Is Neo-Conservatism Dead?

Neo-conservatism has served as a badge of unity for those in the Bush administration advocating an aggressive foreign policy, massive military spending, disdain for international law and institutions, an assault on the welfare state, and a return to “traditional values.” So, with the Bush era winding down in a tailspin of plummeting popularity and high-level resignations, has the neo-conservative movement, too, run its course?

Neo-conservatism began with different premises from traditional forms of conservatism. Because reforms can become part of “our” heritage, traditional conservatives can adapt to change, even taking credit for negotiating the connection between past and future. By contrast, neo-conservatism’s adherents are unconcerned with what Edmund Burke called the ties that bind “the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.” On the contrary, they are revolutionaries or, rather, “counter-revolutionaries” intent upon remaking America and the world.

Indeed, in a certain sense, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and other neo-conservative elder statesmen remain defined by the communist dogmatism they sought to oppose when they were youthful Trotskyists. The virtue of their “party” or clique needs no complex justification: it stands for “American values,” while critics merely provide an “objective apology” for the “enemies of freedom.”

Until the 1960’s, future neo-conservatives shared the Democratic Party’s vehement anti-communism, acceptance of the Civil Rights Movement, and support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare-state policies. Tellingly, the influential neo-conservative Richard Perle said in 2003 that he was still a registered Democrat, out of “nostalgia” for Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the powerful former Senator who embodied these commitments.