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David Brooks's Call for a Renewed Neoconservatism


Neocon Elitist
DP Veteran
Jul 9, 2008
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The kind of conservatism that Irving Kristol embodied was cheerful and at peace with modern America. The political heroes for this kind of conservatism, Kristol wrote, “tend to be T.R., F.D.R. and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.”


The crucial issue for the health of the nation, in this view, is not the size of government; it is the character of the people. Neocons opposed government programs that undermined personal responsibility and community cohesion, but they supported those programs that reinforced them or which had no effect.

Neocons put values at the center of their governing philosophy, but their social policy was neither morally laissez-faire like the libertarians nor explicitly religious like some social conservatives. Neocons mostly sought policies that would encourage self-discipline. “In almost every area of public concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers, or voters and public officials,” James Q. Wilson wrote.


This strong government conservatism, Brooks finds, specifically lacking in the present GOP. This was what many had cheered for after the deflating Republican consensus in the mid-2000s. The Republican Party would be less influenced by those who thought that Americans liked big government solutions when they worked modestly or overwhelmingly well. To many neoconservatives, the antagonistic view of government intervention goes too far, and exaggerates measured reality.

In reality, this is perhaps a mirrored image of what E.J. Dionne once thought was going to happen on the liberal end. If neoconservatism started as a reevaluation of public policy and intellectual affairs of American liberalism, Dionne wanted a more skeptical wave of liberal policy wonks and intellectuals to correct the oversteps committed by neoconservatives over the past decade. Brooks seems to be arguing for a re-thinking as well. Brooks is clearly distancing neoconservatism from its recently infamous tendencies around defense and foreign policy. Brooks believes that concentrating on domestic and intellectual affairs and arming it with the neoconservative's penchant for skeptical, but active government action is equated with putting America on a healthier road map. This is perhaps his second attempt to remind readers that domestic policy neoconservatism is still alive. No longer found in the pages of Public Interest, it is now perhaps seen in its successor National Affairs, despite having the tendency to distance itself from Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's willingness to entertain liberal public policy. Brooks still found National Affairs to be the home for the tradition.

As for myself, I always thought reading Glazer, Moynihan, and Wilson did much to calm the passions of the moment, without completely deflating the potential for successful public policy. I would welcome a renewed domestic policy neoconservatism. Though, I too think that some of its more known figures would have tamed expectations for successful guidance of public policy.
Neoconservatives are simply liberals who want an assertive foreign policy. On most issues,they are liberal. Bush,who created a new entitement,bailed out GM,imposed steel tariffs and spend billions more on food stamps and education would be an example.
Neoconservatives are simply liberals who want an assertive foreign policy. On most issues,they are liberal. Bush,who created a new entitement,bailed out GM,imposed steel tariffs and spend billions more on food stamps and education would be an example.

There is nothing simple about the grouping. For one thing, they are, in general, qualitatively different from liberals, and there are many who do not want an assertive foreign policy.

The liberal stance is: for every problem there is a policy, and even if the problem is new, the social system and polity must be indicted for failing to tackle it earlier.

The liberal view further sees vested interests as the chief obstacle to the institution of new social policies.


But as I worked on our policies in housing, health, social welfare, quite a different point of view impressed itself upon me, and I can summarize it in two propositions:

1. In our social policies we are trying to deal with the breakdown of traditional ways of handling distress. These traditional ways are located in the family primarily, but also in the ethnic group, the neighborhood, the church.

2. In our efforts to deal with the breakdown of these traditional structures, our social policies are weakening them further and making matters in some important respects worse. We are making no steady headway against a sea of misery. Our efforts to deal with distress are themselves increasing distress.

Despite the pleasing symmetry of this view, I did not believe in any automatic law. The basic problem was the breakdown of traditional structures. But other problems continually frustrated our efforts to complete the structure of social policy so that we could be satisfied improvement was occurring and that we were not making things worse than before.-Nathan Glazer, The Limits of Social Policy

Neoconservatism is an awkward and not very accurate name for an attitude that holds social reality to be complex and change difficult. If there is any article of faith common to almost every adherent, it is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Things never work out quite as you hope; in particular, government programs often do not achieve their objectives or do achieve them but with high unexpected costs. A true conservative may oppose change because it upsets the accumulated wisdom of tradition or the legacy of history; a neoconservative questions change because, though present circumstances are bad and something ought to be done, it is necessary to do that something cautiously, experimentally, and with a minimum of bureaucratic authority. Neoconservatives, accordingly, place a lot of stock in applied social science research, especially the sort that evaluates old programs and tests new ones.-James Q. Wilson, Forward to The Essential Neoconservative Reader
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