Eric Alterman: How Did Neo-Cons Take Over America?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Eric Alterman, at (4-5-05):

How did this happen? How did a few renegade New York intellectuals associated with a few tiny publications who converted from liberalism to conservatism back in the late sixties and early seventies give birth to a movement that conquered the focal points of US political debate and convinced the Congress and the president to launch an ill-considered and deeply counterproductive war?

Influential intellectuals of both the Right and Left in Western Europe hold the rather oversimplified and unsophisticated view that the entire rightward drift of American liberalism during the sixties and seventies can be viewed as a result of the change in Israel's geopolitical status from the spirited socialist David of its early years to the pro-American empire, post-1967 military Goliath.

(The Six-Day war important to the birth of Neoconservatism, but so were other factors such as a lengthy New York city teachers' strike, and the blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric of some of Black America's most vocal leadership.)

Neoconservative thinking originally grew out of Norman Podhoretz's editorships of Commentary (website), published by the American Jewish Committee, and, to a lesser degree, The Public Interest published by National Affairs.

While Neocon proponents like to argue that their political transformation reflected the views of a "liberal, mugged by reality," the movement's genesis was actually far more complex, deriving in part from the psychology of its founders -- Podhoretz had written previously of how scary he had always found Black people -- and a combination of New Left rhetoric, civil rights politics, and the changing geo-politics of Israel's position in the world vis-vis American power. All together the combination sent lifelong liberals into the arms of their former adversaries.

In any case all of these distinctions tend to miss the point. The conservative's ideological attack on 'liberal elite culture' in the early seventies arose from what they considered uncomfortable changes the country was undergoing. Like the vulgar Marxists a number of them had once been, the Right-Wingers saw an unspoken conspiracy ruling American political and cultural life in which everyone and everything was connected to everyone and everything else.

It was a kind of bargain-basement Hegelianism: The entire of American culture was moved as if guided by a single dialectical spirit. Harvard and Yale, feminism and taxes, school prayer and Soviet power, abortion and pornography, Communist revolution and gay rights: All of these social ills and more stemmed from the same source of political/cultural malaise, namely the post-Vietnam victory of the "New Class" and the "permissive" culture it had foisted upon the nation.

The New Class, according to Neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol, was made up of "scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others." They had somehow manipulated Americans to believe that they were an evil people who rained death and destruction on Vietnam to feed their own sick compulsions.

As for Watergate, where the Liberal press had carried out a successful "coup d'etat" (in Norman Podhoretz's judgment) to please its own vanity, it succeeded only in increasing its own appetite.

In the aftermath of Vietnam and the Establishment's failure of will, the New Class radicals had swallowed the entire establishment -- the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, Harvard, and the like -- and annexed the Supreme Court. Among the most dangerous aspects of the tactics of these people, moreover, was the stealth with which they went about their ideological mission. While they spoke of social justice, what the New Class was really after was the Triumph of Socialism.

The ranks of the Neoconservatives were largely composed of former sectarian Marxists of mostly Jewish academic origin, who transferred their intellectual allegiance to capitalism and American military power but retained their obsession with theological disputation and political purity.

The impresario at the center of this attack was Irving Kristol, a onetime Trotskyist who had since become a passionate defender of capitalism. The job of the Neoconservative intellectual, Kristol once remarked, was "to explain to the American people why they are right and to the intellectuals why they are wrong."

Beginning with the early days of the Nixon administration this is just what they began to do. Spreading the Word was a costly proposition in America, however. There were think-tanks to be started, journals to be founded, scholarships to be offered, and university chairs to be endowed. Like Willie Sutton, Kristol had to go where the money was...i.e. corporate America.

The money tree did not bear immediate fruit. Historically, as Kristol observed, business wanted "intellectuals to go out and justify profits and explain to people why corporations make a lot of money." Kristol had a far more ambitious agenda in mind, but first he needed to convince the businessmen that they needed him.

In this effort he could not conceivably have cultivated a more valuable ally than Robert Bartley, the editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal. Both men were already fierce Cold Warriors, but Bartley, tutored by Kristol, soon enlisted in the New Class war as well.

The ideology of the New Class, according to Bartley, was fomenting "something that looks suspiciously like a concerted attack on business." In order to thrive and prosper in the upcoming battle for control of the American economy, businessmen and their allies needed to publish or perish. The Journal editorial pages soon became a hotbed of Neocon counterrevolution, with Kristol a regular contributor.

Once business began to pony up the kind of cash necessary to fight a media class war, the terms of Washington's insider debate began to change. With tens of millions of dollars solicited from conservative corporations, foundations, and zillionaire ideologues like Nelson and Bunker Hunt, Richard Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the new Conservative Counter-Establishment (so-named by journalist Sidney Blumenthal) did a masterly job at aping the institutions of the Establishment's Washington and replacing them with its own....

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