download (2)First Principles

Neoconservatism is a right-wing branch of American liberalism that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely as a reaction to liberal utopianism and the irrationality of the new Left. Most neoconservative writing has been concerned with social issues, such as the inefficiencies and unintended consequences of the welfare state, the problem of equal opportunity, and the amelioration of racial tensions. In foreign affairs, neoconser-vatives have consistently advocated strongly internationalist policies to contain communism and promote democracy abroad. Neoconservatives allied themselves with the traditional Right in the early 1980s, thereby increasing their own influence within the Reagan administration but also causing some resentment among those who saw them as latecomers to the conservative movement.   

Neoconservatism is rooted in post–World War II liberalism. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt, liberals split over the question of how best to preserve and extend the reforms of the New Deal. Some liberals, disturbed by the rise of Cold War tensions with the USSR and fearing a takeover by the Right at home, were willing to form a coalition with communists to work for more domestic reforms and an accommodation with Moscow. Led by former vice president Henry A. Wallace and organized as the Progressive Party, they were opposed by liberals who saw communism as the true danger to liberalism. The latter group remained loyal Democrats and supported President Truman’s policies. Truman’s victory in the 1948 presidential election established their dominance among liberals and the leading role of their organization, the Americans for Democratic Action. Many of the individuals in this group who later became prominent neocon-servatives, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Bell, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were professors or New York intellectuals active in literary, artistic, and cultural criticism. Several, including Bell and Irving Kristol, had been Marxists when they were students in the 1930s, but had since broken with the radical Left.

The postwar generation of liberal intellectuals tended to be reformist and mildly socialist. Their writings portrayed American society as complex and its problems—mainly relating to political, economic, and racial inequality—as complicated as well. Consequently, they rejected what they viewed as the simplistic or utopian approaches to social problems advocated by the Left and Right, dismissing them as based on ideology rather than realistic analysis. This view received its fullest expression in Bell’s book, The End of Ideology (1960). Moreover, unlike traditional conservatives, these liberals were more concerned with shaping the future than with preserving traditional institutions. Instead, they emphasized a social-engineering approach to issues, using social science methods to identify problems and to develop government programs to solve them. In the 1960s, for example, they supported Kennedy and Johnson administration proposals to extend social welfare programs and to establish antipoverty and urban programs. Not surprisingly, many of the leading liberal intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, were sociologists.

Neoconservatism began to emerge in the later 1960s when some liberal intellectuals began to consider the lessons of the decade’s failed reforms. Continued urban deterioration, increasing welfare enrollments and costs, and the rise of black militancy made it clear that many of the reforms had not met their goals. In addition, the social disorder and urban riots of the mid- and late-1960s led some liberals, particularly Moynihan and Kristol, to a new appreciation of the role of institutions and traditional authority in society. In seeking to explain reform’s failure, these liberals raised questions about the theories behind the programs and the federal government’s ability to administer programs effectively. Moynihan, for example, believed that the failure of urban anti-poverty programs had been caused by the government’s reliance on unproven theories that, in practice, turned out to be wrong. Glazer saw that some policies actually worsened problems, as when affirmative action programs failed to help the most disadvantaged while increasing racial and ethnic tensions. In sum, these liberals became much more skeptical about the ability of social scientists and the government to shape society. This skepticism became especially identified with the Public Interest, a magazine founded by Bell and Kristol in 1965 to examine social issues.

Many liberals were further disturbed in the late 1960s by the rising influence of the new Left. Postwar liberals had frequently seen themselves as radicals, but the new Left seized that label for itself while embracing a utopian ideology and attacking the concepts of liberal democracy. To some liberals, this was similar to the threat posed to reformist liberalism by communists twenty years earlier. For some the threat was also personal. Professors such as Glazer witnessed the student rebellions first hand and saw in them a threat to their academic freedom and their integrity as researchers and teachers. Some Jewish intellectuals saw the New Left’s attacks on Israel as thinly veiled anti-Semitism. This was particularly true for Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary. In June 1970, Podhoretz began usingCommentary as a platform for a broad counterattack against the new Left. By late 1970, he and other defenders of New Deal– and late-1940s-style liberalism were being called “new conservatives,” a label which evolved into “neoconservative” by the middle of the decade.

Neoconservative ideology had four major characteristics. First, neoconservatives remained wedded to the social-science approach. Neoconservative analyses were marked by rigorous research and careful writing and sought to identify the true causes of problems. Their conclusions reflected skepticism of new, large federal programs, and thus ran counter to accepted liberal wisdom. Neoconservative policy suggestions, reflecting the lessons of the 1960s, also had limited ambitions—they reflected the belief that social problems could be eased, but not erased—and frequently concentrated on criticizing liberal promises to “cure” a problem.

Neoconservatism’s second major element was the acceptance of economic and social inequality. They saw “a society of equals as unwieldy and unworkable,” in the words of Amitai Etzioni, and instead favored establishing true equality of opportunity and letting individuals succeed or fail on their own.

Third, neoconservatives continued to support the welfare state. They did not seek to reverse what they viewed as the achievements of liberalism, such as social-security programs or medical assistance to the poor and elderly, but resisted costly new programs that they believed had only dubious chances for success. Instead, they wanted to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of existing programs by taking administrative authority from federal agencies and placing it in local hands whenever possible and by maximizing the choices of individuals.

Finally, in foreign policy neoconser-vatism was marked by its strong defense of Western democracy. These views were largely unchanged from the liberal outlook of the late 1940s, which was heavily influenced by the writings of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Niebuhr took a pessimistic view of man’s tendencies and rejected communism largely because it placed no moral restraints on the state’s actions, a condition that he believed led to despotism. Niebuhr further argued that liberal democracy—however flawed—was man’s best hope for progress. This defense of democracy was reinforced by Schlesinger’s book The Vital Center (1949), which urged the containment of communism, strong support for democratic governments, and financial and technical aid to underdeveloped states in order to undercut the appeal of communism. This consensus dominated liberal foreign-policy thinking from 1948 until the late 1960s. After 1967, as a result of the escalation of the Vietnam War, many liberals began to reconsider their foreign-policy views. The consensus broke up and most liberals began to support new foreign-policy ideas, which usually sought to reduce American commitments overseas in favor of an international regime stabilized by economic interdependence and stronger legal mechanisms. Those liberals who still favored a strongly anticommunist, activist foreign policy were in the minority.

Led by Kristol, neoconservatives argued that the United States had to maintain its role as global policeman or chaos and dangerous instability would result, benefiting only the Soviet Union. The neoconservatives were further concerned by what they viewed as the liberal elites’ loss of willingness to defend themselves after the Vietnam disaster. Political scientist Robert W. Tucker, for example, believed that the West’s weak response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo was an indication of such a loss of nerve. The oil embargo also led to increased neoconser-vative hostility to Third World claims against the West, which neoconservatives perceived as going unanswered by Washington and the liberal elites. Moynihan identified both socialist ideology and the belief that the Third World had been exploited by Western imperialism as the roots of the demand for increased economic transfers from wealthy to underdeveloped countries. Moynihan and other neoconservatives were further concerned with Third World and communist bloc attacks on Israel, which they viewed as an assault on Western democracy as well as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. As ambassador to the United Nations from 1975 to 1976, Moynihan vigorously refuted charges that continued Western imperialism, racism, and exploitation were to blame for the ills of the underdeveloped states.

Because they saw themselves as the guardians of true liberalism, the neoconservatives struggled to maintain a role for themselves in the Democratic Party during the 1970s. As a result of party reforms following Hubert Humphrey’s defeat in the 1968 presidential election, the Democrats became dominated by younger, more liberal activists, at the expense of traditional postwar-style liberals. Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the favorite of the neoconservatives, was defeated in his attempts to gain the presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976. A neoconservative attempt to reclaim traditional liberal influence over the party after Senator George McGovern’s defeat in the 1972 presidential election—the founding of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority—failed as well, largely because of poor organization. As a result, the party remained in the hands of its left wing and the neocon-servatives became increasingly isolated. In 1980, angry with President Carter’s refusal to shift to a more hard-line foreign policy after the Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, most neoconservatives supported Ronald Reagan’s candidacy, although they remained registered Democrats. Several received high-level appointments in the Reagan administration, including Kirkpatrick as ambassador to the United Nations, Elliott Abrams as an assistant secretary of state, and Richard Perle as an assistant secretary of defense.

Neoconservatism’s impact on domestic politics was made clear after the movement’s break with the Democrats. Because they reflected popular disenchantment with failed government programs, as well as widespread anger with President Carter’s economic and foreign policy failures, the neoconservatives were in a position to help mobilize support for alternative policies and candidates. Their access to influential journals, newspapers, and “think tanks” was valuable for developing and spreading new ideas. As a consequence of their rejection by the Democrats, the neoconservatives brought these resources to the Republicans, Ronald Reagan, and the traditional Right.

Neoconservatism’s effect on traditional conservatives has been more ambiguous. On the one hand, these conservatives (some of whom frequently distinguish themselves as paleoconservatives) have clearly benefited from the alliance. The coalition has eased the isolation of the intellectual Right and brought valuable assistance in the struggle to limit the size and powers of government and to bolster traditional social institutions, such as the family. On the other hand, many paleoconservatives believe that the conservative movement has been taken away from them. Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming suggest, for example, that the paleoconser-vatives may be swallowed by the neoconser-vatives as conservative activists adopt the social science–based arguments of the neoconservatives in place of their traditional reliance on a more philosophically based point of view. Many paleoconservatives have come to resent the influence of neoconser-vative publications and the neoconservatives’ ability to obtain foundation money to support their programs. Furthermore, the popular media’s labeling of prominent neoconser-vatives, such as William Bennett, as conservatives has raised fears among paleoconserv-atives that the neoconservatives have come to be seen as representing all American conservatives. Finally, as Ernest van den Haag has pointed out, there is a lingering resentment among paleoconservatives of the prominence of what they view as a group of ex-Marxist latecomers.

The collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s commenced a process by which the split among neoconservatives and the traditional Right has continued to intensify. After the communist threat disappeared, some conservatives advocated an “America First” policy that, in 1990, led them to oppose American intervention in the Persian Gulf and worry that American policy was serving Israeli interests at the expense of the United States. These worries were voiced again, possibly even more strongly, during the Iraq War a decade later. Such conservatives are often highly skeptical of efforts to spread American democracy abroad, especially by force. Most neoconservatives, on the other hand, not only supported the Gulf and Iraq wars but also, as exemplified by Joshua Muravchik, have advocated a neo-Wilsonian policy wherein the United States has a moral obligation to assist by whatever means necessary the globalization of democracy.

Further Reading

  • Buchanan, Patrick J. Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.
  • Glazer, Nathan. Affirmative Discrimination. New York: Basic Books, 1975; reprint, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Gottfried, Paul and Thomas Fleming. The Conservative Movement. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
  • Hoeveler, J. David. Watch on the Right. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
  • Kristol, Irving. Reflections of a Neoconservative. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
  • ———. Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. New York: Free Press, 1995.
  • Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. New York: Free Press, 1969.
  • Podhoretz, Norman. Breaking Ranks. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.


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