The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 19, 2014

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John Ehrman - 11/21/11

Neoconservatism is a right-wing branch of American liberalism that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely as a reaction to liberal utopianism and the irrationality of the new Left. Most neoconservative writing has been concerned with social issues, such as the inefficiencies and unintended consequences of the welfare state, the problem of equal opportunity, and the amelioration of racial tensions. In foreign affairs, neoconser-vatives have consistently advocated strongly internationalist policies to contain communism and promote democracy abroad. Neoconservatives allied themselves with the traditional Right in the early 1980s, thereby increasing their own influence within the Reagan administration but also causing some resentment among those who saw them as latecomers to the conservative movement.

Neoconservatism is rooted in post–World War II liberalism. After the death of Franklin Roosevelt, liberals split over the question of how best to preserve and extend the reforms of the New Deal. Some liberals, disturbed by the rise of Cold War tensions with the USSR and fearing a takeover by the Right at home, were willing to form a coalition with communists to work for more domestic reforms and an accommodation with Moscow. Led by former vice president Henry A. Wallace and organized as the Progressive Party, they were opposed by liberals who saw communism as the true danger to liberalism. The latter group remained loyal Democrats and supported President Truman’s policies. Truman’s victory in the 1948 presidential election established their dominance among liberals and the leading role of their organization, the Americans for Democratic Action. Many of the individuals in this group who later became prominent neocon-servatives, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Bell, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were professors or New York intellectuals active in literary, artistic, and cultural criticism. Several, including Bell and Irving Kristol, had been Marxists when they were students in the 1930s, but had since broken with the radical Left.

The postwar generation of liberal intellectuals tended to be reformist and mildly socialist. Their writings portrayed American society as complex and its problems—mainly relating to political, economic, and racial inequality—as complicated as well. Consequently, they rejected what they viewed as the simplistic or utopian approaches to social problems advocated by the Left and Right, dismissing them as based on ideology rather than realistic analysis. This view received its fullest expression in Bell’s book, The End of Ideology (1960). Moreover, unlike traditional conservatives, these liberals were more concerned with shaping the future than with preserving traditional institutions. Instead, they emphasized a social-engineering approach to issues, using social science methods to identify problems and to develop government programs to solve them. In the 1960s, for example, they supported Kennedy and Johnson administration proposals to extend social welfare programs and to establish antipoverty and urban programs. Not surprisingly, many of the leading liberal intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer, were sociologists.

Neoconservatism began to emerge in the later 1960s when some liberal intellectuals began to consider the lessons of the decade’s failed reforms. Continued urban deterioration, increasing welfare enrollments and costs, and the rise of black militancy made it clear that many of the reforms had not met their goals. In addition, the social disorder and urban riots of the mid- and late-1960s led some liberals, particularly Moynihan and Kristol, to a new appreciation of the role of institutions and traditional authority in society. In seeking to explain reform’s failure, these liberals raised questions about the theories behind the programs and the federal government’s ability to administer programs effectively. Moynihan, for example, believed that the failure of urban anti-poverty programs had been caused by the government’s reliance on unproven theories that, in practice, turned out to be wrong. Glazer saw that some policies actually worsened problems, as when affirmative action programs failed to help the most disadvantaged while increasing racial and ethnic tensions. In sum, these liberals became much more skeptical about the ability of social scientists and the government to shape society. This skepticism became especially identified with the Public Interest, a magazine founded by Bell and Kristol in 1965 to examine social issues.

Many liberals were further disturbed in the late 1960s by the rising influence of the new Left. Postwar liberals had frequently seen themselves as radicals, but the new Left seized that label for itself while embracing a utopian ideology and attacking the concepts of liberal democracy. To some liberals, this was similar to the threat posed to reformist liberalism by communists twenty years earlier. For some the threat was also personal. Professors such as Glazer witnessed the student rebellions first hand and saw in them a threat to their academic freedom and their integrity as researchers and teachers. Some Jewish intellectuals saw the New Left’s attacks on Israel as thinly veiled anti-Semitism. This was particularly true for Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary. In June 1970, Podhoretz began using Commentary as a platform for a broad counterattack against the new Left. By late 1970, he and other defenders of New Deal– and late-1940s-style liberalism were being called “new conservatives,” a label which evolved into “neoconservative” by the middle of the decade.

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