If you missed the introduction to this series, aimed at defining what a conservative is, please start by reading Defining Conservatism.
There are various definitions used when describing any given type of conservative. The conservative definition which seems the most misunderstood, is neoconservatism. This post is not meant to be an opinion piece, so we'll be relying on the "nerdiest" definitions I can find. This way, we'll get the most accurate definition, and the best insight into our own beliefs too.
What is a Neoconservative?
A neoconservative (also spelled "neo-conservative"; colloquially, neocon) in American politics can appear to be conservative while in fact favoring big government, interventionalism, and a hostility to religion in politics and government. Many neocons had been liberals in their youth and admired President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The movement emerged in the mid 1970s, played a limited role in the Ronald Reagan Administration, and then dominated the George W. Bush Administration after 2001. Neoconservatives are often preferred by liberals to portray the conservative voice in the media, as in television talk shows, newspaper columnists, magazines, think tanks, and advisory positions in Republican Administrations.
In contrast to traditional conservatives, neoconservatives favor globalism, downplay religious issues, [and] are unlikely to actively oppose abortion and homosexuality. Neocons disagree with paleoconservatives on issues such as classroom prayer, the separation of powers, cultural unity, and immigration. Neocons favor a strong active state in world affairs. Neocons oppose affirmative action with greater emphasis and priority than other conservatives do.
On foreign policy, neoconservatives believe that democracy can and should be installed by the United States around the world, even in Muslim countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Neoconservatism is a somewhat controversial term referring to the political goals and ideology of the "new conservatives" in the United States.
Compared to other U.S. conservatives, neoconservatives are characterized by an aggressive stance on foreign policy, a lesser social conservatism, and lesser dedication to a policy of minimal government. The "newness" refers either to being new to American conservatism (often coming from liberal or socialist backgrounds) or to being part of a "new wave" of conservative thought and political organization.
The term is used more often by those who oppose "neoconservative" politics than those who subscribe to them; indeed, many to whom the label is applied reject it. The term is sometimes used pejoratively, especially by the self-described paleoconservatives, who oppose neoconservatism from the right. Critics of the term argue that the word is overused and lacks coherent definition. For instance, they note that many so-called neoconservatives vehemently disagree with one another on major issues.
As a rule, the term refers to journalists, pundits, policy analysts, and institutions affiliated with policy think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and periodicals such as Commentary, Policy Review and The Weekly Standard.
This political group supported a militant anticommunism; more social welfare spending than was acceptable to libertarians and mainstream conservatives; and sympathy with a non-traditionalist agenda, being more inclined than other conservatives toward an interventionist foreign policy and a unilateralism that is sometimes at odds with traditional conceptions of diplomacy and international law.
But domestic policy does not define neoconservatism; it is a movement founded on, and perpetuated by an aggressive approach to foreign policy, opposition to communism during the Cold War, free trade, and opposition to Middle Eastern states that are perceived to pursue terrorism or anti- Israel policies. Thus, their foremost target was the conservative but pragmatic approach to foreign policy often associated with Richard Nixon, i.e., peace through negotiations, diplomacy, and arms control, détente and containment (rather than rollback) of the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the process that would lead to bilateral ties between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S.
Intellectually, neoconservatives have been strongly influenced by a diverse range of thinkers from Max Shachtman's strongly anti- Soviet version of Trotskyism* (in the area of international policy) to the elitist, ostensibly neo- Platonic** ideas of Leo Strauss.
Q: What is a neoconservative and who are they?
Rich Lowry: Historically, 30 years ago it meant a former liberal who became a conservative. The cliche was because "they were mugged by reality," but it was because they saw the empirical failures of liberal welfare, state and foreign policies, and they were therefore less ideological than other conservatives and brought much more of a social science background to their argumentation.
In fact, one of the foremost neoconservatives, Norman Podhoretz, wrote an obituary for this distinction several years ago because it just seemed to no longer matter. We've seen the rise of it again, first of all, with John McCain's candidacy in 2000, where the segment of conservatives that supported Sen. McCain tended to have more neo-kind of tendencies and tended to sort of self-consciously describe themselves as "neoconservatives," foremost among them Bill Kristol and David Brooks.
Neoconservatives are less skeptical of government than other conservatives. They are less worried about reducing the size of government, less enthusiastic about tax cuts, more concerned about forging national crusades that can tap either the American public's patriotism or its desire for reform.
Paul Weyrich: They are mostly ex-liberals, by and large out of the intellectual community. These are people who came to the realization that modern liberalism was not the kind of liberalism that they had subscribed to.
Paul Gigot: I think of neoconservatism as having a very specific meaning related to history. That is, the neoconservatives were people who in the 1970s were former liberals, in some cases socialists, who moved right in reaction to the left's shift on cultural mores, personal responsibility and foreign policy. So I think the term "neoconservative" has that narrow meaning of that historical period. I think of them as the Podhoretzes and the Kristols and others. I don't think "neoconservative" means much anymore. I don't know what it means now or who they're referring to.
George Will: Oh gosh, that's not simple. Neoconservatives are persons who in domestic policy often were former Democrats who felt that conservatives had erred in not accepting the post-New Deal role of the central government. They were in their early incarnation focusing on domestic policy and were distinguishing themselves from Goldwater conservatives.
Also in domestic policies, however, as the '60s unfolded into the '70s and '80s, they led the critique of overreaching in domestic social engineering, saying that we accept the post-New Deal role of the central government, but the accumulated powers thereof are being wielded in a way too confident and optimistic and hubristic, if you will.
In foreign policy, and here's where it gets interesting, they have a more ambitious, more confident approach to the use of power than regular conservatives -- if you see the symmetry here? They say that America is a nation uniquely equipped as the sole remaining superpower to order the world and spread our values, etc., etc.
Prominent Neoconservative Spokesmen:
Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Norman Podhoretz, Daniel Pipes, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, Robert Kagan, Christopher Hitchens, David Brooks, Stephen Schwartz, Elliott Abrams, Ben Wattenberg and Carl Gershman.
* We'll discuss Trotskyism in a future post.
** Same goes for neo- Platonic.