THE PLANK FEBRUARY 9, 2009
David A. Bell is the dean of faculty and Mellon Professor in the Humanities at John Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
With due respect to Alan Wolfe, I'm not sure that the "Tale of Two Kristols" is exactly as he describes it. Irving Kristol was indeed a social scientist rather than a political philosopher, but in later years he could be just as dogmatic and strident as his son. Consider his inflammatory essay, "My Cold War," published in The National Interest in 1993. "What began to concern me more and more," he wrote, "were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society--a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. . . . Sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos." This is not what Alan calls "speaking to the gritty reality of everyday life"--this is ideological cleansing.
I see the move from Irving to Bill--and of Irving towards Bill--less as an internal development within American conservatism than as a pathological reaction to changing circumstances. Two circumstances in particular. The first was the abandonment of Cold War hawkishness by mainstream liberals during the Vietnam War. Neo-conservatism as a current of thought coalesced not only around The Public Interest, and the conviction that liberalism had lost its way in domestic policy, but also more sharply around the idea that this liberal abandonment in foreign policy amounted to an unpardonable defection. In the eyes of the emerging neo-conservatives, mainstream liberals now looked less like Harry Truman, and more like Stalin-era Communist sympathizers and fellow-travelers. The end of the Cold War did nothing to relieve this pathological perception of liberals as the Enemy Within (Irving himself says as much in his essay). In fact, the disappearance of the Soviet threat gave neo-conservatives more time to focus on the "rot and decadence" at home, as manifested in multiculturalism and political correctness.
The second circumstance was the emergence of the conservative attack-dog media--talk-radio, Fox, blogs, etc.--with its fearsome ability to mobilize a powerful minority of "base" voters. Figures like Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have their own version of Manichean politics, whose ideological origins go much farther back into American history than neo-conservatism. The neo-conservatives benefitted enormously--not least, financially--from lending their learning and sophistication to this new media's 24-hour cycle of continuous outrage. A few conservative writers--Brooks, Caldwell, Will, even Krauthammer on occasion--still manage to dissent from its 150-decibel party line, but they risk marginalization and even anathematization if they go too far: Andrew Sullivan is Exhibit A.
I agree entirely with Alan that conservatives need to move away from this Manichean politics towards the sort of thoughtful analysis pioneered by The Public Interest. That magazine (co-founded by Irving Kristol and my father, Daniel Bell) saw itself not as conservative, but as non-ideological, and provided a home for a great many thoughtful liberals. But in the age of Limbaugh, I don't see much of a chance for this move to take place.
--David A. Bell