A term referring to the views of North American conservatives in the second half of the 20th century.
Conservatism in the United States became radical and assertive from the 1960s onwards, combining liberal economics and a suspicion of the state with authoritarian moral attitudes and a bellicose foreign policy.
Such views constituted part of the new right.
Kenneth Hoover and Raymond Plant, Conservative Capitalism in Britain and the United States (London, 1989)
The term neoconservative was popularized in the United States during 1973 by the socialist leader Michael Harrington, who used the term to define Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Irving Kristol, whose ideologies differed from Harrington’s.
The neoconservative label was used by Irving Kristol in his 1979 article “Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed ‘Neoconservative'”. His ideas have been influential since the 1950s, when he co-founded and edited the magazine Encounter.
Another source was Norman Podhoretz, editor of the magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995. By 1982, Podhoretz was terming himself a neoconservative in The New York Times Magazine article titled “The Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan’s Foreign Policy”.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the neoconservatives considered that liberalism had failed and “no longer knew what it was talking about”, according to E. J. Dionne.
Seymour Lipset asserts that the term neoconservative was used originally by socialists to criticize the politics of Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Jonah Goldberg argues that the term is ideological criticism against proponents of modern American liberalism who had become slightly more conservative (both Lipset and Goldberg are frequently described as neoconservatives). In a book-length study for Harvard University Press, historian Justin Vaisse writes that Lipset and Goldberg are in error, as “neoconservative” was used by socialist Michael Harrington to describe three men – noted above – who were not in SDUSA, and neoconservatism is a definable political movement.
The term “neoconservative” was the subject of increased media coverage during the presidency of George W. Bush, with particular emphasis on a perceived neoconservative influence on American foreign policy, as part of the Bush Doctrine.
Through the 1950s and early 1960s, the future neoconservatives had endorsed the civil rights movement, racial integration and Martin Luther King Jr. From the 1950s to the 1960s, there was general endorsement among liberals for military action to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam.
Neoconservatism was initiated by the repudiation of the Cold War and the “New Politics” of the American New Left, which Norman Podhoretz said was too close to the counterculture and too alienated from the majority of the population; Black Power, which accused white liberals and Northern Jews of hypocrisy on integration and of supporting perceived settler colonialism in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict; and “anti-anticommunism”, which during the late 1960s included substantial endorsement of Marxist–Leninist politics. Many were particularly alarmed by what they saw as antisemitic sentiments from Black Power advocates. Irving Kristol edited the journal The Public Interest (1965–2005), featuring economists and political scientists, which emphasized ways that government planning in the liberal state had produced unintended harmful consequences. Many early neoconservative political figures were disillusioned Democratic politicians and intellectuals, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration.
A substantial number of neoconservatives were originally moderate socialists associated with the right-wing of the Socialist Party of America (SP) and its successor, Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA). Max Shachtman, a former Trotskyist theorist who developed a strong antipathy towards the New Left, had numerous devotees among SDUSA with strong links to George Meany’s AFL-CIO. Following Shachtman and Meany, this faction led the SP to oppose immediate withdrawal from the Vietnam War, and oppose George McGovern in the Democratic primary race and, to some extent, the general election. They also chose to cease their own party-building and concentrated on working within the Democratic Party, eventually influencing it through the Democratic Leadership Council. Thus the Socialist Party dissolved in 1972, and SDUSA emerged that year. (Most of the left-wing of the party, led by Michael Harrington, immediately abandoned SDUSA.) SDUSA leaders associated with neoconservatism include Carl Gershman, Penn Kemble, Joshua Muravchik and Bayard Rustin.
Norman Podhoretz’s magazine Commentary originally a journal of liberalism, became a major publication for neoconservatives during the 1970s. Commentary published an article by Jeane Kirkpatrick, an early and prototypical neoconservative, albeit not a New Yorker.
Rejecting the American New Left and McGovern’s New Politics
As the policies of the New Left made the Democrats increasingly leftist, these intellectuals became disillusioned with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society domestic programs. The influential 1970 bestseller The Real Majority by Ben Wattenberg expressed that the “real majority” of the electorate endorsed economic interventionism, but also social conservatism; and warned Democrats it could be disastrous to adopt liberal positions on certain social and crime issues.
