1) Culture: Our own James Poulos describes Kristol as “A secular liberal who cared about culture.” The proliferation of “dirty books, dirty movies, and dirty art” during the Sexual Revolution was one of the issues that encouraged Kristol to shift his views in a conservative direction.
He understood religion was central to culture and deals with religious questions throughout the book. Here we can see the influence of Leo Strauss on him in two ways. First, America’s religious inheritance is seen in terms of a civil religion with a salutary effect on the character of the citizenry. Religion is a means to a political end. Is this compatible with a religious believer’s view of Church-State relations? Here is a possible reason why it is not: For a religious believer it is the other way around, politics is a means to a religious end. The purpose of government is to secure the necessary space to exercise one’s religious liberty.
Second, he accepts the thesis that reason and revelation are ultimately irreconcilable. While this seems to be his conclusion, it should be said that this thesis encouraged him to take the possibility of revelation seriously, and the book shows his genuine curiosity in theological questions.
2) Gov’t : The excesses of the Great Society was another reason why he shifted toward the right. But this does not mean he accepted the mainstream conservative position of ‘limited government.’ For conservatives, safety nets are illegitimate as a matter of principle. For Kristol, what mattered was the effect on the citizens’ character, not whether it was unconstitutional. LBJ’s programs created dependency among its recipients and so were bad, but FDR’s New Deal provided a helping hand to citizens and so was good. Fred Barnes has described this view as ‘Big Gov’t Conservativism,’ and it is unpopular at the moment, given Bush’s presidency and the Tea Partiers.
3) The third theme of foreign policy is another reason why neoconservatism is unpopular today. Second wave Neocons justified the War on Terror on the idealistic ground of democratizing the Middle East: there is a universal desire for liberty which America is in a unique position to help realize. Surprisingly, this idealist outlook is generally missing from Kristol’s book. For the most part, he talks about ‘the national interest’ and defending America against the liberal internationalist charge of selfishness. He says the essential reading for foreign policy should be Thucydides’ On the Peloponnesian War, a work squarely in the realist camp.
When did the change from realist to idealist thinking occur in neoconservative circles? Maybe it was David Brooks’ idea of ‘National Greatness’ and the need for America to undertake grand projects. This theme should run counter to Kristol’s avowed skepticism about grand projects which is based upon his belief in our weak and limited human natures, yet one can find him affirming ‘National Greatness’ at the end of the book. Why the change?
That aside, the number one reason why readers of this blog might enjoy reading Kristol’s work is because it stands at the crossroads of political philosophy and public policy. Writing about philosophy and policy for a mainstream audience is a rarity indeed.