Wednesday, March 10, 2021

All That's Old Is New Again in Jewish Politics: The Neo-Neoconservatives

Sometimes, when I feel especially glum about the state of campus politics or political debates on Israel or "antisemitism on the left", I remind myself of history. If one is familiar with the state of Jewish affairs in the 1970s and 1980s, one quickly will realize that none of what we're going through now represents new terrain. Many of the issues, aggressions, insecurities, and controversies that afflict us today were also present then. It's one of the reason why so much of the work from that era -- pieces like Evelyn Torton Beck's "The Politics of Jewish Invisibility" or Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz's "The Issue is Power" -- is so resonant today. That recurrence could be depressing, but I've always found hope in it. None of the more dire predictions of that time came to pass. Jews were not expelled en masse from the left. There was no widespread public repudiation of Israel's existence outright. There were issues, and tensions, and very real problems -- problems which are very reminiscent to the controversies facing Jews today. And as difficult as they were, these problems were worked through, and we made it through -- if not unscathed, then at least intact. As it was then, so too might it be now.

Today, I found myself wondering if we're seeing another replication of a moment in Jewish history: the (re-)rise of the Jewish neoconservative. Tell me if this sounds familiar: The "first wave" of neoconservatives -- folks like Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, and Norman Podhoretz -- tended to be disaffected liberals or even leftists who starting in the 1960s felt as if the culture currents of the left had grown too extreme. Their particular hobby horse issues were typically (a) foreign policy and (b) "identity" issues (often including campus radicalism). These were persons who might agree that America had done wrong, but were emphatic that the Soviet Union was an evil empire doing worse and that the US must be willing to take any and all steps to rollback communism; they wouldn't defend (at least by the 70s) segregation outright, but presented affirmative action and identity politics as equally wrong as violations of a "colorblind" principle; they'd accept Martin Luther King Jr. (now that he was dead), but saw the current generation of civil rights leaders as too radical. Among Jews, in particular, this often intersected with significant anxiety over how the left was turning against Israel and lumped Jews in with White European oppressors (a move which they linked up to the rise of Third Worldism and identity politics more generally). Some of their concerns were legitimate; some were prototypical examples of fragility or contrarianism. And there was also a feedback loop -- as they grew more strident in critiquing the left, the left grew more hostile to them, which fed into their feelings of alienation (a feeling itself strengthened by the fact that they had viewed themselves as "of the left"), which prompted even more strident critiques. Ever onward.

At the end of the day, some neoconservatives remained Democrats, others became leading Republicans. In general, they still styled themselves as social moderates (they weren't going to be found marching against abortion clinics, for example), but they were happy to ally with more "paleo-" elements in the conservative coalition insofar as they would stand against the terrors of out-of-control leftism. And today, many (though not all) of the surviving members of the older wave of Jewish neoconservatives have drifted just a bit back towards the left. They've been markedly overrepresented in the "Never Trump" clique, for instance (Bill Kristol is an obvious example here) -- part of a broader recoiling from the recoiling. Some of the old and long-dormant "liberal" views re-emerged as the growing extremism of contemporary conservativism, and in particular the utter impossibility of reconciling it with anything approaching a defense of classically liberal and democratic values, became impossible to deny.

And yet even as the original cohort of Jewish neoconservatives is becoming more liberal, I feel like I'm seeing the rise of a parallel version of neoconservatism among (some) younger Jews. Once again, it comes from people that would characterize their roots as basically liberal but who are recoiling from bad experiences they've had precisely as liberals in predominantly progressive spaces (campuses, political activism, and so on). Once again, the particular issues that seem to most motivate them are what they see as extremism tied to issues of identity and campus politics (now typically styled as "wokeness" or "Critical Race Theory"). Once again, this anxiety is significantly bound up in claims about how Israel and Zionism are treated in these spaces. Once again, their "personal" politics typically do not seem to be swinging all the way over to the right, but they are increasingly willing to ally and align with more explicitly right-wing actors in the face of a perceived common enemy and they will do so claiming it is an extension of a fight for "traditional" liberal values (around free speech, individualism, or what have you), even when their putative allies make no bones about running roughshod over all of these. Meanwhile, their increasingly loud criticisms of left excesses (some fair and some not) prompt increasingly vocal pushback by the left, furthering the feeling of rejection, setting up its own vicious cycle. If they do end up leaving the Democratic Party, they will be very emphatic in asserting that "the Democratic Party left me."

The young neo-neoconservatives tend to be vocal, and they tend to capture attention. After all, they make for a nice man bites dog story, and they really are tapping into some genuine and reasonable Jewish anxieties -- this was true of the original wave and it's true today. It's also the case that their public salience is far in excess of their numbers -- the vast majority of Jews in the 1970s and 80s did not become conservatives (neo- or otherwise), and the vast majority of Jews today likewise are not publicly or privately wrestling with their political affiliation. It's entirely possible -- maybe likely -- that they will retain a position of prominence even as (because?) they more explicitly align with the right; it's also likely that they will not carry the majority of the Jewish community with them.

So even as there is a part of me that worries -- is this the future of our community -- another part of me looks to history and is reassured. The neo-neoconservatives will be loud, and they'll be influential, but if history is any guide they will not be the vanguard of the new Jewish politics in the 21st century. They are simply what is old, made new again.