Neoconservatives' Populist Past

Glenn Greenwald points out that neoconservatives are having a moment again, and in a most unlikely setting. Left-wing media like CNN and MSNBC have turned to neocon hawks for wisdom about war with Russia. During the post 9/11 Bush administration, neocons were reviled for their role in the Iraq War. However, after some of the best-known—Bill Kristol, David Frum, and George Will—mutated into Never-Trumpers, neocon hawks are now courted by the media establishment. A history of the origins of neoconservatism, The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism is therefore timely, and one of its claims is quite delicious. Finnish scholar Antti Lepistö pops one of the great conceits of contemporary politics: that the refined rightists of DC policy circles have nothing whatsoever to do with the populism of truckers, anti-vax folks, and, of course, Donald Trump. The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism shows that neocons, reacting to the malaise of 1970s America, strategically crafted a “popular epistemology” by relying on the Common-Sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. Neocons are populists, even if they were horrified when the boorish Donald Trump rode their tiger into the White House. 

Neocons are indelibly associated with the hubris of the Iraq War, but Lepistö recalls that pre-9/11 neoconservatism was a culture war phenomenon, preoccupied with domestic policy. All conservatives were mortified by the social erosion they identified with progressivism in the 70s, but what distinguished neoconservatives was their commitment to social theory. The social theory in vogue at the time, however, was heavily inflected by Hegelian-Marxism. That put them in something of a bind. Sure that the Hegelian-Marxism of liberal elites was in no small part to blame for the rot, neocons had to distinguish themselves by finding an untapped theoretical alternative that could do the heavy lifting to restore national purpose. They found it in the Scots. 

The Scottish Strategy

The Scottish Enlightenment dates to the 1700s, when Scotland witnessed an astonishing flourishing of the social sciences. Amongst others, thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Adam Ferguson made seminal contributions to philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, and economics. Tapping these resources, neocons found a ready-made, refined social theory and, distinctively, one rooted in social consensus. Deploying the ideal of common sense—a theme most associated with Reid—neoconservative culture warriors claimed that their policies spoke for “the assumedly unerring American common man.” Employing the Scots, neocons generated policy proposals in abundance—giving them credibility with DC wonks—and also developed a culture war refrain that the good sense of the ordinary American is the best measure of social policy. For decades, this form of populism was a potent political weapon for Republicans at the ballot box. 

Lepistö argues that the neocon turn to the Scots was always strategic, that “their embrace of a popular epistemology was a result of a serious engagement with, and reinvention of, the Scottish Enlightenment.” The Scots had to be manipulated because the marriage with neoconservatism was not a match made in Heaven. Not only were thinkers like Hume not populists—establishment is critical to Hume’s account of science, for example—they held other beliefs difficult to digest. For example, Lepistö observes that neocon intellectuals were just like their lefty university counterparts in finding the aesthetic sense of common folk garish, yet Adam Smith’s teacher, Francis Hutcheson welded together the aesthetic and the moral. Those with good morals also had good taste, he claimed. By contrast, and cynically, neocons never deviated from city life’s “high aesthetic culture” even while they recommended to the nation the harsh wisdom of regular folk on matters like punishment.  

Irving Kristol established the framework of neoconservatism, pitting common sense against recherché concepts in social theory, and regular folk against the academy. 

The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism is an intellectual history of neoconservatism in the last decades of the twentieth century, which focuses on four thinkers: Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, James Q. Wilson, and Francis Fukayama. Contrary to their reputation, neocons were not Straussians or foreign policy hawks in their first decades, but rather devotees of the emotivism of Scottish Enlightenment. Lepistö contends that the story of neocons as a Straussian elite, blending intellectualism, high virtues, and gentlemanly liberal education, is a myth. Strauss was largely incomprehensible to movement conservative policy wonks, and dictating policy was uppermost in the minds of our quartet. 

That the Scots, and not Strauss, were firmly in the driving seat is evident from signature neocon contributions—Irving Kristol’s 1976 “Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Himmelfarb’s 1984 The Idea of Poverty, Wilson’s 1993 The Moral Sense, and Fukuyama’s 1999 “How to Re-moralize America.” Position papers on the economy, family, crime, and religion, these works “delved deep into Scottish moral philosophy and refashioned it into a durable, demotic figure of thought.” The Scots offered a “naturalistic, secular ethics by arguing that all humans—not only sophisticated individuals—were capable of distinguishing between right and wrong because of certain inherent characteristics of human nature.” 

