The Poverty of Paul Ryan’s Vision

The 125th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

Is Paul Ryan trying to prove to us that he’s every bit as out-of-touch as we fear?

We’re a little late to this but we think it’s still relevant. The other day, the Speaker announced (with a heavy heart) that he would vote for Trump. But he also indicated that his political strategy for the House is vaguely Gingrich-esque: pretend as though there are no other branches of government (certainly not an unwanted nominee of his own party) and try to govern in isolation. It didn’t work for Newt and won’t work for Ryan.

It’s certainly far less likely to work considering the central issue he’s chosen: poverty. Now, we’ve said before—but it’s worth repeating—that a lot, perhaps most, of the reformicon domestic policy ideas are worth pursuing. Especially if we do get a Republican administration that has to fill the 8,000 or so Schedule C and related positions in the Plum Book. All those people are going to need something to do and a blueprint by which to do it.  It’s better if they work from a good blueprint than a bad one. The President won’t be able to give personal direction on every aspect of policy but only to set a general direction and (hopefully) get his people moving on an agenda that his campaign had already laid out in some detail. One of our concerns about the Trump campaign, incidentally, is that they haven’t done this and don’t seem to be interested in doing it.

But the Trump campaign is vastly superior to Ryan in its core understanding of the core issues most urgent right now. Every new President can focus on three, at most four, such issues. Trump seems to have three: secure borders, economic nationalism, and interests-based foreign policy. We can have a debate about whether those are the most urgent issues just now. Indeed, the whole campaign may be said to be such a debate. We’ll see who wins.

Obviously, we at JAG think these are the most urgent issues just now. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. But does anyone—other than Paul Ryan—believe that developing a new poverty policy is the most urgent issue right now? Perhaps Jack Kemp’s ghost?

The poor will always be with us, sayeth the Lord, and a decent society should do what it can alleviate their poverty in ways that are non-corrupting and that promote their industry. But a sound anti-poverty agenda should address the core issues that are driving politics right now—in part because those issues bear directly on poverty.  Prudent political leaders (at the moment, that would be Trump and … ?) should also look for ways not to import or create more poverty, through stupid immigration, trade and economic policies. Keeping the borders open and the outsourcing flowing are at the heart of Paul Ryan’s overall political program. Both are, not incidentally, guaranteed to increase poverty in America. Does Ryan on one level know this, and that’s why he finds fighting poverty so urgent? Is he the political equivalent of a drug dealer calling for more treatment programs?

More likely he’s just so hard over for Kempism and Rawls’ “difference principle” that he can’t see past his own nose. Figures as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Stephen Hawking have speculated on the effects of an extraterrestrial invasion of earth. At least they agree that, in such an eventuality, the human priority would be self-defense. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, would doubtless be in his office putting the finishing touches on his latest Compassionate Conservative anti-poverty bill as the little green men with lasers surrounded the Capitol.

We liked Ryan in 2012—until he got his clock cleaned by Joe Biden.  That was kind of embarrassing.  Even today, we give him credit for a having a keen domestic policy mind.  But statesmanship transcends policy.  The most urgent necessity right now is not innovative domestic policy or more conservative box-checking—and certainly not more Kempism.  It is the Greatness Agenda.

The words “Trump” and “statesmanship” probably do not, to most people, appear to belong in the same dictionary.  They even look a little funny, there next to each other, to us.  But we ask again: what does it say about the Republican leadership and the conservative brain trust that it took Donald Trump to finger the three most salient issues in the most important election in a generation?  More important, what does it say that—now that it’s been plain for six months at least that Trump has identified the right issues—the Republicans and conservatives, rather than acknowledge reality, are all scurrying back to their same old, well-worn intellectual and political ruts?


#Maginot Conservatives

The 123rd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

The label #VichyRepublicans seems to be appearing all over political Twitter of late. And while this Journal has on numerous occasions criticized Trump for his policy ignorance, lack of discipline, apparent deficiencies in character and demeanor, and even “vices,” we find these incessant comparisons to Hitler more than a little ridiculous and really quite irresponsible.

