Mar 1, 1978
Order and Elites
Silver addresses a subject of pressing importance: the Neo-cons and intellectual elitism.
Neo-Conservation through its influential academics, such elite publications as Commentary and The Public Interest, and mass media impact, deserves study for its philosophy, history, and program.
In their roots and perhaps their vision of a future society, many Neo-Conservatives evidence a strong tendency towards pessimistic socialism. Many Neo-Conservatives originated as young socialists, turned into liberals, and then evolved into disillusioned critics of post-New Deal America. At first it seemed that Rooseveltian liberalism or some other reform movement could substitute for their socialist utopia. This reformist surrogate to socialism seemed to offer an orderly institutional framework both to lead gradually towards national prosperity and to guarantee rewards to the intellectually talented.
To give a thumbnail sense of where the Neo-Conservatives stand politically, consider Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His ideas skillfully combine traditional but tightfisted liberal welfare state economics (government has a duty to provide a rising floor to the less fortunate) with a foreign policy which advocates a return to the Cold War (only a militarily strong America can win its national goals). Pragmatic national interests generally dictate Neo-Conservative attitudes toward other countries: are countries the U.S.’s friends or enemies in the anticommunist conflict? The paramount American responsibility to defend Israel and espouse the cause of Soviet Jews transcends pragmatic calculations.
Neo-Conservatives reject John Locke’s philosophical defense of inalienable individual rights because this abstract “ideology” may lead to disorder. They prefer the aristocratic, legalistic, traditionalist, and authoritarian views of Edmund Burke.
The Neo-Conservatives’ desperate “search for order” appeared in their response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist crusade in the 1950s. They viewed McCarthy as a populist demagogue, a latter-day Jacobin, who invoked disorderly direct democracy to circumvent the orderly conservative institutions of government. Ever fearful of “Mass Man” they sought to defuse any popular ferment by gradual economic reform. Still they were uneasy. According to their analysis the American people, although economically reformist and gradualist, were socially conservative and potentially reactionary.
In the 1960s they documented in scholarship their belief that the American people’s social conservatism included anti-Semitism. Government institutions which could assure gradualist, nonradical reform, a necessary stabilizing proper to social order, stood between dangerous demagogues and a fickle democratic mass. During the Kennedy-Johnson years of the 1960s their ideal was orderly and controlled economic change within a secure framework of national prosperity.
In elitist fashion, they grew disturbed when the Warren Court seemed to endorse a mindless majoritarianism by its “one man, one vote” decision (1964). America needed the antipopulist “safety valves” of a federalist system. Politicians or the Court should not raise mass political expectations.
During the past 20 years, the Neo-Conservatives’ unremitting tone of anxiety, their fear of a relapse into social disorder, and their emphasis on authority and tradition, can be explained in large part as reactions to a major trauma—the fear of anti-Semitism. Hannah Arendt’s brilliant Origins of Totalitarianism explains, in Neo-Conservative fashion, this pervasive fear. According to Arendt, strong national states protected the European Jews in the nineteenth century. But Populist movements endangered them. In effect, a conservative elite protected the Jew, whereas the mass, “the people,” were the bigoted enemy. To deal properly with the volatile masses, one needed managed reform by elites which produced ordered change.
It is difficult to predict the future shape of the Neo-Conservatives’ coalition. Today it consists of an alliance with labor and the Jackson wing of the Democratic party on economic issues; on “social issues” it forms an uneasy alliance with traditional conservatives. As the ongoing major themes of Neo-Conservatism, note respect for authority, the goodness of the corporate status quo, and the need both to curb economic appetites and to preach social harmony. Its vulnerable points are elitist bias and antidemocratic fears.