Charles Krauthammer, one of the best conservative columnists of all time, is simply wrong in his op-ed today. Worse, he reinforces an unfair liberal slander that only “neoconservatives” are fully moral and serious conservatives. Krauthammer asserts that Trent Lott has exposed the real fault-lines among conservatives. He relies on the overused dichotomy between “neocons,” “traditional cons,” and “paleocons.”
”Neocons have been the most passionate about the Lott affair and most disturbed by its meaning,” Krauthammer writes. “Why? Because many neoconservatives are former liberals. They supported civil rights when it meant equality between the races, and they turned against the civil rights establishment when it began insisting that some races should be more equal than others. Neoconservatives oppose affirmative action on grounds of colorblindness and in defense of the original vision of the civil-rights movement: judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
Well, okay. I’m sure that’s true of the people who consider themselves neocons. But the self-defined neocons weren’t the first conservatives to denounce Lott. Andrew Sullivan, Robert George, David Frum, Glenn Reynolds, Virginia Postrel, yours truly, etc., were much more prompt than the usual neocon suspects, like Krauthammer, Bennett, Kristol, et al. when it came to breaking with Lott. Despite what some fire-breathing paleos may claim, to my knowledge none of those people consider themselves neocons. Indeed, the chief litmus test Krauthammer invokes for who qualifies as a neocon — being a former liberal — does not apply to any of them. And, with the possible exception of Robert George (I simply plead ignorance on this), there’s really very little reason to call any of them neocons on ideological grounds. And, their denunciations — all sufficiently moral, even by neoconservative standards — were hardly the product of their vestigial 1960s liberal goodness.
By suggesting otherwise, Krauthammer, like many avowed neocons, reinforces the popular liberal mythology that mainstream conservatives are somehow less moral on issues of race and “inclusion” than the small club of former liberal warriors he belongs to. This is the flip side of the paleo “argument” that mainstream conservatism has been “hijacked” by ersatz neocons, and if the paleos can just retake the cockpit, all the passengers will cheer. Indeed, Krauthammer seems to believe that it is still up to the neocons to provide moral leadership for the rest of the less-sophisticated conservatives out there.
The truth is that the mainstream conservative movement defined by, say, National Review, the Heritage Foundation, YAF, schools such as Claremont or Hillsdale, or even college conservatives generally, actually upholds the principle of a colorblind society. And libertarians — with the exception of the irrelevant “paleo-libertarian” fringe — certainly are even more vocal in their defense of universal rights and the rule of law than the Right generally, neocons included. There are certainly disagreements on how this principle should be weighed against such things as federalism or competing rights of association. But it is very hard, if not impossible, to find a mainstream conservative who actually rejects the notion of colorblindness. This might be partly the result of neoconservative teachings, but the lesson has been learned already.
Krauthammer bases his assertion of neocon exceptionalism on NR’s relatively pragmatic argument against Lott in its latest editorial. I have no part in writing editorials for the magazine, but it seems to me a serious misreading of NR’s position to suggest that were Lott a more effective leader we would agree with or condone his views on race and segregation.
While Lott’s lameness as a leader certainly made it easier for many conservatives to pounce, the more telling split among conservatives is a generational one. The bloggers claim it’s a technological thing; the “blogosphere” is less beholden to the establishment and more rebellious. Well, that’s true of younger conservatives generally, who actually believe that a colorblind society is the moral position. The fact that these conservatives (and libertarians) work disproportionately on the web speaks less to the uniqueness of the web than to the fact young people rarely have perches at the Washington Post or the New York Times.
But, for the record, the first strident conservative moral denunciation of Lott took place on television. Robert George, my CNN Sunday-show colleague (and NRO contributor), derided Lott for trying to run for the position of “White majority leader” — the same day Krauthammer’s Washington Post colleague, Robert Novak, was dismissing the Lott gaffe on Meet the Press.
This Lott fiasco is causing enough damage and dissension on the right as it is. The debate over whether Lott should step down, stay on, or be thrown aside divides many conservatives for many reasons. Among Lott’s “defenders,” some believe he simply made a forgivable mistake at an old man’s birthday party. Some do not like caving-in to what they see as racial mau-mauing. Some do not like the selective hypocrisy of the Left or the faintly Soviet public humiliation of Lott for politically convenient reasons that go beyond redemption. I think they’re all, ultimately, wrong. But to date, no reputable conservative has come out in defense of Lott’s remarks and not one has given any indication they oppose the colorblind standard neoconservatives seem to claim as their exclusive moral property.
If so-called neoconservatives reject the notion that the conservative movement has been hijacked by secretly liberal moralists, they should stop talking as if they’re better than the movement they belong to.