Review: Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, by C. Bradley Thompson with Yaron Brook. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2010. 305 pp. $24.95 (hardcover).


In Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, authors C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook show that the neoconservative intellectual movement is very much alive. Those who carry its banners are “deeply embedded in America’s major think tanks, philanthropic foundations, media outlets, and universities” (p. 1). Then why would the authors select a title that implies that the object of their study is dead? The title is ironic, in part because the authors hope that their book may cause the movement’s death, thus “inspiring the need for some future obituary” (p. 2).

The authors wrote their lean work to Americans “who value our nation’s founding principles” (p. x). The main message is that neoconservatives, who boast of being “in the American grain,” threaten those principles. That inference is based on an investigation that ranged across a diverse and sometimes deceptive intellectual movement. The authors examined the movement’s leaders today; the movement’s publicly stated guiding ideas; the lineage of the ideas passed down from the movement’s ex-Marxist founders; the actual, but usually unstated, principles of the underlying neoconservative worldview; and, finally, the consequences of the guiding ideas and worldview in political policies that affect American lives.

The ambitious scope of the book raised a crop of problems for Thompson and Brook. First, the authors say, the neoconservative movement’s founders have presented a moving target. “[O]ver the course of forty years, [the neoconservatives] evolved rather seamlessly from neo-Marxists” at Brooklyn College in the late 1930s, to “neo-liberals” in the 1950s, and to “neoconservatives” in the late 1960s (p. 16).

A second factor complicating the authors’ research was, they note, neoconservatives’ denial that the movement even has an underlying philosophy, that is, a view of the basic nature of the world, a view that sets the context for and therefore shapes their political views. Instead, trying to avoid debate about roots, neoconservatives vaguely describe their intellectual movement as a “persuasion” or “mood” guided, the authors explain, by “a nondefinable, ever-changing ‘public interest’” (p. 136).

A third hurdle for Thompson and Brook was separating the neoconservatives’ “esoteric” teachings (their actual, private, motivating ideas), from their “exoteric” teachings (the ideas they state publicly to motivate the common man). “The seriousness with which [neoconservatives] took the exoteric/esoteric distinction and applied it to their own thought and policy prescriptions makes the task of unraveling and understanding their project very difficult” (p. 69).

For these reasons and others, Thompson and Brook have produced a book that is necessarily complex in content. What approach do the authors take to presenting such material?

The ten-chapter book starts, in the authors’ words, by examining “the outer layer of neoconservative political thought” (p. 23), the “exoteric” political teachings that appear in neoconservatives’ own public statements. Chapter 1 (“The Path to Power”) describes the neoconservative program for “Reforming the ‘Stupid Party,’” which means transforming the Republican Party into an advocate of “Big-Government Conservatism,” the ideology of a conservative welfare state. Chapter 2 explains the neoconservative “philosophy of governance,” which includes “thinking politically,” a euphemism for setting aside morality and taking whatever steps, including coercion, are needed to shape society.

The second phase of the book traces the historical roots of neoconservatives’ public statements. In chapters 3 through 6, the authors show that the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol (1920–2009), began in 1952 to be influenced by the writings of philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973), who, in turn, had been influenced by Mussolini, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Maimonides, and Plato.

The third phase of the book’s argument demonstrates the outgrowths of those historical roots, in the form of the neoconservatives’ “esoteric” teachings, the ones they discuss among themselves. For students of philosophy and its effect on history, chapter 7 (“The World According to the Neocons”) is the key section of the book. It explains the neoconservative philosophy, branch by branch.

The most fundamental branch is metaphysics, which examines the basic nature of the world. The authors explain that Strauss adopts Plato’s scheme of two realms: the “true reality . . . a supernatural world of the Forms . . . which are perfect” and unchanging; and “the material world in which men actually live . . . an imperfect, ever-changing realm” that is only an inferior reflection of the superior world (p. 95).

As Thompson and Brook point out, a corollary to the question of the basic nature of the world is the question of which aspects of reality most deserve our attention. Neoconservatives have an answer that is directly relevant to their ethics and politics. “Following Leo Strauss, they take . . . ‘the public household,’ or what Kristol calls ‘the collective self’ as the primary unit of social and political reality” (p. 140). Further, the neoconservatives “see . . . the political community as . . . metaphysically prior to the individual in the same way that the oak tree is said to be prior to the acorn” (pp. 140–141).

In epistemology, the branch of philosophy that considers how we come to know the world, the dualism of two realms continues in the notion that “the ‘realm of theoretical truth’ and the ‘realm of practical moral guidance’ are forever cut off from one another” (p. 138). This doctrine of splitting theory from practice leads to a social hierarchy. Thompson and Brook explain that, at the top of the neoconservative society are the elite—the philosophers and their select students. The philosophers perpetually seek Truth but ultimately reach it only with the aid of mystical “divination.” At the bottom of the social hierarchy are the many, the everyday citizens who must rely on tradition, custom, and convention. In the neoconservative view, the common denominator for the two social groups is acceptance of the notion that reason can take “man only so far up the ladder of knowledge before it hits a dead end” (p. 108). The authors later conclude that “the neocons largely have contempt for reason . . . as such” (p. 147).

