I’m less taken than you, Jonah, with Adam Wolfson’s Public Interest essay. There is a lot of intelligence and learning in it, as one would expect. In totality, however, it is an expression of the kind of triumphalism that is perhaps the worst feature of neoconservatism. In conclusion, he writes, “Conservatism’s other strands are strangely anti-democratic. Traditionalists”–he is speaking of Russell Kirk and his heirs, not the modern religious-conservative movement–”pine for aristocracy; libertarians look to limited government by technocracy; while paleoconservatives dream vaguely of postmodern utopias. Only neoconservatism among contemporary conservative modes of thought has made its peace with American democracy, and so long as it flourishes, so will neoconservatism.” I am not at all convinced that these modes of thought are the only, or even the chief, ones available to contemporary conservatives–particularly when these modes of thought are presented on Wolfson’s terms.
These categories lead Wolfson to one serious error about our recent political history: the description of the 1994 “Republican revolution” as a triumph for libertarianism. There was a libertarian element to the victory. But that election was famously won, particularly in the South, on “God, gays, and guns”–and libertarians, particularly as Wolfson defines them, were not with the Republicans on two-thirds of that platform. During the 1994 election, the Republican message was really a kind of watered-down fusionism: big government was a threat not merely to economic efficiency (as Wolfson describes, or really parodies, the libertarian critique) but to “values.” The moment the Republicans acted as though the election were a victory for libertarian economics, when they decided to take on Medicare, was the moment of their undoing.
Here again is another bit of deck-stacking: “Anyone of us can’t help but have a gut feeling about modern American life–its possibilities and limits, whether it is humane and decent or alienating and corrupting. Those of us who regret much of modern American life and find solace in old, inherited ways will cling to traditionalism. Others, who celebrate the new freedoms and new technologies, will turn to libertarianism. As for those who see in modernity admirable principles but also worrisome tendencies, their persuasion will be neoconservatism.”
Notice, first, that the entire left half of the political spectrum has been chopped off. Second, that anyone with a nuanced take on modern American life–indeed, anyone with the only take on American life that any intelligent person could possibly hold–is defined as a neoconservative. If that really were the case, then I suppose it would be the only outlook that could be compatible with democratic politics. But I’m not buying.