Wed, Sep 05, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Is neo-conservatism dead?

It was not until US president Ronald Reagan forged an alliance between two warring conservative factions that the political foundations of the movement were secured

By Stephen Eric Bronner

Neo-conservatism has served as a badge of unity for those in the administration of US President George W. Bush who advocate 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 also run its course?

Neo-conservatism began with different premises from traditional forms of conservatism. Traditional conservatives can adapt to change and even take credit for negotiating the connection between past and future conservative trends. 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 the US and the world.

Indeed, in a certain sense, neo-conservative elder statesmen remain defined by the communist dogmatism they sought to oppose in their youth. The virtue of their clique needs no complex justification -- it stands for "American values," while critics merely provide an "objective apology" for the "enemies of freedom."

Until the 1960s, future neo-conservatives shared the Democratic Party's vehement anti-communism, acceptance of the Civil Rights Movement and support for former US 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 former US Democratic senator Henry Jackson, who embodied these commitments.

For future neo-conservatives, however, the 1960s produced a "trauma" that transcended the humiliation of a lost war and the disgrace of former US president Richard Nixon. What in the 1950s had seemingly been a culture of contentment was transformed into what Podhoretz called an "adversary culture." New social movements, seeking to de-mythologize history, rejecting platitudes justifying the policies of elite interests. Demanding greater institutional accountability, the movements seemingly threatened the entire "establishment."

Nevertheless, it was not until former US president Ronald Reagan forged an alliance between conservatism's two traditionally warring factions that the political foundations of neo-conservatism's triumph were secured. One faction primarily comprised elites opposed to state intervention in the market. Its members cared little about the verities associated with "community" or "family values."

Their best intellectual arguments sought to challenge collectivist theories of society in general and "socialism" in particular.

The other faction was rooted in nineteenth-century "know nothing" populism, with its flights of nationalist hysteria, defense of traditional prejudices, and resentment of intellectual and economic elites. However, its members do not necessarily oppose social legislation that benefits working people -- especially when white workers are privileged -- and some even retain a positive image of the New Deal.

Neo-conservatism thus cannot be reduced to advocacy of the free market or right-wing populism, since its ideological specificity consists in the fusion of these contradictory outlooks. The question was how to package elites' interest in free-market capitalism with the provincial temperament of a parochial constituency. What sold best was an image of oppressive "big government," reflected in a tax system that was increasingly burdensome to ordinary people, combined with anti-communist nationalism and barely veiled racism.

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