Irving Kristol established the framework of neoconservatism, pitting common sense against recherché concepts in social theory, and regular folk against the academy.  He lamented that America’s good sense had been overrun by a “tyranny of ideas.” Focusing on the economy, Kristol argued that folks saw plainly enough that a bourgeois world, democratic and egalitarian, delivers comfort for most. Admittedly, it offered no scope for heroes, but bourgeois capitalism was a humane, sympathetic order, designed to better the condition of the common man. To make this case, as Lepistö points out, Kristol had to dilute Smith considerably and ignore Smith’s clear preference for a hierarchical monarchical order. Towards Smith’s true view, Kristol would only concede that Americans had never been thoroughly egalitarian, always deferring to standards set by the moral virtues. As Lepistö remarks, this is not something Kristol believed in the early 70s when his writings displayed significant fear of the mob.  

An historian, Himmelfarb’s work offered neo-Victorian advocacy of self-control and self-discipline, qualities which the Scots affirmed and which, she argued, diverged significantly from the amped-up militancy of the French Enlightenment. That militancy stemmed from a sweeping rationalism that subverted the quiet virtues of the household. This contrast let Himmelfarb critically pit intellectualism against the emotivism of family life: a continuation of the French Enlightenment, progressivism pushed revolutionary theory whereas the Scots gave voice to Nixon’s “silent majority.” Just as with Kristol, this framing required massaging the Scots, contends Lepistö. Himmelfarb had to downplay the fact that the Scottish and French Enlightenments were both Enlightenments—both were skeptical of ancient folk ways—and she foisted upon the Scots a depth of individualism and domesticity foreign to their thinking. Perhaps different levels of taste got in the way again, for her “self-help for the citizenry model” went so far as to criticize religious charities managing social funds. She may have been uncomfortable around religion, but both Adam Ferguson and Thomas Reid were clergymen.  

In his political masterpiece, The End of History, Fukuyama had done a sort of Judo move on Hegelian Marxism, making it an ally of bourgeois capitalism.

The most important American criminologist of the last century, Wilson sought to rehabilitate David Hume, whose greatest contributions, he was sure, had been mischaracterized. Echoing Kristol, he blamed the nihilism of the contemporary academy for crafting an image of Hume as a cynical, reductive thinker espousing positivism and relativism. In fact, Hume was a champion of benevolence, he argued, offering a portrait of our species as naturally gracious, grateful, and generous. Wilson’s trademark interest in sociobiology arose from a deep worry that America’s justice system was mired in relativism and apt to excuse anti-social behavior. A naturally gregarious animal, humans favor the law-abiding, but the American justice system was bent on blurring the boundaries “between imperfect science and commanding law.” Liberal theory was shaping science to undermine common-sense positions on the need for robust law and punishment. 

Adam Smith’s work on animal resentment, Wilson felt, could be used to restore trust in jury trials at a moment when social theory was driving science to elaborate a psychology of bias and racism infecting the “twelve good men” bedrock of Anglo-Saxon justice. In positing “ordinary citizens as guardians of civilization,” Wilson, says Lepistö, had to elide the ideas of Hume and Smith. Sympathy works by role-playing both victim and perpetrator, in the latter case teasing out the motives and testing whether one could sympathize with the “hard knocks” of their past. 

In his political masterpiece, The End of History, Fukuyama had done a sort of Judo move on Hegelian Marxism, making it an ally of bourgeois capitalism. At that time in the late 80s, he was a quirky Marxist, but, influenced by Wilson’s sociobiology, in the 90s Fukuyama moved away from history towards nature. He took up Wilson’s Humeanism, arguing that good politics reinforces natural “altruistic tendencies” strengthening our native morality “to control other biological drives toward aggression and violence.” Lepistö speculates that Fukuyama made the switch because new stats showed U.S. crime and divorce rates falling. The progressivist 70s had not triggered social collapse; ordinary life was still intact and radical measures were unnecessary. 

Fukuyama threaded a middle position between the big state rationalism of lefty social theory, and the radical theological politics of much of the American right. Like Himmelfarb, Fukayama used the Scots to contain the religious right. Smith shows, writes Fukuyama, that religions “underestimate the innate ability of human beings to evolve reasonable rules for themselves.” In Lepistö’s view, Fukuyama’s accounting tipped the Scots towards “the libertarian belief in the self-balancing and natural evolution of social order.” This emphasis is at odds with Hume’s “external establish’d perswasions,” the belief common to the Scots that moral order without establishment, which included religion, is barely possible. The Scots did not naively celebrate governing institutions, but they did think them part and parcel of the growth of the division of labor basic to the wealth of nations. 

