AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I announced last week that I would be doing a series of articles on neoconservatism, a number of readers e-mailed me to complain that conservatives are getting too bogged-down in labels and prefixes and I shouldn’t encourage the trend. I agree. My aim here is destroy, or at least pare back, the increasingly ludicrous use of the word “neoconservative” and maybe even a few other silly labels. If none of this is your cup of tea, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other elsewhere stuff on NRO or even my syndicated column.
Conservatives are accustomed to liberals not understanding the zoology of our movement. But the use and abuse of the term “neoconservative” has exceeded even the high allowance for cliché and ignorance generally afforded to those who write or talk about conservatism from outside the conservative ant farm. In fact, neoconservative has become a Trojan Horse for vast arsenal of ideological attacks and insinuations. For some it means Jewish conservative. For others it means hawk. A few still think it means squishy conservative or ex-liberal. And a few don’t even know what the word means, they just think it makes them sound knowledgeable when they use it.
“Hawks Rip Into Mideast Plan; Ex-Speaker Gingrich leads a neoconservative charge against the State Department, alleging efforts to ‘undermine the president’s policies.’” That was the headline of the page-one story on Newt’s now famous broadside. The only other “neoconservative” critic of the State Department mentioned in the article: Famed ex-Trotskyist and Upper West Side polemicist, Tom DeLay (R., Tex.).
“What is a neoconservative by your definition?” Chris Matthews asked the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank on his cable program Hardball. “….Give me a formal definition of a neocon, historically speaking.”
“Well,” answered Milbank, “it’s a split going really back to the ’70s over detente and how to deal with the Soviet Union. It’s essentially the hard-line of the — within the Republican party as opposed to the establishment which had been dominant. Now, Reagan was part of — more of that conservative side and the first President Bush went back to more of the establishment.”
“But why do they call them neocons? New cons or conservatives? Why that phrase?”
“Well, because the old kind of conservative is the alternative to that,” Milbank replied.
Some definitions are more high-falutin. Michael Lind — widely hailed as a conservative who moved to the Left — channels some of the more feverish paleocons when he writes in the British magazine, The New Statesman, that “Most neoconservative defence intellectuals … are products of the largely Jewish-American Trotskyist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which morphed into anti-communist liberalism between the 1950s and 1970s and finally into a kind of militaristic and imperial right with no precedents in American culture or political history.” But a recent article in the New York Times says the neocons aren’t Trotskyists, they’re Straussians: “They are the neoconservatives, or neocons a catchall name for a disparate group of authors, academics, media moguls and public servants who trace their intellectual lineage (accurately or not) to the teachings of a German émigré named Leo Strauss.”
Confused? It gets a lot worse. In fact, it’s increasingly difficult to find plain-old “conservatives” anywhere these days. National Review, according to a ludicrous article in The New York Observer is a “paleo-conservative magazine” which is “seen as a kind of a relic by the new neocons” but according to The American Conservative, National Review is not only “safely in neocon hands,” we actually symbolize the neocon takeover of the conservative movement. Often, the absurdity has become syllogistic: Neoconservatives are conservatives who favor war and if you are a conservative and favor war you are a neoconservative. My own beloved mother perfectly captured the nebulousness of the term. When asked whether she was a neocon by The New York Observer, she jokingly replied, “You mean the people who like to kill people and break things. That’s me!”
And then, of course, there’s the Jew thing. Neoconservative and Jewish are synonymous for all sorts of people who don’t like neocons or Jews or both. But we can get to that later.
First, it’s important to point out that this confusion isn’t new. In fact, it’s baked into the cake. Let me give you an example from personal experience.
I used to work at the American Enterprise Institute, by all accounts the center of the neoconservative universe. In fact, I used to work for Ben Wattenberg, a man I believe The New Republic once called the “Titular Deity of the Neoconservatives.” Anyway, when I was a policy peon there AEI was a Reaganite government in exile. One Friday, Joshua Muravchik — Muravchik probably the premiere neocon foreign-policy intellectual of his generation — was giving what used to be called a “brown-bag lecture” (I believe they now call them “Friday Forums”) on the current state of neoconservatism. A who’s who of Reaganite intellectuals were in attendance. During the Q&A I asked to explain what exactly a neoconservative is. His answer was a surprisingly unsatisfying bit of sophistry — something like “neoconservatism is the body of beliefs held by people who call themselves neoconservative.”
However, in the course of his answer, Muravchik said that the Reagan movement was primarily a foreign-policy cause united around defeating Communism. He suggested (and this is largely from my memory) that the foreign-policy neocons permitted the religious and economic neocons to sign on to their cause.
At this assertion, an “au contraire” was offered from Irwin Stelzer, a highly regarded economist, famous neocon, and adviser to Rupert Murdoch. He said that Reaganism — of the neocon variety — was essentially an economic philosophy and while anti-Communism was surely a vital part, foreign-policy activists were simply another wing emanating from the core of the true Reagan coalition. Seconds after Stelzer had made his comments, my friend Michael Novak — one of America’s premiere theologians and social thinkers and an NRO contributor — begged to differ. While, of course, fighting for free markets and against the Red menace was vital to Reaganism, these policies were largely outgrowths of a moral and religious vision, which is why the Reagan movement was essentially a religious cause. An intellectual brouhaha ensued — and, I’m proud to say, I started it. Now, one of the things I need to stress is that all of these people spoke of Reaganism as an explicitly neoconservative movement and phenomena. This points to the Reagan’s FDR-like political genius for convincing various factions to each see him as their undisputed standard-bearer. But it also points to the fact that even the leaders of the “neoconservative movement” — whatever that meant or means — could not agree on what neoconservatism is.
Coming Next: How It All Got Started.