During many an evening conversation, Sam Francis, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and I have dwelled on a particular topic with relish: Who was the first neoconservative? Our responses varied, depending on the latest neoconservative outrage and which obnoxious historical personalities we were then reading about. After looking at John Ehrman’s book and the summer issue of Foreign Affairs, my latest answer to the big question is Arthur Schlesinger. From his tract The Vital Center, published in September 1949, to his feature essay in Foreign Affairs on the need for presidential guidance in dealing with the isolationist habits of the American people, Schlesinger has been the direct intellectual source of everything paleoconservatives rage against. Ehrman properly characterizes Schlesinger’s Vital Center as “the unifying ideology for liberal internationalism” and cites Commentary‘s commendation of “the precision, vitality, and emotional power of his restatement of commonly accepted views.” Of course, the views in question were never “commonly accepted,” outside of a certain liberal internationalist elite. It was to them, as Ehrman indicates, that Schlesinger appealed by fixing the Cold War in their universe of discourse. He declared democracy to be a universal “faith,” one that Americans should labor to realize more fully at home and abroad, and he held up the ideal of a dynamic welfare state as a guide for democratic practice. Indeed, social democracy for Schlesinger occupied The Vital Center between the communists and the right. And while the communists were an easily demarcated group in his demonology. which he identified with Soviet expansion, Schlesinger’s right was a vaguer term of reference. It embraced everyone to the right of the New Deal and lumped together fascists, Nazis, and anti-New Deal isolationists. Schlesinger added to the roster of standard leftist bugaboos the Soviets and their agents, while presenting the communists as a variation on the authoritarian right. He also stressed the need to promote social reforms domestically and among our allies, to uphold The Vital Center and the democratic faith. Without such an agenda, American anticommunism, he feared, might become a movement of the right.

What Ehrman does not treat sufficiently is Schlesinger’s use of political terms. Both Schlesinger and his self-declared admirer Daniel P. Moynihan admire Woodrow Wilson. In his Foreign Affairs essay, Schlesinger depicts Wilson as a man who sensibly pursued “national interest” during World War I and then sacrificed himself to the principle of a new democratic order. As ambassador to the United Nations in 1974, Moynihan proclaimed Wilson to be his own guiding visionary: Wilson represented “the quest for legitimacy in the world order” and spoke for “the duty to defend and, where possible, to advance democratic principles in the world at large, for democracy in one country was not enough simply because it would not last.” It is unclear how anyone who favors liberal restraints on the federal administration or democratic self-government could venerate as an icon Woodrow Wilson, who with his administrators trampled on civil liberties and incited mob violence, first in pushing the United States into the war and then in guiding the war efforts. Curiously, Schlesinger would not deny that vigorous actions had to be taken to “prepare” America for its new international role and to reform the country domestically. He makes precisely this case in both The Vital Center and in his recent essay in Foreign Affairs, where he glorifies Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt for “preparing” a nation hardened in isolationism to embrace a new international identity.

The speeches Moynihan made in the 70’s, decrying Third World opposition to American democracy and to “our system,” were derived from Schlesinger’s political semantics. Though Erhman is sympathetic to both Moynihan and Schlesinger, he admits that Moynihan drew his conception of democracy from Wilson as well. At that time, this genealogy was not entirely clear, and many traditional conservatives, including hardhat types, praised the New Deal Democrat Moynihan for his “old-fashioned patriotism.” In contrast with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Moynihan was perceived as defying Third World dictators. But he was for years squishy soft on social democratic India, which, unlike our ally Pakistan, combined elections with a socialist bureaucracy. Presumably India, before Indira Gandhi assumed dictatorial power in 1975, was Moynihan’s idea of a model Third World country.

The opinion of Moynihan, Schlesinger, and other contributors to Commentary and the New Republic—that democracy is safe nowhere unless imposed universally—has been the common view of all zealous revolutionaries. Robespierre and Lenin insisted that their own highest value, whether Jacobin centralization or Marxism, was at risk everywhere unless everyone could be made to embrace it. The delusion is at odds with the liberal constitutional arrangements and the practice of communal self-determination inherent in our national founding. Moynihan’s expansive democratism is the imperialist by-product of the managerial revolution suffered by the United States at the beginning of the century, a revolution which stressed both internationalism and frenzied social planning.

Despite his fulsome praise of his neoconservative subjects, Ehrman does help to explain the difficulty of conservative dialogue at the present time. Words like “democracy,” “nation,” and “right” do not mean the same things for neoconservatives and their critics on the right. Some of this disagreement is caused by the formers’ special pleading, e.g., for the Israeli right, and their dislike for certain nationalities. But beyond these quirks, which Ehrman does not hide and sometimes defends, there are serious conceptual and semantic differences which make it impossible for those embroiled in the conservative wars to communicate. In reading Bill Kauffman’s anthology of essays in America First!, I was reminded of this fact. Those political habits Kauffman defends as “republican” or “populist” were axiomatic for most Americans 100 years ago. Now they are presented as a rediscovered legacy: what Kauffman calls neo-isolationism was once a corollary of decentralized political society with a constitutionally limited federal government. Like other paleoconservatives, Kauffman believes that the American republic did not simply yield to public administration or to a “democratic” empire. Rather, it was commandeered by intellectuals and politicians who profited from the metamorphosis.

The truth lies somewhere in between Kauffman and Schlesinger, albeit closer to the former than the latter. Historical forces, socioeconomic and demographic, pushed us into becoming a bureaucratized empire, and much of that change occurred with popular endorsement. But the result has been a distinctly undemocratic regime—in the sense that it does not allow true self-government—under which those shared powers mandated by the constitution have withered away.

An illustration of the disagreement between neo- and paleoconservatives is the discrepancy between their respective concepts of a free market. Both camps profess belief in the free market economy, though for one it is compatible with an extensive federal welfare state but not protectionism, while for the other protectionism but not the existent welfare state fits with a sensible political economy. The reasons for this have partly to do with historical associations. Neoconservatives, as social democratic internationalists, see government-brokered trade agreements as useful in overcoming political and cultural differences, while leaving the welfare state intact; at least some paleoconservatives regard tariffs as a legitimate source of government revenue, and protection for “American jobs.” But the opponents of high tariffs in the Progressive and New Deal eras typically favored the creation and extension of “internal” revenues which would be collected not at the borders but throughout the country. Big government advocates, like Wilson and the two Roosevelts, called for reducing tariffs, while vastly increasing other revenues. Whence the semantic impasse: neoconservatives like Charles Krauthammer accuse paleoconservatives of being fascist corporativists for rejecting NAFTA, while paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan mock neoconservatives for combing social democracy with indifference to American workers.

The intellectuals described by Ehrman and their predecessors in the Progressive Era misrepresented the subversion that was taking place. Far more insidiously than the plodding fanatics who were exposed as communists, the liberal internationalists derailed the American experiment in self-government. They made it unfashionable and even immoral to distinguish between popular self-government and executive dictatorships “preparing” great leaps forward. Those who make a distinction between the two are not likely to write for Foreign Affairs or National Interest. In two polemics published in Commentary, one in 1986 and the other in 1988, we learn that traditional American conservatives are the “heirs of the Christian and aristocratic Middle Ages.” While Ehrman accepts this questionable generalization, he also describes paleoconservatives as “heirs to Robert Taft and the tradition of midwestern isolationism.” Traditional conservatives, he says, are “suspicious of internationalism, let alone any hint of Wilsonian crusade.” In point of fact, the war on and for the right is being fought entirely within the horizon of political modernity, between traditional American republicans and the heirs of Wilson’s “democratic” imperialism. Those on the right who have not been converted to the “vital center” are contesting the ascendancy of the Schlesingerites now posing as conservatives. Without practicing deconstruction, one can easily tease this out of Ehrman’s text.


[The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1994, by John Ehrman (New Haven: Yale University Press) 241 pp., $27.50]