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essays

Oct 1, 1974

Kristol, “On the Democratic Idea in America”

Roy Childs finds the most formidable of neo-conservative intellectuals “at once exciting and disturbing.”

The road to moral, intellectual and political progress is often one filled with jeopardy, risk, and frustration. It often seems as though it were covered with hidden land mines, ready to visit destruction upon any and all travellers who attempt to venture forth. But some travellers do venture forth, some in cautious, hesitant steps, some boldly and defiantly.

In recent years surely one of the boldest and defiant strokes on the path to intellectual progress has been the emergence of a group of men who have been dubbed the “neo-conservatives.” Beginning almost uniformally as liberals, they began to rethink some of their ideas and policies—and to reject them. In part, they reacted against the rise of the New Left, with its irrationalism, destructiveness, egalitarianism, collectivism, and general mindlessness, the left that hated the profit motive, self-discipline, private property, the work ethic, capitalism—in short, America.

But to a larger extent they were reacting against the collapse of values and institutions that they began to see as the result of the politics and policies of liberalism, against the consequences of their own actions and those of their former allies. Questioning the rhetorical successes of the Great Society, they produced an odd integration of classical political theory and empirical social sciences, and began to lead the challenge against establishment liberalism and its unquestioned dogmas. Such men as Edward Banfield, Daniel Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Robert Nisbet, and Nathan Glazer began, in the pages of Commentary, Dissent, Encounter, and The Public Interest to provide a searching critique of the collapse of liberal expectations. It was as Thomas Kuhn might have predicted: the development of anomalies and the violation of expectations was leading a group of thinkers to search for a new paradigm.

Perhaps the most influential member of this school has been Irving Kristol, professor of urban values at New York University and co-editor of The Public Interest. For many years now, Kristol has been dealing with some of the most fundamental issues in American life, and from a perspective and depth which rivals that of the classical political philosophers.

On the Democratic Idea in America is a collection of eight of Kristol’s major essays published during the last seven years. Everyone of them, without exception, is brilliant, probing, and profound. The specific topics include such themes as urban civilization, pornography and censorship, American intellectuals and foreign policy, utopianism in American politics, and the crisis in the foundations of capitalism and Western civilization.

The fundamental theme of these essays, however, is “the tendency of democratic republics to depart from … their original, animating principles, and as a consequence, to precipitate grave crises in the moral and political order.” And because of his study of the evolution and collapse of contemporary institutions, Kristol is concerned with the implications of a principle which he may have learned, in part, from his study of the works of F. A. Hayek, who has “as powerful a mind as is to be found anywhere,” namely, that “the unanticipated consequences of social actions are always more important, and usually less agreeable, than the intended consequences.”

On another level, Kristol’s main concern might be said to be the social and political efficacy of values, and the disastrous effects in American life of utopian political thinking, which divorces thought from reality.

In the last 20 or 30 years, observes Kristol, American culture has changed radically; our past seems like an alien universe to us now. America is becoming an urban civilization, and classical political thought—particularly that of America’s founding fathers—suggests that the habits of mind and of character which urban society promotes might be destructive of the preconditions of a republican political order, qualities of rationality, purpose, self-discipline, respect for certain traditions, and a commitment to principled values. There has been a shift from “a producer’s ethic…to a consumer’s ethic,” and the American people, more and more, are acting like “a collection of mobs.” Moreover, there has arisen an “adversary culture,” to borrow Lionel Trilling’s phrase, which has seized control of the means of education, has begun “to shape the popular culture of our urbanized masses,” and projects hatred and hostility toward bourgeois society. And many young radicals have begun to reject the ideals and the promise of Western civilization itself. For these radicals “it is not the average American who is disgusting, it is the ideal American.”

In short, we are witnessing a widespread collapse of values, and of the institutions whose legitimacy is derived from these values. These problems and trends, “taken together … constitute a condition, and are creating habits of mind that threaten the civic-bourgeois culture bequeathed to us by Western civilization,” including the capitalistic system, which is part and parcel of bourgeois society.

I have focused in the main on Kristol’s statement of the problems we face, and it is here, in very complex analyses, that Kristol is strongest. But in many ways, that is a more difficult process than coming up with “solutions,” for one must clearly define a problem before any attempt to solve it can be fruitful. One should not be misled into thinking that the problems are all self-evident: Values have causal efficacy, suggests Kristol, and work in indirect and obscure ways; the consequences of their undermining work in the same way. Moreover, the rebuilding of any system of values, or the implementation of an alternative code, is no mean feat, not something that can be taken lightly. Many of us are against religion, and cheer on its diminuation. But what are the consequences of this, particularly for the mass of people who cannot construct an ethic or way of life on their own, and who find it hard enough to live as it is? Does pornography and obscenity have a detrimental effect on culture? What has happened to the ideal of a democratic republic in recent years? What are the effects of increasingly demagogic political rhetoric and of a kind of political utopianism which refuses to take real contexts and complex problems seriously? These are the sorts of questions that Irving Kristol addresses in On the Democratic Idea in America.

While I do not agree with all of his analysis—that of pornography and censorship is particularly inadequate—most of it is so refreshing and so profound that I found the book an experience at once exciting and disturbing. It set my mind racing with new ideas. The level on which most political radicals—including libertarians—address cultural, social, and political problems is so distressingly simplistic that this book is more than welcome. When all is said and done, Irving Kristol and the neoconservatives take reason, liberty, and civilization seriously. More interesting yet, to me, at least, is the fact that they take values seriously, in a time when all we see is manipulation of narrow interests and pre-set prejudices. Kristol suggests that we think about values. And on the road to moral, intellectual, and political progress, that must count as a heroic leap forward indeed. Reviewed by R. A. Childs, jr. / Political Philosophy (149 pages) / BFL Price $5