Reading the O-G Neoconservatives: “Socially Conservative and Fiscally Liberal”
I’m spending today reading some essays from the archives of The Public Interest magazine, housed over at National Affairs. The Public Interest, which sadly ceased publication around 2005 or 2006, was the home-journal of the original neoconservative movement. (I’ll note right off the bat that by “neoconservative,” I refer to the former New Dealers and former Communists who sought to update the institutions of the New Deal for a modernizing world while preserving traditional society. This first generation, which inhabited the public sphere of the 1950s through the 1970s and included such luminaries as Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, and James Q. Wilson, was succeeded and survived by a generation of inferior hacks like John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol, who turned their once-divided attention from the homeland abroad, and ultimately launched the ill-fated Iraq crusade of 2003. To distinguish between talent and ineptitude, I shall refer to the Bell-Moynihan generation as the “First Generation” neoconservatives, and the Podhoretz-Kristol generation as the “Second Generation” neoconservatives.)
Anyhow, enough rant and slander. The First Generation of neoconservatives- whose works are best theoretically documented in the writings of Daniel Bell, but are perhaps more beautifully and practically applied to policy by the writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan- could be described as “Morally Traditionalist/Economically Nationalist” or, to suit the Millennial Generation’s dialect of political English, “Socially Conservative/Fiscally Liberal.” As Michael Lind notes in his excellent early book Up From Conservatism, the Second Generation of neoconservatives turned from fiscal liberalism to whatever the libertarian right wanted by the 1990s. And they abandoned the Burkean conservative temperament so cherished by Bell and Moynihan for what is better called reactionary populism, peddled by the southern Christian Right. For all intents and purposes, the Second Generation of neoconservatives destroyed the legacy of the neoconservative intellectual movement, and only in the recent wake of the Trump phenomenon have center-right thinkers began to revisit O-G neoconservative ideas in their fits of self-examination prompted by the visceral destruction of the Republican establishment’s power by then-candidate and now-President Trump.
I’m glad these thinkers- people like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat in particular, and perhaps Sam Tanenhaus and others as well, Reformicons all- are returning to the Moynihanian constellation of ideas socially conservative and fiscally pragmatic in nature. Because for all intents and purposes, the basic problems identified by the First Generation of neoconservatives- problems with ineffective governance, the pernicious effects of unchecked greed, and the hollowing-out of anything resembling traditional society and morality in the West- are the same problems we face nowadays, made worse by time, poor policy, and inaction or insufficiently-informed action. Our government is dysfunctional, our market system is out of control and without a lodestar, and our society is fragmented and disillusioned beyond belief.
Although critical thinking and policy imagination will be crucial for finding solutions to these problems and inaugurating the next great epoch in American history, we’re not building something completely new. The body of work of the neoconservatives of the 1960s and 1970s offers up outlines and blueprints of new solutions and a better temperament than that which we approach problems today, and is worth in-depth study and updating by people looking for solutions today.
In a way, that would be a return to and a restoration of an age-old American tradition, more than anything else. As Michael Lind argues in Land of Promise and Hamilton’s Republic, pretty much all that is good with American political economy, constitutionalism, and social policy has been instituted by morally-traditionalist, economically nationalist Hamiltonians- from the Federalists to the right wing of the Democratic-Republicans to the Whigs to the Lincoln Republicans to the Progressive Republicans to the New Deal Democrats to the Vital Center bipartisan establishment of midcentury and, finally, to the neoconservatives- and their late New Deal Democratic and Rockefeller Republican patrons- of the late 20th Century. After about Nixon and Ford (and only experiencing a very slight resurgence in some of the appointed officials of the Clinton administration) the old Hamiltonians were out of government, and remain out of government to this day.
Again, what we’re looking for is not Neo-Neoconservatives, for those might just as likely be Second Gen-ers as First Gen-ers. Rather, we’re looking for new versions of the original neoconservatives- something like “Neo-Primo-Neoconservatives-“ to make an intellectual and political comeback, updating Bell and Moynihan’s (and Nixon’s and Johnson’s) works for the similar problems of the second and third decades of the 21st Century. Salam, Douthat, and Tanenhaus technically fall under the description “Reformicon;” but if they ever actively and consciously promote the work of the First Generation of neoconservatives in their studies and advocacy, perhaps they could then better be named “Reclaimicons,” reclaiming an old form of conservatism rather than reforming its newer form.
This is more important now than ever. American society is entranced by a new political-philosophical ethos that closely fits the mold of being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” if the actual habits of our coastal elites and the presumed ideas of the upcoming Millennial generation are any indicator. One need only read a little bit of Daniel Bell to realize just how pernicious the Imperial Self and the Golden Calf- the true gods of the “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”- can be to the preservation of flourishing of civilization. My view is that the very fact that “socially conservative and fiscally liberal” is to most people today an unthinkable combination, is one of the signs of the decadence of our times.
Anyhow, enough of the rambling rant. Below are links to some essays by Daniel Bell that pretty well exemplify the original neoconservative temperament. To quote a cartoon of my childhood- “take it, friends. Arm yourselves with knowledge.”