In ethics, the third branch, the dualism appears as a chasm. On one side is the amorality of the philosophers, intellectuals, and “statesmen” who direct society. These leaders admire Machiavelli; to shape society, they do whatever needs to be done, including advocating and engaging in deception and coercion. Thompson and Brook cite neoconservative Michael Ledeen, author of Machiavelli and Modern Leadership. He says Machiavelli’s leadership rules “are as valid for us as they were for the leaders he counseled five hundred years ago” (p. 156). On the other side of the ethical split, neoconservatives expect common men to follow the conventional ethics of their society. Neoconservatives, even when atheists, turn mainly to religion to guide the many with the ethics of altruism, which demands sacrificing oneself for the sake of something “higher.”

In politics, the last branch of the philosophy underlying neoconservatism, the core idea is statism, the doctrine holding that the State’s need is superior to the individual’s rights. “The neocons,” Thompson and Brook observe, “have assumed the role of paternal guardians for America’s vulgar many, and they are more than willing to use the coercive power of the State to force individuals to act for their own good” (p. 166).

Chapter 8 (“Benevolent Hegemony”) examines neoconservative foreign policy as a demonstration of their philosophy of governance. Long before September 11, 2001, the authors say, neoconservative intellectuals had already formulated their views on foreign policy. When barbarians attacked on that day, neoconservatives were well positioned to fill the vacuum of response to the attacks. “[N]eoconservative intellectuals and policy-makers” played an “important role . . . in shaping the administration’s foreign policy objectives in the months and years following September 11” (p. 172). The Bush administration’s war plan—an endless international crusade of fighting “terrorism” and building “democracies”—was largely an application of neoconservative philosophy. For example, the authors note, “The neoconservatives, staying true to their embrace of altruism, reject all-out war in favor of self-sacrificial means of combat that inhibit—or even render impossible—the defeat of our enemies” (p. 192).

Although the authors do not devote a separate chapter to the domestic policies of neoconservatism, they do in various places in the book (especially the section “A Neoconservative Welfare State” in chapter 2) explain that the neoconservative philosophical principles of altruism in ethics and statism in politics determine their domestic as well as their foreign policy. Neoconservative domestic policy, the authors say, includes elements such as recognizing “that people have rights to the ‘public’ provision of . . . food, shelter, medical care, pensions, and similar such goods” (p. 48). The authors ask, “How do [the neoconservatives] sell their welfare program to traditional conservatives? The neocons advocate a strong central government that provides welfare services . . . while at the same time giving people a choice about how they want those services delivered” (p. 50). Such “choices”—for example, school vouchers—are merely items on a menu written by the neoconservative “statesmen” and bureaucrats. This approach to the welfare state, the authors observe, is the neoconservatives’ idea of “free-market reform.”

In the last chapter, chapter 10 (“National Greatness Conservatism”), the authors connect neoconservatives’ foreign and domestic policies by showing that “neocons’ foreign policy actually serves as an arm of their ‘National Greatness’ domestic agenda” (p. 195). The keystone in this arch of policies is the concept of nationalism. It is the particular form of collectivism that neoconservatives have chosen as the object for the sacrifices demanded from Americans. “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 government, fight wars, and die for the state” (p. 226).

In their conclusion, the authors issue a caution that follows logically from the preceding chapters:

[T]he neoconservatives are the false prophets of Americanism, and neoconservatism is America’s Trojan horse. Those who wish to defend America’s Enlightenment values and the individual-rights republic created by its revolutionary Founders must therefore recapture from the neocons the intellectual and moral high ground that once defined the promise of American life. (p. 251)

In making their point, the authors succeed in three ways: They accumulate overwhelming evidence for their case against neoconservatives, they present an easy-to-follow argument at the sentence-by-sentence level; and they skillfully employ teaching techniques such as asking questions and then inductively proceeding to answer them. However, in its overall “architecture,” the authors’ presentation of their case is confusing. In particular, the structure of the book is puzzling. The authors are usually careful at the end of each chapter to draw conclusions or ask questions that segue to the next chapter. What is not clear is the overall direction of the book’s main line of argument. It is not historical, moving from oldest to newest or vice versa; nor is it philosophical, moving from most to least fundamental principle or vice versa. Without a concise and comprehensive statement of the book’s path of argument as a whole, the chapters sometimes read as if they were individual essays.

Despite that drawback, two kinds of readers will benefit greatly from a careful study of the book. First are those who want a rich characterization of the nature of neoconservatism today—its public and private faces, the common principles of its domestic and foreign policies, and the reasons for its success as a movement. This book thoroughly provides that characterization. Second are those who, perhaps preparing themselves for deeper debate, want to know historically and philosophically why neoconservatism is what it is. Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea traces those roots to their ultimate sources. All readers, even the more casual ones, will hear the authors’ warning that neoconservatism is a threat to America.

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