Leo Strauss and the American Right
Book by Shadia B. Drury
Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on August 4, 2005.
How is it, some have wondered, that the Republican Party has been taken over by a relatively small band of radical ideologues who don't believe in democracy or honesty or any specific religion, but relentlessly flog the language of "freedom," "honor," and Christianity? How is it that people who run the government into deficit can campaign on fiscal responsibility? Or that people who campaign on a "pro life" position can be responsible for lying us into a war that has killed well over 100,000 human beings, nakedly advocate torture, and openly promote the death penalty in American?
Most of it goes back to one man - Leo Strauss. To understand what has happened to America since the dawn of the "Reagan revolution," one must first understand Strauss and his disciples.
Several of my previous monthly book reviews for Buzzflash have been about books that provide insights into the history of modern American liberalism and its contrast with traditional European and American conservatism. But the folks who today call themselves "conservatives" - from Limbaugh to Gingrich to Kristol to the senior Bushies - are not conservatives in either the American or the classical European mold. They represent something entirely new in the experience of America, breathtaking in its sweep and horrifying in its reach and ambitions. They are the "new conservatives" or "neo-conservatives."
Arguably, the last two political philosophers who both influenced world events and shared many of the worldviews of today's neocons were the Nicolo Machiavelli (who published "The Prince" in Italy in 1515) and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels (who inspired a young Adolf Hitler with his magazine "Ostara"). Following in their tradition - relatively obscure men who peddled cynicism and faux patriotism while deeply influencing some of the world's most powerful people - came Leo Strauss, a professor at the University of Chicago through the 1950s and 1960s. A Jewish émigré from Germany, Strauss was obsessed with the noble goal of figuring out how to prevent America from falling into the same trap of a decline into fascism that Germany had. Ironically, he himself fell into the trap of fascistic ends-justifies-the-means thinking, and has taken a large segment of the American conservative movement with him.
As Canadian (University of Calgary) political science professor Shadia B. Drury notes in her brilliant critique of Strauss, his work, and his students' influence:
"Strauss's students and their students have occupied important positions in the Reagan and Bush administrations and continue to play a significant role within the Republican party. Prominent figures on the American political scene include Reagan's ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Wolfowitz; Caspar Weinberger's former speechwriter, Seth Cropsey; National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman, John T. Agresto; National Security Council advisor Carnes Lord; Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, Alan Keyes; legal scholar and judge Robert Bork...; Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court; former Secretary of Education William Bennett; former Education Department Chief of Staff, William Kristol (later former vice-president Dan Quayle's chief of staff and then the chief pundit and policy maker of the Republican party). Journalists have been fully cognizant of this influx of Straussians into Washington and of the power they have within the Republican party. So much so that the New York Times has dubbed Leo Strauss the godfather of the Republican party's 1994 Contract With America."
What's particularly useful and fascinating about Drury's book is that she not only lays out the core and evolution of Strauss's philosophy, but puts it into the context of the history of modern conservatism and modern liberal thought and history. (There are several other books on Strauss available and most fail to provide this useful historical context.)
Drury is an academic, and it shows in her writing style, which often lapses into textbook-ese. The information she's providing is so compelling, however, that this is merely a distraction and not a deterrence from reading this brilliant and deeply researched book. Drury also assumes her readers know the philosophies and histories of Max Weber, Martin Heiddeger, Carl Schmitt, and other Germans who influenced the Nazis (or became Nazis), and of other somewhat more obscure historical details such as the arguments Jefferson and Madison had with Plato's critiques of democracy. Some reviewers have said that because she assumes such depth of knowledge on the part of her readers, this book should be only for post-graduate students of history or philosophy. I disagree - her references to philosophers and philosophies (and histories) are sufficiently contextual that the reader can easily and readily infer who unfamiliar people may have been and what their positions were, and thus not only extract Strauss's philosophy and impact from the book, but get a running start on many others as well. (You'll become an armchair expert in famous philosophers in no time, and amaze your friends!)
About the neocon philosophy itself, Drury notes:
"The truth of the matter is that neoconservativism is not conservative, but radical and reactionary. Its radical nature is manifest in Kristol's refusal to accept the basic tenets of the American slate and start over. Neoconservatism is also reactionary in the technical sense of the term. Reactionaries are not interested in conserving the present as it is. On the contrary, it is the present that they find intolerable. ...Neoconservatives are repelled by the liberal present, and they hunger for radical change intended to restore a lost golden age."
Ironically, the "lost golden age" of the Neoconservatives never existed. The Founders and Framers of America were not, by and large, Bible thumpers, and the nation was founded on egalitarian - liberal - principles. The Enlightenment, which led directly to the American Revolution, was the dawning birth of modern liberalism. Thus, because history doesn't support their story line, the Neocons have actively set out to reconstruct America's history to their liking - producing a flood or phony history flooding America's airwaves, bookstores, churches, and schools.
They also determined that people must live in constant fear, and that a religion - any religion so long as it was monotheistic, patriarchal, hierarchical, and authoritarian - must be used to "opiate" (to paraphrase both Strauss and Marx) the people.
The cynical neocon manipulation of Americans was done for the very best of reasons. After all, the ends - in their minds - justified just about any means, including the death of hundreds of thousands of people. All this brought about the ultimate irony: Strauss's fear of Nazism - and his misunderstanding of Nazism - led him and his followers to repeat many of the philosophical and political errors of the Nazis.
To understand how America got here, read Shadia Drury's brilliant book, "Leo Strauss and the American Right." Once you have, the path back to democracy will become much more clear.