Remembering Irving Kristol
I didn't know Irving Kristol well, but I knew him for a long time. There are many people who can say the same thing. He was the central figure in the post-Watergate revival of conservatism and the Republican Party. Sadly, the "movement" that he created, neoconservatism, is pretty well dead. What goes by that name today bears no resemblance to Kristol's creation.
As is well known, Kristol was for many years a man of the left. But its excesses pushed him inexorably to the right. In the 1960s Kristol recognized that conservatism desperately needed to be grounded on serious social science if it hoped to influence public policy and, hence, politics.
Kristol founded a small quasi-academic journal called The Public Interest to build the foundation of a social science-based conservatism. I say "quasi" because, annoyingly to me, it refused to have footnotes or references in its articles.
One of Kristol's most important insights was that there were many academics who had generally liberal views, but came to conservative conclusions on some specific issues like crime, housing, race, labor, taxes and many others. He got them to write articles on these subjects, gradually building an impressive body of research that added depth and breadth to the conservative literature.
At the time, conservatism was very narrowly focused on anti-communism and futile efforts to repeal the New Deal. Conservative publications only published the work of people who were part of the movement and held conservative views on every issue. The idea of a "big tent" that included people who were conservative on only one or a handful of issues was foreign to the conservative philosophy in those days. You had to buy the whole conservative worldview on every issue or conservatives wanted nothing to do with you.
This led to the excommunication of libertarians, objectivists, atheists, isolationists and others that were part of the right, but held views on one or more issues that were inconsistent with the conservative positions of Bill Buckley and the rest of the National Review crowd. The extreme Catholicism of that crowd also tended to push Jews away from conservatism.
Kristol embraced these conservative Jews who felt uncomfortable among the dogmatic Christian conservatives. Eventually, he was joined by Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary, who pushed that magazine well to the right of its traditional base among liberal Jews.
The first clips of Kristol's articles in the Wall Street Journal that I have in my files date from 1976, so that's probably when I first became aware of his work. I don't remember when I first met him, but it was probably the following year when I was working for Jack Kemp, who was very much a devotee of Kristol's work. Just the other day I came across an old copy of The Public Interest on which Jack had circled an article listed on the cover for me to read.
It's important for people to understand that in those days neoconservatism was almost exclusively devoted to domestic, especially urban, issues. There was nothing in The Public Interest on foreign policy. Commentary was more foreign policy oriented, but other than having a special interest in Israel its foreign policy was pretty standard anti-communism. What we call neoconservatism today, which more closely resembles imperialism than anything else, was nowhere in evidence.
As Kristol slowly built the foundation of neoconservatism on solid social science research, it became clear that it needed a political outlet so that its policies could be implemented. Although many, perhaps most, early neocons were Democrats--Daniel Patrick Moynihan in particular--Kristol threw in with the Republicans. In the wake of Watergate they were more desperate and in need of intellectual firepower. This meant that there were many more opportunities for neocon ideas to advance within the GOP than among Democrats, who were going through a post-McGovern, post-Vietnam leftist phase that made them vulnerable to a conservative counterattack.
Kemp was really the central political figure in the neocon infiltration of the Republican Party. He brought along Dave Stockman, who had a number of articles in The Public Interest in the 1970s, and introduced Ronald Reagan to neocon ideas as well.
To make a long story short, Kristol was extraordinarily successful; so successful, in fact, that The Public Interest ceased publication in 2005. He felt that the journal had pretty much achieved all it set out to do and was no longer necessary. Its subscribers received copies of Commentary to fill out their subscriptions.
In the years since, it became clear that Kristol's decision was wrong. There is still a need for serious conservative social science research that has no other publication outlet. Commentary is now just a highbrow version of National Review, which is just a glossy version of Human Events, which has become a slightly less hysterical version of nutty websites like WorldNetDaily. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Weekly Standard, founded by Kristol's son Bill, just parrot the Republican Party line of the day.
The intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism today is even greater than it was when Irving Kristol founded The Public Interest in 1965. What passes for a conservative movement these days wears its anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor. But as Kristol correctly understood, right-wing populism has no future and fundamental changes in the direction of government policy must be based on serious research and analysis that is grounded on hard data; that is to say, reality.
There is a now a new journal called National Affairs that aspires to fill the gap left by the demise of The Public Interest. It's too soon to say if it will do so, but it has done an enormous public service by making all of the archives of The Public Interest freely available on the Internet. I urge people to delve into them. I think they will be amazed that there were once a group of serious conservative scholars in this country who weren't crazy or completely in the pockets of the Republican Party or some corporate interest. The archive is available here: