Monday, December 22, 2014

Brilliant or crazy: Was Moynihan a neocon?

I have to repeat the headline: is it a brilliant insight or insanity to list Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a neocon?

You may be wondering where this crazy notion came from. Honestly, I never would have thought of it myself, so of course it came from some reading on the web. Specifically, it came from this article:
"A historian of American intellectual thought would probably conclude that once there were actually serious neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glaser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Irving Kristol who published original and ground-breaking works on social and economic policy, some of which have become classics in the field. But when it comes to the field of international relations, neoconservatism has failed to produce any great thinkers, and will instead be remembered for its many pundits and operators, or policy entrepreneurs..."
The article is a reflection or complaint about neoconservative foreign policy, and is worth reading. But what really lit my fuse was the reference to Moynihan as a neocon. Is it possible that he actually was a neocon?

I have a few memories of Moynihan, who was senator from New York (my home state) from 1977 to 2001. He seemed to have a clearer insight into problems than other politicians, and he wasn't afraid to depart from the party line. In that vein, he raised concerns about welfare and its effect in breaking down black families. He was decades ahead of others with that insight (though it doesn't tell the whole story of family breakdown).

I know I can't rely on my memory to answer the question of whether Moynihan was a neocon, so I went to my constant friend Google. It brought me to another fascinating article about Moynihan's long history in politics. The article contains a hint that perhaps Moynihan was a neocon:
"He had predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union as early as 1979 (all those years spent studying ethnic conflicts and failed economic development projects were not in vain). As the Berlin Wall came down, he began to rethink the world in the most sweeping terms. He decided that that moment was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish global rule of law. Needless to say, that project didn’t come to anything. But his letters on the subject still make for fascinating reading."
Luckily, he couldn't have been full neocon because he voted against authorization of the first Gulf War. Perhaps he could be classified as a social neocon since he voted for outlawing partial-birth abortions (more properly called dilation and extraction abortions). But his voting record is quite mixed--against welfare reform (strangely), against the Defense of Marriage Act--so he doesn't seem like a social conservative either.

The upshot is that it seems a stretch to define Moynihan as a neocon. Phew, that's a relief!



Kylopod said...

I have heard him described as a neocon before--one of the original ones, in fact. It's striking because he was (a) a lifelong Democrat, and (b) not Jewish. And I can't say he ever really had a reputation as a conservative Democrat like, say, Joe Lieberman. By the '90s he was generally considered to be well within the mainstream of his party.

We have to keep in mind that the concept of neoconservatism has evolved from its inception in the '70s, and it wasn't really until the second Iraq War that it became closely associated with Middle East hawkishness. But at no time was it commonly thought of as socially conservative. My understanding is that the original neoconservatives were liberals who turned rightward on account of their ardent anticommunism.

ModeratePoli said...

@kylopod, you sneaked in a comment without the signs that usually alert me. I'm assuming you found this interesting and quirky too.

Do you have an explanation for Moynihan being labeled a neocon?

The only thing I see is his having 'big ideas' about the steering the world after the fall of communism. Perhaps in his writings there's much more, but I'm not going to do a little of reading to settle such a small question.

By the way, I did think of one neocon who isn't Jewish. (First I thought Kristol, but damn, he is) How about Cheney? Isn't he a huge neocon? Does McCain qualify too, or is he too gung-ho on every war?

Kylopod said...

I'm not exactly an expert on his life or career, but my understanding is that he was allied with many of the original neocons in the '60s and '70s and wrote for the same magazines (such as Commentary). Also, he famously challenged liberal orthodoxy at the time in his writings on welfare and single parenthood. But unlike most "neocons," he remained a partisan Democrat and never personally identified as a conservative. For a more detailed explanation, the following article sheds some light on the question:

Not everyone commonly labeled as a "neocon" is Jewish, but there's a wide perception that most of them are (sometimes the term even has anti-Semitic overtones, particularly among the Buchanan and Ron Paul crowd), and certainly the origin of neoconservatism in the '70s is heavily associated with Jewish intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Jews in the US have traditionally been very liberal, and the common image of neocons is of people who desire to perfect the world, a stereotypical Jewish trait that is philosophically at odds with traditional conservatism.

ModeratePoli said...

@kylopod, it looks to me as though neocom beliefs spread very far in the 90's and 00's--far beyond people who looked to Commentary for political insight. Wasn't there a sense among a lot of GOPers that we could remake the Middle East, starting with Iraq, then moving to Syria and beyond? I remember that, and I don't think it was just Bill Kristol. Maybe from the Irish neocons likes O'Reilly and Hannity.

I don't know any Jews who thought they could perfect the world, though my devout father seemed to think he could attain near-perfection. Was that really a common feeling among Jews?

My sense is that most political ideologies seem to think they can make a near-perfect world if only the vast majority would follow their precepts. As an example, libertarian Ron Paul couldn't even admit that poor people wouldn't get medical care. They also seem to think courts will be perfect arbiters and protectors of each person's rights.

