Kristol and the Tea Baggers

As fate would have it, Irving Kristol's death was announced amid continued debates about the significance, or lack thereof, of the tea baggers' march on Washington. Sliced into reports about screaming marchers who called Nancy Pelosi a Nazi and threatened to come back armed next time, there was the passing of Kristol (1920-2009). What better contrast could this coincidence present: screaming paranoids passing through the streets of the nation's capital versus a New York Jew and sophisticated man of ideas passing away. You could even construct a narrative around this: Once a movement of ideas, small magazines, and intellectual levity, conservativism was now only paranoid and irrational. It's a nice story. Too bad Kristol's life doesn't bear it out.

For sure, Kristol was a man of ideas, part of the much-celebrated New York intellectuals who generally moved from Trotskyism (no sensible rational idea there!) to either liberalism or neoconservatism. When he wasn't editing small magazines or raising money for think tanks, Kristol wrote essays -- that literary form that fit the street brawling and polemical spirit of yesterday's public intellectuals. There was a time, or so documentaries like Arguing the World suggest, that citizens hungered for the essays found in Partisan Review or Commentary, where big ideas were distilled into digestible morsels just right for a subway ride home.

Kristol was a master at controversy in short amounts of words. His earliest, most famous piece is often quoted in the many obituaries being filed about him now. Published in Commentary in 1952, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy was at his height of influence, it was titled "'Civil Liberties,' 1952 -- A Study in Confusion." Written while Kristol considered himself a liberal, the article took aim at those on the left who seemed soft on communism (Henry Steele Commager got the author's ire up, for instance). The lines most quoted back then and today read: "There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification."

Now, the quotation could be treated as a statement of fact. McCarthy was popular as he hunted for communists, and the Republicans would sweep in the upcoming presidential election. But looking back at it today, it could also symbolize Kristol's own hard-boiled understanding of American politics as well as where conservatism would have to go once he stepped on that train. For Kristol was writing as a sophisticated intellectual who understood that a pugnacious, rude, and hard-drinking senator from the Midwest could so easily take down effete liberals. Tough guys from the heartland -- no matter how truthful or civilized they were -- always won against those born with silver spoons in their mouths. American politics would never set a place for the high-minded or aristocratic version of European conservatism. American conservatism would have to be raucous, disruptive, and populist. That is, if McCarthy mattered, which he undoubtedly did.

There was a moment, though, when Kristol was turning neoconservative and started to hope for something more from American politics, something a bit more measured and rational than McCarthy's fruitless search for commies. In 1965, right at the heyday of Great Society liberalism, he started to edit Public Interest. The small magazine produced thoughtful (if not exactly lively) reading about public policy. Kristol used the magazine's pages to think about the "unintended consequences" of liberal welfare policy and the rise of crime and the fall of America's cities into blight. Kristol wrote about the virtues of reforming the welfare state by cutting back on "entitlements," a term critical to the neoconservative toolbox.

Throughout the 1970s, Kristol continued to outline a "conservative welfare state." He even called for "some form of national health insurance" and criticized his right flank's "idiotic hostility to the original Social Security legislation." He wrote with disdain for the tradition of populism, which he derided for "an antinomian impulse," a "Jacobin contempt" for "law and order and civility." Populist rhetoric could swerve out of control, he warned his fellow conservatives.

But amid all of these warnings about right-wing populism, he got in his digs against the "new class," a big keyword in the neoconservative vocabulary that stood in for a highly educated elite that embraced an "adversarial culture" often carried over from the dregs of the 1960s counterculture. The new class became for Kristol "an intelligentsia which … despises the ethos of bourgeois society." And so Kristol came to a forked road: He was willing to lay the ground for a culture war between the new class and ordinary Americans but halted before the crossroads of populism.

It would be the movement that he helped nurture that would determine which fork to take. For during the 1980s, Kristol decided that he would ditch his vision of a conservative welfare state for the less sophisticated ideas of supply-side economics. "I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities," he wrote famously. Simultaneously, he would throw in with the increasingly anti-intellectual, evangelical wing of the Republican Party. A return to religion in America could never be solely a rational or Jewish matter.

The clearest distillation of his thinking came, not surprisingly, in another groundbreaking essay, "My Cold War," published in The National Interest in 1993. While some celebrated the end of the Cold War as they watched the Soviet Union peacefully reform itself, Kristol hung on to his staunch anti-communism and culture-warrior attitude. "So far from having ended," Kristol wrote, "my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other." There it was: The stridency that placed Kristol more at the center of a movement he helped create.

In the end, Kristol learned that intellectuals don't always guide movements; often, movements guide intellectuals. It's a tough lesson for conservatives to accept. Especially if they're hungry to give their movement some intellectual seriousness again. Kristol's life and ideas aren't the best place to search for that.