"Much of the current popular literature on the neocons is unpersuasively hostile, overwrought, superficial, paranoid, and wrongheaded," write C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook in their new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.
Professor Thompson, executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, was the subject of an interview on this site last year. Mr. Brook is executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. Their book has back-cover blurbs from Glenn Beck and Richard Epstein.
This is not, then, the usual left-wing pacifist or right-wing isolationist attack on the neoconservative foreign policy cabal. It may be, in fact, to be the first critique of the neoconservatives to fault them for excessive dovishness on foreign policy. "Terrorist nations should feel terrified to threaten us— but they do not. Why? Because, per the neoconservatives' prescriptions, America has placed the full use of its military capabilities off-limits. The neoconservatives have taken all-out war — real war — off the table," the authors write.
On some level, the authors seem to admire the neoconservatives, who, by their account, manage the leading conservative think tanks, journals and magazines, take ideas seriously, "almost always impress readers with their formidable learning and the clarity of their prose," are "skeptics without being pessimists," and believe in the Law of Unintended Consequences.
It becomes clear enough soon enough, though, that Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brook are hostile to neoconservatism, too, in their own way. The book, they say was written "to alert Americans – and especially those who value our nation's founding principles – to the threat posed to this country by neoconservatism." (One wonders, if neoconservatism is dead enough to deserve the "obituary" of the book's subtitle, how can it still be such a grave threat?)
Neoconservatism, they write, is "a unique species of anti-Americanism," "fundamentally at odds with the heart and soul of Americanism and the spirit of American liberty." It "represents the worst elements of both liberalism and conservatism."
"The neoconservatives scorn reason, principles, morality, and capitalism, and, ultimately, they scorn America," the authors contend. "The neoconservatives have no real use for individual rights, or, for that matter, the individual."
"Deep down, the American people respect business, entrepreneurship, and material wealth. The neocons, by contrast, dismiss such values as vulgar, hedonistic, and, worst of all, selfish," the authors write.
"The American people want less government interference in their lives, and the neocons want more," they say. "Our deepest fear is that the neoconservatives are preparing this nation philosophically and culturally (whether they know it or not) for a soft, American-style fascism."
"Like the fascists," the authors write, "the necons are statists…they support government control of private property and the means of production."
Their focus is on two writers, Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol, who are no longer alive to defend themselves. The third major "neoconservative" target is David Brooks. Michael Ledeen, John McCain, Michael Novak, and Peter Berkowitz are also lumped in with the neoconservatives.
The assault is marred by some errors. The authors incorrectly place the Trotskyist "Alcove One" that spawned Irving Kristol at Brooklyn College rather than at City College, which is in Manhattan.
The authors accuse Irving Kristol, in 1952, of writing for "the hoity-toity of the Upper West Side," ignoring that in 1952, the Upper West side was not particularly hoity or toity, but rather the home of the gang fights that inspired West Side Story and the slums that were cleared to create Lincoln Center.
The authors claim that "Prior to September 11, the idea of democratic 'regime change' in Iraq with the ultimate aim of 'spreading democracy' throughout the Arab-Islamic world was unpopular outside neoconservative circles." No mention of the Iraq Liberation Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, having passed Congress by a vote of 360 to 38 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
At another point, the authors contrast neoconservatives with "Ordinary Americans – the ones who actually fight the wars," ignoring that Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz both served in the U.S. military, as do the children of many neoconservatives today.
The authors attribute a rush to democratic elections that have empowered Islamists to the "delusion" of neoconservatives, ignoring the caution of a hero of the neoconservatives, Natan Sharansky, that elections should come after building the institutions of civil society.
All this is particularly disappointing to a reader like me, who often shares the authors' exasperation with David Brooks's New York Times column and who found Senator McCain, suspending his campaign to get TARP passed while denouncing corporate greed, to be a disastrously inadequate spokesman for the principles of economic liberty.
It's one thing to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that Irving Kristol was too prone to compromise with the welfare state or that David Brooks is too much of a communitarian. It's one thing, even, to argue that neoconservatives are too nationalist or too religious.
Those are policy debates that can certainly be had. The authors complain that the goal of the neoconservatives is "to arrest the development of creeping liberal modernity by reintroducing religion and nationalism back into American culture."
They summarize Kristol's critique of capitalism as saying that "As an economic system, it works reasonably well, but as a moral system, it fails entirely."
Whether capitalism is a moral system or whether the role of a moral system belongs to something else, like religion, is another debate that can be had.
But the authors go far astray in suggesting that the side of the debate with which they disagree is somehow a betrayal of America's founding ideals.
"The purpose of government for America's Revolutionary Founders was not to make men virtuous, moral, or religious," the authors insist. Mr. Thompson, the author of two volumes on John Adams who earned his Ph.D. at Brown under the eminent historian Gordon Wood, certainly has standing on this issue, and it's possible I am misunderstanding or misinterpreting his emphasis, but I don't think he has the weight of the evidence with him on this one.
The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, in Article Three, crafted by Samuel Adams, said, "the happiness of a people, and the good order of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality," which "cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality."
Washington, in his farewell address, said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
And Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, described Americans as "enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter."
In contrast to the warm words that these founders had for religion, the authors of this book seem hostile. They let their feelings shine through in a footnote: "What makes America historically unique is not the Salem witch trials, the Christian defense of slavery, or the Scopes trial. These kinds of events are all remnants of the Old World. The Declaration of Independence could not and would not have been written by the Puritans, who did not understand and never would have tolerated the radical individualism, the economic freedom, and the limited government promoted by the Revolution."
Somehow the Christian defense of slavery is worthy of mention for these authors, but not Christian abolitionism, or the religious role in the Civil Rights movement. Nor does the Massachusetts Puritan revolution against Governor Andros of 1689, which the later revolutionaries cited as a precedent, seem to have made much of an impression on Mr. Thompson and Mr. Brook.
The authors contend, "The founding of America's revolutionary republic was the high point of the Enlightenment." But the "Enlightenment" progressed to the bloody French Revolution and to the even bloodier Bolshevik one. America's revolution turned out better in part because of the influence of the very religious ideas that the authors scorn.
"Strauss-influenced neocons reject Enlightenment reason as the modern god that failed," the authors say. Well, yes, as do many Americans who may not have read Strauss and may not define themselves as neocons. Even by the standard of that failed god, denouncing those you disagree with as "anti-American" seems a bit much. If nothing else, it's a reminder of how powerful the idea of America is, that immigrants -- Mr. Brook is from Israel, Mr. Thompson, from Canada, though neither mentions it in the book -- can come here and become so passionate about the country that they manage to muster a book-length argument that those who preceded them, not just the neoconservatives but even the Puritans, were anti-American.