They say you can define what kind of conservative a person is by what year they want to go back to. Some conservatives, apparently including some in Sen. Rand Paul’s office, want to go back to the 1850s. They believe that Abraham Lincoln helped put us on the path to the leviathan state. Many other conservatives want to go back to the 1890s. They think Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the other Progressives set us on that course.
But, in the 1980s, when conservatism was at its most politically and intellectually vibrant, the dominant voices in the movement celebrated Lincoln, the Progressive Era and even the New Deal.
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 TR, FDR and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked.”
These conservatives, Kristol continued, reject the idea that the United States is on the road to serfdom. They “do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. … People have always preferred strong government to weak government, though they certainly have no liking for anything that smacks of intrusive government.”
The conservatism that Kristol was referring to is neoconservatism. Neocons came in for a lot of criticism during the Iraq War, but neoconservatism was primarily a domestic policy movement. Conservatism was at its peak when the neocons were dominant and nearly every problem with the Republican Party today could be cured by a neocon revival.
Kristol and others argued that the GOP floundered because it never accepted the welfare state. “The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with conservative political philosophy,” he argued. In a capitalist society, people need government aid. “They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it.”
As Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger wrote in a famous essay on mediating structures and public policy, “The modern welfare state is here to stay, indeed … it ought to expand the benefits it provides.”
Neuhaus and Berger were arguing for the mobilization of more religious and community groups. Others wanted structural reforms. “Such reforms,” Kristol added, “would include, of course, Social Security, unemployment insurance, some form of national health insurance, some kind of family assistance plan, etc.”
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.
How would they know if programs induced virtue? Empirically. “Neoconservatives, accordingly, place a lot of stock in applied social science research, especially the sort that evaluates old programs and tests new ones,” Wilson added.
Nobody would call George F. Will a neocon, but, in 1983, he published a superb book called “Statecraft as Soulcraft.” It championed the sort of governing conservatism that was common then and is impermissible now. “It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot, legislate morality. But, in fact, it does so, frequently; it should do so more often,” Will wrote.
He was not calling for a theocracy. He was calling for “strong government conservatism,” for a limited but energetic government that could cultivate the best in persons by educating the passions. “American conservatives are caught in the web of their careless antigovernment rhetoric,” he concluded.
In recent years, people like Kristol, Wilson and Reagan have been celebrated even though many of their ideas could no longer get a hearing in many conservative precincts. The 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. This will make the party what it was before the neocon infusion, a 43 percent party in national elections, rejected by minorities and the economically insecure.
The solution is not to go back to 1980. It’s to imagine what kind of values Americans should have, and what kind of limited but energetic government can reinforce those values.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.