“His name was George F. Babbitt,” Sinclair Lewis wrote nearly 50 years ago, early on in his great dismemberment of the American businessman, the Midwest, and bourgeois provincial culture. “He was 46 years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

Lewis got poor Babbitt right enough to make his name part of the language as a symbol of crass commercialism, narrow-minded ness, and vacuous boosterism. Babbitt was crude (“He always peppered and salted his meat, and vigorously, before tasting it”) but prided himself on his good taste and cultivation. He was exuberantly conformist (“The extraordinary, growing, and sane standardization of stores, offices, streets, hotels, clothes, and newspapers throughout the United States,” he says, “shows how strong and enduring a type is ours”) but celebrated rugged individualism. He wasn’t very smart or good-looking. He cared only for making money and otherwise getting ahead. He believed in nothing except “the religion of business.” Perhaps most annoyingly, he held all his views in a boisterously friendly manner that served to hide from himself and those around him (but not the reader!) the meanspiritedness and fear and hatred that lay behind them.

“The ideal of American manhood and culture,” says Babbitt in one particularly florid expression of his beliefs before the real estate board of his hometown, the thriving metropolis of Zenith, “isn’t a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag about their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular guy, who belongs to some church with pep and piety to it, who belongs to the Boosters or the Rotarians or the Kiwanis, to the Elks or Moose or Red Men or Knights of Columbus, or anyone of a score of organizations of good, jolly, kidding, laughing, sweating, upstanding, lend-a-handing Royal Good Fellows, who plays hard and works hard, and whose answer to his critics is a square-toed boot that’ll teach the grouches and smart-alecks to respect the He-man and get out and root for Uncle Samuel, U.S.A.!”

Although this country was then and is now generally assumed to be dominated by business and a business culture, no chronicler of American life has captured that world as vividly or as enduringly as Lewis did in Babbitt. The picture has since been refined and expanded, but for years it has been the basis of the attitudes of intellectuals, students, sophisticates, boulevardiers, and others who live outside Babbitt’s world toward the business culture.

Much of the work of the “neoconservatives” has been directed toward recasting this outsiders’ image of the American businessman. The latest major event in this campaign is the publication of Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks (Harper & Row, $15). Although it’s mainly an attack on the intellectuals for their snobbery, rather than a paean to the businessmen for their nobility, Breaking Ranks is still in effect, and intent, a rejection of the intellectual culture in favor of the business culture to which it has always stood in opposition.

It should be said that Breaking Ranks deals with much more than just this one point. It is, on the one hand, a well put-together and well-told history of the intellectual life in New York City since the thirties. On the other hand, it is also a book of impressive pettiness and vituperation, in which, of the dozens of main characters, only one—Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—is presented at all flatteringly. Its subject matter is Podhoretz’s shift from conservatism to, briefly, radicalism, and, then back to conservatism. As such, its specifics have to do mostly with Vietnam, Communism, and race relations in the realm of politics. In the realm of culture, it calls forth an insular West Side world where everybody’s son was dropping out of Hampshire College to become a potter and where writers for quarterlies were assumed to be the setters of the nation’s agenda. Podhoretz is not entirely immune to the provincialism for which he criticizes the left intellectuals: Is it really so that “the Kennedy White House cared, and cared passionately, about its reputation among intellectuals”? That Richard N. Goodwin was “one of [Lyndon] Johnson’s most important assistants”? That the civil rights movement, with its roots firmly outside New York, had less effect on the events of the sixties than the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy?

That aside, the subtext of Breaking Ranks is a series of ideas about ambition and virtue; Podhoretz is a literary critic by training and he bases his defense of business more on aesthetic than economic grounds. He argues that instead of being divided into a party of the ambitious (businessmen) and a party of the virtuous (intellectuals), this country is in fact divided between those who admit to their ambition and those who don’t.