No one seems to want to say that their proposed outcome won't be perfect, but would be good enough (with X downside). Conservatives, libertarians, liberals--they all seem to yearn for a paradise. Don't you see it too?

Kylopod said...

The thing is, the term has become somewhat vague, and while Kristol proudly self-identified as a neoconservative, nowadays it is mostly a term of abuse. It is rarely used outside the context of American foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly with regard to Iraq and Iran. Not everyone who initially supported the invasion of Iraq is a neocon, but people who continued to maintain it was a good choice after the WMDs were revealed as nonexistent are usually what people have in mind when they use the term. This is because once the immediate threat is removed, the justification usually turns to the idea of spreading democracy in the world.

I find it ironic that Kristol defined a neocon as a liberal who got "mugged by reality." The Iraq War was essentially a case of neocons getting mugged by reality. It's not coincidental that today's neocons tend to treat the word "realist" with scorn. What started out as a pragmatic philosophy hardened into an idealistic dogma.

Have you heard of Tikkun Olam?

ModeratePoli said...

@kylopod, No, I hadn't heard of Tikkun Olam. My understanding of Judaism is rudimentary and based more on social observation.

As for getting mugged by reality, that happens to all ideologies eventually, doesn't it?

Kylopod said...

It's not so much about stereotype as it is about the way people are influenced by their cultural background. I think of that scene from Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the protagonist has rejected the Catholicism of his upbringing, but his friend notes that his philosophy of art still sounds suspiciously Catholic, and the friend says, "your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve." Similarly, I find that with a lot of secular Jews (think of Freud or Einstein or Woody Allen), their basic outlook is loaded with Jewish religious themes. I'm not sure how true this is for secular Jews of my generation or younger. But Kristol and Podhoretz were old enough to have direct memories of rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, and indeed the high level of anti-Semitism in the US around that time. It's hard to forget who you are when you're being constantly reminded of it.

I'm just offering this as a theory for why American Jews didn't follow the path of other white immigrant groups in becoming more conservative as they assimilated into the culture. To this day Jews remain one of the most reliably Democratic ethnic voting blocs, surpassed only by blacks (though Latinos are starting to catch up). Every Democratic presidential nominee since Clinton has gotten between 70 and 80% of the Jewish vote, and before that it was typically around two-thirds. (The closest a Republican came to winning it in modern times is Reagan in 1980--he got 39% compared with Carter's 45%--but that probably had more to do with John Anderson's third-party bid splitting the Jewish Democratic vote than with a rightward turn in the Jewish community.) This is despite the fact that American Jews have achieved a high level of economic success and acceptance into the white mainstream, and we no longer suffer from the kind of discrimination that continues to plague blacks and Latinos. I think the only way to explain this is through a deep Jewish cultural attachment to liberalism, so that even Jews who moved to the right have often retained certain liberal philosophical beliefs.

ModeratePoli said...

@kylopod, more interesting questions to consider.

It's certainly clear that Jews have generally continued to be Democrats even while they've grown wealthier, and the question is why. I can make several guesses. (Do you like any of them?)
1) It scares the bejesus out of us when we have GOP pols (or their supporters) say that this is a Christian nation. It's not a lot of steps from that to oppression of Jews. The Dem message of acceptance of all ethnic and minorities is much more reassuring.
2) Certain parts of the liberal philosophy matches Judaism well, but which ones? "All of it" isn't a good answer.
3. Jews may be more highly educated than most other groups, and perhaps more into academics, so perhaps that is the reason that they are more liberal, since academics are another group that is more liberal.

Kylopod said...

It scares the bejesus out of us when we have GOP pols (or their supporters) say that this is a Christian nation.

That could be a factor. But remember, the rise of the Christian Right happened in the '70s, and Jews had been staunchly liberal long before that. Republicans like Ike, Nixon, Ford, and even Barry Goldwater did not go around talking about the Christian nation, yet they were not any more popular among Jews than today's Republicans.

Jews may be more highly educated than most other groups

So are Mormons, but that hasn't stopped them from being highly conservative.

Certain parts of the liberal philosophy matches Judaism well, but which ones? "All of it" isn't a good answer.

I think it's pretty silly to try to fit a 3000-year-old religion into modern categories like "liberal" or "conservative." I've seen many Jews try, and as your comment alludes to, it always comes down to picking and choosing. (The same can be said of Christianity or any other religion. It's a familiar pattern: on probably every political issue that has ever existed there have been people on both sides quoting the Bible chapter and verse to support their positions.) My argument isn't that Judaism is in fact more liberal or more conservative, but that sociologically, Jews in the US have been influenced by certain traditional ideas (such as Tikkun Olam, as well as the notion of communal responsibility for the poor and needy) that are a better philosophical fit for the left than the right. These ideas often show up even among Jewish conservatives, which is part of my explanation for neocons, that they've combined functional conservatism with some of the philosophical idealism common to liberals.