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Making a Modern

Conservatism

By Josh Lerner

 

No one could deny the brewing hostilities on the right. War, it seemed, was inevitable. The pillars of the conservative movement, from National Review to the Heritage Foundation, far from being on the sidelines, became the battlefield. A very consequential president had just left the scene, and the direction of the movement was as unknown as the outcome was bleak. The war fought here, over the ideas, the personalities, the religion of the movement, would, inevitably, transform the right, both politically and intellectually. It was described by some as a war between “Manhattan, Kansas and Manhattan Island” and it pitted natural allies against each other over what seemed, to outsiders, to be rather insignificant.

This could easily have described the sniping on the right since the disastrous 2008 election. But what I’m describing is something far more significant, far more intellectually substantive, and, to put it plainly, far less well known. What I am describing is the split between the paleoconservatives, those stalwarts of the Old Right who had been such an integral part of the conservative movement for the better part of half a century, and the neoconservatives, the upstart urbanites and ex-liberals or leftists who had rapidly ascended through the ranks of the institutions of the right. The conflict between the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives, which was primarily fought between 1982 and 1996 (although slight skirmishes still break out on the margins), allowed neoconservative institutions and ideas to shape the trajectory of post-Communism conservatism, leaving the paleoconservatives isolated and marginalized. What made this conflict different than other factional conflicts on the right (which seem to arise nearly every other month) was that this battle rapidly ascended from the opinion page, to the foundation boardroom, through the nascent conservative media outlets, ending up in the White House. This conflict, for better or worse, helped forge the modern conservative movement and caused a major reevaluation of the intellectual foundations of conservatism itself. The figures and institutions we now consider standard bearers of conservatism—Rush Limbaugh, National Review, The Heritage Foundation—are largely a product of the neoconservative victory and the paleoconservative defeat.

The Players

To fully understand the nature and scope of this quarrel, we must start at the beginning: the main actors in this tragicomedy, the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives. Both labels have been applied liberally and have been especially corrupted by those who oppose the movement.

This is, of course, the biggest problem with the concept of neoconservatism in particular, because, as the great sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset said “it was invented as an invidious label to undermine political opponents, most of whom have been unhappy with being so described.” It has often been used, fairly or unfairly, as a cudgel of the far left to bash those who’ve they decided as particularly noxious.

Nevertheless, “neoconservative” does describe a subset of intellectuals, and those so described do have several distinguishing characteristics. Neoconservatives are, as Irving Kristol so eloquently put it, “liberals who have been mugged by reality.” Their conservatism was a product of the failures of liberalism, and as such, was still predicated on many of the assumptions inseparable from modern liberalism. They all were, at different points in their career, liberals or leftists. All, at least in the beginning, believed in the welfare state, strong anti-communism, and the idea that a liberal democracy both lives and dies on the character of its people and its government. These beliefs were very much grounded in doubts about the radical reformism of the era, yet their adherents still spoke of political reforms to address social problems in a language not terribly different from the liberal consensus they had recently divorced themselves from.

The one area in which the neoconservatives remained largely unchanged, however, was in foreign policy. American power, to the neoconservative, has always been a tool that was used to further both America’s interest and the cause of international democratic capitalism. The two are, functionally, inseparable; Democratic Peace Theory influences much neoconservative foreign policy, but it is tempered by the recognition of the dangers of a non-liberal democracy evolving. The single element that is incontrovertible is the commitment to a robust use of American military power and the belief that it can, and must, be a force for good in the world. It has been stated that they posses a “non-traditional foreign policy agenda that was less deferential to traditional conceptions of diplomacy and international law and less inclined to compromise principles, even if that meant unilateral action.”