The neoconservatives rejected the countercultural New Left and what they considered anti-Americanism in the non-interventionism of the activism against the Vietnam War. After the anti-war faction took control of the party during 1972 and nominated George McGovern, the Democrats among them endorsed Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson instead for his unsuccessful 1972 and 1976 campaigns for president. Among those who worked for Jackson were incipient neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Richard Perle. During the late 1970s, neoconservatives tended to endorse Ronald Reagan, the Republican who promised to confront Soviet expansionism. Neoconservatives organized in the American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation to counter the liberal establishment.
In another (2004) article, Michael Lind also wrote:
Neoconservatism … originated in the 1970s as a movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry (‘Scoop’) Jackson, many of whom preferred to call themselves ‘paleoliberals.’ [After the end of the Cold War] … many ‘paleoliberals’ drifted back to the Democratic center … Today’s neocons are a shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition. Nevertheless, the origins of their ideology on the left are still apparent. The fact that most of the younger neocons were never on the left is irrelevant; they are the intellectual (and, in the case of William Kristol and John Podhoretz, the literal) heirs of older ex-leftists.
Leo Strauss and his students
C. Bradley Thompson, a professor at Clemson University, claims that most influential neoconservatives refer explicitly to the theoretical ideas in the philosophy of Leo Strauss (1899–1973), although there are several writers who claim that in doing so they may draw upon meaning that Strauss himself did not endorse. Eugene Sheppard notes: “Much scholarship tends to understand Strauss as an inspirational founder of American neoconservatism”. Strauss was a refugee from Nazi Germany who taught at the New School for Social Research in New York (1938–1948) and the University of Chicago (1949–1969).
Strauss asserted that “the crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose”. His solution was a restoration of the vital ideas and faith that in the past had sustained the moral purpose of the West. The Greek classics (classical republican and modern republican), political philosophy and the Judeo-Christian heritage are the essentials of the Great Tradition in Strauss’s work. Strauss emphasized the spirit of the Greek classics and Thomas G. West (1991) argues that for Strauss the American Founding Fathers were correct in their understanding of the classics in their principles of justice.
For Strauss, political community is defined by convictions about justice and happiness rather than by sovereignty and force. A classical liberal, he repudiated the philosophy of John Locke as a bridge to 20th-century historicism and nihilism and instead defended liberal democracy as closer to the spirit of the classics than other modern regimes. For Strauss, the American awareness of ineradicable evil in human nature and hence the need for morality, was a beneficial outgrowth of the pre-modern Western tradition. O’Neill (2009) notes that Strauss wrote little about American topics, but his students wrote a great deal and that Strauss’s influence caused his students to reject historicism and positivism as morally relativist positions. They instead promoted a so-called Aristotelian perspective on America that produced a qualified defense of its liberal constitutionalism. Strauss’s emphasis on moral clarity led the Straussians to develop an approach to international relations that Catherine and Michael Zuckert (2008) call Straussian Wilsonianism (or Straussian idealism), the defense of liberal democracy in the face of its vulnerability.
Strauss influenced The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, William Bennett, Robert Bork, Newt Gingrich, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, as well as military strategist Paul Wolfowitz.
A theory of neoconservative foreign policy during the final years of the Cold War was articulated by Jeane Kirkpatrick in “Dictatorships and Double Standards”, published in Commentary Magazine during November 1979. Kirkpatrick criticized the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter, which endorsed detente with the Soviet Union. She later served the Reagan Administration as Ambassador to the United Nations.
Skepticism towards democracy promotion
In “Dictatorships and Double Standards”, Kirkpatrick distinguished between authoritarian regimes and the totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union. She suggested that in some countries democracy was not tenable and the United States had a choice between endorsing authoritarian governments, which might evolve into democracies, or Marxist–Leninist regimes, which she argued had never been ended once they achieved totalitarian control. In such tragic circumstances, she argued that allying with authoritarian governments might be prudent. Kirkpatrick argued that by demanding rapid liberalization in traditionally autocratic countries, the Carter administration had delivered those countries to Marxist–Leninists that were even more repressive. She further accused the Carter administration of a “double standard” and of never having applied its rhetoric on the necessity of liberalization to communist governments. The essay compares traditional autocracies and Communist regimes:
[Traditional autocrats] do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope.
[Revolutionary Communist regimes] claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands.
Kirkpatrick concluded that while the United States should encourage liberalization and democracy in autocratic countries, it should not do so when the government risks violent overthrow and should expect gradual change rather than immediate transformation. She wrote: “No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances … Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits. In Britain, the road [to democratic government] took seven centuries to traverse. … The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers”