Who are the Neoconservatives? An Interview with Michael Novak

Prominent writer, thinker, and Crisis co-founder Michael Novak sat down with Italian scholar Alia K. Nardini to discuss neoconservatism, Catholicism, and the future of the West.

Alia K. Nardini: Professor Novak, generally people in Italy and the rest of Europe want to know how much American neoconservatives share with the Republican Party. However, I find that the most interesting question really concerns the relationship between neo-conservatives and the Democratic Party, especially in terms of conceptual differences that developed during the 1960s and 1970s. What is your view on this?

Michael Novak: In the first generation, virtually all neo-conservatives—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Paul Johnson in England—were not only Democrats; we were on the left wing of the Democratic Party. We were Kennedy Democrats. But from about 1972, the Democratic Party, drawing the wrong lessons from the war in Vietnam, chose as its campaign slogan, “Come home, America!” and began retreating from the world and its international burdens. Then, after 1973, the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of abortion. It is still the party of abortion. From our point of view, we did not leave the Democratic Party, the party left us.

AKN: Is it true that the American public did not vote in favor of abortion, but that the Supreme Court, in effect, decreed it?

MN: Actually, prior to 1973, any time abortion had been put to a vote in the United States, it was overwhelmingly defeated. The American people prefer pro-life [legislation] by a good majority. But the Supreme Court stepped in, and in 1973 made a ruling that permitted abortion for almost any reason (in practice) and during all nine months of pregnancy. This was an illegitimate exercise of judicial power. It is not the business of the Court to make legislation. Legislation should be made only with the consent of the governed, through the Congress. The American people have never consented to this ruling, [which] has caused turmoil in our politics and culture for 34 years now, as nothing else has. Together with other factors, it has brought a long series of defeats to the Democratic Party.

AKN: What other major issues made you move away from what was becoming the official position of the Democratic Party in the 1970s?

MN: Economics. Many of us once thought that socialism was basically a good idea, but socialists had not found a practical way to implement it successfully. Then we actually started to examine the many different national experiments in socialism—almost 70. None of them worked. So socialism cannot be a good idea. Now, if you are on the Left and you cease being a socialist, what are you? If you do not take the state as the main engine of progress, where do you turn?

In these circumstances, and independently, several writers started re-examining the American founding. Irving Kristol in particular wrote a beautiful book about that, and discovered a new way of thinking about the future.

Like socialists, neoconservatives try to imagine, and to work toward, a better future. Unlike socialists, neoconservatives saw in a dynamic free economy a better way of breaking the chains of poverty than socialism ever discovered.

Again, at the time of the American founding, the term “republican” was much preferred to “democratic.” The latter meant rule by the majority, but that has often proven dangerous and tyrannical. A “republic” places checks and balances on the majority through representative government and stresses the rule of law and the protection of the rights of the free.

Then there was this second discovery: not just that the American founding held a superior economic idea (which is why socialism never took root in the United States), but also that the American people, when given a free choice, would usually come down on the conservative side of most issues. Recent polls reveal that even in Europe the vast majority of people believe in capital punishment. It is the political class—the elites—that does not. The Left thinks it speaks for the people, but rarely does so.

AKN: Do you think your distance from the Democratic Party was due to being in favor of capitalism, or criticizing the welfare state for what it had become, or both? After all, the two things went together.

MN: You must remember that the Democratic Party in the United States is the second-most capitalist party in the world—more so than Britain’s Tory Party (Margaret Thatcher aside). But U.S. Democrats do tend to favor statist solutions. In any case, we all recognize the superiority of capitalism to socialism—not simply as a practical matter, not simply as an economic matter, but also as a cultural and a moral matter. Capitalism forms morally better people than socialism does. Capitalism teaches people to show initiative and imagination, to work cooperatively in teams, to love and to cherish the law; what is more, it forces persons not only to rely on themselves and their own moral qualities, but also to recognize those moral qualities in others and to cooperate with others freely. If you are running a company in 15 different cities, you have to trust your local manager to be telling the truth. You just cannot afford for them not to be telling the truth. This elevates the standard of truth in society. And if they’re not telling the whole truth, they’ll be fired. There’s a reverse incentive in socialism: People develop an interest in reporting only good news, and they don’t dare to tell the truth. Anyway, making the moral case for capitalism really drove people of the Left crazy.

