Neocons, Theocons and the Cycles of American History
“...[T]he full story of [the generation that came of age around 1900] cannot possibly be told ....by recalling the steel-willed leaders of the 1940s...[T]he full story must include very different images--of youthful indulgence, coming-of-age fury, rising-adult introspection, and midlife pomposity and intolerance. What finally emerged late in life, the austere and resolute persona, was largely self-created by a generation determined (in Edith Wharton’s phrase) ‘to build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we’d smashed to atoms without knowing it.’”
--from “Generations,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, page 237
In November of 1996, the Manhattan-based magazine First Things published the first installment of a symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?: The Judicial Usurpation of Politics.” It was occasioned by the possibility that the Supreme Court might uphold two lower court decisions that had found a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. Among the original contributors, Robert Bork and Charles Colson were the best known, though Russell Hittinger’s essay, “A Crisis of Legitimacy,” perhaps best addressed the specific issues suggested by the symposium’s title. Considering that First Things is a respectable monthly read mostly by clergy and conservative academics, the Introduction by the editors was breathtaking. They posed the matter thus:
“The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Before going any further, let me first make some personal admissions. I write occasionally for First Things. I was not part of the symposium, but I wrote an essay that appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Culture Wars dealing with much the same topic. The piece was entitled “How to Prevent a Civil War.” My argument was not so different from that of Robert Bork’s contribution to the symposium, in which he suggested various mechanisms for limiting the scope of constitutional judicial review. I too used the term “regime” to describe the current jurisprudential system, though I picked up the usage not from the right, but from Michael Lind’s “The Next America.” I too think that contemporary constitutional theory is damned and doomed. If I differ from the symposium’s participants, it is only in believing that the current jurisprudential regime is not just wicked but rotten, and that it will collapse under very little pressure in a fashion not at all dissimilar to Soviet Communism. I am thus not a wholly impartial observer.
Objectivity notwithstanding, the reaction in the weeks that followed the symposium was manifestly explosive. Several prominent members of First Things’ own editorial advisory board resigned. Just about all the conservative magazines chimed in. The Weekly Standard, for instance, ran a piece called “The Anti-American Temptation,” which accused the editors of First Things of running off the rails of ordinary politics, in a way analogous to the “pick up the gun” radicals of the 1960s. The New Republic (not a particularly conservative magazine) ran a piece by Jacob Heilbrunn entitled “Neocon v. Theocon: The New Fault Line on the Right.,” that is worth considering in some detail.
Heilbrunn’s thesis is that the neoconservatives (the neocons) are mostly New York-based Jewish intellectuals who broke with leftist politics in the 1970s. They remade conservatism by articulating serious intellectual critiques of liberalism and the welfare state. When the conservative revival began about 25 years ago, the concerns of cultural conservatives were not much represented among this group. Therefore, they were not much represented in government or the academy, despite the fact it was cultural conservatives, mostly evangelicals and ethnic Catholics, who provided the growing electoral muscle of the Republican Party. Latterly, however, the neocons have been joined by a new breed of conservative intellectual, for whom Heilbrunn has coined the nifty term “theocon.” The theocons, by his account, are predominantly Catholic, and unlike their Jewish colleagues have a tendency to frame political questions with a theological twist. The theocons, in fact, are seeking to restructure American society in accordance with Thomistic natural law. Their efforts are intellectually sophisticated, far more so than anything conservative populists from George Wallace to Pat Buchanan have been able to formulate. However, according to Heilbrunn, “Thomism is an ideology to which only the faithful can subscribe. It is not so much anti-American as un-American.”
Well, so much for John Courtney Murray and the decades-long attempt to establish the compatibility of Thomism with the American enterprise. For that matter, so much for the more recent debate about the natural-law assumptions of the Founding Fathers. The only kind of natural law Heilbrunn seems to feel to be appropriate for American political discourse is the post-Kantian theories of Leo Strauss, who did indeed influence many neoconservatives.
I for one find Heilbrunn’s assessment more odd than offensive. Whatever else you may think about Thomism, it is difficult to think of it as a subversive political ideology. Images rise up of a Senate Subcommittee on Neo-Scholastic Activities. Could its jurisdiction be challenged on the ground that subcommittees offend against Occam’s Razor? C-Span is not ready for this.