However, let us consider the Vichy metaphor for a moment. It may be useful, if extended slightly, in one sense. For even a basic reading of history would indicate that if there are in fact #VichyRepublicans, then they must have been preceded by #MaginotConservatives.

Who are the #MaginotConservatives? They are, of course, the pundits and “elites” that have sat frozen in fixed positions designed for the last war of 20 years ago, facing in the wrong direction, aiming at strategically unimportant targets, elaborately funded yet totally incapable of effective action–providing a false defense of a demoralized, politically dysfunctional nation while (most visibly if not necessarily most importantly) neglecting even to secure a significant portion of the border.

In other words, leaving aside the analogy, if Trump is really so terrible, what does his winning the nomination say about the opposing version of conservatism?

There are three possibilities to explain Trump’s victory under this premise: (1) Trump is an evil but highly competent genius. However, given everything written by the #NeverTrump crowd about his bankruptcies, low fundraising, and lack of a “ground game,” it doesn’t seem that anyone, with the possible exception of Scott Adams, believes this. (2) The American people have become so degenerate that they are incapable of identifying or resisting a tyrannical demagogue. We haveconsidered this possibility at length as well. But, if it is true, surely both parties and their “intellectuals” must share a significant portion of the blame for failing to prevent this development. And, finally, (3) conservative leaders are so incompetent, conservative ideas so discredited, and conservative failures so egregious that even the most sensible, public-spirited voters would prefer someone as flawed as Trump over anything that TrueConservatism™ has to offer.

Thus, whatever one’s opinion of the mix of (2) and (3), remaining trapped in TrueConservatism’s™ bunker mentality is surely a downhill path to permanent, total, and in many ways dishonorable defeat. It is the unconditional surrender of the country to failed ideology.

Now, in fairness, we have also noticed recently that many conservative leaders and thinkers have begun acknowledging their own omissions and showing greater openness to rethinking conservatism. Let’s hope that continues. One does not even have to embrace Trump to recognize some merit in Trumpism, or, as we prefer, the Greatness Agenda. Undoubtedly that is a much healthier and more effective response than overwrought, deranged Twittering.


The Economic Consequences of Larry Summers Would Be Severe

The 119th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

On June 23, the UK will vote on whether to remain in the EU.  On November 8, the U.S. will vote on whether to elect Hillary Clinton as president and, with her, Larry Summers as a senior economic policymaker.  Both could lead to outcomes with far-reaching effects, and in both cases, polling suggests that the outcome is in doubt, with prediction markets suggesting some meaningful probability of the radical outcome occurring.

What I find surprising is that US and global markets and financial policymakers seem much less sensitive to “Larry Summers risk” than they are to “Brexit risk”. While every Fed watcher comments on the implications of Brexit for the central bank, few, if any, comment on the possible consequences of a victory for Mrs. Clinton and, with her Mr. Summers, in November.

Yet, as great as the risks of Brexit are to the British economy, I believe the risks to the US and global economies of Mr. Summers’ return to policy making are far greater. If he is elected, I would expect a protracted recession to begin within 18 months. The damage would be felt far beyond the United States.

First, there is a substantial risk of highly erratic fiscal policy. Mr Summers has raised the possibility of more than $10tn in new fiscal spending measures financed by very short maturity issuance of US Treasury debt, which would threaten US fiscal stability. He has also raised the possibility of the US simply monetizing this debt in the manner of a failed state such as Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany. Perhaps this is just academic rhetoric. But historical research suggests that presidents and their economic advisers tend to carry out their major campaign promises.

The shadow boxing over raising the debt limit in 2011 (where all participants recognized the danger of default) was central to the stock market falling by 17 per cent. (Although not really… Europe was falling apart at the time and everyone knows that the debt ceiling was just a distraction.)

Second, in a world economy defined by regional trade blocks such as the E.U. and China’s One Belt, One Road policy, Mr Summers’ economic multilateralism is highly disadvantageous. Exports have not been a major driver of the American economy in years. They stopped really mattering in the late 1990s, when Mr. Summers was head of international at Treasury and advocated letting China into the WTO and giving it Most Favored Nation Status. Agreeing to let China enter more multilateral organizations that it will subsequently abuse does not currently require congressional approval. If Mr. Summers did even half of what he did in the 1990s, he would surely set off the worst trade fiasco since… the 1990s.

