George Bush’s Philosophers

George Bush’s Philosophers

The politics of George W. Bush, unlike earlier American conservatisms, is animated by ideas and not merely by interests. That is, at least, what Bush’s friends assert, and what his foes usually concede. But is it so?

The ideas in question are well known, so much so that I need not enumerate them here. I will rather examine, as a whole, a school of thought and two groups of thinkers who adhere to it. The school is called neoconservative, its ideas match current policies, and its adherents often implement those policies. The question at hand is this: What is the direction of causation? Are the policies consequences of the ideas? Or were the ideas fabricated to justify the policies? The question is answerable only in the mean—any assemblage of humankind will include some knaves, some sincere fools, and various mixtures of wisdom with knavery and foolishness—but it is still worth asking.

My method will be to look at historical origins. I will compare two groups that came together in the neoconservative movement of the late 1990s: the Straussians and the Shachtmanites. The thinkers they followed were obscure during their common lifetime, but the importance of both has grown in retrospect. Leo Strauss (1899–1973) taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. Max Shachtman (1904–1972) led a grouplet that evolved from Trotskyism to right-wing social democracy. Both left legacies of oral teaching and discipleship that far outweigh their writings.

Today, what remains of the once wide divide between these two schools of thought is little more than a division of labor. Some Straussians (Paul Wolfowitz comes to mind) direct armies; others (such as Leon Kass, head of the President’s Council on Bioethics) retain a focus on philosophical issues. Shachtmanites such as the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman and the American Enterprise Institute’s scholar in residence Joshua Muravchick specialize, as bureaucrats or writers, in intellectual forms of combat.

The two schools began with very different doctrines. I don’t mean to set Shachtman’s leftist activism against Strauss’s philosophical conservativism. Strauss’s students dropped their teacher’s avoidance of worldly involvement early on, and the Shachtmanites could not help but change their minds along the way from revolutionary Marxism to Reaganism. One must compare the elements of Shachtman’s thought that survived the migration to the right with the Straussianism of Strauss’s followers. Even so, sharp contrasts remain. Consider these:

• Straussian politics focuses on ideas; Shachtmanite politics expresses interests.
• Straussians seek to preserve hierarchies; Shachtmanites to level them.
• For Straussians, history is made by heroes; for Shachtmanites, by social forces.
• Straussians prefer the creative elite to the dull masses. Shachtmanites help sturdy masses conquer an effete elite.

The two group...