The “Mugged by Reality” Generation of Conservatives and Clarence Thomas

Corey Robin’s new book The Enigma of Clarence Thomas has been rightly celebrated for its penetrating examination of Justice Thomas, and for the original argument made by Robin about the black nationalist roots of Thomas’s biography and its effects upon his jurisprudence.  In the first two posts of the symposium about the book here at the blog, Calvin TerBeek and Charles Zug have examined Thomas and the conservative legal movement (and perhaps taking it less seriously, in its current incarnation) as well as the distinctions between Thomas and the broader conservative political narrative (and why many conservatives might prefer to keep that distinction hidden away for the purpose of maintaining the ideological construction of the conservative regime). 

Without rehashing the fine points already made by my colleagues, I will take a slightly different tack in my post, focusing instead on Thomas’s similarities and differences with a particular segment of the conservative ideological movement that came into its own around the same time that Thomas began his journey toward the Right – the neoconservatives.  Neoconservatism has become associated with a particularly muscular and aggressive foreign policy, especially in the wake of George W. Bush’s presidency and the invasion of Iraq.  Certainly this is part of the ideological heritage of neoconservatism and is worth exploring at greater length (though Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell, two of the original neoconservatives, rejected the comparison between their views and those of the Bush-era neocons).  For my purposes, however, I will focus on the domestic politics of neoconservatism, and suggest that Thomas’s journey in significant ways resembles the journey taken by that coterie of intellectuals in the context of the 1970’s and 1980’s, even as it departs from it in others.  Robin’s book on Justice Thomas is therefore more than just a study of one member of the Supreme Court – it’s an examination of a unique brand of conservative ideology in the late 20th century.  Quirky though Thomas’s ideas may seem, at least some of his emergent worldview was shared by the other newly converted conservatives around him.

Neoconservatives and the Failures of Welfare

Thomas himself, of course, isn’t exactly a neoconservative  – yet his views are often consonant with neoconservative ones, if perhaps starting from slightly different premises.  Like Irving Kristol, who was often called the “godfather” of the neoconservative movement, Thomas was “mugged by reality” as he turned away from liberalism down the road to his conservative Damascus.  Justice Thomas’s moment was shaped, as Robin notes, by his encounter with Thomas Sowell’s work Race and Economics in the mid-1970’s.  Sowell too had previously been on the Left, and his arguments about the primacy of economics over politics in the American black experience appealed to Thomas:

“A mix of Malcolm and Milton (Friedman), Sowell’s arguments for black self-help and his skepticism about white liberalism reminded Thomas ‘of the mantra of the Black Muslims I had met in college: Do for self, brother.” (Robin, p. 84)

Neoconservatives shared much of this viewpoint, especially on the need for poor African-Americans to be responsible for their own fates and on the failure of welfare programs to substitute for self-sufficiency.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, written in 1965, presaged this argument about the weakening of family structures in the African-American community and the effects of welfare programs on speeding their decline into dependency.  One of the other most well-known neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz, wrote in 1972 “that almost everyone agreed as to the fact that the ‘war on poverty’ was a failure and that the only disagreements concerned the assignment of blame or responsibility.”

The animating impulse of the early neoconservative turn was the sense many of them shared that their leftist viewpoints had been ‘mugged by reality’, especially by the perceived failures of the War on Poverty and the legacy of the 1960’s.  Kristol himself, in his 1995 book Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, titled the first substantive chapter “Welfare: The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Results.”  Robin focuses on Thomas’s encounter with Sowell, his reading the works of Ayn Rand, befriending a young Yale student named John Bolton, and his subsequent disillusionment with the possibilities of state action on behalf of African-Americans over the course of the 1970’s.  In many ways, these moments read as quite similar to the simultaneous conversions that the neoconservatives were experiencing.  The milieu of this period seems to have encouraged these kinds of wholesale ideological transformations (though ironically, many of the Jewish intellectuals who led the neoconservative turn were partially inspired in that direction in recoil against the Black Power movement that Robin argues underlies Thomas’s worldview). 

Neoconservatives and the Free Market

Unlike Thomas, however, many of the neoconservatives were quite skeptical of the power of the free market.  Robin argues that Thomas, partially inspired by Sowell’s work, began to believe that African-Americans could only succeed if they embraced the free market and turned their energies toward capitalist solutions, away from the impotence of the state to assist them.  The neoconservatives, by contrast, were not so sanguine about the potential of the market.  In a 1972 lecture, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism,” Kristol rejected socialism, collective planning, and contemporary liberalism, but also rebuffed libertarianism and the celebration of the pure free market by towering figures of the Right such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.  He wrote that, while “the traditional economics of socialism has been discredited, why has not the traditional economics of capitalism been vindicated?”  Unfettered capitalism, Kristol argued, could lead to the stultifying of a moral sense and the celebration of the merchants of vice. 

In another essay by Kristol, entitled “Two Cheers for Capitalism” (later the title of a book of essays) he stated his belief in capitalism while concurrently analyzing its flaws (especially the tendency of markets to produce corrosive social results) and forthrightly supporting the need for a welfare state apparatus.  In a review of the book in the July 1978 Commentary, Catholic theologian Michael Novak noted that Kristol was “steadfastly against a libertarianism of the Right” and was calling upon conservatives “to cease being stupid and to cease resisting the welfare state.”  Libertarians critiquing Kristol’s book and the neoconservative movement took him to task for not believing enough in the near-mystical power of the free market to coordinate economic activity and provide for social stability.  One libertarian reviewing Kristol’s book wrote that:

“the neoconservatives themselves are part of the problem here. Not only are they passionate supporters of the welfare state—witness Irving Kristol’s support of social security, national health insurance and unemployment insurance as but one of a plethora of examples—but they also support manipulating the market through “rigging” processes, which grant to some individuals favors extracted by force form others.”

As Peter Kolozi has persuasively shown, there is a long conservative tradition in opposition to capitalism, which many of the early neoconservatives shared (even as they later mostly made their peace with it).  In this way, Thomas’s celebration of the market’s potential to unshackle African-Americans much more resembles the libertarian impulse.

Thomas – Mugged by Reality?

Was Clarence Thomas mugged by reality, similar to the neoconservatives?  Perhaps he would argue that’s precisely what occurred.  Robin quotes Thomas as arguing that “’if you could get the whole racial issues out of the context of liberal and conservative’… most black people would see that they ‘are really conservative.’” (Robin, p. 5) Thomas certainly envisions himself as a realist, freed from the delusion that contemporary liberalism can use the power of the state to fix the problems of African-Americans.  But this mugging, unlike the neoconservative one that produced a new generational cohort of conservatives, is peculiarly his own.  In that sense the ideological project of Clarence Thomas remains isolated and unfulfilled despite his feting by the broader conservative movement. 

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