Neoconservatism is a term that emerged in the 1970s to describe a set of positions on U.S. domestic and foreign policy developed by a somewhat amorphous but identifiable group of political journalists and social scientists who previously had identified with the political left, often with the Trotskyist left, but had subsequently moved to the right as a reaction to the political and cultural struggles of the 1960s. The conversion of many of these figures from left to right is one of the senses of neo. By the time of the presidency of George W. Bush (2001–2009), neoconservatism, by then into its second generation and detached from its leftist origins, had become identified primarily with foreign policy, particularly with respect to the administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and to the motivations behind the decision to go to war with Iraq.
Although the label is said to have originated with the American social democrat Michael Harrington, who used it as a term of opprobrium, the first prominent self-described neoconservative was Irving Kristol, who had been the cofounder, with the English poet Stephen Spender, of the liberal anti-Communist (and, it turned out, surreptitiously Central Intelligence Agency–funded) journal Encounter. Along with the sociologist Daniel Bell, Kristol in 1965 founded the journal the Public Interest, which established what would become the neoconservative tone on domestic politics. This consisted largely of empirical and theoretical criticisms of government programs, grouped under the heading of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, aimed at alleviating racial discrimination and poverty. In 1985 Kristol founded another journal, the National Interest, which signaled the increasing neoconservative interest in and influence upon foreign policy. Over time neoconservatives also became well entrenched in Washington, D.C., think tanks, most notably the American Enterprise Institute, where Kristol became a fellow in 1988.
The budding neoconservatives first distinguished themselves from traditional conservatives by their application of social science methods to the criticism of government policies that they deemed partly misguided in intent and wholly detrimental in consequence. Their principal themes were determined by reactions to the turmoil, and increasing militancy, of the civil rights movement in American society at large and campus unrest over civil rights, educational policies, and the Vietnam War in particular. Neoconservatives came to see the U.S. system as on the cusp of a crisis generated by the affluence produced by a successful capitalism. That affluence threatened to undermine itself by eroding its implicit, generally overlooked moral foundations, including the virtues of deferred gratification and self-discipline. Predominantly the products of immigrant families and of public education, the neoconservatives balked at the perceived decline in individual initiative born of strong family encouragement and what they saw as the loss of civic consciousness and civilized behavior in a self-indulgent, permissive culture. Government programs aiming at economic redistribution through such practices as minority quotas, preferential hiring, and welfare payments only aggravated the problems where they did not directly contribute to them.
Whereas traditional conservatives and libertarians emphasized the need to cut back on government programs in general and to exercise fiscal responsibility in balancing the federal budget, the neoconservatives tended to support expansive government action on two fronts: domestically, in an aggressive assault on what they deemed to be the pernicious moral decline in the United States; and externally, in a muscular foreign policy predicated upon the expansion of U.S. military power and ideological warfare. Moral values, as they understood them, thus stood at the center of both policy dimensions and tended to overshadow, where they did not replace, specific policy proposals. While they shared conservatives’ demands for tax cuts, neoconservatives were much more tolerant of budget deficits than their predecessors. They also categorically rejected traditional American conservatism’s disdain for foreign involvements, pushing instead for an aggressive foreign policy previously associated with anti-Communist liberals. These differences constitute the second sense of neo. Neoconservative thought, with its emphasis on social morality, is thus distinguished from Thatcherism as well as the broader trend in neoliberalism to extend market relations into all aspects of political and social life. It is also obviously opposed to libertarianism, with its “anything goes” attitude toward individual desires. But these differences also explain how neoconservatives, who were predominantly of Jewish origin, found common cause with Christian fundamentalists on some issues such as marriage and pornography, because the two groups shared the view that government should place morality at the center of its purposes and programs.
The first notable political evidence of neoconservative influence could be seen in the administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), particularly in Reagan’s rejection of the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and emphasis on challenging the USSR through a military buildup and the promotion of anti-Communist insurgencies worldwide. Most famously, Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” often has been ascribed to the neoconservative emphasis upon introducing moral language into foreign policy. It was the alleged success of Reagan’s foreign policy in bringing the Soviet Union to its knees that inspired the second generation of neoconservatives, led by Irving Kristol’s son, William Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard, to challenge the foreign policy positions taken by George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton for embracing a form of moral relativism and realism rather than the forceful assertion of American values as a fundamental aspect of U.S. national interests. Underlying the neoconservative challenge was the idea that reviving a moral language in foreign policy would reverberate domestically. This challenge bore fruit in the younger Bush’s policies and rhetoric after September 11.
By time of the 2006 midterm elections, the neoconservative project of asserting American values in the Middle East had been seen largely as a disaster because of the war in Iraq, though various neoconservative figures who had been in or around the administration blamed the failures on the execution of the war by others, including President Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, rather than on the merits of the neoconservative policy behind it. But the identification of neoconservatism with a failed moralizing foreign policy may ultimately prove to be neoconservatism’s Achilles’s heel.
SEE ALSO Bush, George W.; Central Intelligence Agency, U.S.; Conservatism; Foreign Policy; Fundamentalism; Fundamentalism, Christian; Great Society, The; Iraq-U.S. War; Liberalism; Militarism; Neoliberalism; Reagan, Ronald; September 11, 2001; Terrorism; Thatcher, Margaret; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Welfare State
Kristol, Irving. 2003. The Neoconservative Persuasion. Weekly Standard 8 (August 25).
Kristol, William, and Robert Kagan. 1996. Toward a NeoReaganite Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs 75 (4): 18–32.
NEOCONSERVATISM was primarily an intellectual movement of Cold War liberal Democrats and democratic socialists who moved rightward during the 1970s and 1980s. The term was apparently coined in 1976 by an opponent, the socialist Michael Harrington. By and large, neoconservatives either repudiated the label or accepted it grudgingly. Nonetheless, the term usefully describes an ideological tendency represented by a close-knit group of influential political intellectuals. In the early 1980s, the short-hand designation "neocon" was a standard part of the American political vocabulary.
Most of the leading neoconservatives were in their forties or early fifties when they began their ideological transition. Many were Jewish and several prided themselves on being "New York intellectuals" no matter where they lived at the moment. All of the leading neocons engaged in cultural politics by writing books or articles, but they came from varied professional backgrounds. Foremost among them were the sociologists Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Peter Berger, and Seymour Martin Lipset; the Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife, the writer Midge Decter; the political activists Ben Wattenberg, Penn Kemble, and Carl Gershman; the foreign policy specialists Walter Laqueur, Edward Luttwak, and Robert Tucker; the traditionalist Catholic academics Michael Novak and William Bennett; and the art critic Hilton Kramer. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick straddled the realms of scholarship and politics. No one was more important to the movement's rise to prominence than the intellectual entrepreneur Irving Kristol, who sometimes joked that he was the only self-confessed neoconservative.
Many of the older neoconservatives had briefly been radical socialists in their youth. By the 1950s, they affirmed centrist liberalism in philosophy and practice. The sociologists Bell, Glazer, and Lipset formulated an influential interpretation of American politics in which a pragmatic, pluralist center was besieged by parallel threats from "extremist" ideologues: Communists and "anti-Communists" on the left and a "radical right" represented most visibly by Senators Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater. This position did not preclude nudging the center slightly leftward. In the early 1960s, for example, Podhoretz at Commentary published articles holding the United States partly responsible for the start of the Cold War.
The future neocons began to reevaluate liberalism, which was itself in flux, in response to the domestic turmoil and international crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Great Society antipoverty programs seemed utopian in conception or flawed in implementation. "Affirmative action" especially violated their belief, often reinforced by their own experiences, that success should come through merit. New Left demonstrators not only disdained the civility they cherished, but also disrupted their classrooms. Feminist and gay activists challenged the bourgeois values they considered essential underpinnings of a democratic order. Although few future neoconservatives supported the Vietnam War, many believed that the United States lost more than it gained from detente with the Soviet Union. Jewish neoconservatives were especially upset by the growing anti-Semitism within the black community and the increasing criticism of Israel by the left. All of these trends, they contended, were at least tolerated by the "new politics" wing of the Democratic Party that won the presidential nomination for Senator George McGovern in 1972.
These disaffected liberals moved rightward with varying speed. As early as 1965, Kristol and Bell founded Public Interest magazine to critically examine the flaws in Great Society programs. Appointed ambassador to the United Nations by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Moynihan defended both American foreign policy and Israel's legitimacy. Bell and Glazer endorsed McGovern in 1972. The next year, however, both joined Lipset, Podhoretz, Decter, Kirkpatrick, Novak, and Wattenberg in creating the Coalition for a Democratic Majority in order to save their party from the "new politics." The future neoconservatives overwhelmingly favored Senator Henry Jackson, a staunch cold warrior, friend of Israel, and supporter of the welfare state, for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.
Jimmy Carter, who won the nomination and the election, soon disappointed the neoconservatives. Despite their concerted efforts, none received a high-level appointment in his administration. Moreover, Carter enthusiastically practiced affirmative action, remained committed to detente, and sympathized with Third World nationalism. Jewish neoconservatives complained that he pressed Israel harder than Egypt while negotiating peace between the two countries in 1978 through 1979. Such behavior was only part of a foreign policy that looked like weakness or a "new isolationism" at best, "appeasement" at worst. Writing in Commentary in 1979, Kirkpatrick claimed that Carter not only overlooked human rights abuses by the Soviet Union, but also drove from power "friendly authoritarians" like the Shah of Iran, who were then succeeded by full-fledged "totalitarian" regimes.
