Once again, we have the news that a well-known person has died. But this time it’s neither a movie star nor a singer, but the man who was widely known as the father of neoconservatism (and the actual father of Bill Kristol): Irving Kristol.
Here’s an idea of the huge influence Kristol the elder had on conservative thought in America:
A Trotskyist in the 1930s, Kristol would soon sour on socialism, break from liberalism after the rise of the New Left in the 1960s and in the 1970s commit the unthinkable — support the Republican Party, once as “foreign to me as attending a Catholic mass.”
He was a New York intellectual who left home, first politically, then physically, moving to Washington in 1988. He was a liberal “mugged by reality,” his turn to the right joined by countless others, including such future GOP Cabinet officials as Jeane Kirkpatrick and William Bennett and another neo-conservative founder, Norman Podhoretz.
He was a flagship in the network of think tanks, media outlets and corporations that helped make conservatism a reigning ideology for at least two decades, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Rodham Clinton would claim was out to get her husband.
“More than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture,” liberal commentator Eric Alterman wrote in 1999.
Kristol’s history encompasses many of the characteristics of neoconservatism, a persuasion that’s gotten a lot of bad press in recent years. But bad press and controversy has been part of neoconservatism from the beginning; the Left doesn’t take kindly to apostates, especially ones as intelligent and vocal as Kristol was. As I wrote in my own early post on why I decided to call myself neo-neocon:
“Neocon” is used by critics as a code word for a lot of things, among them: imperialist, unrealistic dreamer, and scheming puppeteer (along with its subset, scheming evil Jewish puppeteer).
This tendency has only gotten more pronounced in the years since I wrote those words. But here, in some of his own words, is what Kristol (and most neocons), actually stood (and stand) for:
[from 1972] It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of what we call “the New Politics” is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings—we must “care,” we must “be concerned,” we must be “committed.” Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.
[from 1975] If the United States is to gain the respect of world opinion, it first has to demonstrate that it respects itself—its own institutions, its own way of life, the political and social philosophy that is the basis of its institutions and its way of life. Such a sense of self-respect and self-affirmation seems to be a missing element in our foreign policy.
[from 1980] The foreign policy of the United States ought to have as its central purpose a world order that has been shaped, to the largest degree possible, in accord with our national interests as a great power that is free, democratic and capitalist.
[from 1980] Our economic problems are not intractable…On the other hand, once the idea gets around that we are in a profound crisis and that only “drastic action” by Washington can save us—then it will be time to head for the storm cellars.
[from 1997] The world has yet to see a successful version of “trickle-up economics,” an egalitarian society in which the state ensures that the fruits of economic growth are universally and equally shared. The trouble with this idea—it is, of course, the socialist ideal—is that it does not produce those fruits in the first place. Economic growth is promoted by entrepreneurs and innovators, whose ambitions, when realized, create inequality. No one with any knowledge of human nature can expect such people not to want to be relatively rich, and if they are too long frustrated they will cease to be productive. Nor can the state substitute for them, because the state simply cannot engage in the “creative destruction” that is an essential aspect of innovation. The state cannot and should not be a risk-taking institution, since it is politically impossible for any state to cope with the inevitable bankruptcies associated with economic risk taking.
RIP, Irving Kristol, and condolences to his family.