March 7, 2005

Manhattan Transfer on Neoconservatives

"The Neoconservatives: What Went Wrong" explains Manhattan Transfer. He points out in an email to me: "No mention of drinking in the entire post, so most of my regular readers will probably skip it."

How did the sons of the acerbic critics of the Great Society at home become the wooly-headed promoters of National Greatness abroad? Besides victory in the Cold War,

Sometime in the nineties, however, this neoconservatism suffered from two setbacks. The first was that many neoconservatives began to suspect that the culture was not quite (or no longer) as brittle as it had seemed. America had withered the storm of the social upheavals of the sixties and remained largely intact, if radically altered. Several indicators of societal breakdown—most notably crime—reversed, in direct contrast to neoconservative predictions. Other indicators seemed not as serious in hindsight. American culture had shown a surprising ability to absorb feminism, sexual liberation and gay rights. Even the breakdown of the family no longer seemed as deleterious as the neoconservatives had feared. America had been radically transformed in the last quarter of twentieth the century but it had not crumbled.

Perhaps a more cheerful way to look at this would be to say that the neoconservatives and their allies had triumphed in their struggle to temper the worst elements of the adversarial culture. They had “tamed” (to use a word popular with neoconservative theorists) its radicalism. They had, in short, accomplished the conservative task of preserving the culture while adapting it to new circumstances. Of course, the work of taming the adversarial culture had to be continued indefinitely, but Western civilization was no longer on Orange Alert.

The second was the neoconservative triumph over liberal policy. The neoconservative projects of welfare reform and other revisions to the programs of the Great Society were essentially accomplished during the neoconservative moment. Not even the liberals clamored for great projects of social engineering. Democratic President Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government had come to an end.

(Perhaps a a third setback was the loss of the Cold War enemy but, again, this was more generally felt on the right and not particular to the neoconservatives.)

Why describe these accomplishments as setbacks? While they were arguably political victories—or rather, certainly in the case of policy reform and perhaps in the case of taming the adversary culture—they left the neoconservative intellectuals without psychologically satisfying cause. The objects of the neoconservative critique had in various ways entered into the dustbin of history...

What happened? One explanation might be psychological and political. Like their New Class forebearers and the British imperialists before them, neoconservatives needed a project. For the Neo-New Class, power and status are now sought through the expansion and management of empire rather than a large public sector at home. The War on Terror is the Great Society for the Neo-New Class.

I would add a little more ethnic detail. The original neocons were mostly Irish (D.P. Moynihan, J.Q. Wilson, Fr. Greeley) or Jewish (Kristol, Podhoretz, Glazer), with the occasional WASP inner city sociologist thrown in (Banfield, Coleman), and thus had numerous relatives in the big cities who were directly exposed to the rise of black power and black crime in the 1960s. The Irish professors had relatives who were cops and firemen, and the Jewish intellectuals had relatives who were liquor store owners and public schoolteachers.

Over time, Americans learned to insulate themselves from the worst of the crime wave, both by moving away and by locking up more and more criminals, so even the horrible murder epidemic of the crack years affected mostly inner city people.

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