By 1980, the increasingly visible neoconservative network had formulated a comprehensive critique of American politics, culture, and foreign policy. Essentially they updated the pluralist theory of the 1950s to account for recent social changes and to justify their own turn rightward. According to this interpretation, the Democratic Party—and much of American culture—had been captured by "ideologues" whose ranks now included social radicals, black nationalists, self-indulgent feminists, and proponents of gay rights. These extremists scorned the values cherished by most Americans, that is, faith in capitalism, hard work, sexual propriety, masculine toughness, the nuclear family, and democracy. Indeed, disdain for democracy explained both their snobbish rejection of middle-class life at home and their sympathy for communist or Third World tyranny abroad. Such views had wide currency not because they appealed to ordinary Americans, but because they were disseminated by a powerful "new class" of academics, journalists, and others in the cultural elite.
Although a caricature in many respects, this interpretation of American life and recent politics attracted the attention of Republicans seeking to build a majority coalition. Ronald Reagan courted the neoconservatives during the 1980 presidential campaign and subsequently recruited many of them into his administration. Kirkpatrick was appointed ambassador to the United Nations, Novak served as lower level diplomat there, and Gershman headed the newly created National Endowment for Democracy. Second-generation neocons from the political rather than the intellectual world held important midlevel positions. Richard Perle, a former aide to Henry Jackson, became assistant secretary of defense. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, Podhoretz's son-in-law, helped to formulate policy toward Central America and played a major role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Other neocons served on government advisory boards dealing with education and foreign policy. Outside of the Reagan administration, neo-conservatism thrived in the more conservative climate of the 1980s. In 1981, Decter organized the Committee for the Free World, an international collection of writers, artists, and labor leaders dedicated to mounting a cultural defense against the "rising tide of totalitarianism." The next year, Kramer founded New Criterion magazine to defend high culture and aesthetic modernism against leftist detractors. Kristol began publishing National Interest in 1985 to analyze foreign policy from a "realist" perspective. The centrist New Republic and many mainstream newspapers welcomed articles by neoconservatives.
Success brought division and controversy. Moynihan, elected senator from New York in 1976, drifted back into the ranks of liberal Democrats. Kristol thought the Reagan administration was too harsh on the welfare state. Leading the most avid cold warriors, Podhoretz denied that the Soviet Union was becoming more democratic in the late 1980s and chided Reagan for pursuing detente in fact if not in name. The most bitter debates arrayed neoconservatives against traditionalist conservatives (who sometimes called themselves paleocons). These two intellectual factions within the Reagan coalition were separated by background, worldview, and questions of patronage. The neoconservatives were disproportionately Jewish, accepted much of the welfare state, and enthusiastically endorsed efforts to defeat international communism. The paleocons were devoutly Christians, opposed activist government in principle, and expressed reservations about both internationalist foreign policy and the cultural impact of capitalism. Tensions became apparent in 1981 when Reagan chose neocon William Bennett instead of a traditionalist to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities.
By 1986, traditionalists were accusing neoconservatives of excessive devotion to Israel. Neocons countered with some warrant that paleoconservatives harbored anti-Semites in their ranks. These factional disputes obscured the fact that neoconservatives fitted better into a coalition led by Ronald Reagan, a former liberal Democrat, who still celebrated the New Deal and wanted above all to win the Cold War.
By the early 1990s at the latest, a coherent neoconservative movement no longer existed, even though many erstwhile neocons remained active. As the Cold War ended and memories of the volatile 1960s faded, the serious scholars among them returned to scholarship. Bell, Glazer, and Lipset in particular wrote thoughtful analyses of American society. Moynihan served in the Senate until 2001. The most polemical neocons, notably Podhoretz and Kramer, persisted in attacking feminism, gay activism, and the alleged triumph of "political correctness" in higher education. Yet, after years of ideological cross-fertilization, such polemics were virtually indistinguishable from those of traditionalists. Second-generation neocons increasingly emphasized foreign policy, rarely defended the welfare state, and thus fit easily into the Republican coalitions that elected Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. Irving Kristol's son William, who served as chief-of-staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and then edited the conservative magazine Weekly Standard, joked that any neoconservative who drifted back to the Democrats was a "pseudo-neocon." Although neoconservatism as a distinctive intellectual enterprise congealed and dispersed in less than two decades, the neocons provided a serious intellectual rationale for the Reagan administration's policies and helped to reorient the broader conservative movement that remained influential into the twenty-first century.
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