There is nothing more misunderstood in American politics today than conservatism, and there is nothing more misunderstood among conservatism than what was known as “neoconservatism.” What was once a term to describe a number of former members of the left who gradually moved to the right in the 1960’s and 1970’s, is now used as a word for intellectually lazy members of the left and right to criticize conservatives they disagree with. It is simply sad.
It is understandable for the left to misunderstand neoconservatism because they frequently don’t even care to try. But for those on the right who profess to be conservatives not understanding a term that was a key part of the conservative movement is a sad example of how unserious and intellectually barren the movement has become.
The reason why the right hates neoconservatism is because of their views on foreign policy, but it is interesting to note that neoconservatives did not even have any opinion on foreign policy when these former Trotskyites moved over to the right. In fact, in Irving Kristol’s, “What is a ‘Neoconservative’?” essay, he admitted that neoconservatives did not even have a view on foreign policy: “On specific issues of foreign policy, however, the neoconservative consensus is a weak one.”
It was not until future United States Ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick wrote an essay for Commentary in 1979 that some form of a “neoconservative” foreign policy was articulated. Her essay contributed mightily to the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan, yet no conservative today would criticize for Reagan being a “neocon.” Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest was the first neoconservative journal, but it didn’t touch foreign policy; its focused on domestic affairs.
It was not until the George W. Bush presidency did we see the new focus on foreign policy from the neoconservatives. They became famous for their support for the Iraq War, but the truth of the matter is that so did everyone else. When the war went bad, neoconservatives were left standing in support for both the war and President Bush; that’s where the criticism originated.
Let’s go back to Irving Kristol for a moment. He is the “godfather” of neoconservatism, a nickname he didn’t coin. He didn’t view neoconservatism as a movement, or even an ideology, but as a persuasion. In his essay “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Kristol laid out what a neoconservative was, and those conservatives who want to continually criticize it should take note of what he said, “Neoconservatism is not a ‘movement,’ as the conspiratorial critics would have it. Neoconservatism is…a ‘persuasion,’ one that manifests itself over time.”
It should be noted that today, no one who is or has been criticized as a neoconservative would use that term to describe his or her political beliefs. Not even Bill Kristol, probably the most hated of all the neocons, calls himself a neoconservative.
Unfortunately, today, “neoconservative” is used as an epithet to insult a conservative that you disagree with. Don’t like Ben Shapiro? That’s fine, just call him a “neocon.” Oh, Dan Crenshaw thinks we should stay in Afghanistan? He must now be an evil neocon who wants America to be in endless wars!! Jonah Goldberg is critical of Donald Trump? He MUST be a treasonous neocon.
To truly be serious about conservatism means to be respectful of the varying opinions within and to actually learn about its rich history. Neoconservatism was a vital part in making conservatism a serious and thriving movement in American politics. Disparaging it because you didn’t like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is intellectually lazy, and there is a lot of that these days.
Neoconservatism is a persuasion, and the term to describe this persuasion has outlived its usefulness. Let the term “neoconservatism” retire in peace, and may anyone who tries to use it as an insult never be taken seriously.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.