Still, being on the Left, most neoconservatives were favorable of the welfare state. But we did see clearly that some welfare programs simply were not keeping their early promises, and others were making life worse. Programs for the elderly were doing very well. But programs for younger people were destroying the family, breeding more crime [and] more out-of-wedlock births. So we began to be critical of certain aspects of the welfare state. In large, diverse countries like the United States, we have to have a welfare state—the only question is what kind. From 1965 onward, neoconservatives were more critical of the way welfare programs were designed, conducted, and managed. By 1995, even the Democratic Party had adopted our criticisms.

AKN: A good definition of welfare is finding a way to make communities cooperate, isn’t it? And that partly goes back to the Burkeian approach: little platoons working alongside the state.

MN: Let me just distinguish two different lines of thought. When the Olympics were held in the United States, it was private-sector volunteers, not the state, that ran the show. If you go to any other country, the Olympics are a big state project; in America, they were not. The first contrast then is between doing things—even huge things—privately, and doing them through the state. In the United States, even most of our colleges and universities (especially the top ones like Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Stanford) are private. In Italy, and the rest of Europe, private universities are rare. Very few big projects in Italy are private. And all over Europe the state runs most things.

The second line of thought I want to draw attention to is a major deficiency of the giant welfare state: that it squeezes out many of the energies of smaller private institutions and causes them to atrophy and to decay. The state suffocates private energies. And that makes the whole society function less well. So trying to bring back life and vigor to more local energies means giving them more responsibility, giving them important roles in the nation.

AKN: I believe it also means giving the individual dimension—whether on a personal level or embedded in the community—a lot more room to grow. It means also allowing for the private sector to step in and for entrepreneurship to benefit from social acceptance instead of widespread criticism.

MN: You are right. There are lots of small businesses in your country, for instance, especially from Bologna northwards. Italy leads all of Europe in the high proportion of vital small businesses. But just the same, many of these successful sources of a dynamic economy do not receive the social prestige they deserve. In most nations, the most brilliant, the most artistic, the most creative products are lovingly produced by small entrepreneurs. You can get workmanship in Italy that you can’t get anywhere else in the world, and it is usually produced by small companies.

AKN: How did you feel at the time of your departure from the Democratic Party?

MN: In 1963, I was in Rome on the night that President Kennedy was assassinated. We Americans sought each other out that day, so we all went out for dinner. One of the Americans who joined us was Michael Harrington, the most famous democratic socialist in America. Many years later, Harrington invented a new name for some of his old friends, Democrats who had become critical of socialism and statism—he called them “neoconservatives.” He intended that name as an insult, since the Left held that “there are no intelligent conservatives in America.” He meant to push us outside the margins of intellectual life. We all fought against this insulting label. It is true, we did not believe in socialism any longer; we saw better results for the poor from enterprise and markets. Yet we continued to believe in democracy and human rights. We considered ourselves to be persons of the Left even as we began to criticize the Left.

It is characteristic of the Left, one learns, to excommunicate its critics. If you are in favor of capitalism—even a little bit—that’s intolerable to the Left. The Left is extremely intolerant. Friendships were disrupted. Old friends would stop telephoning. The more critical of the Left you were, the more people did not want to be seen in your company. Many a dinner party ended in passionate, irreconcilable argument.

Then, quite surprisingly, Reagan was elected in 1980, and Newsweek ran a cover story on what they called the New Right.” The edition included the neoconservatives near to the heart of the new Right. This was an enormous exaggeration. Most of the neoconservatives barely supported Reagan, and some did not at all. Ironically, though, this cover story attributed great mysterious power to this small group. (In those days you could put all the neoconservatives in the United States in a small meeting room.)

Newsweek pictured us leading “the Right,” but nobody on the Right thought we were their leaders! Many on the Right did not trust us. We weren’t a party; we weren’t a group; we just happened to share certain tendencies (not of the Right and no longer of the Left), and we were linked to one another through writing. Then slowly, some of us became discontent with the blind leftism of the universities. We were invited to join think tanks of one kind or another, and we went. There were already many left-wing think tanks. Now there was a handful welcoming the few critics of the Left, now called “neoconservatives.” Since we had grown up in the Left, and argued our way out of the Left, we had many sharp, new arguments to defeat the Left. And we held up a more attractive and realistic picture of the future than the Left. Unlike some older conservatives, we did not turn to the past only; we were fighting for a better future.

AKN: Obviously the people who came after those years—I am thinking of Max Boot, or Bill Kristol, for example—they didn’t experience that shift; they didn’t have to go through that.