Third, prosperity depends on a secure geopolitical environment. Allowing North Korea to have a nuclear reactor and scaling Nato into parts of Eastern Europe that it does not plan to defend was a prescription for conflict with Russia and promoting nuclear proliferation. Ignoring that the US is at war with radical Muslims, and that radical Muslims are present in the Muslim world, is an invitation to terrorism. In such an environment, investment and trade are unlikely to flourish, and Mr. Summers was part of an administration that did all of these things in the past.

Fourth, Mr. Summers’ personality surely would take a toll on business confidence. He has proposed bringing back torture as a tool of US foreign policy by making foreign leaders listen to his lectures, particularly on the Japanese economy, which he does not understand. The world was likewise enraged by Summers’ claims in the past that women can’t succeed at the highest levels in quantitative disciplines. His infamously difficult personality, bullying, and apparent insensitivity resulted in the departure of Cornel West and other leading scholars of African and African American history from Harvard.  Meanwhile, Harvard’s endowment lost hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of Summers’ interest rate policy bets and asset allocation choices into risky, asymmetric derivative exposure, not to mention distracting conflicts of ego with respected economist Mohammed El-Erian. His political overseers, the Clintons, have been deliberately solicited lump sum payments from dubious international entities, while Summers presided over a scandal involving his Harvard “protege” Andrei Shleifer’s dealings in Russia, for which Shleifer was found by a federal court to have engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. As an adviser to the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, he is rumored to have pitched going long subprime assets near the peak of the bubble. Who will rest secure with Summers being involved in the Treasury Department or Fed, which oversee our money and banking system?

Finally, there is the question of uncertainty and confidence. Improving business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus. Creating an environment where every tenet of the rule of law, internationalism and consistency in policy is up for grabs would be the best way to damage a still fragile US economy. In no election in my lifetime has a major party candidate for president wanted to bring into power an economic policy maker with such a bad track record managing the economy.

Markets are discounting the possibility of a return of Larry. Let us all pray they are right.

— Lucullus (with credit to Larry Summers)

Solidaristic Conservatism: A Reply to Ahmari

The 117th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

[UPDATE: We see that Ahmari is trolling through the JAG archive looking for things to point and sputter at.  We drafted the below (we thought, respectful and serious) response before noticing that.  We’re not going to change what follows, but neither are we going to waste time further explaining things that Ahmari is obviously determined to misunderstand.  If he wants to make any substantive points, we’ll read them.]

I’m not very good at arguing via tweet, so I thought I’d take this discussion here.  Wall Street Journalwriter Sohrab Ahmari says of us that JAG is simply “Buchananite.”  As a factual matter, that’s inaccurate in both the narrow and broad senses.  In the former, we’ve specifically criticized Buchanan, e.g., for his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, which we believe well-served American interests.  In the broader sense, as “Paleo-Straussians,” our intellectual framework differs from Buchanan’s in highly significant ways.  The first half of that formulation points to the similarities, but the second to the differences.

In a follow-up, Ahmari writes that our anonymity is a drama-queen pose meant to suggest that America is a police state, which we all know is a joke.  No, we don’t think America is a police state and we pray, God-willing, that it never become one.  But we also think that it’s trending in that direction in troubling ways, not least the persecution of dissident thought.  The chief way is to deprive people of their ability to make a living and then say “Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech!” after they get fired.  This happens a lot today and the right is almost just as eager to do it as the left—in a way, more-so, because the right feels a greater need to demonstrate its Davoisie bona fides.  In any event, it’s fine if you think we’re making too much of this, but we assure you that, if so, it’s an honest misjudgment.  We’re not faking it for shock value.

Moving to more substantive matters, he continues: “If you want to rethink—or discard—free trade, liberal order, etc. and be taken seriously, you need to put names to ideas.”  We disagree that names make any difference at all and said so.  Ahmari seems subsequently to have taken some of the edge off this claim, so let us leave it aside.

We do think that the phrase “or discard” was wholly unnecessary, since we’ve not argued for discarding either the liberal world order or free trade.  We’ve actually defended the former, albeit with the argument that its conflation with the last 15 years of the neocon agenda is a prudential and historical mistake.

As for trade, we are not doctrinaire free-traders, it is true.  We are happy on this score to stand with Smith, who wasn’t either.  Or Reagan.  Or Lincoln.  And so on.  To make a very simple point, if there were truly free trade, why wouldn’t every “free trade” deal that America signs with other countries simply be one sheet of paper that says “There shall be free trade—no tariffs or any other kind of barrier—between the United States and Country X”?  Instead, our “free trade” deals require truckloads of volumes, each as big as the phone book.  (If anyone remembers those.)

There is no such thing as free trade.  There are just deals, good and bad.  And what is good and bad—necessary or superfluous, beneficial or detrimental—changes with the times.

We’re still pretty supportive of the WSJ’s 1980s program—for the 1980s.  (Bob Bartley’s absurd 1984 “There Shall Be Open Borders” Constitutional Amendment aside.)  We also find much useful and applicable in the paper’s 2016 program.  Just not all of it, and not—we’re pretty sure—the parts that its writers feel are the most important.  Though it has been interesting to watch the editorial page equivocate about Trump.  We assume some of that comes from on high.  But might it also signal a re-think of some of the editorial page’s most sacred dogma?  We can hope!

Steve Sailer (we further assume you don’t like him*, but credit where credit is due) recently wrote that the WSJ’s agenda of revitalizing individualistic conservatism made sense in the 1970s, when the country was stalled owing to the exhaustion of several decades of corporatism and collectivization.  But individualism long ago grabbed all the low-hanging fruit and ran out of fresh ideas.  It’s no longer delivering on its promises like it did 30-40 years ago.

What’s needed now is a revival of solidaristic conservatism, to help repair the civic fabric and restore a sense that we are all in this together.  That is what, it appears to us, Trump is offering.  Eventually this solidaristic conservatism will, too, run out of steam and stall.  And some of its adherents (not us) will insist that the solutions of 2016 must stand forever.  But for now, solidarism is what’s needed. Individualism can make a comeback if and when solidarism (perhaps inevitably) goes too far and squelches individual initiative.

We stand athwart history yelling “What difference, at this point, does it make?” but also “No dogmatism!”  That’s our core beef with conservative intellectualism, including the WSJ.  You guys aren’t wrong about everything, but in this present crisis, you’re more wrong than right about the big things most needed now, and Trump is more right than wrong.


* To be clear, since it is unfortunately necessary in these troubled times to be absolutely clear, we certainly find some of his statements thoroughly objectionable as well (but, again, credit where credit is due).

Addendum on the Liberal International Order

The 115th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

While we’re smacking around Robert Kagan, it’s worth clarifying a point raised but not fleshed out in our recent foreign policy post.

We believe, or speculate, that the reader who wrote to us asking if we disdain the “liberal international order” was (perhaps without fully realizing it) basing his question on a misunderstanding that originates with Kagan.  Or if Kagan did not originate it, he has done more than any single writer to retail it.

The misunderstanding—which, on Kagan’s side, is deliberate—has two parts.  First is the conflation of the post-World War II “liberal international order” with some kind of permanent truth about America’s role on the world.  Second, and related, is its usage to justify and even require whatever it is that the neocons want to do in the here-and-now.

The pose, in other words, is: it’s always been this way and it must always be this way.

Conservatives who’ve studied the American Founding should recognize this as identical to the left’s tactic of taking (for instance) “all men are created equal” and insisting that its logic has always pointed toward, even demanded, socialism.

But both halves of Kagan’s formulation are false.  First, it’s just obviously not true that the post-war liberal international order represents some sempiternal embodiment of American interests.  Its creation was a response to the challenges of a particular time, its burdens not ones we sought to take up but felt we had no choice.  Are those challenges permanent and unchanging?  The world looks a lot different than it did in 1945.  So why must American foreign policy be preserved in amber?

Second, and more important: in what way does the Present at the Creation era point to, much less require, anything like the democratization of Afghanistan or assisting al-Qaida take over Libya or Syria?  These are acts of plain lunacy.  If we could exhume and reanimate all six of Isaacson and Thomas’ Wise Men so that they could see what we’ve wrought in the name of their liberal international order, they’d have us committed.

In short, objection to neocon idiocies is not rejection of the liberal international order’s original purpose or still-useful elements, any more than admiration of that order requires embrace of said idiocies.


Hey, Kagan! THIS Is What Real Fascism Looks Like

The 114th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

Robert Kagan—who gives arrogant, fatuous, pompous windbags a bad name—a few weeks ago published what remains the single worst “conservative” piece on the Trump phenomenon so far.  We won’t bother to refute the main argument, since it’s really no different than Sullivan’s, only shorter and simpler, and we’ve already addressed the core issues at length.

Kagan writes that “this is how fascism comes to America.”  By “this” you might think he means this.  Orthis.

But no.  He means Trump.

Now, it’s true that Kagan’s piece ran before the San Jose violence.  But it was written after the Illinois violence.  After the riot in St. Louis.  After the mayhem in Arizona.  After Burlingame.  And after several other street-thug anti-Trump “protests.”  Kagan mentions none of that.

No, Kagan’s “evidence” for Trump’s “fascism” is Trump’s “attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture.”  Meanwhile, actual people commit actual acts that are in perfect keeping with the historic reality of actual fascism and Kagan has nothing to say.  Except to condemn … Trump.

He’s supposed to be a historian and expert in international affairs.  You’d think, then, that he’d be familiar enough with fascism to recognize signs of it when he sees it.  To be clear, we’re not saying that these mobs were in any way organized.  (Though neither do we rule out the possibility that George Soros, who seems to enjoy bankrolling anti-American street violence, might be behind it.)  The point is that beating up people for attending a peaceful political rally in support of a cause or candidate you don’t like is the textbook definition of fascist “ground game.”

If Kagan had an ounce of intellectual honesty in him, he’d know that, retract this embarrassing column, and apologize.  But being on the left means never having to say you’re sorry.  Since Kagan hasa lot to apologize for, perhaps that’s the real, deep-down reason why he returned to the Democratic Party.


Recommended Reading

The 112th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in June, 2016.

For those new readers who may have been brought here by Peggy Noonan’s column, we encourage you to check out our featured articles for some of our longer essays:

Trump as Critic: The Need for a Greatness Agenda

Trump, Sullivan and Caesarism

Trump v. the Ruling Class

Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism

The GOP’s Grand Bargain Fizzles

Edmund Burke Will Not Save Us

Twitter: @GreatUSJournal

Reasons for Trump’s Appeal, Part 742

The 107th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

We doubt any angry Trump supporters have literally put these two stories together.  Our doubts would be valid even if we believed more than a trivial number of Trump supporters read the New York Times.  Still, the twopieces fit together like a yin and a yang.

The first is about North Wilkesboro, NC—a dying, formerly industrial town quite close to the fictional Mayberry, where Sheriff Andy Taylor dispensed gentle justice for eight years in the 1960s.  The social center of town is no longer Floyd’s barber shop but the “vape shop”—i.e., the dispensary of e-cigarettes in various exotic and improbable flavors.

There is no hope there.  The textile mills and furniture makers—long the bedrocks of the local economy—have either closed or so reduced their output that barely anyone can make a living.  The only person who seems to make any money is the local lawyer who defends his former high school classmates against drug charges and represents them in family court.

Trump is very popular in North Wilkesboro.

The second is about a town where Trump is very unpopular.  President Obama, we recall, will break tradition and stay on in the capital after his term ends.  Naturally, he’s got a swell place lined up.  That’s not the interesting part.  The interesting part is that this $6 million, nine-bedroom home in Washington’s very fanciest neighborhood—where Donald Rumsfeld, who had been a Big Pharma CEO, lived when he was SecDef; where also sits the French Ambassador’s magnificent Tudor, a home grand enough that Vanity Fair chooses it as the setting for their legendary “please-ya-gotta-lemme-in” White House Correspondents Dinner after-party—this fine home befitting a soon-to-be former President of the United States is owned by … Joe Lockhart.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Joe Lockhart was one of Bill Clinton’s five Press Secretaries.  Not one of the famous ones, either.  Now, Press Secretary is not an easy job.  It requires an agile mind, a way with words, and a command of policy and politics.  It’s also high-profile.  No surprise, therefore, that talented people find their way to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room podium, become well-known, and later do very well for themselves.

But still.  The house in question was first owned by one

Capt. Charles Hamilton Maddox, a veteran of both world wars, who in 1912 designed and tested, in-flight, the first successful radio equipment used in Naval aircraft. His daughter, Muriel Maddox, acted alongside Marlon Brando in the movie “The Men” and wrote a number of romance novels.

The article continues:

The neighborhood has long been home to prominent politicians, including Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover and Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Socially and economically, Press Secretaries have come a long way!  The article notes that, until recently, Lockhart had worked as “the managing director of a communications and political consulting practice he founded, the Glover Park Group.”  I.e., the fortune that Lockhart “earned” to buy Captain Maddox’s house was acquired through the typical rent-seeking—or, to be more precise, the facilitation of rent-seeking—practiced by virtually everyone lucky enough to score a high-level, high-profile Washington government job.  How does that compare with designing and flight-testing the first successful radio equipment used in Naval aircraft?  In any event, we don’t know the exact figures, but you can bet that the price of that home has soared well beyond inflation as the contributions to society of its residents has plummeted.  A fitting commentary on what 2016 America “values” in contrast to America circa 1928, no?

Meanwhile, down in North Wilkesboro, people who used to actually make things that improved lives and boosted the GDP of our country are poorer than they’ve been since the Great Depression.

There is perhaps not a strict 1:1 relationship between the poverty of North Wilkesboro and the tidal wave of wealth washing over the Beltway.  It’s not like Washington is robbing the former to pay for nine-bedroom mansions in Kalorama.  Is it?  No, that would be too obvious.  It’s rather that rentiers like Lockhart get rich helping even bigger rentiers get even richer by pushing policies that favor the Davoisie agenda, which acts as an irrigation system to drain cash and opportunity out of places like North Wilkesboro and pour it into Washington, D.C. and its surrounding counties.

It really does take a Conservative Pundit not to understand the appeal of Trump.


Two (and-a-Half) Cheers for the Neocons

The 106th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

[UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that David P. Goldman beat us to this theme (and title) by some nine months.  No disrespect or plagiarism was intended.  This was written in ignorance of his original column, with which we substantially agree.]

We at JAG seem to enjoy bashing the neocons.  This might give some the impression that we have no respect for them at all or that we deny or disdain any and all of their accomplishments.

Not so.  The neocons were once a mighty force for good, on two principle scores.  You might even say three, but three cheers would be too much in the current environment, in which they definitely deserve some jeers.  However, we will mention all three in the interest of fairness.

First, the neocons were the first significant cadre of leftist intellectuals to break with the left and move rightward.  This was an epochal event in ways that are no longer sufficiently appreciated.  From the moment that Communism began to gain political strength in the late 19th century, the left showed amazing esprit de corps and “message discipline.”  The few who did break with them—Chambers and Dos Passos, for instance—were essentially declared non-persons and drummed out of intellectual life or else ghettoized and read only by their new friends on the right.  The neocons, by contrast—in part because of their origin on the left and personal relationships with leading leftist intellectuals—were able to make the break and keep their “intellectuals license,” to retain the recognition (however grudging) from their former allies that they were genuine thinkers who had to be taken seriously.

A related factor, which we hesitate to mention lest it provide aid and comfort to alt-right anti-Semites, is of non-trivial importance.  Painting with broad strokes, we may say the pre-war liberal intelligentsia (Edmund Wilson, doyen) was not substantially Jewish.  But the postwar liberal intelligentsia (Lionel Trilling, doyen) was definitely trending Jewish if not monolithically so.  To be taken seriously it was almost essential to have some connection to the New York Intellectual scene, which included a large number of influential Jewish voices.  New York felt it could safely ignore the likes of Russell Kirk.  It could not ignore Irving Kristol, who was emphatically one of its own—a prodigal son.

