3 Basic Differences Between Conservatism and Neoconservatism


I suppose I should have anticipated reactions such as these to my list of the 10 best conservative columnists of 2013 yesterday:

Charles Krauthammer ?

This column alone should catapult him to #1 in terms of “valuable pieces on the chessboard.”

On Twitter:

I tried to preempt this criticism with my second ground rule:

– I’m likewise being strict with the “conservative” title – other various right-of-center ideologies (neoconservatism, libertarianism, Christian theocrats, and paleo-con conspiracists) warrant their own lists.

But apparently some object to the idea that there are distinct ideologies within the conservative movement. Here’s “New MarcH” in the comments:

David – Bravo for opening a discussion of intellectual trends in on the Right. Still, I have some issues as well as some thoughts for further discussion regarding your use of the term, “neoconservative”.

Ben Shapiro but no Krauthammer? You had to twist yourself into a pretzel not to mention Krauthammer.

Also, why the cheers for the NYT not including the “neoconservative” William Kristol but then whooping it up for the less well known Frank Gaffney? Gaffney began as a protégé of Scoop Jackson and Richard Perle. How he is less of a “neo-con” than Kristol (BTW, I have a high opinion of Jackson, Perle, Kristol and Gaffney)?

If you want a deeper topic, consider this: what is the current significance of the term “neoconservative (‘new conservative’)”? As you know, the term was coined in the 70s to describe former FDR/JFK Democratic party intellectuals who were dismayed by the leftward shift of the Democratic party and the failure of its defense, social and economic policies. These folks formed a big part of the brain trust of the Reagan campaign and White House. Neo-Conservatism is often caricatured (not entirely unfairly but ultimately incorrectly) as a movement of New York Jewish intellectuals, but its leaders and founders included Jack Kemp, William Bennett, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, George Gilder, Charles Murray, etc., and, of course, Ronald Reagan.

But what does it mean today? William Kristol may be a lot of things but he took in Reaganite conservatism with his tinker toys so he can’t be accurately described as a “new”-conservative.

During the Iraq war the Left brilliantly grabbed the word and morped it to suggest ‘”chicken-hawk” Jew or Jewish dupe who wants to trick the US into fighting a war for Israel and make money off oil, etc’. Some on the Right were not uncomfortable with grabbing this twisted use of the word and “demagogue-ing” it to try to create a post Reagan isolationist conservative movement. Pat Buchanan was an early adopter of this strategy and it was always funny to watch this Vietnam War avoider suggest others were “chicken hawks”.

So David, is the term you used “neoconservative” relevant to contemporary political analysis? I would say not. It is out of date and serves mostly as a slur word for the Left.

I very strongly disagree. And so did Irving Kristol, the founder of neoconservatism, who in August 2003 defined some of the basic assumptions and tendencies of what he characterized as a “persuasion” rather than an outright movement. There are a number of differences between conservatives operating in the William F. Buckley Jr./Ronald Reagan tradition and neoconservatives operating in the Irving Kristol/George W. Bush tradition. Here are three, and I’ll use Kristol’s own words to explain it.


1. Neoconservatives believe the GOP should be converted to embrace a “modern democracy,” aka a welfare state in the mold of FDR and the Great Society. Neoconservatives don’t want to disassemble the federal government in order to rebalance divided powers between federal, state, and local governments; they just think they can pilot Leviathan better than the Democrats:

Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. That this new conservative politics is distinctly American is beyond doubt. There is nothing like neoconservatism in Europe, and most European conservatives are highly skeptical of its legitimacy. The fact that conservatism in the United States is so much healthier than in Europe, so much more politically effective, surely has something to do with the existence of neoconservatism. But Europeans, who think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation, resolutely refuse to consider this possibility.

Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the “American grain.” It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. Of course, those worthies are in no way overlooked by a large, probably the largest, segment of the Republican party, with the result that most Republican politicians know nothing and could not care less about neoconservatism. Nevertheless, they cannot be blind to the fact that neoconservative policies, reaching out beyond the traditional political and financial base, have helped make the very idea of political conservatism more acceptable to a majority of American voters. Nor has it passed official notice that it is the neoconservative public policies, not the traditional Republican ones, that result in popular Republican presidencies.

2. Neoconservatives are largely secular intellectuals who ally with Bible-based people out of cynical pragmatism, not a genuine, shared love for the God of Israel:

But it is only to a degree that neocons are comfortable in modern America. The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives–though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government’s attention. And since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

What was the real-world manifestation of this? The choice of Sarah Palin as VP candidate as an attempt to satiate and rev up the GOP base. We all know how that worked out and the years of demonization inflicted on Palin and her family as a result of a bone-headed Hail Mary political play.


3. Neoconservatives naively think they can democratize the Muslim world with American military power:

Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, and even today there are many Americans who are in denial. To a large extent, it all happened as a result of our bad luck. During the 50 years after World War II, while Europe was at peace and the Soviet Union largely relied on surrogates to do its fighting, the United States was involved in a whole series of wars: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Kosovo conflict, the Afghan War, and the Iraq War. The result was that our military spending expanded more or less in line with our economic growth, while Europe’s democracies cut back their military spending in favor of social welfare programs. The Soviet Union spent profusely but wastefully, so that its military collapsed along with its economy.

Suddenly, after two decades during which “imperial decline” and “imperial overstretch” were the academic and journalistic watchwords, the United States emerged as uniquely powerful. The “magic” of compound interest over half a century had its effect on our military budget, as did the cumulative scientific and technological research of our armed forces. With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.

