Nathan Glazer, neoconservatism, and the new left

Steve’s tribute to Nathan Glazer reminds us that the neoconservatism movement Glazer helped found was more about domestic policy than foreign policy. It was based on the realization that government interventions were exacerbating many of the problems they were intended to redress. As Glazer put it:

In our efforts to deal with the breakdown of. . .traditional structures, our social policies are weakening them further and making matters in some respects worse. We are making no steady headway against a sea of misery. Our efforts to deal with distress are themselves increasing distress.

During the 1960s, the old left split into three branches. Some leftists, the least intelligent ones, embraced the new left, including its romanticizing of communists like Mao Tse-tung and its extreme counter-culturalism.

Some leftists remained traditional socialists. They not fans of the new left and did not flirt with communism.

Some became neoconservatives. Regarding domestic policy, neoconservatives rejected socialism and liberalism in favor of a hard-won pragmatism. They criticized President Johnson’s Great Society, for example, not so much on ideological grounds, as traditional conservatives did, but because of its harmful (in many cases) consequences.

Regarding foreign policy, neoconservatives were stridently anti-communist. In this, they didn’t differ from the mainstream conservatism of William F. Buckley.

Nor, contrary to the left’s stereotype of them, were neoconservatives obsessed with promoting democracy abroad. In the most famous neoconservative article ever written about foreign policy, Jeanne Kirkpatrick distinguished between traditional authoritarian governments on the one hand, and revolutionary autocracies and totalitarian regimes on the other. The former often deserved to be tolerated in the furtherance of American interests, she argued, as she criticized the Carter administration for its hostility towards authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua and Iran.

These days, it’s not the heirs of the neoconservatives who lead the charge against pro-American authoritarian regimes in nations like Egypt.

As for the two strands of 1960s leftism I described above, the heirs of both are in the forefront 50 years on. The old socialist strand is alive, well, and best represented by Bernie Sanders and his followers (though Sanders may be more sympathetic to communists than the 1960s socialists were). The new left strand is represented by the identity politics/intersectionality crowd.

The prize probably will go to the left-wing politician who figures out how to synthesize these two strands. Barack Obama would have been the perfect politician for this job, but he came a little too early.

Even for someone of Obama’s talent, however, a coherent synthesis might prove impossible to sustain. Traditional socialism places the working class at the center of the universe, or purports to. Identity politics and intersectionality don’t.


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