Sniffing Out Ambition

In the first place, Podhoretz says, intellectuals have traditionally regarded ambition and virtue as mutually exclusive—ambition the province of the businessmen, virtue the province of the intellectuals. This view of America took hold so strongly among intellectuals because of their historically low social and economic rank in this country. “In America,” he says, “everything was, or seemed to be, run by businessmen. Intellectuals had no status, no power, no money…. Intellectuals ‘were ridiculed and despised. They were impractical. They were effeminate.” They got their revenge “by developing a critique of America as a country in the grip of false and corrupting values… in addition to being moneygrubbing and materialistic, it lacked any civilized graces…. What else did one expect when it was dominated by businessmen and run entirely for their benefit?”

In his “radical” days, Podhoretz himself partook of this view; in fact, his radicalism grew not so much out of any political agenda (he was unwaveringly hostile to Communism, and felt solving poverty and racism were “a mopping up operation, nothing more”) as out of a feeling that American life was somehow spiritually and intellectually deadening. At the center of what he objected to was the idea of ambition. He quotes his earlier self complaining “that our society still lives by success, conceived in terms of status or money, and that the pursuit of success encourages the development of the worst human qualities and strangles the best.”

When he changed his politics, it was on this point, rather than any particular policy, that Podhoretz changed most dramatically. He broke ranks in several ways in the mid-sixties, but the clearest break came in 1967 when he published Making It and thereby went on record as believing that success—and by extension a society in which its pursuit is central—is okay. Not only that, he said intellectuals wanted success no less than businessmen; he called this their “dirty little secret” and said “there was nothing in it to be ashamed of. The old idea that the pursuit of success was corrupting in itself may once have been largely valid, but things had changed in America to the point where this was no longer automatically or necessarily the case.”

From then on—spurred on, no doubt, by the vicious critical response to Making It—Podhoretz became extremely annoyed with people who did not come forward and admit that what drove them was ambition. Indeed, anyone who claimed to represent the interest of virtue, rather than of self-advancement, came to annoy him; if you claimed that the dirty little secret was not at the center of your soul, you were not to be trusted. Thus he particularly disliked Southern writers in New York for their “hypocrisy about ambition” (they had it but didn’t talk about it). They weren’t the only villains; there were also “people” who “went around with straight faces saying of themselves that they, as opposed to most others around them, cared only for higher things and nobler values. Unlike everyone else, they believed in peace and justice as the proper ends of politics; unlike everyone else, they believed in love and cooperation instead of hatred and competition; and unlike everyone else they believed in art as against commerce.”

So when the left attacked “the competition for money and privilege” in America, the neoconservatives, Podhoretz says, saw that what was really going on was “a ‘New Class’ of educated, prosperous people, members of the professional and technical intelligentsia, making a serious bid to dislodge and replace the business and commercial class which had on the whole dominated the country for nearly a century now.”

The objection might be raised that Podhoretz himself, despite admitting his ambition and endorsing success, still claims to represent the correct and virtuous side in his political views. His answer to that is to propose a “politics of interest” in which everyone’s political views are unabashedly those that will best serve themselves and the groups to which they belong—in Podhoretz’s case Jews and intellectuals, in other people’s case other groups, but with no one claiming to represent what’s right for everyone. “The politics of interest,” he says, “promises neither salvation nor the experience of spiritual transcendence that radicalism pretends to offer…. What I am trying to say is that if the politics of interest goes beyond individual selfishness in embracing the claims of family, community, and group, it also embodies and simultaneously broadens into an instrument of political liberty.”

Covering Up Virtue

I think Podhoretz is right in saying that ambition and the desire for success are practically universal in American life. If there is such a thing as the American character as distinct from the human character, ambition is much of what distinguishes it. It’s Podhoretz’s next step—that if everyone is ambitious, no one is virtuous—that’s wrong. Podhoretz’s annoyance at New York liberals who claim to be virtuous presumes that the people Out There make no such claims. Well, the fact is that Podhoretz hasn’t been Out There lately, and they do. His vision of a country that’s dog-eat-dog and, by God, mighty proud of it is as one-dimensional as the view of the intellectuals about whom he complains so bitterly. In other words, the neoconservatives have bought the old picture and just changed the moral judgment of it.

A good way to start explaining why that picture is wrong is to go back to Babbitt. On rereading, Babbitt is not completely the hatchet job it’s remembered as. Lewis obviously was confused (and this is the book’s failing as a work of fiction) about what to do with his hero. He starts by presenting George Babbitt as a perfect specimen of flat bourgeois American culture; that makes him journalistically interesting but not a compelling main character in a novel. So Lewis first turns him into a great success; then fills him with disaffection, so it is the culture and not he that is the villain; then has him rejoining the mainstream; then ends with a scene of feeble resentment against it. All this serves not only to give the novel some action, but also, perhaps, to reflect the reality: no one is truly a Babbitt.

Like most Americans, George Babbitt acts mostly out of economic self-interest but feels vaguely bad about it; in his stumbling and thickheaded way, he longs to impute broader virtue to himself. “Trouble with a lot of folks,” he tells his son, “is: they’re so blame material; they don’t see the spiritual and mental side of American supremacy… they think these mechanical improvements are all that we stand for; whereas to a real thinker, he sees that spiritual and, uh, dominating movements like Efficiency, and Rotarianism, and Prohibition, and Democracy are what compose our deepest and truest wealth.” He also feels bad about the unproductive nature of his work. “Wish I’d been a pioneer, same as my grand-dad,” he muses to himself at one point. “But then I wouldn’t have a house like this. I-Oh, gosh, I don’t know!”

The Radicals Confess

The presence of these inchoate notions is the source of the power of intellectuals, people (like Podhoretz) who can think things through more deeply and promulgate systems of ideas that either justify to the Babbitts what they are already doing or impel them in a different direction. Usually, they justify, but that doesn’t mean the need for them isn’t deeply felt. George Babbitt’s next-door neighbor is a 1920s neoconservative, Howard Littlefield, Ph.D., “the employment-manager and publicity-counsel of the Zenith Street Traction Company,” and a man of great learning. He is much loved by Babbitt because he can provide in a way that sounds convincing the longed-for connection between his life and the path of virtue: “He confirmed the businessmen in their faith. Where they know only by passionate instinct that their system of industry and manners was perfect, Dr. Howard Littlefield proved it to them, out of history, economics, and the confessions of reformed radicals.”

Even today the Dr. Littlefields of the world are paid handsomely to tell businessmen that what they’re doing is good and right. That’s because, Podhoretz to the contrary, it’s in human nature to have a vague sense that virtue exists, and to see that sometimes it overlaps with ambition and sometimes it does not, and to want to behave virtuously. I spent most of last summer riding around the suburbs of Dallas, Texas in a big gray Cadillac with a realtor who was younger, smarter, and richer than George Babbitt, but still bedeviled by some of the same doubts. He made a sumptuous living persuading people to buy real estate at inflated prices, but he spoke constantly of grander aspirations: to be mayor of Dallas one day, to do mall deals instead of shopping center deals, to give a million dollars to the Campus Crusade for Christ. To be sure, he wouldn’t have let anything stand in the way of his being a rich big shot, but he also badly wanted to do something that would leave the world in what he saw as better shape.

This impulse toward virtue is easy for the neoconservatives to approve of when it’s manifested in people’s personal lives, in the “claims of family, community, and group” embraced by Podhoretz. He would have no hesitancy about drawing a distinction between, say, someone who attended to his or her children and someone who ignored them.

But in politics, the impulse immediately becomes suspect. There, the neoconservative position is that if everyone acts selfishly we’ll have a perfect free market that will produce abundance without restricting freedom; whereas political actions taken in the name of virtue tend to make for less abundance, less freedom, and more power for government bureaucrats. There’s an emotional revulsion against reformers in this position, and it means that, no less than the sneering liberals, the neoconservatives shy away from making moral distinctions among the activities of businessmen. To the liberals, it’s all selfish and therefore bad; to the neoconservatives, it’s all selfish and therefore good by virtue of its refreshing lack of hypocrisy.

