The Jewish intellectuals who came of age in the 1950s mostly began their lives as Trotskyists and evolved into liberals of a peculiarly conservative sort. (Lest this sound snide, I’d apply the same label to myself.) And while the reasons for this transformation were–like everything relating to what Norman Podhoretz called “the family”–complicated and multifaceted, at the center of the transformation was the phenomenon of McCarthyism. The success of so coarse and unsophisticated a demagogue as McCarthy, together with what they had witnessed regarding Stalin and Hitler, led most of these ex-Marxists to question the wisdom and efficacy of ideology in general and mass movements in particular.
Alone among his cacophonous crowd, Irving Kristol spoke sympathetically of the junior senator from Wisconsin. In the March 1952 issue of Commentary, he (infamously) argued, “For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist.” He added, “About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”
Many people have commented on the philosophical inconsistencies that have permeated Kristol’s thought over the decades. Paul Starr did a masterful job of laying these out in a 1995 New Republic review. Particularly shocking was Kristol’s apparent embrace of the merits of Christian discrimination against Jews in his 1991 essay “The Future of American Jewry.” “If America is going to become more Christian, Jews will have to adapt,” he wrote. What’s more, Kristol reassured his landsleit, this wouldn’t be so bad. Sure, in the past “it created hurdles, but not impossible barriers” and would cut down on Jews intermarrying to boot. Equally amazing, in its own way, was Kristol’s admission that he did not understand the first thing about supply-side economics, despite his constant promotion of it. “I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities,” he wrote in 1995. Unlike more orthodox “naysaying” conservative economic doctrines, supply-side “offered neoconservatism” a plethora of goodies without the inconvenience of finding a way to pay for them.
Such philosophical contradictions melt away, however, when one realizes that Kristol was not motivated by ideas in the manner of, say, Isaiah Berlin or Leo Strauss. Rather, neoconservatism’s “godfather” was driven by a single passion, and it was the same one that animated Senator McCarthy: hatred of American liberalism. He was forthright about this. It was not communism that inspired his primary animus during the cold war but “the fundamental assumptions of contemporary liberalism that were my enemy.” His primary goal, therefore, “was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority.”
I wrote ten years ago that “more than anyone alive, perhaps, Irving Kristol can take the credit for reversing the direction of American political culture.” The means by which this was accomplished are not widely understood. Kristol’s contributions were threefold: first, in his writings he provided useful arguments for politicians who sought to discredit liberals and increase the power of corporations and wealthy individuals. Second, he solicited and distributed the financial contributions of many of these same corporations and wealthy individuals into institutions designed to perpetuate these same ideas and arguments. And finally, with his wife, conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, he raised a son, William Kristol, who went on to extend and deepen these achievements, operating in much the same fashion, albeit in a far more congenial–that is, anti-liberal–atmosphere.
Irving Kristol’s sophisticated, multifront war against liberalism succeeded well beyond anything achieved by the drunken hayseed McCarthy. He helped provide the (slender) ideological ballast for Reaganism via his promotion of supply-side economics in The Public Interest, which he co-founded and co-edited, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where he regularly appeared and with whose editor, Robert Bartley, he regularly consulted. So too, the ideas promoted a decade and a half later in the so-called Gingrich revolution. The former House Speaker said after Kristol’s passing on September 18 that “Our Republican ‘Contract With America’ in 1994 was in many ways built on Kristol’s insights.” But far more important than the ideas themselves was the intellectual infrastructure–the think tanks, the magazines, the op-ed pages and the conferences–that Kristol helped build to provide support for arguments that otherwise would have been considered banal, dangerous or both. Kristol paid inadvertent tribute to his own achievement when, in moving from New York to Washington in 1988, he explained, “Today Washington seems to give birth to a new think tank every other month or so.” It took liberals nearly four decades to realize what they were up against.
To those who point out that William Kristol is both more conservative and better known than his father, this is largely due to his good fortune in having been born into–politically, culturally and ideologically–the House That Irving Built. One factor, however, has remained constant for father and son: their eagerness to embrace the tactics of McCarthyism against their liberal opponents. Paying a kind of backhanded tribute to his father some fifty years after his notorious Commentary article, Kristol the Younger attacked the (briefly) wavering Iraq War supporter Richard Gephardt in hauntingly familiar terms in the Washington Post: “The American people, whatever their doubts about aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, know that Bush is serious about fighting terrorists and terrorist states that mean America harm. About Bush’s Democratic critics, they know no such thing.”