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Irving Kristol and Republican Virtue

On C-SPAN’s series After Words, David Brooks hosted an engaging and wide-ranging interview with William Kristol on The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009, a collection of essays by Bill’s father, the late Irving Kristol. They are reprinted in this book for the first time since their initial publication.

The Neoconservative Persuasion is a wonderful collection assembled by Irving’s wife, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. The essays discuss Tacitus, W.H. Auden, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Ronald Reagan, as well as Judaism and Christianity, Jacksonian democracy, the Constitution, conservatism and neoconservatism, liberalism (ancient and modern), human nature and social reform, and supply-side economics.

There is, however, one address, originally delivered in May 1974 at Indiana University’s The Poynter Center, to which I wanted to draw attention: “Republican Virtue versus Servile Institutions.” It is quite an important essay, providing as it does an important corrective to the conservative temptation to embrace, enthusiastically and without qualification, populism.

Kristol writes that he has faith in the common people, of which he counted himself one, but just not very much faith in them. Further, he argues, the common man, being wise, only invests modest faith in himself. “That it is possible to corrupt a citizenry — or for a citizenry to corrupt itself — is something the Founders understood but which we seem to have forgotten,” according to Kristol.

His essay goes on to reflect on the ideas of “republican virtues,” which asks of people a certain public-spiritedness, which is a form of self-control, which is itself an exercise in self-government. Kristol goes on to write about the main point that emerged from the American democratic experience. “People do not have respect for institutions which, instead of making demands upon them, are completely subservient to their whims,” Kristol wrote. “In short, a people will not respect a polity that has so low an opinion of them that it thinks it absurd to insist that people become better than they are. Not simply more democratic; not simply more free; not simply more affluent; but, in some clear sense, better.”

This conception of republican virtue has been largely lost in modern times. And while a peaceful populist uprising can be a very good thing from time to time, there is something deeply wise and true in Kristol’s warning. There is a “democratic dogma” that insists our institutions should in every instance conform themselves to the whims and will of the people — a belief the Founders themselves rejected in both their writings and in their form for government (they were horrified by the notion of a “direct democracy” rather than a representative one, believing government should mediate, not mirror, popular views).

Irving Kristol’s reputation as a leading 20th-century public intellectual was secured long ago. This new collection of essays merely fortifies it.


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