The Death of Neoconservatism: Six Questions for C. Bradley Thompson

The Death of Neoconservatism: Six Questions for C. Bradley Thompson

By Scott Horton
December 6, 6:06 PM, 2010

 

C. Bradley Thompson, a political science professor at Clemson University, has recently teamed up with Yaron Brook to write Neoconservatism: An Obiturary for an Idea, a classical-liberal critique of the neoconservative movement. The book systematically examines the economic, political, and cultural underpinnings of neoconservatism, exploring its relationship to the philosophy of Leo Strauss and its influential and menacing ideas about warfare. I put six questions to Thompson about the book:

1. At the core of your book is the notion that neoconservatism is dead. But consider that Politico recently published an analysis of Obama’s Middle East policies in which ten of eleven persons quoted were neocons (the eleventh was a Palestinian). The Washington Post’s editorial page is rapidly becoming a neocon fortress. Is it really time to talk about the “death” of neoconservatism?

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C. Bradley Thompson

The short answer is both “no” and “yes.” The neocons still dominate the conservative think-tank world, and they are a major presence in the media. They play a major role in defining the ideas of the conservative intellectual movement and the policies of the Republican Party. On one level, they are far from irrelevant and must be taken seriously.

Why then an obituary? The title plays off the title of one of Irving Kristol’s most important essays, “Socialism: An Obituary for an Idea,” which was as much prognostic as it was diagnostic. Professional obituarists also often write the biographical parts of a death notice long before their subjects die. Our book, then, should be read as prolegomena to any future obituary. We also hope our obituary for neoconservatism serves, paradoxically, as the murder weapon as well. Readers might imagine Charlotte Corday writing and publishing Marat’s obituary as she traveled to Paris.

2. What do the neocons mean by “governing philosophy,” and how does this affect the way they engage in politics in America?

The neoconservative vision of a good America is one in which ordinary people work hard, read the Bible, go to church on Sunday, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, practice homespun virtues, sacrifice themselves to the “common good,” obey the commands of the government, fight wars, and die for the State. . . . In summary, the neoconservatives are the advocates of a new managerial State—a State controlled and regulated by a new mandarin class of conservative virtucrats who think the American people are incapable of governing themselves without the help of the neocons’ special, a priori wisdom.

—From Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

Reprinted by permission of Paradigm Publishers—© 2010 Paradigm Publishers

Identifying and deciphering what the neocons mean by this notion of a “governing philosophy” is, I think, one of the most important and original contributions of our book, and it’s the key to understanding their public-policy advice to the Republican Party.

The neocons explicitly reject the suggestion that neoconservatism is a systematic political philosophy grounded in absolute and certain moral principles. Instead, they describe it euphemistically as a “mood,” a “style,” or a “mode of thinking.” They don’t want the broader conservative movement limited by the straightjacket of permanent first principles. Not surprisingly, then, neoconservatism is an amalgam of several different ideologies. Daniel Bell once described himself as “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” which sums up rather nicely the content of their philosophy of governance.

But there’s more. The neocons’ “philosophy of governance” means three things. First, it’s a technique that teaches rulers or potential rulers how to think about politics rather than what to think. It’s about developing pragmatic tactics for getting, keeping, and using power in certain ways. It’s about knowing how to improvise, modify, and adapt one’s principles to changing circumstances. Machiavellian prudence must always trump principle.

Second, the neocons’ idea of a “governing philosophy” is also a conceit, which says that properly educated statesmen will have the necessary practical wisdom to balance competing social claims and to establish a golden mean for all public policy questions. The neocons place a great deal of emphasis on the “art” of statecraft, which assumes that wise statesmen can channel human action in certain socially-desired directions by tinkering with the incentive mechanisms of America’s political, economic, and social institutions. In defending the welfare state, for instance, Norman Podhoretz once wrote that wise neoconservative statesmen could identify “the precise point at which the incentive to work” would be “undermined by the availability of welfare benefits.”

Finally, connected to the neocons’ notion of a governing philosophy is their advice to Republicans to “think politically,” which means learning how to dissimulate and compromise their principles in order to acquire and keep power. It means compromising with the secular Left when necessary (particularly when liberals make moral arguments in defense of the welfare state) and with the religious Right when necessary (particularly when religious conservatives can be rallied to challenge the cultural hegemony of the nihilistic Left).

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