This is the season of anniversaries for conservatives. The Young Americans for Freedom organization, which trained dozens of youthful cadre for the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns, celebrates its 25th birthday later this month. And this past week, The Public Interest, journal of neoconservative thinkers from Harvard and other East Coast universities, published its 20th anniversary issue.
Both events are important reminders of the revolution in political power and philosophy that has occurred between the 1960s and the 1980s. We have seen a triumph not just of conservative politicians but of conservative thought.
In 1965, The Public Interest was founded largely to provide a nonideological forum for discussion of public policy options by academic experts in economics, urban and welfare problems.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just become law. Lyndon Johnson had just overwhelmed Barry Goldwater. There appeared to be broad public support -- even consensus -- for an active government assault on the problems of poverty and discrimination. The goal of The Public Interest was to make the Great Society programs as effective as possible by subjecting them to the skeptical scrutiny of experts who were, by and large, sympathetic to their goals.
What evolved was very different. The critical examination of the Great Society quickly poked holes in particular programs and then attacked the grandiosity of the whole notion of government- planned, government-induced perfection.
In 1974 a special issue on The Great Society was so downbeat that the guest editor noted "the disappointment, discontent and disarray among the long- term protagonists of social reform."
In the same decade, the principal figures behind The Public Interest -- men such as Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Bell and Daniel P. Moynihan -- also rebelled against the trend inside the Democratic Party. Hardened by their earlier bouts with communists and communist sympathizers in the 1940s and '50s, they reacted negatively and vehemently to the New Left eruptions around the Vietnam war issue and their disruptive effects on campuses.
The result was what Moynihan calls in his anniversary-issue essay "one of the great migrations in 20th-century American politics": the shift of many powerful political minds to the Republican and conservative cause. Kristol became a cheerleader for Ronald Reagan and a mentor for Jack Kemp. The Public Interest gave David Stockman's critique of budget excesses its first exposure, and helped make conservatism respectable in academia and among young people.
For all that they contributed to the triumph of Reagan and conservatism, the tone of The Public Interest anniversary issue is hardly celebratory.
The authors worry about the persistence of old problems, particularly a growing underclass of women and children, of whom Kristol, probably the most Reaganite in the group, says: "Never in my experience has there been such a case -- a major social problem before which all social scientists, despite their brave, sophisticated chatter, have absolutely nothing to say."
They worry, too, about the political opportunism and the political contradictions of the Reagan administration.
Robert Nisbet, in the concluding essay, finds it "strange for the conservative label to have been so widely given during the last few years to the partisans of a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy and of a huge defense budget."
"Equally strange, almost hilarious indeed," he writes, "is the banner of conservatism seen hanging over the evangelicals. . . . Conservatism in any recognizable manifestation aims at 'getting government off our backs.' . . . But the primary, sweeping thrust of the Moral Majority has come to be that of, quite bluntly, getting more government on our backs."
Even more bluntly, Harvard's Daniel Bell writes of Reaganism as "a very strange brew and a peculiar set of contradictions. Mr. Reagan asserts authority in the moral sphere yet attacks authority in his political populism. . . . The populist conservative seeks to instill public tutelage in private moral conduct and to remove all public restraint on private economic conduct. Mr. Reagan wants a strong government (undergirded by a strong military) in foreign affairs, and a weak government (with little social responsibility) in domestic affairs."
One finishes this anniversary edition with a sense that the same critical faculties that led the neoconservatives to break with the Democratic Party in the 1970s are now causing them discomfort in their new home.
Could a reverse migration be in the offing? And if so, would not one expet the political consequences to be as great as the reversal of party fortunes between 1965 and 1985?