It’s a bit startling to see the New York Times‘ David Brooks pen a column headlined “The Neocon Revival,” which speaks confidently about “neoconservatism” as an internally consistent perspective on public life that once dominated the conservative movement and the Republican Party (and apparently should again!). In 2004, the self-same David Brooks contributed an essay to a book entitled The Neocon Reader that suggested the very label was more or less an anti-Semitic slur (“If you ever read a sentence that starts with ‘Neocons believe,’ there is a 99.44 per cent chance everything else in that sentence will be untrue.”).
If Brooks is now giving us all permission to talk about neoconservatism without raising a presumption of ethnic or partisan poison, I’d argue that his brief manifesto is curiously detached from both the historical and contemporary realities of conservatism and of the Republican Party. Brooks is right that “neoconservatism” (a term actually popularized by democratic socialist Michael Harrington to refer to thinkers and doers who were largely still on the ideological Left and/or affiliated with the Democratic Party) was originally “about” domestic as much as international policy. Its most recent identification with George W. Bush’s foreign policies, or with post-Bush advocates of an aggressive internationalism and often of Islamophobia, is hardly an accident, but also isn’t the whole story.
Having said that, Brooks commits an act of grand larceny in claiming for neoconservatism the legacy of Ronald Reagan, not to mention that of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, with whom he shoehorns RR in an unlikely triptych. At least that seems to be what he is doing; the column constantly shifts from politicians to writers ranging from Irving Kristol to Richard John Neuhaus and even George Will in defining the kind of conservatism Brooks identifies with “neoconservatism” and with the successful GOP of the 1980s, which happily accepted the modern welfare state and simply wanted to harness it to conservative social goals and to national greatness.
Reading this piece, you might well forget about Ronald Reagan’s deep roots in conservative rejection of the New Deal and Great Society (he opposed both Medicare and the Civil Rights Act), or his administration’s efforts (not ultimately very successful) to use the budget process and executive powers to unravel the social safety net. You might also skip over, as Brooks does, the conservatism of the 1990s (which is interesting insofar as Brooks cut his teeth at The Weekly Standard–itself often associated with “neoconservatism”–which proclaimed itself the tribune of a “Republican Revolution” that would roll back liberalism’s accomplishments in every direction). And only someone with a wildly exaggerated idea of “compassionate conservatism” would conclude that the George W. Bush era of the GOP was characterized by happy acceptance of the welfare state.
But the oddest thing about Brooks’ column is its headline, to which he should have objected violently if he did not suggest it himself. If “neocons,” defined as people who look fondly on TR and FDR as well as that sunny welfare state advocate Ronald Reagan, are enjoying some sort of “revival,” where is it? Brooks himself says “[t]he Republican Party is drifting back to a place where it appears hostile to the basic pillars of the welfare state: to food stamps, for example.” It’s pretty hilarious to call that a “drift,” or to attribute it to some long-lost pre-Reagan impulse. The Reagan administration tried to dump the food stamp program on the states as a way station to its elimination, even as it sought to “cap” federal responsibility for Medicaid, much as Paul Ryan is trying to do today. Beyond that, who among major Republican politicians is resisting this supposed “drift,” and where is the “revival” of a tradition opposing it?
In this as in other respects, Brooks resembles other “conservative reformers” (notably his New York Times colleague Ross Douthat) who regularly lay out policy prescriptions that would get them tarred and feathered in any gathering of rank-and-file Republicans, but then more or less loyally follow the party line anyway, creating the illusion of ideological diversity. Douthat and Reihen Salam wrote an interesting book in 2009 prescribing the same sort of welfare-state-accomodation strategy that Brooks seems to be endorsing. It became associated by rhetorical osmosis with Tim Pawlenty, because they used his motto of “Sam’s Club Republicanism.” T-Paw promptly ran for president in 2012 and staked his candidacy to a failed effort to become an electable right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney. Was he a “Sam’s Club Republican” happily arguing for a more family-friendly welfare state? Probably not on the day that he signed onto the vicious “Cut, Cap, Balance” pledge that represents a death sentence for the New Deal and Great Society.
The trouble is that the conservative movement and Republican Party that Brooks and Douthat like to talk about has never existed in living memory, and isn’t likely to exist in the foreseeable future. Perhaps they have other reasons for affiliating with a political movement that so routinely ignores their advice (in Douthat’s case, I suspect his RTL self-identification is the crucial factor).
With respect to the column at hand, the very slim case for a “neocon revival” now depends on politicians like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio who are almost certainly about to spend the next couple of years snuggling up to the Tea Folk and disagreeing with Rand Paul or Ted Cruz mainly on the foreign policy grounds Brooks tells us don’t actually define neoconservatism. But by 2016, I’m reasonably sure David will have found in Christie or Rubio or someone else the flickering flame of an ideology that he mistakenly remembers as Ronald Reagan’s and mistakenly projects as the wave of the future.