Neoconservatism is not a word many in today’s politics would use to describe themselves, nor would want to. It is often associated with George W. Bush-era policy-making, that is, hawkish Republicans and Democrats who supported the War on Terrorism, particularly the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Its name conjures up images of dark dealings, secret cabals, and dastardly deeds in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors.
One of the most frequent mistakes in American politics is the misunderstanding of the word “neoconservatism” and its beliefs. Neoconservatism’s opponents have become quite good at using it as a political insult. However, the idea that neoconservatism is accurately being depicted is far from the truth.
Neoconservatism’s origins begin in the 1960s when writers like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz and sociologists including Nathan Glazer and Daniel Bell shifted right politically. All of them had slowly been growing concerned about the shape of the New Left and the counterculture that was birthed with it. As such, the word neoconservative was intended as an insult by Micheal Harrington to describe Kristol and his fellow disillusioned liberals.
While they all were devoted anti-communists, neoconservatism did not arise as a foreign policy-centric ideology, but was actually more focused on domestic policy. Many of them grew more conservative as a response to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Kristol himself was known to have said that, “neoconservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality.”
Over time, the word became distorted as figures like William Kristol, Irving’s son, and members of George W. Bush’s administration began to take on the ideological moniker. Since they were not the same neoconservatives who came before them, they had different views as to what their ideology meant. As many officials in the Bush Administration claimed to be neoconservatives, the media and liberals used the word as a political insult as well. Over time, the word neoconservative was used so much that Max Boot stated that “neoconservatism’ once had a real meaning – back in the 1970s. But the label has now become meaningless.”
What does neoconservatism, of the Irving Kristol persuasion, believe in then? Well, it’s hard to say for sure. One of the great benefits of neoconservatism was the fact that, as Kristol pointed out, it’s more of a persuasion than a set of ideas. Douglas Murray spoke to this strength in his book, Neoconservatism: Why We Need It:
“Neoconservatism is not a gang or cabal. It is not a fraternity which sticks together…The non-cabalishness is part of the reason why one can safely predict that neoconservatism will survive the present and any future setbacks which its opponents wish upon it.”
Many of the first-generation neoconservatives held very different views from each other. What they did have in common was their disdain of the Great Society and their disdain for the counterculture movement. This point is further reinforced by Micheal Harrington, who had written an essay entitled “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics,” which attacked some neoconservative reactions against the Great Society.
Many neoconservatives differed in their thoughts on economics, especially as many of them were former Trotskyites; they all came to differing conclusions about how far the capitalist system should go. Many ended up backing the supply-side economics arguments of Art Laffer and Milton Friedman. One of the major issues which Irving Kristol believed was that while capitalism was extremely good at producing high-quality goods and services for people, it could have the unintended consequences of eroding national traditions.
What neoconservatism suffers from today is both the misinterpretation of its later generations of proponents like William Kristol, David Brooks, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, as well as the willingness of its enemies like Tucker Carlson, and Ron Paul to blame to the movement for all of America’s ills and failures. Neoconservatism is not a dead word nor a dead movement. Instead, it is deeply misunderstood in both its intentions and its actual beliefs.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.