Kristol also distinguished three specific aspects of neoconservatism from previous forms of conservatism: neo-conservatives had a forward-looking approach drawn from their liberal heritage, rather than the reactionary and dour approach of previous conservatives; they had a ameliorative outlook, proposing alternative reforms rather than simply attacking liberal social reforms; they took philosophical ideas and ideologies very seriously, rather than just dismissing them outright as did other conservatives (Russell Kirk famously called conservatism “the negation of ideology.”) Neoconservatives were the products of the university system in the age of social science, and as such found much to be admired in the exploration of all problems, whether they are scientific, social or political, from an analytic and academic perspective. This naturally lead to the rise of neoconservative publications, particularly The Public Interest and Commentary, who were unafraid to publish pieces that challenged both liberal and conservative orthodoxies in an evenhanded and sharply critical manner, with Commentary taking on foreign policy and religion, and The Public Interest economics and social policy.

The fundamental characteristic of the neoconservatives, however, may be their willingness to fight for their ideas in ways that the left did as well. The neoconservatives were integral in founding many conservative institutions, or refurbishing old ones and giving them new direction, purpose, and, most importantly, financial backing. The think tank, as exemplified by the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, became the place where scholars of a conservative bent, particularly social scientists, were able to not only work on their given projects but become a community of intellectuals. Think tanks allowed neoconservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, fusionists, social conservatives, and foreign policy experts to discuss and disseminate new ideas, in forums dedicated to their spread. The only ones who ended up being excluded (with a few noticeable exceptions) were the paleoconservatives.

The term paleoconservative, unlike neoconservative, was one embraced by its members quite instantaneously. The term, coined by paleoconservative humanities professor Paul Gottfried, defines a political ideology (although they would hate the use of that term) that is based around concepts of tradition, the importance of civil society, and the value of culture-specific heritage and identity. It is very much tied together by the belief that the established elements of Western Civilization must be protected above all else, and the role that the traditional forms of connection play in the sustenance of a nation. Thomas Fleming, a noted paleoconservative thinker and theorist posited that it was based around “the survival and enhancement of a particular people and its institutionalized cultural expressions.”

Paleoconservatives, in the rich conservative tradition of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, exalt the necessity of tradition because of the limits of any individual’s reason should lead us to trust in institutions that have survived for an extended period; the importance of the permanent things in the maintenance of society is the paramount paleoconservative virtue. As historian Wesley McDonald put it “in a humane social order, a community of spirit is fostered in which generations are bound together. According to Kirk, this link is achieved through moral and social norms that transcend the particularities of time and place and, because they form the basis of genuine civilized existence, can only be neglected at great peril. These norms, reflected in religious dogmas, traditions, humane letters, social habit and custom, and prescriptive institutions, create the sources of the true community that is the final end of politics.” The paleoconservative adheres to these traditional structures and institutions in such a way as to fully reject any attempted, or realized, replacements or substitutes.

The chief paleoconservative values, tradition and Western Christian social norms, manifest themselves in several positions. For one, paleoconservatives believe strongly in a largely decentralized federal government. Although major disagreements exist about legislation in the social realm at the state and local level (ranging from the nearly theocratic Thomas Fleming to the nearly anarchist Llewellyn Rockwell), all paleoconservatives agree that action at the federal level, barring reasons of national defense, is not only unwise, but also immoral. This restricted notion of federal action is a major element of paleoconservative thought; they believe in a rigid conception of constitutionality and limited power that harkens back, as they themselves would point out, to a “Confederate understanding” of government action.

With that in mind, another key element of the paleoconservative’s worldview is his reluctance to join international affairs, either economically or militarily. As exemplified by Pat Buchanan, one of the foremost intellectual and political figures of paleoconservatism, isolationism and protectionism were the primary manifestations of paleoconservative foreign policy. This idea of an economically independent and non-entangled America was one that goes as far back to George Washington’s Farewell Address. The one exception paleoconservatives made to this was their ardent anti-Communism; beyond that, all foreign aid, intervention, or promotion of free trade was both problematic and unconstitutional.

Another realm of interest for paleoconservatives is that of race and culture. Paleoconservatives, more so than any other subset of modern conservatives, believe in the essential goodness of Western Culture (and Anglo culture in particular); they see it as necessary for the survival of our country that we embrace and encourage this. That means that the ethnic composition of a society is just as important as the proclamations of loyalty and patriotism; the cultural baggage a person carries is inseparable from his or her ethnic background and, as such, bears greatly on the success or failure of a polity.

Paleoconservatives are very much proponents of Southern culture and heritage. The Southern Agrarians, although predating Paleoconservatives by a good 40 years, provide the intellectual background that they take and run with. The single biggest belief held by these Southern paleoconservatives is that the Southern way of life—particularly the aristocratic agrarian culture that was ubiquitous in the Antebellum era—was the best provider of the character and civic virtues that enable the thriving of a nation. The class distinctions and racial separation are not merely byproducts of the era, but important institutions that promoted the only quintessentially American culture anywhere. This meant that the paleoconservatives often viewed the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, and the South as the aggrieved party merely fighting for its civil and political rights (the issue of slavery is usually ignored). This conceptualization of American history provided the backdrop for the first real fight between the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives, and it would be this type of battle that would ultimately decide the intellectual path that conservatism was going to take.

As can probably be easily understood, these two competing ideologies, although sharing much in common at a practical level, have fundamental differences in the way in which they think about politics and the political life. These philosophical differences ultimately framed the disagreements between the two sides and underscored the great conflict that was going to occur.

One must recognize how their different conceptions of America influence the two groups to pursue their different goals. The paleoconservative would emphasize the importance of social and religious institutions in the formation of the character of the United States. Prominent paleoconservatives have often argued that the American Revolution was not based on Enlightenment ideas, but as much on English Common Law and practical grievances. In his The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk argued that it was the religiosity of the founders, as well as their sense of established laws that was the lynchpin of American power. The most important thing in the Founding was the establishment of permanent institutions (like the farm or the Church) and not the power of Enlightenment ideas.

The neoconservative vision of America, however, is much more based on the power of the ideas of the Enlightenment (particularly the power of natural rights) and on the dynamic leadership, practical foresight, and political thought of the founders. It was in this vein that many neoconservatives were (loosely) influenced by Leo Strauss or some of his followers. Straussians’ view of natural rights, their recognition of the dangers of relativism, and their understanding of the philosophic origins of the American Founding (particularly that of Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns) helped ground many of the neoconservatives (specifically Irving Kristol) in a far more expansive and coherent political philosophy.

Straussian concepts of natural rights essentially combine traditional liberal views of these rights as immutable and universal realities that act as the ultimate check against tyranny within the framework of a classical conceptualization of excellence. The pursuit of individual liberty is just one of many goals of natural rights. Strauss recognized that there had been a fundamental interest in the problem of human excellence and political virtue. Neoconservatives adopted this concept of combining rights and duties, of liberties and vices, as the way to properly understand politics. Unlike paleoconservatives, who obsess over the particulars of a political regime—religion, associations, etc.—neoconservatives could rest upon universal truths and rights that transcend the temporal elements of any polity.

These different conceptions of philosophy in general and America in particular, set up the contrast of ideas that would extend throughout the respective movements. If America is based largely on traditional institutions and not ideas, then the paleoconservative commitment to the church and the ethnically homogenous, small farming community is the logical way to improve the nation. If, however, we are based on a commitment to the Enlightenment and a defense of natural rights, then the American political experience is benefited by social and political extensions of such philosophical movements. If these ideas are the ultimate goal of our nation, and things like the Constitution and treaties must serve these ends and are not ends unto themselves. This explains the neoconservative malleability on many issues, given that the ultimate goals are themselves harder to realize. It is through the use of social science, tempered by an awareness of its fundamental limitations, that we can realize the means to achieving these abstract goals.

For the most part, paleoconservatives saw social science as a manifestation of modernity and something that should not be trusted. Paleoconservatives argued their points through references to medieval ideas. They saw the means toward their ideal society as a return to traditional social relations. They eschewed a positive social science, grounded in statistical analysis, and the concrete policy goals that followed, seeing a political approach centered on these as too accepting of the decrepit state of society, and instead focused on universals and universal questions. The neoconservatives were concerned with something entirely different and, as such, the two camps largely argued past each other. The idea that political goals and practical politics should be separate is something entirely anathema to neoconservatives, men who believe that it is the primacy of ideas that move history. The social sciences were simply another manifestation of that age-old truth. Paleoconservatives distrust theorists of any kind, and rather eschew them for either traditional forms of political (or pre political) life and the actions of practical statesmen. From a philosophical perspective, conflict between these two was simply inevitable; these competing visions of what constituted conservatism would have immense difficulty coexisting with each other.

The Schism

Regardless of one’s views on neoconservatism or paleoconservatism, it is relatively uncontroversial to claim that the first issue to cause an intellectual rift between these superficial allies was the nomination of Mel Bradford to the National Endowment of the Humanities. In 1980, Bradford was selected by President Ronald Reagan to be the chairman of the Endowment. The selection was met with outrage from neoconservatives, particularly Irving Kristol and William Simon, centering partly on Bradford’s criticisms of President Abraham Lincoln. They were concerned with Bradford’s bizarre fascination with Lincoln as the American Caesar, his characterization of Lincoln as “a dangerous man,” and his claim that “the image of Lincoln rose to be very dark” and “indeed almost sinister.” Another issue was Bradford’s support for the 1972 presidential campaign of George C. Wallace, who had run almost entirely on segregation and fervent opposition to the civil rights movement. The neoconservative choice, William Bennett, ultimately replaced Bradford at the behest of the Reagan administration. The controversy was far too intense for something that was seemingly rather unimportant.

But to the (newly named) paleoconservatives, this was an absolute affront. The Bradford-Bennett controversy, in many ways, was a microcosm of the internal conflict that had been brewing amongst conservatives for the previous decade and a half. Mel Bradford was the southern partisan par excellence. He was a professor of English literature at the University of Dallas, had studied with Donald Davidson—one of the 12 Southern Agrarians who signed off on the manifesto I’ll Take My Stand in which Davidson wrote an essay supporting legal segregation,—and was from a prominent family in Dallas. Bradford’s conservatism was largely a manifestation of his admiration for what he considered the idealized South. He always saw his studies and his background as being a part of the greater Southern cultural milieu. He was in many ways the archetype for the paleoconservative.

Bill Bennett, on the other hand, represented something very new, and very distinctive, in his version of conservatism. Bennett is largely the product of modern urban education; he was born in Brooklyn and got his BA from Williams College. Two things jump out about Bennett: his PhD was in a more traditionally liberal subfield (political philosophy, as opposed to those of the literary types dominating conservatism at the time), and he was a lifelong Democrat (up till his nomination, that is) who had been, at least earlier in his life, a liberal. This meant that Bennett had been a part of the majority liberal academic culture and had come to his conservatism through his own rational means; he neither inherited it nor was he raised in it. On an issue-by-issue basis, Bennett is as conservative as Bradford—if not more—with the sole exception of the civil rights movement. Bennett, as would be common with most neoconservatives, did not see Bradford as an enemy per se, but rather as someone whose immoderate opinions and fiery rhetoric would do more damage than good. To Bradford, Bennett was a usurper and a fraud. The ascendancy of Bennett threatened the very legitimacy of the paleoconservative movement, because if even the avowedly conservative president rejected them as being too far from the mainstream, then there was little hope for them anywhere. This was just the beginning of a rather protracted conflict.

The next major eruption of hostilities happened in 1986 at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference on the state of conservatism. Some of the contributors at the conference complained about the intellectual ubiquity of the neoconservatives. Gregory Wolfe argued that true conservative scholars valued “order and organic community, class and natural aristocracy” and considered “Christian belief as the foundation of morality and law”; underlying this was the prospect that these “reformed liberals” were anything but conservative. Stephen Tonsor, a prominent paleoconservative, summed up their grievances as such: “It has always struck me as odd, even perverse, that former Marxists have been permitted, yes invited, to play such a leading role in the Conservative movement of the twentieth century. It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” To many paleoconservatives, the idea that these outsiders could possibly come in and do anything to help the movement was preposterous and, in addition, they represented a danger to the cogency and unity of the movement. It is a criticism that would continue to show up throughout the whole of the conflict.

Nothing, however, would prepare the conservative world for what happened on December 15, 1988 at the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, the premier conservative think tank that has often served as the mediator between warring factions, hosted legendary conservative thinker Russell Kirk on the subject of where the Right should go after the Reagan presidency. What Kirk delivered was an impassioned speech entitled “The Neoconservative: An Endangered Species” that served as a broadside against those in the movement that seemed to depart from (his own) accepted orthodoxy. Kirk, in no uncertain terms, stated that “the neoconservative group have not made many friends nor influenced many people, despite talents for self- publicizing…They have shown no great literary skill: I fear that not one book by a neoconservative will still be read in the year 2000. neoconservatives have tended regrettably to become a little sect, distrusted and reproached by what we may call mainline conservatives, who now and again declare that many of the neoconservatives are seeking chiefly place and preferment.” Besides the bizarre admonition for not being good enough writers (which is natural, given that they are centered around the social sciences more than the humanities), Kirk demonstrated a remarkable tin ear for political prognostication. Underlying it all was a belief that the neoconservatives’ work was not at all valuable, and that their intellectual contributions were as much destructive of the conservative movement as they were helpful.

Kirk was worried as much by the appearance of these outsiders as he was by the nature of their ideas; his speech is filled with rambling invective that, on one significant occasion, borders on anti-Semitism. When he began talking about foreign policy, Kirk bellowed, “And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States,” a statement that, at best, implies malfeasance and disloyalty by the neoconservatives. The response to this was immediate. Midge Decter, wife of prominent neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz and the director of the Committee for the Free World (a neoconservative think tank) called Kirk’s remarks “a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives.” The remarks, she maintained, were simply that “people like my husband and me put the interest of Israel before the interest of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty.” It is the dual loyalty charge that so infuriated many neoconservatives, most of who were Jewish, because of the rich history of such charges being leveled against Jews as an excuse to excommunicate or exterminate them.

This incident, and further accusations of anti-Semitism, was far from isolated, and it would be these charges that, ultimately, did paleoconservatism in. These comments by Russell Kirk and others by Joe Sobran—who once remarked that the New York Times should “change its name to the Holocaust Update” and compared Israel early and often to Nazi German—and Pat Buchanan, the aura of anti-Semitism left the paleoconservatives in a very precarious place. Prominent neoconservatives, from Nathan Glazer to Norman Podhoretz, condemned these remarks as the very worst of anti-Semitic rhetoric. But the real storm was saved for remarks Buchanan made on the McLaughlin Group in 1991. On the eve of the beginning of the Gulf War, Buchannan stated, “there are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East—the Israeli defense ministry and its ‘amen corner’ in the United States.”

The fallout from this was immediate. Columnists on each side were shooting back and forth at quite a remarkable speed. Given that accusations of anti-Semitism are not ones to be taken lightly, this situation was becoming rather explosive. It was going to take the measured hand of William F. Buckley, impresario of modern American conservatism, to settle this. In early 1992, Buckley dedicated an entire issue of National Review, the flagship publication of the conservative movement, to this simple question: “are there elements in the conservative movement that are anti-Semitic?”

From these investigations and articles, Buckley produced his controversial book In Search of Anti-Semitism, in which he concluded that someone reading columns written by Joe Sobran, then a paleoconservative editor at National Review and one of Buckley’s hand picked protégés, “might reasonably conclude that those [Israel] columns were written by a writer inclined to anti-Semitism.” Furthermore, Buckley found that the accusations leveled against Buchanan were, “regrettably unavoidable.” In his stance, Buckley, the captain steering the conservative ship and the symbol of the aristocratic element of conservatism the paleoconservatives so admired, legitimized the claims of Podhoretz and the neoconservatives. With this book, Buckley forcibly divorced mainstream conservatism from the paleoconservatives; with the resignation of Joe Sobran, no one who would be considered a mainstream paleoconservative was ever granted an editorship at National Review again.

The intellectual implications of this event may not be as readily apparent, but are still monumental. The question leading up to the rise of this conflict was the following one: how do conservatives reconcile their radically diverging opinions on the Gulf War? In what was essentially the first real contentious difference on substance within the right since the Goldwater nomination, the breakdown was very mixed. Many on the neoconservative spectrum saw no difference between dealing with Saddam Hussein, a monstrous tyrant whose regional hegemony threatened America’s economic and security interests, and confronting the Soviets in Afghanistan or Grenada. Buckley was mostly swayed by this argument, and the conservative movement began to become more and more pro-war. Paleoconservatives, however, found themselves aligned with the same elements of the left that they so vigorously denounced in the 1960s. So politically, Buckley, and much of the mainstream conservative movement, was already alienated from the paleoconservatives. The anti-Semitism simply allowed Buckley to socially alienate them as well.

The consequences for the neoconservatives were immense as well. This moment crystallized the strong relationship that the neoconservatives would have with the rest of the movement. For one, it meant that they could therefore trust that the movement would not reject them for being Jews. When seen in the context of the Reagan revolution, we also see the gradual conservative shift of the neoconservatives become complete. By 1994, the political distinctions between neoconservatives and the mainstream conservative movement had largely disappeared, and, as Charles Krauthammer (another prominent later neoconservative) would argue, spelled the end of a distinctive political movement called neoconservatism. As we entered the post Cold War era, conservatism would more and more resemble these same outsiders rather than the old legacy conservatives, and would position itself as something far more ideological and intellectual, rather than reactionary and stagnant.

Why the Conflict?

Besides the obvious areas of contention—all things Jewish and pertaining to Israel—why did these two factions which, ostensibly had (or at least should have had) at least a superficial alliance, fight such a bitter conflict? The answer is almost as much sociological as it is political.

The first reason conflict occurred was because these two sides were culturally as alienated from one another as possible. Paleoconservatives lived the idealized vision of what a conservative community would constitute. They inhabited homogenous, largely Southern, communities in which there were high levels of social capital, built around things like common religion, tradition, and background. It was why the Mel Bradford thing took paleoconservatives by surprise. He was, in many ways, the epitome of the Southern gentleman scholar, and as such was such a respected member of the paleoconservative intellectual movement. To see him treated so badly, by people calling themselves conservative no less, was a real shock to the system for the paleoconservatives. Because paleoconservatives lived in small, close-knit communities, they viewed their movement as such a community and reacted with the same sort of indignation when one of their own was (in their view) mistreated. Nothing Bradford was saying was outside the mainstream of conservative thought then.

Nor were the claims made about minorities made by “racial realists” and paleoconservatives Steve Sailer and Jared Taylor outside of the realm of things that would be uttered at a paleoconservative conference. Taylor, famous for his belief in the forced breeding of “high success ethnicities”, had, in their early years, written for such mainstream conservative publications as National Review and the American Spectator. The more his racial opinions became well known, however, the less he was invited to write for mainstream conservative publications. The shift in the respectability can be directly tied to the change in the nature of the conflict; Buckley’s leveling of the anti-Semitism charge became the impetus for other conservatives without anything like the same clout that Buckley had, to slowly purify the movement from the tinge of the racist elements of paleoconservatism. And Sailer, although not nearly as noxious as Taylor, publically defended a racially minded policy towards immigrants in the United States, and accepted the inevitability of a permanent non-White underclass in America.

Neoconservatives were a radically different bunch. They were largely the children of immigrants, who have lived in both squalor and success, and who view their American journey as one of progress and change. They ascended through the social ranks, not through industry or their good name, but through education and politics. Because most (but certainly not all) were Jews, they had an immediate distrust of ethnic homogeneity and religious conformity. Consider the accusations leveled against the neoconservatives by paleoconservatives; they were “usurpers” “outsiders” and “imposters.” The basic assumption held by many paleoconservatives was that these men were simply not of the same stock or background that they were. And the neoconservatives felt the same way about the paleoconservatives. They viewed the communities that paleoconservatives came from as good ones, but far from the only ones. They also would never themselves live in such a community; they were urban (and later suburban) people who saw very little personally appealing in rural life.

