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Neocons and Libertarians



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Ross Douthat is almost entirely correct in writing about a mythological history of the last few decades of American politics that has taken hold in some segments of the Right. What follows is a quibble.

I think Douthat overestimates the degree to which the Republican party, in its moments of political (and policy) success, has been a neoconservative vehicle. The supply-side revolution, for example, was partly neoconservative and partly libertarian, just like the Wall Street Journal editorial page that midwifed it. The Republican revolution of 1994, meanwhile, was not reducible to the provisions of the Contract with America. Part of what happened in that election, as Democrats of the day could tell you, was a reaction to the Clinton administration’s fairly modest attempts at gun control, and opposition to gun control was hardly on the radar screen of neoconservatives. The election was also, in part, a reaction to other socially-liberal provocations by the early Clinton administration, and that reaction was not distinctively neoconservative.

Douthat concedes that the Gingrichites ”weren’t neocons, exactly,” but identifies their alleged pragmatism with the neoconservative spirit. Just to expand on that concession: The Gingrichite drive to balance the budget clearly wasn’t distinctively neoconservative. (You can’t attribute that drive to the neoconservatism of the Gingrichites while at the same time attributing the Reaganites’ fiscal policy to their neoconservatism.) You can argue that the obsession with cutting spending to balance the budget was an un-neoconservative element of the 1994 revolution that led to its undoing–I think there’s a lot of truth to that assessment–but you can’t, I think, argue that the Gingrich moment was a triumph of neoconservatism.

Part of what’s going on here is that Douthat is identifying neoconservatism with the pragmatic and anti-ideological elements in conservative thought; and while there is some truth in this assessment, too, I wonder if there is enough to make an equation sensible.



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