From the nature of the defense, you get the sense that it’s not so much love of business as hatred of the other side in the intellectual battles that spurs on the neoconservatives. You can’t help feeling, in reading the neoconservative literature, that these people at bottom are neither familiar nor comfortable with—in fact, they feel superior to—the real businessman. Here, for instance, is Peter Witonski, a prominent neoconservative-about-Washington, writing in Politics Today of his vague embarrassment about Ronald Reagan: “Ronald Reagan to the contrary, no serious American thinker today views conservatism as an anti-intellectual movement…. His approach simply does not fit in with that of the new policy-oriented conservatism.” In this attitude is the idea that what’s really important about neoconservatism is not its ideas but its sophistication. It does not, as Witonski says Reagan does, use “a compendium of the kind of Chamber of Commerce rhetoric that the late George Babbitt used to inflict upon his fellow Rotarians in Zenith.”

Making Distinctions

As a result, neoconservatives are reluctant to get down in the muck and figure out which activities of business really are virtuous and which are not. It’s the attitude that, in the business schools, makes the best students want to be management consultants, an expert’s job that keeps you from being really of business. In your typical neoconservative household, mom and dad want their kids to be lawyers, not to run factories.

Intellectuals could view business entirely differently; consider the way they approach a world they really do know intimately, the arts. Nobody would be so naive as to argue the case for or against the arts per se, or to say that all of what painters or writers or actors do is either good or bad. There’s an assumption that, first, people get involved in the arts for the joy of performing a truly creative function and that, second, it is of the utmost importance constantly to judge the quality of their output. Podhoretz’s good friend Hilton Kramer, the art critic, wouldn’t dream of arguing that it’s snobbish and hypocritical to attack Walter Keane, painter of lovable wide-eyed moppets, even though Keane’s work sells extremely well. Making such judgments about painters is Kramer’s job, and one that he cares about passionately and does well. No doubt he hopes his criticism will spur young artists on toward working in the best direction.

The same room for distinctions and judgments exists in business. Let’s say, for example, you’re my friend the realtor in Dallas. You might spend the next six months putting together an investor group to speculate in raw land, intending to resell it quickly for a big profit. Doing this would take plenty of work, and it would yield substantial economic returns, in proportion to risk. You’d have to figure out where the city was going to grow, and talk the people in that area into selling, and convince your investors to take the plunge. But you wouldn’t be doing anything productive.

Or, you might spend the same time putting together an investor group to build a new housing development, an endeavor that would take the same amount of work and selling and risk. Except in this case, you might also create a tangible result in which, if you did everything right, you felt great creative pride. You might also have created jobs and housing for people who needed them. You might have felt a pure sense of joy in working with the investors and architects and contractors, coming from your shared goals and your pride in what you were building. This feeling might be so strong and so rewarding that the importance of the profit might recede in your mind.

The trouble is, there’s nobody telling my friend that there’s a difference between these two courses. Roughly, the influences on him, outside of the profit motive, are these: there’s the religious influence, represented by people like Dr. Bill Bright, the head of the Campus Crusade, whose message is to make as much money as possible so you can then redeem yourself by giving it to Jesus; and there’s the political influence, represented by my friend’s congressman, Jim Collins, whose message is to make as much money as possible because you’re part of the free enterprise system.

If my friend were, instead, a Broadway producer—a job that requires many of the same skills—you can be sure he’d want desperately to put on a quality show, not just because of his inner drive, but because he’d know that his results would be harshly judged on their quality. But he’s just a businessman. Nobody assumes there’s any joy or creativity in what he does, and therefore nobody tries to steer him, through vigorous criticism, toward the more productive parts of his work and away from the less productive. The Podhoretzes of the world could be doing that, but they aren’t; perhaps that’s because in their eyes he’s really just a Babbitt after all.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.