Prominent writer, thinker, and Crisis Magazine co-founder Michael Novak sat down with Italian scholar Alia K. Nardini to discuss neoconservatism, Catholicism, and the future of the West.
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Alia K. Nardini: Professor Novak, generally people in Italy and the rest of Europe want to know how much American neoconservatives share with the Republican Party. However, I find that the most interesting question really concerns the relationship between neoconservatives and the Democratic Party, especially in terms of conceptual differences that developed during the 1960s and 1970s. What is your view on this?
Michael Novak: In the first generation, virtually all neo-conservatives -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Paul Johnson in England -- were not only Democrats; we were on the left wing of the Democratic Party. We were Kennedy Democrats. But from about 1972, the Democratic Party, drawing the wrong lessons from the war in Vietnam, chose as its campaign slogan, "Come home, America!" and began retreating from the world and its international burdens. Then, after 1973, the Democratic Party increasingly became the party of abortion. It is still the party of abortion. From our point of view, we did not leave the Democratic Party, the party left us.
AKN: Is it true that the American public did not vote in favor of abortion, but that the Supreme Court, in effect, decreed it?
MN: Actually, prior to 1973, any time abortion had been put to a vote in the United States, it was overwhelmingly defeated. The American people prefer pro-life [legislation] by a good majority. But the Supreme Court stepped in, and in 1973 made a ruling that permitted abortion for almost any reason (in practice) and during all nine months of pregnancy. This was an illegitimate exercise of judicial power. It is not the business of the Court to make legislation. Legislation should be made only with the consent of the governed, through the Congress. The American people have never consented to this ruling, [which] has caused turmoil in our politics and culture for 34 years now, as nothing else has. Together with other factors, it brought a long series of defeats to the Democratic Party.
AKN: What other major issues made you move away from what was becoming the official position of the Democratic Party in the 1970s?
MN: Economics. Many of us once thought that socialism was basically a good idea, but socialists had not found a practical way to implement it successfully. Then we actually started to examine the many different national experiments in socialism -- almost 70. None of them worked. So socialism cannot be a good idea. Now, if you are on the Left and you cease being a socialist, what are you? If you do not take the state as the main engine of progress, where do you turn?
In these circumstances, and independently, several writers started re-examining the American founding. Irving Kristol in particular wrote a beautiful book about that, and discovered a new way of thinking about the future.
Like socialists, neoconservatives try to imagine, and to work toward, a better future. Unlike socialists, neoconservatives saw in a dynamic free economy a better way of breaking the chains of poverty than socialism ever discovered.
Again, at the time of the American founding, the term "republican" was much preferred to "democratic." The latter meant rule by the majority, but that has often proven dangerous and tyrannical. A "republic" places checks and balances on the majority through representative government and stresses the rule of law and the protection of the rights of the free.
Then there was this second discovery: not just that the American founding held a superior economic idea (which is why socialism never took root in the United States), but also that the American people, when given a free choice, would usually come down on the conservative side of most issues. Polls reveal that even in Europe the vast majority of people believe in capital punishment. It is the political class -- the elites -- that does not. The Left thinks it speaks for the people, but rarely does so.
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