Thus all of the sudden many on the left felt they had to take the right seriously.  Not to agree with it necessarily, but to treat its arguments as if they were at least worthy of refutation.  This is something that the dominant leftist intellectual culture had not felt it necessary to do for several decades.  It had the effect of legitimizing the intellectual right and so paving the way for its later successes.

So that’s (half)-cheer number one.  The first full cheer follows directly from it.  The early neocons were brilliant on substance.  Let’s not deny or overlook that fact.  They brought an intellectual rigor to left-dominated social science that used the tools of social science to bolster long-asserted conservative insights with hard data.  Conversely, they were the first to use the social science methods of the hubristic post-War liberal consensus—which held that “science” was going to cure “the ills of the cities” even more effectively than philosopher-kingship—against that consensus.  The early neocons, like intellectual jujitsu fighters, seized the left’s tools and used them to demonstrate the vacuity and failures of the left’s social programs.  A great deal of successful conservative social policy—crime reduction, welfare reform and much else—has followed this trail first blazed by the neocons.

Neo-conservatism is today most associated with foreign, not domestic, policy.  This brings us to our second full cheer.  A common thread uniting the original two camps of neocons is apostasy: both, as it were, rebelled against their ancestral faiths.  The foreign policy neocons were Cold War Democrats appalled by America’s betrayal of South Vietnam, the McGovern nomination, and the Nixon-Kissinger policy of “détente.”  They intuited—it turned out correctly—that American weakness was making the world more dangerous, that the Soviet Union need not be accepted as a permanent geopolitical fact, and that renewed American strength would enhance American interests and could change the world for the better.

Ronald Reagan and many others on the right came to all these conclusions independently—and, as the Nixon-Kissinger point illustrates, in defiance of their own political party.  The informal migration of the Cold War neocons to the intellectual right, followed by their formal entry into the Republican Party, helped conservatives within the Party win the argument on foreign policy, which strengthened America and helped win the Cold War.

These two momentous achievements deserve two rousing cheers.

But how did they translate into the Middle East democracy agenda?  We can speculate as to the answer.  First, the conservative critique of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy fecklessness was generally correct.  Hence, especially after 9/11, the bumbling of the late 1990s looked in hindsight a lot like thebumbling of the late 1970s.  A reassertion of American strength was paramount, said the neocons.  To this extent, we agree(d).  Second, the 1970s foreign policy neocons won the argument with the “realists” over the efficacy of using human rights and other moral considerations as cudgels with which to batter the legitimacy of Communism generally and the USSR specifically.

However, the application of this principle to the Middle East proved both unnecessary and unwise. Ironically, the original neocon fealty to empirical social science should have revealed the unwisdomthe impracticality—of the democratization dream.

But by then neo-conservatism had ossified into an ideology.  Which points to the other common thread uniting the first two generations of neocons.  They were responding to the exigencies of their times.  To meet those exigencies, they formulated new ideas, or adapted old ones, specifically tailored to the circumstances they (and the country) faced.  Compare that with today’s “neocons” who—if one thinks about it—barely deserve the name.  There is nothing “new” about them.  All they do is take decades-old formulas and force them on times and circumstances to which they are manifestly unsuited.  Worse, unlike their forebears, they seem incapable of learning from their mistakes or changing their minds.  In Irving Kristol’s famous formulation, a neo-conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”  I.e., who has changed his mind in response to undeniable fact—especially in the face of the obvious failure and untruth of what he once believed.  When was the last time you saw a Kagan or aBoot do that?

The elevation of time-bound policies—however efficacious in the moment—to high principle is the principal malady afflicting intellectual conservatism today.  Not just neo-, fairness compels us to add, but all brands, with and without prefixes.   In not understanding the grounding of the good and natural right, conservatives mistake second- and third-order strategy and tactics for uncompromisable holy principle.  Genuine eternal principles are difficult to grasp and rarely (if ever) “supply us with recipesfor today’s use.”  One of the reasons that the great works of political philosophy are so hard to understand is that their authors wished to avoid having their teachings rotely applied to transient issues.  There are at once many more, and many fewer, than 48 laws of power.  No political formula ever works in perpetuity.  Prudence is always a requirement of sound statesmanship.  The original neocons had it.  Their intellectual children and grandchildren don’t.