MN: That’s a good point; there is indeed a second generation. And now a third generation. Somebody once said—I think it was Herbert Stein—that conservatives are like vintages: They depart from the Left at different times and for different reasons. Every decade brings new vintages. The younger Bill Kristol, Andrew Ferguson, David Brooks—they are in a different place from us old codgers.

AKN: Do you think the issues they tackle are different? There seems to be a stronger focus on foreign policy—or less of a focus on values, in terms of everyday life in the community—for second-generation neoconservatives.

MN: Well, that partly depends on whom you read. It is certainly true of Boot. In that generation, it would not be true of Robert P. George. There are a lot of conservatives who pursue questions of bioethics—euthanasia, abortion—and for them the life issues are as important as the conflicts of the Middle East. Some—the libertarians—are almost totally interested in economics. Everybody is somewhat interested in economics, but not 100 percent as the libertarians are. But then there is also just the accident of history. The Vietnam War preoccupied all of us older neoconservatives. You had to take a stand one way or another. In a country like ours, wars divide people. We see today that the Iraq War divides people. Democracies are reluctant to go to war.

AKN: War is also important when it highlights an awareness of the past. We are talking about great people who made your country, like George Washington.

MN: We are one of the few countries whose main political leaders figure in the national imagination as no other literary figures do. In our literature—in novels, plays, and epics—there is nobody to compare to Lincoln or Washington. [They] capture the literary imagination and the moral imagination of the country. That’s rare.

Regarding patriotism, I can say that I was very anti-war in Vietnam, but I could not stand it when anti-war protestors turned the American flag upside down and burned it. Why? Because my grandparents came from Eastern Europe, and I knew how poor they were and how good this country had been to them. And while I was opposed to the war, I was not opposed to America. I did not think there was a better nation on earth. So love of country was a big reason for my turning to the Right, or—let me put it this way—turning against the Left, certainly the far Left.

AKN: How did neoconservatism understand faith, and how did that change, while progressively moving away from the Left?

MN: One thing that most people miss is that there is a strong religious component in the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol once said that it is important to neoconservatives to take economics seriously, much more seriously than the Left does. However, politics is prior to economics. Before you can have a dynamic economy, you have to have a system of laws based upon consent from the governed. Third, culture is prior to politics and economics. Culture is the most basic of the three systems of liberty. And by culture, we mean the answer to such questions as, Who are we, under these stars, with the wind on our faces? What ought we to do? What may we hope? A culture is formed by all the institutions [that] explore those irrepressible questions of the human spirit—the family, first of all, the arts, sciences, religion. In English it makes a good pun, and I guess in Italian too: The beginning of culture is “cult.” Liturgy gives form to culture.

Curiously, most of the neoconservatives—the Jewish ones, too—became more religious as they became more neoconservative. This may be because if you detach yourself from socialism, there is an emptiness. Socialism is not just a poor form of economics, it is the name of a dream, a kind of religion. You begin looking for a better answer than socialism offers—a deeper and more sophisticated answer. This is true for Catholics and for some Protestants, too. Commentators typically overlook how powerful the religious note in neoconservatism is. And the connection with Burke, again. We tend to think that our grandfathers were at least as smart as we are, maybe a lot smarter. The Left always seems to think that their generation is smarter than their fathers’.

AKN: Going a bit more in depth into the issue of Christianity—or rather, Catholicism—and how important it is to Western culture: There are currents of thought, also in Italy, trying to go back to the Enlightenment and not past that; while you have often argued how we should be aware of our Christian, and specifically Catholic, values.

MN: Well, in America, we are in a different position from Europe—we Catholics, I mean. Let me put it this way: If you came to Boston or Philadelphia with the young Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, you would find that all the beautiful buildings and the beautiful churches were built by Protestants. So you had a feeling of growing up in a country not quite your own. It is your country in many ways, you are willing to die for it, but still you are not at the center of it. And now, just to give you a contrast: If you were born in New Orleans, which was founded by French Catholics, you would never have that feeling. There, French Catholics and other Catholics have had the highest prestige. The most beautiful churches in the city are Catholic churches. In the United States, we have many such sharp contrasts.

Still, most Americans barely study the Catholic period of European history. Not one American in a hundred- thousand knows the significance of the battle of Lepanto. Most schoolchildren learn from Protestant and secular teachers that the Crusades were a bad thing. Thus, few know of the 1,000-year contest by which Europe kept itself from Muslim occupation. Part of the work of Catholics, at least in my generation, is simply to try and rearrange the intellectual map in the minds of Americans, to show how there are useful themes in the Catholic past worth knowing about, themes that shed light on where we are today.

