I’m still a bit staggered by Irving Kristol’s piece on the “second life” of neo-conservatism. From a movement that had been “absorbed into the mainstream of American conservatism” to a “persuasion” that will “convert American conservatism, against its will, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy” — that’s quite a swing.
Still anything that the “godfather” of neoconservatism writes on this (or any) subject needs to be considered carefully. And Kristol’s thesis takes on plausibility when one considers the watershed event that was September 11 (or as Derrida would say, “zee thing, 11 Septembre, 9/11, zee date, zee number”). An event of that magnitude might well revive a movement or persuasion that appeared to have nothing distinctive to say about foreign policy or America’s role in the world. And the notion of taking the war against terrorism to dictatorships that appeared to have no strong, direct connection with the attack against us is indeed a distinctive one that did not really flow from mainstream conservatism. So too with the related notion of attempting actively to promote democracy in the Middle East. In this sense, Kristol may have a solid claim that there is once again a neo-conservative “there” there, at least when it comes to foreign policy (which is not to take any position on whether, or to what extent, neo-conservatives “sold” this approach to President Bush). Whether this approach, writ large, proves to be “suitable to governing a modern democracy” remains to be seen.
On the domestic side, there is no watershed event that can be said to have revived neo-conservatism. Instead, there is a president committed to cutting taxes (a mainstream conservative notion by now) but otherwise attempting to accommodate the desires of centrist voters for a fairly activist government, so that he can be re-elected and continue to carry out his mission against terrorism. This approach is more Nixonian than distinctively neo-conservative. But it is true that neo-conservatives, being less anti-statist than mainstream conservatives to begin with, are more likely to accept Bush’s centrism. And as polemicists par excellence, they have a role to play in dressing it up as Big Government Conservatism, or some other such thing.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think that mainstream conservatives will take serious exception to Bush’s domestic policies before the next election. The real fight will be in the build-up to 2008. By then, we should see a real split between mainstream conservatives and neo-conservatives.
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