This intellectual alienation the neoconservatives felt from the paleoconservatives was nothing compared to the social distance experienced by the two groups. From a strictly sociological perspective, there was very little the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives could agree to. Lew Rockwell, noted paleolibertarian (and harsh critic of neoconservatism) once illustrated the breadth of the chasm between the two with the story of an encounter between a (theoretical) neoconservative and a paleoconservative. “The neocon complained that the paleocon made an ‘insensitive remark’ about AIDS and said, ‘How can you say that, when we all have so many close friends who have been struck down by this terrible disease?’ The paleo replied, ‘“Close friends?” I don’t know anyone who has AIDS. I don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has AIDS.’ After that, the neocon stopped speaking to the paleocon.”

This social split was made worse by the minority status of many of the neoconservatives. They largely broke from the left because of perceived excesses of the movement. They had no interest, however, of taking on the mantle of the majority ethnicity of this country. They had no interest in reviving pre-Enlightenment institutions and restraints on human behavior, and as such, saw the more medieval elements of paleoconservativism as something directly opposed to their vision of America. It was here that the intersection between ideas and sociology became apparent. The aforementioned respective visions of America reflected the confluence of their social background and intellectual beliefs; the combination of the two created such a massive dissonance between the two as to make them essentially two functionally separate entities. This functional inability to accommodate one another wouldn’t have mattered too much were it not for their competition for both foundation money and the prominence and importance that comes along with that.

But it was not simply demographics or geography that separated neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. It was social organization and “respect” for ideas and those that think about them that created the most rifts between the two. Irving Kristol had more respect for liberals like Lionel Trilling and Arthur Schlesinger than he did for conservative “icons” like the Southern Agrarians or Russell Kirk. The intellectual legacy of the paleoconservatives meant very little to most neoconservatives. Any claims to the beauty of agrarian lifestyle, or the simple romanticism of town life were lost on the largely urban neoconservatives, who viewed ideology and politics as things based on more than a romantic nostalgia and poetry. While they would admire the literary skills of certain old conservative icons, particularly figures like T. S. Eliot, neoconservatives didn’t care at all for his politics or his prose. To them the intellectual orientation that many paleoconservatives had embraced was one that was entirely about dispositions and inclinations, and not ideas. Conservative classics like Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences were not treated with reverence by neoconservatives, but, at best, faint praise, and at worst, fairly harsh critical analysis. Paleoconservatives viewed these books with something far more than just praise, they were the building blocks from which paleoconservatism came. Neoconservatives evaluated a given work not on its “importance” “influence” or status as a conservative classic, but rather on its merits and, a real sticking point for many neoconservatives, its applicability.

The many incidents involving Russell Kirk are a case in point. To many on the right, Kirk was one of the great intellectual heroes of the 20th century. His book, The Conservative Mind, single-handedly legitimized Anglo-American conservative claims to a rich intellectual history, and acted as a swift rebuttal to the claims of Vital Center liberals, particularly Lionel Trilling, that “[l]iberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” and that conservatism is incapable of anything save for “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” But this meant very little in the 1980s, when Kirk was at the center of a major controversy over the perceived anti-Semitism of his remarks. To neoconservatives, many of whom were students (or at least admirers of) Lionel Trilling, Russell Kirk was a minor intellectual figure, one who specialized in “connecting disparate ideas” into a framework of conservatism that was as much a literary movement as it was anything political. Its value as a “conservative classic” was meaningless to neoconservatives, who would deride such works as decidedly anti-functional and not terribly useful. To the paleoconservatives, Russell Kirk was someone who demanded full and complete respect and, as such, were aghast that people calling themselves conservative would dare attack him.

The final area in which conflict arose was in the ways they approached the practice of politics. Neoconservatives recognized early on the need to organize and to create foundations and institutions to perpetuate their ends. The think tank and non-profit, always a part of the conservative movement, became focal points of the neoconservatives. They created modern organizations that were well equipped to fight against the left. The paleoconservatives, long suspicious of the practical elements of the think tank culture, did not organize nearly as well. Because the neoconservatives were concerned with policy more than the paleoconservatives, their institutions simply attracted more money and more obvious importance. The inequality here caused many paleoconservatives to see the neoconservatives, who they viewed as outsiders and intruders, as the enemy. Were it not for the neoconservatives, they argued, there would be ample money available for all sorts of paleoconservative projects. The rise of the neoconservative institutions, (American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century, Bradley Foundation, Ethics and Public Policy Center, etc.) created such a sophisticated network of think tanks and non-profits that it allowed the far easier spread of neoconservative ideas. Paleoconservative institutions just weren’t as sophisticated, nor did they reach nearly the breadth or depth of people.

