Jonah Goldberg wonders “what the heck is a neo-conservative?” The question is prompted by a spate of recent stories in the liberal press abusing the term. In these accounts, Goldberg observes, neo-conservatives are sometimes former Trotskyists, sometimes Straussians, sometimes the people who control National Review, sometimes the people who consider National Review a relic, and so on. Goldberg hopes “to destroy, or at least pare back, the increasingly ludicrous use of the word.”
This is a worthy goal because, in my view, there was never a sharp distinction between mainstream conservative and neo-conservative, and today there is, for all practical purposes, no distinction at all. At the time neo-conservatism emerged, mainstream conservatism was essentially synonymous with Reaganism, Its core principles were staunch anti-communism in foreign policy, anti-permissiveness in social policy, and lower taxes, free markets, and free trade in economic policy. Reaganism was different in certain important respects from earlier brands of mainstream conservatism, but those brands were already outside of the mainstream by the time neo-conservatism emerged in the mid-1970s. At most, the neo-conservatives may have provided an extra shove.
The neo-conservatives became conservatives because they agreed with the anti-communist strand of Reaganism. Their contribution to the cause was immediate and substantial largely, I would argue, because of the passion, energy, intellect, and polemical skill they brought to bear, and not because they transformed the content of mainstream conservatism. In other words, they added steel far more than new substance. Some neo-conservatives were, at first, almost agnostic about Reaganite social and/or economic policy. Others agreed with these aspects of Reaganism, but not passionately. Thus, in the early days there was a distinction between mainstream conservatives and neo-conservatives, but not a major one.
Before long, most neo-conservatives became quite comfortable with the economic and social tenets of mainstream, Reaganite conservatism (the anecdote at the end of Goldberg’s piece illustrates this). Many became passionate voices on these issues. Indeed, the modes of intellectual combat that neo-conservatives brought to the struggle against communism and leftist foreign policy proved quite transferable to the culture wars, perhaps because the two struggles, and for that matter the economic one as well, are not unrelated. Thus, the original distinction between neo-conservatism and mainstream conservatism, such as it was, disappeared.
While this was happening, though, the Soviet empire was disintegrating and Reagan was fading from the political scene. As a result, strands of older forms of conservatism, notably isolationism, protectionism, and xenophobia, made a comeback. However, the comeback has not been successful, as the failure of Pat Buchanan’s candidacies demonstrates. Mainstream conservatism remains essentially what it was during the Reagan years, except that now anti-Communism has been replaced by anti-militant Islamism. Given this state of affairs, Jonah Goldberg is correct – the term neo-conservative is not needed today. “Conservative” (a term that, as Goldberg notes, is often absent from discussions of neo-conservatism) will do just fine.
Why all the chatter about neo-conservatism, then? The most basic answer, I think, is that the term conservative (unlike “liberal”) is not regarded unfavorably by most Americans. Indeed, something like a majority of Americans may now consider themselves conservative. So for liberals, “neo-conservative” is really just a fancy way for people who got tired of saying “right-winger” (and who would really like to say “fascist”) to describe their foes in a pejorative sounding way. And for non-mainstream conservatives, such as those of the Buchananite persuasion, “neo-conservative” is a way to maintain the fiction that true conservatism was hijacked and perverted by outsiders, specifically Jewish Trotskyites.
For these reasons, I wish Jonah Goldberg well in his mission, and eagerly await the follow-up articles he promises to publish in furtherance thereof.
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