October 22, 2010
Neo-conservatives: The True CentristsBy Mark Cantora
The large majority of the neo-conservative movement has always been reluctant to self-identify as such. From neo-conservative founding father Nathan Glazer's "indifference" to the label to leader of the younger generation Max Boot's ambivalent admission that the term is "not entirely worthless," attempting to find a reputed neo-conservative who would self-identify as one has been an elusive quest. Indeed, the very thought of spending a significant amount of time self-identifying at all is (rightfully) disdained by those of the neo-conservative persuasion as pretentious navel-gazing .
No matter the reluctance of neo-conservatives to engage in this type of egotism, the fact remains that there does exist a movement of intellectuals who share similar commitments to a strong national defense and a recoupling of politics with traditional morality. And, for better or for worse, the world knows this movement as neo-conservatism.
But what the world generally fails to recognize is that this philosophy has made the neo-conservatives, the only real moderates in American politics and political philosophy, the eternal purveyors of centrist common sense.
Admittedly, anyone paying attention to the mainstream media for at least the past decade will be aghast at this contention. By now, it is considered common knowledge that the first neo-conservatives were self-imposed exiles from the left wing reconciled to -- if not completely avid supporters of -- New-Deal social welfare programs. This is standard and uncontroversial historical fact.
But according to both the contemporary left and the newly emergent right, it is also considered ancient history. "Liberal" blogger M.J. Rosenberg wrote that the neo-conservatives "have evolved into right-wingers on everything." Similarly, since his coming "up from [neo-]conservatism," Michael Lind has written articles in which he argues with bombast that the "paleo-liberalism" of the original neo-conservatives has evolved into a "militaristic and imperial right with no precedents in American culture or political history ... mingled with the far-right Likud strain of Zionism." Whew.
Similarly, from the paleo-conservative and libertarian right, one can find statements like Thomas E. Woods' that neo-conservatism is "merely a variety of leftism," and that articles by prominent neo-conservatives are identical to those one would find published by the liberal New York Times. Other stalwarts like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul always make it a point to mention that some of the original neo-conservatives were socialists-so-watch-out-because-they-are-still-part-of-an-evil-communist-takeover-of-America. Cue scary music.
And of course, the farther to the right or left the conspiracy theorists shift, the more they agree on the tired old canard that all of the neo-conservatives' philosophical ideas, policy points, and political influence is aimed at one thing and one thing only: protecting Israel and oppressing Palestinians at the expense of American interests.
In 2003, responding to articles by prominent neo-conservatives, including one in Commentary, one author wrote that the neoconservatives "harbor a passionate attachment to a nation not their own, that causes them to subordinate the interests of their own country." More recently, responding to another article by a prominent neo-conservative in Commentary, another author wrote, "As for the evidence of dual loyalty, there's been plenty of evidence of that from the Commentary crowd in recent months. In sum, there are more than a few Jewish neoconservatives ... who seem to be putting their extreme and questionable version of Israel's national security, above that of the United States." The first quote was by The American conservative founder Pat Buchanan. The second was by left-wing Time columnist Joe Klein. Had attribution of the quotes been switched between the authors, would anyone have been able to tell?
But what kind of "anti-Americanism" do the neo-conservatives allegedly promote? Are those affiliated with the neo-conservative movement far-right imperialistic militarists or far-left Trotskyite interlopers? The answer, of course, is neither. It is an unfortunate reality that while most neo-conservatives are aware of the ideological shifts that have taken place in the United States throughout history, their critics are most assuredly not. Since the days when the founders of The Public Interest and Commentary first used their publications to work out the neo-conservative ideology, the neo-conservatives' views have tracked moderate American sensibilities and common sense.
For instance, the anticommunism of the neo-conservatives was the exact anticommunism of the American population throughout the Cold War. Between 1948 and the end of the Cold War, eight of the eleven presidential elections saw the election or reelection of aggressively anti-communist presidents. Seven of these elections resulted in presidents who used military or paramilitary force to contain and roll back communist regimes throughout the world.
Although the neo-conservatives' anticommunism was staunch and uncompromising, this mainstream sentiment was never allowed to degenerate into conspiracy theories or authoritarian impulses. Irving Kristol was one of the first from the right to emphatically denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy as a "vulgar demagogue." While Senator McCarthy and the John Birch Society supported "counter-subversive anti-communism," neo-conservative founder Norman Podhoretz argued for "responsible anti-communism." The former focused on uncovering domestic communist conspiracies and traitors, some of whom were figments of these crusaders' imaginations, while the latter promoted the fight against communism-in-general while refraining from witch-hunts and accusations of treason against political enemies.
The same pattern of responsible, moderate ideology can be seen in the neo-conservatism of today. The far left advocates an immediate end to all American wars, regardless of the military and political realities or the consequences for innocent civilians. The left is even more extreme in its support for American acceptance of the authority of the United Nations over U.S. decisions to engage in military actions. The neo-conservatives, on the other hand, encourage a policy of continuing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as long as is necessary to stabilize these regions in order to protect the lives of innocent human beings. And as opposed to completely submitting to the authority of the United Nations, neo-conservatives recognize that some decisions are too important to be in the hands of the United Nations.
At the same time, far-right theorists advocate slashing the military budget, removing most or all of our military bases throughout the world, and removing ourselves completely from international organizations. Neo-conservatives recognize that military spending is only 4% of the U.S.'s GDP, which is bordering on the lowest in history. They argue that having military bases worldwide ensures that the United States can respond instantaneously to any situation anywhere on the planet that could potentially harm Americans. And it goes without saying that neo-conservatives are dedicated to international cooperation with the numerous multilateral treaty organizations and U.N. organizations which have proved to be both fair and honest.
Domestic policy provides an even starker picture. For example, the modern left supports national universal health care, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and more government regulation of the market and the Federal Reserve. Alternatively, the ascendant old right supports a repeal of national universal health care and the drastic reduction or elimination of Medicare and Medicaid, a morals-based continuation of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and near-complete deregulation of the market including the eventual abolition of the Federal Reserve.
Neo-conservatives manage to take a stance somewhere in between these two extreme views. Neo-conservatives generally support the repeal of universal health care but the continuation of reformed versions of Medicare and Medicaid, a Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy based on the military's assessment of the policy's impact on national security, and gradually decreased and reformed government regulation of the market and money supply.
Thus, between the far left and far right views that are increasingly being mainstreamed by large segments of the political spectrum, neo-conservatives inhabit the same commonsense political worldview as they always have since the 1960s. Journalists are quick to point out that there are only "a few hundred" neo-conservatives, but that their influence on American policy greatly exceeds their numbers. The hostile left and right wings have attributed this influence to the Machiavellian machinations of the neo-conservatives, who are somehow always crouched, waiting in the darkness for the proper moment to seize power for their own nefarious ends.
Not only is this Manchurian Candidate scenario silly, but it flies in the face of Occam's centuries-old razor by ignoring the most likely explanation for neo-conservatives' influence: The American people listen to neoconservatives because their ideas are sensible. They are moderate yet consistent, grounded yet flexible, traditional yet creative.
Neo-conservatism is the very last bastion -- the final defender -- of that uniquely American quality beloved by people of all political and philosophical stripes: common sense.