For that matter, it is misleading to characterize First Things as a hotbed of Thomism. The editor in chief, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, is indeed a Catholic priest, but before that he was a Lutheran pastor. Much of his social thinking is informed by the Lutheran model of the “orders of creation,” which is analogous to natural law but by design non-theological. The magazine’s editor, James Nuechterlein, remains a Lutheran and delivers himself of a no-popery declaration every few months to make sure that no one forgets. The Managing editor, Matthew Berke, is Jewish. The contributors to the magazine are all over the lot in terms of denominational affiliation. First Things is perhaps most noted for its “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative, announced in its May 1994 issue, which went far toward providing a common roof for all cultural conservatives. St. Thomas is indeed much quoted and praised in the pages of First Things, but then it defines itself as a “Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.” One thing it is not is a Catholic magazine, much less an organ of creeping international Thomism.
Of course, there is no lack of prominent proponents of natural law on the national scene, many of whom are Thomists. The most prominent, no doubt, is Justice Anthony Scalia, who often makes himself unpopular with his Supreme Court colleagues by critiquing their more incoherent decisions from the bench. There is former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, a brilliant speaker who would have transformed the 1996 election campaign if he had been featured at the Republican convention. (Keyes, by the way, is a former student of Allan Bloom, who was in turn a student of the influential Leo Strauss. In Keyes’ mind, at least, Aquinas proved more persuasive.)
On the other hand, the ranks of Thomists do not include people such as Robert Bork, whose objections to judicial activism arise from a historically-based interpretation of the powers of the courts. “Theocon” might not be a bad term for describing many cultural conservatives. It might not even be a bad term for describing me. However, it is misleading to suggest that all or even most theocons are Thomists, or that opposition to the current state of constitutional law is a crank enthusiasm of religious sectarians, Catholic or otherwise. (For that matter, with all due respect to the Prodhoretz and Kristol clans, neoconservatism is not a Jewish monopoly, even if you confine the term to subscribers of little magazines.)
Granted that Heilbrunn’s criticisms are misdirected, nevertheless it seems to me that all sides to this debate, neocons, theocons and the liberals who mock them, are overlooking some important things about it. What we are seeing now is a drama that has been played out more than once before in American history, when the chaos created by a radical episode was repaired a generation later by much the same people who caused the commotion in the first place. We have all heard that the 1990s are the 1960s turned upside down. In the neocon-theocon flap, perhaps we see an instance of 1960s style turned against the institutionalized vestiges of 1960s substance.
The short explanation for the radical tone of the First Things symposium is that the Supreme Court does bad work in important areas of the law and will not admit its mistakes. It does not help that in such ill-reasoned decisions as Planned Parenthood v. Casey, for instance, we find such language as, “If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals.” What nonsense. The country can see its constitutional ideals in the constitution. The court’s “legitimacy” (perhaps Justice O’Connor meant “credibility”?) stands or falls by the court’s competence, the lack of which has been the problem.
This explains the exasperation, but why does the exasperation take the form of a bunch of parsons and college professors making noises like students circa 1968 threatening to storm the math building? Partly it’s because the parsons and college professors came through the 1960s themselves, though they were for the most part too old to be students at the time. The style of some generations, as Strauss and Howe argue in the book cited at the beginning of this article, dominates cultural and political life for decades. The substance may change, but the manner is tenacious. Fr. Neuhaus, for instance, once famously marched into Henry Kissinger’s office with other prominent opponents of the Vietnam War and read him the Riot Act. The First Things symposium is not quite as dramatic, but the spirit is the same.
These remarks apply even more to neocons than they do to theocons. The neoconservatives became neoconservatives, after all, because they were appalled by the extremism of the language and behavior of the far left of 20 or 30 years ago. The theocons of today, or at least the ones at First Things, have few violent tendencies, but once again the neocons are put off by language that seems to suggest that questions of civil order are at issue.
The difference this time around is that the “radicals” have a better chance of winning. The radicals of the 1960s had no prospect of success. On the other side of the victory of, say, the Weathermen there was a world of re-education camps and political dictatorship that few Americans could imagine. Of course, the Kids of the 1960s have “won” in the sense of outliving their elders. One of them is actually in the White House as I write this. However, he got there by abandoning some of his youthful beliefs and dissimulating about the rest.
The task of today’s conservatives is the relatively modest proposition of repairing the damage many of them did themselves 20 or 30 years ago. On the other side of the victory of today’s cultural conservatives, there is a world sort of like the Eisenhower Administration but without racial discrimination. Many people might not like this outcome, but it is not hard to visualize and few people find it actually repulsive. Thus, we may be in for a larger than average historical irony. The very attitudes and rhetorical style that did so much to institutionalize the ‘60s in our law and popular culture may also be among the chief instruments by which that era is finally dismantled.
This article originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. An edited version was included in the book:
The End of Democracy?
"The Judicial Usurpation of Politics"
The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy"' by Richard John Neuhaus"
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