The older, traditional elements in the Republican party have difficulty coming to terms with this new reality in foreign affairs, just as they cannot reconcile economic conservatism with social and cultural conservatism. But by one of those accidents historians ponder, our current president and his administration turn out to be quite at home in this new political environment, although it is clear they did not anticipate this role any more than their party as a whole did. As a result, neoconservatism began enjoying a second life, at a time when its obituaries were still being published.

That was in 2003, the height of neoconservative influence and popularity. These ideas were the basis of the Bush administration’s belief that American democracy could be installed in the Middle East by force. Since then two Republican politicians in the neoconservative Bush mold lost presidential elections. Why? In November of last year PJ columnist David P. Goldman noted the response of the columnist that I’m now getting excoriated for not including on my list:

The mainstream conservative media is too busy explaining why Barack Obama’s re-election had nothing to do with its own mistakes (it was Hurricane Sandy, Charles Krauthammer told the Restoration Weekend conference last Saturday night — just keep doing what we’re doing and we’ll win next time).

Back in October, PJ columnists Ron Radosh and Andrew C. McCarthy had a dialogue about the New Deal and FDR. I weighed in taking McCarthy’s side that conservatives should not accept a federal government welfare state as an inevitability, and then disagreeing with Ron about Krauthammer’s centrality to the conservative cause. I’ll just republish the entire post, titled “Death to the New Deal! Screw Social Security!,” to encourage more debate on these subjects:

[jwplayer config=”pjm_lifestyle” mediaid=”61301″]

Dear Ron,

I thought it fitting to select Halloween as the day for a brief entry into the debate about whether conservatives should surrender and just accept the permanence of the Democrats’ unconstitutional welfare state. I have three points for your consideration.

1. The Welfare State Is a Zombie and It Can Be Killed.

My position is straightforward: I’m with Andy 100% and believe that conservatives must work over the coming decades to disassemble the federal government’s unconstitutional welfare state. This is an entirely reasonable, achievable goal. See James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus’s America 3.0 for the blueprint. They call the shrinking of the federal government and rebalancing of powers between the states “the big haircut.” See my review from a few weeks ago: On 9/11 and Benghazi’s Anniversary, We End Conservative Pessimism and Right-Wing Apocalypticism

2. My Generation Is Never Going to See a Damn Dime of the Social Security that’s Being Unwillingly Extracted From Us By Force of Imprisonment.

What kind of technology will America have come the 2020s, 2030s, 2040s? I tend to embrace the Ray Kurzweil model that predicts such things as artificial intelligence smarter than man in 2028. It won’t be until the 2050s when the first millennials are ready for where Social Security is set at today. Who is going to genuinely claim that Social Security will still be needed with the technology of decades from now making everything in the economy infinitely cheaper and lifespan expanding?

[jwplayer config=”pjm_lifestyle” mediaid=”61472″]

3. Charles Krauthammer Is Not All That Well-Known Outside of our Political Bubble and Amongst Those Who Don’t Watch Fox News.

Plenty of your commenters jumped on you for this one and I’ll pile on too:

Dr. Krauthammer is, as I am certain all PJM readers know, America’s most well-known and highly regarded spokesman for conservatism.

These days just about the only conservative media spokesman (who wasn’t a major politician at some point) that the non-politically obsessed can name is Rush Limbaugh. And maybe Ann Coulter too thanks to all her Today show type appearances where she says the right things to provoke the postmodern progressives.

But you’re half-right. Krauthammer is America’s most well-known and highly regarded spokesman, but it’s not of just overall “conservatism,” a role held for decades by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Across the board Krauthammer is the archetypal neoconservative — ex-Democrat, hawkish, tolerant of big government, indifferent on the social issues, more elitist than populist, more urban than rural, not religious but welcoming of those who are, and East Coast.

In the intra-right discussion about these issues, I think it’s best to just lay it out explicitly: there are multiple ideologies within “the Right” and “conservatism,” and especially in between elections they all duke it out to see whose candidates will rise to the top of the political heap.

As I’ve written, I believe that the neoconservatism Krauthammer embodies — what I’ve alternately called Conservatism 2.0 and corporatist baby-boomer establishment conservatism — is collapsing. And it will be replaced by a Conservatism 3.0 that takes a values-based, good and evil-focused perspective on the immorality of the perpetual bipartisan welfare-state expansion and both parties’ shameful response to the global war declared on us by the jihadists.




Bye bye FDR & LBJ… By the time we’re done a few decades from now, it’ll be as though you never set foot in Washington. Your lifetimes of achievements causing generations of dependency on the federal government will be for naught and your ideas will be swept like ashes into history’s dustbin.


One final addendum:

I just want to make perfectly clear that though I disagree with several elements of neoconservative political philosophy, I do still regard it as worthy of study and I do still read and appreciate those who operate in this tradition. I may disagree with some of what The Weekly Standard and Commentary publish, but both publications still have many great writers and their editors are still thoughtful, decent men.

And Krauthammer is still an essential writer very much worth your time. If I manage to get around to a list of neoconservative columnists, he’ll certainly be on it. Just because the neoconservatives are wrong about some things it doesn’t mean they’re wrong about everything.

[jwplayer config=”pjm_lifestyle” mediaid=”42781″]


image courtesy shutterstock / Kletr