Alexis de Tocqueville asserted in Democracy in America that someday Catholics would be able to give the best arguments in favor of the American system. The Catholic sense of community and its distinctive feeling for equality, as well as the long Catholic sense of history, add new notes to the American mind. On equality, for example, whether you are a peasant or a serf or a noble, a count or a duke or a king, you meet at the same communion table. My point is: There are real riches in the Catholic tradition, which are highly instructive in interpreting the American experience. That is why Father Neuhaus, who was not a Catholic until 1990, wrote that in trying to understand social policy, one is well-advised to look at it through such Catholic notions as subsidiarity, associations, the common good, subjectivity (in Pope John Paul II’s sense), and the person as distinct from the individual. In this way, the day-to-day language of America is becoming more and more Catholic. The American genius, in forming associations on the local level, owes a great deal to the confraternities and associations of the Catholic medieval period, and so does Anglo-American common law.

AKN: Do you think people see the relevance of Catholic values in American life?

MN: One of Reagan’s great secrets was that he sounded like a Catholic, and people responded well. Until his time, Republicans tended to talk about the individual versus the state, but Reagan talked about families and neighborhoods. And for most Catholic societies—lrish, Slovak, Italian, and so forth—reality is not complete until the family is involved. For this reason, I think Catholics are contributing a lot to American self-understanding in a way that didn’t happen in earlier generations. There is a slow transformation happening. I do not mean that America is becoming Catholic, not really. It is just that American self-understanding is being enhanced by lessons from the long-neglected Catholic past.

AKN: I think that in Europe nowadays this turn to the Catholic past may clash with the need to be politically correct. We are worried about expressing too much of this Catholic heritage we have been talking about. By giving people freedom to acknowledge that and be defined by that, some say we are going to hurt others and constrict them, especially new immigrant minorities. We are still very scared to see national identity prevent social integration—which is where I think that looking at the United States’ model would be very useful and could give us new ideas. You have been doing this all along, after all.

MN: My favorite example is a Chinese woman with whom I once served on a government board. When she visited China with her American friends, little children in remote villages would come up to them to touch their white skin to see what it felt like. When her nephew came to America, he was very worried that the same thing would happen to him here—he would seem strange. He landed in Los Angeles and was walking on a street corner when somebody came up to him and said, “Buddy, do you have the time?” The Chinese lad was stunned to be taken as just another American. Then he realized, “In this country everybody looks like an American!” I like that story. It is a very good example of how integration has worked in the United States.

Still, experience teaches that not all cultures inculcate the same habits, ideas, and ambitions in their children. It simply is not true that all cultures are the same, or are equally successful in given areas of life. Multiculturalism can be a sentimental trap, moralistic, and destructive.

AKN: There is something Gary Schmitt pointed out to me, which was that people who come to the United States come for something. They know what they are coming here for—it can be work, it can be political freedom—but they are coming for something more than what it is they are escaping from. So there is an attempt to look for their own dimension within the reality that they meet, that they become aware of, that they hold in a great esteem, in a way. I think that is something which is not necessarily happening with Italy: Today, our country is a refuge for people who escape, so they are basically only trying to re-create what they have at home without becoming part of Italian culture.

MN: Well, what is happening in Italy is a large influx, from a very different Muslim culture, very quickly. Going to Italy and learning more about its history, I was surprised [by] how many different nations and ethnic groups came to Italy in earlier centuries and formed the culture of the country. Italy over the centuries has absorbed so many different people, but it took time, whereas this new migration is all happening in ten years. It is very hard for you; it would make a difference if these incoming people really wanted to become “Western,” and to respect the traditions and values of Italian civilization.

We have an implicit rule in the United States that is not often articulated, but it is there nonetheless. It says: “Bring your own heritage with you; you do not have to renounce it. But do not make it geographical. You cannot declare a piece of land as your community, with your own values and customs. You must become part of the larger community, with its own laws and rules. There must be one law for all.” Now this has worked very well for us, but as I said, not many Americans have ever made this rule explicit, as it should be.


  • Alia K. Nardini

    Alia K. Nardini teaches political philosophy and the history of political thought at the University of Bologna. Her first book, "War Between Morality and Politics," was published in 2006.

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