Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, has passed away. Kristol is no darling of the intellectual conservative movement, but he was brilliant and relevant nonetheless.
I recall reading Irving Kristol as a teenager and being bemused by his description of a neocon as a “liberal who has been mugged by reality”. Most people, especially liberals, toss around the term neocon, but have no clue what it means.
What makes Kristol important is his understanding of converts and neocons. Kristol, himself, was a liberal oriented youth, who drifted right, but never became a traditional conservative. He represents all those free market, anti-communistic, patriotic Democrats of the FDR and JFK persuasion, who grew disillusioned with the radicals in new the Democratic Party.
I’m interested in converts. I tend to subscribe to Churchill’s famous quip that “anyone who is not a liberal when they are young has no heart and anyone who is not a conservative when they are old has no brain”. It’s the great challenge of conservatives to lure maturing and disgruntled former liberals into our camp. Many young people tend to be naïve, idealistic, conceited, and restless. As people mature, they gain a better grasp of the role of tradition, natural law, and human nature in a civil society.
Winning the hearts and minds of these people is our duty. Even if they pitch their stakes under the Republican tent and boost our ranks, they often come with some liberal baggage and, consequently, have the effect of moderating the party. So we toil, as we always do, and preach the gospel of conservatism to those with open ears. Conversion is a two step process. First, a particular worldview becomes discredited and then a new worldview fills the void. The process is not simultaneous. We must pull the disaffected and disillusioned under our tent and then educate them as best we can.
In Kristol, we get a better understanding of the convert and the neocon. It is that abiding sense of patriotism, freedom and the opportunity and liberty that the free market promotes that attracts people to our cause. It is that secular humanism and those liberal assumptions about the role of government in affectuating change and promoting social justice that is the most difficult nut to crack. Kristol embodied that dual nature.