as a given—the task is not to abolish it, but to remold it in a conservative manner. Therefore, neocons have allies among paleocons in their calls to “defund the left,” but less so in their attempt to “fund the right” (although theocons take to it like Judas takes to pieces of silver).

Some of the more subtle differences are more tactical nature, but may reveal deeper differences of philosophy. Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives were self consciously trying to make conservatism an ideology capable of ruling—to “modernize” it. Kristol’s critique of Goldwater and other 1950s/60s conservatives was that their rhetoric was entirely negative—against the New Deal, against the Great Society, against integration, against communism. According to Kristol, what conservatives needed was an affirmative philosophy, one which was prepared for the responsibilities of power. The first step was accepting the things you cannot change--the existence of “big government.” David Stockman in The Triumph of Politics discussed how many free market ideologues learned the hard way that opposing “big government” was just a slogan for most conservatives and it’s a lot easier to be against government handouts to someone else’s district than your own. The second step was articulating a moral vision of capitalism. George Gilder helped to popularize Reaganomics by drawing connections between “free market” economics and moral behavior in his book Wealth and Poverty, forging a powerful political alliance between neocons and theocons.

Neocons view issue driven social conservatism as part of a larger strategy to maintain conservative hegemony, leaving them open to criticism from paleocons and other conservatives that don’t take issues like abortion, affirmative action, or immigration seriously. In many respects, it has to do with tactical priorities. Is overturning Roe v. Wade worth it if it undermines the prospect of a long term conservative majority? Is gutting a popular “big government” program like Social Security a politically sound idea if it causes a federal budget crisis? The neocon answer to these questions is “no” based on the theory that such fights would be bloodier than Fallujah and the risk is greater than the gain, whereas many other conservatives would say “that is why we elected you.”

Another interesting distinction between conservatives is made by John Dean. Dean divides conservatism into two camps—authoritarian conservatives (which includes neocons, paleocons, and theocons) and “true conservatives.” Dean defines true conservatives as those who look to the wisdom of the past for guidance and move forward with great caution and prudence. True conservatives are much more interested in encouraging individual freedom while retaining social order than using social and cultural mores to control people’s behavior. Dean sees this as the true legacy of Barry Goldwater. The conservative movement, however, was hijacked, not just by neocons, but also by the “mean spirited,” Gingrich social conservatives of the 1990s. The latter group (which also includes “mediacons” like Coulter and Limbaugh) has little respect for the institutions of government and were willing to lie, cheat, and engage in character assassination for political gain. (Note: Dean has a very interesting chapter on the relationship between authoritarian personalities and conservatism, essentially arguing that conservatives are much more likely to have authoritarian traits than leftists).

Whither Conservatism?

Trotskyists have had a hard road to hoe. Expelled from the only country they deemed a legitimate workers state, always criticized because they never led a successful revolution (what that is supposed to mean coming from a Stalinist, I never understood), and destined to exist in a self-imposed sectarian exile at the margins of the working class movement. In the US, “inverted” (Straussian) Trotskyism has risen from the ashes in the form of neoconservatism. In a strange way, neoconservatives use Marx to defeat Marxism—Marx called religion the opiate of the people because it diverted them from the immediate tasks of class struggle; therefore, neocons sell opium, not only in the form of religion, but high sounding rhetoric about democracy promotion and the moral virtues of capitalism. Now, internationalism means a worldwide American Empire, and the permanent revolution is a permanent conservative majority. In America, the internationalists won and the nationalistic paleocons suffer in internal exile—supporting the Reagan revolution, but not its fruits.

Irving Kristol once described neocons as liberals “mugged by reality.” We may be witnessing a similar mugging. The Republicans’ efforts to create a permanent conservative majority in a country which, historically, has a limited conservative tradition has required creating a conservative tradition where there is none; cobbling together of various political segments of society under the banner of “conservatism.” That this coalition has proven to be more unwieldy than anticipated should not be shocking given the nature of American politics, rife with ethnic, regional, and class conflicts. Many self-described conservatives are now faced with a significant level of “buyers remorse”—they bought into the anti-liberal rhetoric of Wallace, Reagan, Buchanan, Kristol, and many others, only to discover that they all they had in common was a label. Big government is still here, now it subsidizes big business, holds our schools hostage, starts ill-advised overseas wars, and seems hell bent to regulate more aspects of our life, including our moral decision making.

Winning over paleocons into a left-liberal coalition will probably be an exercise in futility. I don’t see Pat Buchanan or many of his cohorts jumping ship anytime soon. “True” conservatives of the Dean variety, are more hopeful, and I actually have some optimism on the theocon front, but is it sufficient? My hope lies less in intellectuals and pundits and more with average folks who bought into the Reagan revolution, remain Republican by default, but after watching their sons and jobs being shipped overseas and only getting higher gas prices in return, are in desperate need of an alternative.

According to most opinion polls, more American self-identify as conservative than liberal, testimony to the power of propaganda and the ability of the New Right to create a “conservative tradition” where such a tradition has been historically weak. However, if you look at issues, Americans are much more liberal than ideological labels reveal, which suggests that today’s conservatism has yet to develop deep roots—in fact, most Americans have been “liberals all along.” The challenge for a liberal-left coalition is to embrace the strong liberal tradition that exists in this country; marry it to issues of social justice, and to reach out to the disenchanted “man on the street conservatives” who have been mugged by reality.


Buchanan, P. (2004). Where the Right Went Wrong. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

Dean, J. (2006). Conservatives Without Conscience. New York: Penguin Group.

Drury, S. (1997). Leo Strauss and the American Right. New York: St. Martin's.

Gilder, G. (1993). Wealth and Poverty. Oakland, CA: ICS Press.

Hartz, L. (1955). The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Kennedy Jr., R. F. (2007). Afterword. In B. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kristol, I. (1995). Neonconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. New York: Free Press.

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Smith, R. (1997). Civic Ideals. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Stelzer, I. (2004). The Neocon Reader. New York: Grove Press.

Stockman, D. (1987). The Triumph of Politics. New York: Avon Books.

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