The Neoconservative War on Nihilism (and Thomas Jefferson)

Harper’s website has a fascinating interview with C. Bradley Thompson on neoconservatism and his new book (with Yaron Brook) about it. Although, in the interview, the phrase “Herderian nationalism” is not used for neoconservatism by Thompson, he strongly implies that this is exactly what he is describing, as in this portion of the interview: 

The single greatest threat to America, according to many neocons, is not communism or radical Islam but nihilism, and they see nihilism as the inevitable outcome of Enlightenment liberalism and America’s founding principles. The real problem with liberal-capitalist society for [Leo] Strauss, [Bill] Kristol, and [David] Brooks is that individuals do not sacrifice themselves to anything higher than themselves and their petty self-interest. What America needs, therefore, is a two-step antidote for its cultural malaise: the inculcation of public virtue and the promotion of nationalism. The neocons seek to restore a public philosophy that promotes sacrifice as the great moral ideal and patriotism as the great political ideal. The American people need something greater than themselves to live for. They need to learn the virtue of sacrifice, which means war. War–perpetual war–is the ultimate means by which the neocons can fight creeping nihilism and promote sacrifice and nationalistic patriotism.

This is why I think that, if you are a Jeffersonian, in 2012 you have to back Barack Obama against Sarah Palin (whose administration would almost certainly be larded with neocons). Here’s Thompson, for example, on the close affinity between Leo Strauss, the godfather of neoconservatism, and Italian fascism (and thus Mussolini and other European Herderians):

It was Strauss who first turned Kristol toward Platonic political philosophy, which is the most important prism through which to view neoconservative thought. Kristol’s Straussian moment represents, I argue, the intellectual birth of neoconservatism. . . . Strauss was a subtle critic of the philosophic principles that founded the United States. He brings into doubt the principles on which Enlightenment liberalism and America were founded, and he shows them to be woefully deficient. Strauss, it becomes clear to the alert reader, was a trenchant critic of the principles and institutions that are most uniquely American (e.g., natural rights, individualism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism) precisely because they are all ultimately grounded on a moral philosophy of rational self-interestedness. Strauss believed that such principles ultimately lead to nihilism by untying man from the “eternal order.” . . . Strauss also shared some of the fascists’ positive political principles: he preferred a community-oriented to an individual-oriented public ethos; he called for a return to a closed society and a duty-based ethics; he promoted an “organic” view of the political community; he considered sacrifice as the ultimate moral-political virtue; he supported a paternalistic, corporatist State that controlled both the economic and spiritual realms; and, like the Italian fascists, he was a proponent of Plato’s best city in speech. One of the interesting facts that we reveal for the first time in Neoconservatism is that Strauss actually read and seems to have been influenced by Mussolini’s essay on the “Doctrine of Fascism.” This much seems clear: Strauss’s deepest philosophic and political commitments in 1933 were closer to those of Mussolini than they were to those of Jefferson.

What Thompson describes is Herderianism in a nutshell, and it’s why a Sarah Palin presidency would be Herderianism on steroids: she would channel the populist American volk and her neoconservative advisors would strategize war and politics (which, for Straussians, is war by other means).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to The Neoconservative War on Nihilism (and Thomas Jefferson)

  1. Pingback: American Tea Party Politics Arrives in China? | Prometheus Unbound

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