Neocons

by Michael Novak

Some memories.

I remember the discussion at the American Enterprise Institute that Jonah Goldberg recalls, but just a little differently. Neocons were not in the beginning, nor are they now, distinguished primarily by religion or morals. The cutting issue was political economy and, in particular, dissatisfaction with the growing list of failures of the left-wing imagination. But I did want to make the point then, and now, that one noticeable dimension of the neocon critique of the left consisted in a turn from utopian thinking toward Biblical realism — a sense of the fallibility and epistemic limitations of human knowing and human will. Often it happened that the early neocons became at least a little more respectful of their own religious tradition, took “the sacred” more seriously (as Daniel Bell did), and began to assert that there is actually more wisdom in a religious than in an austerely secular outlook.

It is worth remembering that the first so-called neocons were a tiny band, indeed, usually quickly named as Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, the two Daniels, Bell and Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and a very few of their intellectual friends. Virtually all in this company had a history as men and women of the left, indeed to the left of the Democratic party, maybe in the most leftward two or three percent of Americans, in some cases socialist in economics, in others social democratic in politics.

Then at some point their more and more frequently expressed critique of left-wing excesses, especially in domestic policy, involved a direct rejection of socialist categories of thought. Since the left had few counterarguments to wheel into the battle, the Left turned to name-calling. It was the Socialist Michael Harrington, indeed, who coined the term “neoconservative” for this small band and their friends, intending it as an insult.

In those days (the mid-1970s), it was thought that there was really no genuinely conservative movement in the United States as there always had been in Europe. In America, it was said, there is only one variant or another of liberalism — the old fuddy-duddy liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, or some blend of European socialism/social democracy.

Thus, to call a foe who had long been identified with the Left a “conservative” was thought to be a lonely literary ostracism. To prefix that with “neo” was to suggest something like “pseudo” or “not even genuine.” No historical tradition or cultural movement called by that name could be decried anywhere in sight. Just a tiny band, cast out into the darkness of intellectual isolation.

Some isolation! In fairly short order, the newsmagazines began carrying cover stories blaring “AMERICA TURNS RIGHT,” and citing in evidence how even some former leftists were both rejecting the traditional left-wing agenda and daring to propose alternatives. And these “neoconservatives” (the name had caught on, and was now useful grist for this sort of trend-spotting) were catching the ear of such conservatives as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, to boot.

Not only the Left has an ideology, the mantra began to go. Now the New Right does, too. Russell Kirk, beloved guru of the Old Right, who had fought many long battles virtually alone in celebrating an American tradition of conservativism, hated the very concept of ideology, of course, as the very antimony of genuine conservativism. So his attacks on the new neoconservative “ideologues” helped define this new movement on the flank opposite to Michael Harrington’s.

Others on the Old Right resented the neocons as the faithful workers who had labored long hours in the hot vineyards all day resented those who came to work just as the evening coolness was descending.

What the neocons (how we hated that name in the early days, most of us, and rejected it, and refused it, and rebutted it, in vain) had learned from the Left was that, in political competition, the party better placed to win is the party with the most attractive and realistic picture of future goals. You can’t beat the Left by promising just to let things happen on their own. Nor by reenunciating the old verities. The old verities are true, but that must also mean that they cast some light up ahead in front of our footsteps.

Call that “ideology” if you must, or “the vision thing,” but it’s really just a forward-looking confidence and realism. If our principles are correct, they must already be nourishing the way the world is going. From maturing schemes of probabilities, emerging shoots of new growth are always pushing through the surface of events, and it is only an exercise of responsibility to discern and nurture the best of them along. To waste real opportunities is blameworthy.

Neocons are on the whole cheerful folk, always ready for new battles, who fight with a certain joy and gusto, nourished by a real hope. We really do believe that God created this cosmos for the blossoming of liberty, so that somewhere within its vast and cold reaches at least one species of His creatures, male and female, might take up their responsibilities, and by using their talents well give Him thanks for the way He made things, sorrow and all.

If joyful combat is their style, the creed of the neocons may be also be happily stated, in three structural propositions:

Economic realism, breaking from leftist utopianism, is fundamental; and the dynamic drive of realism in economics flows from mind, creativity, and enterprise. Also, in the real world, incentives help mightily.
Politics is more fundamental than economics, for without the rule of law, limited government, and respect for natural rights economic progress is scarcely possible.
Culture is even more fundamental than politics or economics, for without certain architectonic ideas, certain habits of the heart, a love for argument and evidence and open conversation, and a few other moral and spiritual dispositions, neither a republic respecting rights nor a dynamic capitalist economy can thrive, or even survive.

These three are the structural conditions for a free society.

In a word, the free society requires for its maintenance and its flourishing three successive inner conversions, or transformations, of the mind and heart — economic, political, and cultural. That is why most who become neoconservatives (barbarous name!) experience their becoming so as something like a conversion.

Some, of course, are lucky enough to have been born so, or brought up so, without having lived through the alternatives. Beati voi! Lucky you.

— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.