Envy was simply an unavoidable outcome of the drastic inequality. Consider the Mel Bradford nomination conflagration. Would the controversy over his beliefs ever reached the forefront were it not for the tangible means associated with his ascension to the National Endowment for the Humanities? Would Russell Kirk have leveled the same type of vitriol he did against the neoconservatives had he not felt pushed out of one of the great institutions of the Right, the Heritage Foundation? If these practical concerns had not existed, if there wasn’t a scarcity of resources and attention for those in the conservative movement, and if the discrepancy in the usefulness of their politics hadn’t been so great, this conflict never would have developed.

Where We Are Today

Neoconservative ideas and institutions have been largely integrated into the broader conservative movement. The last policy arena in which neoconservatives and regular conservatives diverged at least somewhat was foreign policy. The democratic idealism of many neoconservatives ran contrary to more naturally realist elements of conservative foreign policy. Given the state of the War in Iraq, it would seem that the conservative realists and the neoconservatives reached some sort of compromise over things like the surge and such, but neoconservative policy writ large was not adopted as thoroughly. The convergence between conservatism and neoconservatism gave conservatism a policy-analyzing edge that has enabled the movement to expand intellectually quite considerably in the last 30 years. The influence of conservatism on neoconservatism has grounded the movement and given it more of a direct political influence that it otherwise might not have had.

The rise of Ron Paul and the Tea Parties may signify a reemergence of elements of the paleoconservative movement. Of course, the Tea Partiers, as evidenced by recent polling done by Rasmussen, are far more similar to conventional conservatives, and eschew the anti-Semitism and isolationism of the paleoconservatives, than would be predicted if it were really a harbinger of a return of the paleoconservatives. The likelihood of another conservative civil war is remote. Our divisions today are far less pronounced than they were then, and the movement is stronger due to the neoconservatives’ policy-innovating acumen, willingness to found institutions, and articulation of an non-antiquated, non-nostalgic conservatism. The fundamental connection between mainstream conservatism and neoconservatism has been strengthened in recent years and a return to the radically different worldview of those inclined towards paleoconservatism seems rather unlikely.

Given that the primary differences in the conservative movement are on policy and not philosophy, the movement exhibits a cohesiveness that simply did not exist in the 1980s. A conservatism influenced by neoconservatism strove to find applications for conservative principles in the practical realm, facilitating the explosion of conservative policy ideas during the 1970s and 1980s. This conservatism has built an intricate policy-creating apparatus that can, and will, affect the issues pertaining to everyday voters. Neoconservatives, unlike many previous versions of members of the conservative movement, had no problem in compromising in some of the broader aspects of their vision to accommodate the nuances of practical politics and the current debate on many issues. This realization increased the usefulness of the intellectual right to the crafting of specific policies and to the legislative process. In that sense, it can be stated that neoconservatives wanted conservatism to be a relevant force in 20th century politics, and that meant making the types of compromises that paleoconservatives simply refused. It was not so much a moderation of opinions as it was a moderation of temperaments. By crafting a conservatism that can function in a modern political society, neoconservatives forced conservatives to articulate and defend their principles and policies to those that disagreed with them. It was, in many ways, a modernization of the right.

The neoconservative-paleoconservative conflict could be seen as an embodiment of the maturation of the right. For once, the right was concerned with dealing with politics as it is, not as it was or as it should be. The right became a focal point of innovative policy arguments and thoughts. Far from being a group of disinterested reactionaries, the right became a landscape of dynamic intellectual exchange. After the battle, conservatism was left modernized and ready to fight (and win) battles of public policy.