Goose and Gander

Lepistö is surely right: if you claim the mantle of the Scottish Enlightenment, you best rightly capture its spirit. Something rings false, as Lepistö points out, in Fukuyama’s contention that the incest taboo is evidence of the Scottish belief that norms evolve “arationally” and spontaneously “in other words, without hierarchical organizations such as the state.” The application is trivial: Is there anyone who thinks something so basic as the incest taboo is in the gift of the state or any planned moral principle? The application is trivial because what matters to good politics is knowing under what influences elaborate moral and social rules grow. Lepistö’s point is well-taken, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

A problem with the book is that the Scots are barely cited. Whole chunks of the book progress with no mention of the Scots, and throughout there is barely any direct evidence of how the neocons quoted the Scots or dwelt on specific claims made by Scottish thinkers. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers are mostly discussed in broad strokes. In particular, the title of the book is misleading. Thomas Reid hardly figures at all, yet Common-Sense was his subtle rebuttal of the emotivism of his compatriots. The import of Common-Sense as a critique, primarily of Hume, is never clarified, nor is evidence given that any neocon read Reid. It is doubtful: Reidian studies have only blossomed in the last two decades. 

In his account, not of neocon reinvention, but Scottish thought, Lepistö says that Common-Sense philosophy “aimed to defend the everyday logic of the average person,” an aim designed, in Reid’s case, to bolster a “conservative Christian outlook.” Not only was Reid a philosophical utopian, disappointed by what he saw as half-measures at reform by Hume and Smith, but it is also a horrible mangling of Reid to think Common-Sense is about the “average person.” It is a claim that all belief formation by whomever depends on a common inheritance of language and a collective experience of the human body. His was the accusation that the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment did not have a philosophy of language, and that this crippled their innovations in epistemology, metaphysics, and morals. Reid’s great contribution was to open the vast area of language in belief formation, an opening later refined by Wittgenstein and the psychoanalysts.     

Throughout the book, Lepistö’s handling of the Scots is insufficiently deft. For example, Lepistö says that “Hume and Smith argued that moral sentiments were not reliable in the absence of proper education,” (emphasis original) but this is not quite right. Hume argues that education amplifies our original moral orientation, and Smith argues we have access to an intuitive value order: we are sensitive to the “plaintive cry” of others antecedent to any education in morals. Thus, the following is far too strongly stated by Lepistö: “To repeat the important point, Smith did not accept Hutcheson’s idea of a separate “moral sense” and wrote of “moral sentiments” in more sociological terms.” 

Smith’s account of morals is sensitive to historical evolution, or what Lepistö calls “sociological terms,” but his is not an historicism. Smith gives the following example: a person witnesses a murder from the betrayal of a friend. Such a murder is a “plain violation” of one of the “most sacred rules of conduct.” “His detestation of this crime, it is evident, would arise instantaneously and antecedent to his having formed to himself any such general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, which he might afterwards form, would be founded upon the detestation which he felt necessarily arise in his own breast.” In addition, and puzzlingly, Lepistö says that Hume “ultimately undermined the question about humanity’s goodness or badness.” Hume is clear, however, that we are fundamentally oriented to the good, that insecurity pushes us to solidarity with one another, and that virtues, like courage, have a sheen all their own that compel our regard. 

As Robert Nisbet points out, Enlightenment thinkers were at one in believing natural order to be a reliable moral compass. The neocons got that much right. Lepistö is also right: theirs was an imaginative take on the Scots. Their dislike of the liberal establishment made them oversell the populist elements of the Scottish Enlightenment. However, the scant evidence in the book rather suggests that this is true because neocons were not heavily indebted to the Scots. 

The Rise of Common-Sense Conservatism is a useful reminder that a conservative orientation so linked with foreign policy had its origins in the culture wars of America’s domestic politics. A somewhat repetitive book, more was needed to show that the Scots, rather than Strauss, were the lodestar. Still, a core observation made by Lepistö is well-taken. Ours is an age of raw emotion, and contempt is stock in trade in our political realm and on Twitter. In such a time, the Scots remain important: “A discourse centered on human moral nature—as opposed to an ethnos-centered discourse—does have the potential to increase solidarity by enlarging awareness of shared emotions and experiences.”