Constructing Neo-Conservatism

Stephen Eric Bronner


eo-conservatism has become both a code word for reactionary thinking in our time and a badge of unity for those in the Bush administration advocating a new imperialist foreign policy, an assault on the welfare state, and a return to “family values.”  Its members are directly culpable for the disintegration of American prestige abroad, the erosion of a huge budget surplus, and the debasement of democracy at home. Enough inquiries have highlighted the support given to neo-conservative causes by various businesses and wealthy foundations like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute. In general, however, the mainstream media has taken the intellectual pretensions of this mafia far too seriously and treated its members far too courteously. Its truly bizarre character deserves particular consideration. Thus, the need for what might be termed a montage of its principal intellectuals and activists.


Neo-conservatives wield extraordinary influence in all the branches and bureaucracies of the government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz really require no introduction. These architects of the Iraqi war purposely misled the American public about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, a horrible pattern of torturing prisoners of war, the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, the celebrations that would greet the invading troops, and the ease of setting up a democracy in Iraq. But they were not alone. Whispering words of encouragement was the notorious Richard Perle: a former director of the Defense Policy Board, until his resignation amid accusations of conflict of interest, his nickname—“the Prince of Darkness”—reflects his advanced views on nuclear weapons. Advice was also forthcoming from Elliot Abrams: pardoned by George Bush in 1991 after being found guilty for lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal, now in charge of Middle Eastern Affairs and an advisor to Condoleeza Rice at the National Security Council, Abrams remains an open admirer of the witch-hunts led by the disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy. Of interest is also John Bolton, the undersecretary of state for disarmament, who has consistently opposed the idea of arms control, and our Bible-thumping Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is rumored to speak in tongues and whose face has graced the cover of the official journal of the National Rifle Association.

But others also deserve mention. Chairman of the Republican Party and also known as “Bush’s pit-bull,” Ed Gillespie, is a protégé of the arch-reactionary Dick Armey, former House majority leader. As for the current ideological leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay (R-Tex), a particular favorite of Enron and affectionately known as “the Hammer,” he once likened the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo. In the Senate, meanwhile, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa) has opposed abolishing laws forbidding sodomy since this would obviously open the way to lifting laws on incest and the like. It is also instructive to note that neo-conservatives helped defeat the re-election bid of former Senator Max Cleland (R-Ga.)—who lost three limbs in Vietnam—for apparently not being patriotic enough. Their influence, indeed, extends into the Oval Office: Vice President Dick Cheney and his assistant I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby as well as Presidential Chief of Staff Karl Rove can be counted among their defenders.

Neo-conservatism also has its intellectuals. Journals like The Public Interest formerly edited by Irving Kristol—also known as “the Godfather”—and Commentary, formerly edited by Norman Podhoretz, framed the general outlook on issues ranging from the need for new censorship laws and the importance of reasserting the capitalist ethos to the lack of anti-communist vigor on the part of Albert Camus and George Orwell. Their wives, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Midge Decter (who has written a personal memoir of Rumsfeld) have become publicists concerned with defending Israel and organized religion while their offspring also carry on the tradition: John Podhoretz, as a syndicated columnist and William Kristol as editor of The Weekly Standard. Other neo-conservative intellectuals include the editor of The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer, who bemoans the decline of cultural standards and whose literary tastes are so straight that they creak. Then, too, there is our former czar in the war against drugs and the posturing, self-righteous author of The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennett, who has recently admitted to having somewhat of a gambling problem, and Dinesh D’Souza who has comforted us all by noting “the end of racism.”

“Neo-conservatism” can be identified with a small network of intellectuals and friends. But that would be a mistake. It has grown into a movement with far broader appeal. Serious publications like The Wall Street Journal reach the “opinion-makers.” Perhaps even more important, however, are the hack columnists like Steve Dunleavy, Michelle Caulkin and Maggie Gallagher, associated with The New York Post and other tabloids, who popularize neo-conservative ideas. Radio hosts like Bob Grant, Mike Savage, and Laura Schlessinger add more fuel to the fire by ranting against traitors, fundamentalists, and sexual perverts. Then, too, there are the television pundits—like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Robertson—who gather around reactionary networks like Fox News. The pandering of these media thugs to the lowest ideological common denominator, their unwillingness to engage an argument, and their bullying arrogance perfectly express a neo-conservative sensibility that teeters on the edge of fascism.

A “no-nonsense” attitude informs the neo-conservative outlook: its advocates strike the tough-guy pose all the time. Their intimidating style tends to deflect attention away from their paucity of ideas and the ultimately contradictory interests they claim to represent. Identifying these ideas and interests remains important, however, both for understanding the current political landscape and contesting the contemporary forces of reaction. What is unique about neo-conservatism, as against more traditional forms of “conservatism,” requires specification. That is especially the case since this new version of reactionary thought is far more lethal and vulgar than that of its establishmentarian predecessors.


Old-fashioned conservatism actually derives less from political than cultural assumptions. The pre-eminent conservative philosopher of our time, Michael Oakeshott, saw this philosophy as resting on a certain psychological “disposition” to favor the unadventurous and the already established over the new and the untried. To be sure, this “disposition” places conservatism in a somewhat ambivalent relationship to capitalism. It is obviously the established economic system, but it is also dynamic and contemptuous of parochial and provincial customs. Capitalism is fueled by technological progress and it is intent upon breaking down, what Marx termed, “the Chinese walls of tradition” and reducing all venerable relations to “the cash nexus.” This rubs against the grain of those who fear, with Edmund Burke, that “the fine draperies of life” are being ripped asunder. But, then, it is incumbent for the worldly-wise conservative to face “reality.” He or she is always ruefully willing to admit that the “old world” is being left behind. A dash of cultural pessimism serves as a tonic: it helps create nostalgia for times past.

Conservatism is predicated upon a resistance to change. Should reforms or innovations be introduced, however, they must be integrated into the texture of the old and the established as quickly and smoothly as possible. This desire enables conservatives to turn necessity into a virtue. Because any reform can become part of “our” heritage, at least in principle, conservatives can adapt to any change. He or she can even take credit for being flexible and highlighting the need for “deliberation” in negotiating the connection between past and future. Thus, even while “prejudice” and an elitist sensibility have always been important elements of traditional conservative thought, modern conservatives can now—though somewhat grudgingly—condemn all forms of “prejudice.”

That their intellectual and political predecessors vociferously opposed the civil rights movements and the new social movements is irrelevant. Conservatives place themselves in the position of the “free rider” or the individual who, while refusing to take the initiative on any reform, will— graciously if somewhat skeptically—adapt to the changes brought about by others. Being stubborn flies in the face of the conservative disposition. Stability and continuity are its primary concerns. The crux of the matter is clear enough: “He who lives in comfort,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, “lives comfortably.”

Neo-conservatism begins with different premises. Certain members of its staunchest advocates like Perle and Wolfowitz originally met and became friends in seminars at the University of Chicago given by Albert Wohlstetter, the mathematician and senior staff member at the Rand Corporation. A few like Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, may have been influenced by the writings of the important political philosopher, Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago. But neo-conservatism actually has little in common with his attempt to develop an intellectual “aristocracy” capable of preserving the classical tradition in a “mass democracy.” No less than Plato, perhaps, neo-conservatives may think they are employing the “noble lie.” But their form of lying is far more banal than the attempt of this great thinker to veil the lack of philosophical foundations for an ideal state. Neo-conservatives employ their mendacity no differently than any ordinary group of liars: to justify this interest or cover up that mistake.

Leo Strauss may have argued that political philosophy went into decline with Machiavelli and the erosion of a religious universe. Unlike his supposed followers, however, Strauss was unconcerned with the practical imperatives of “realism,” let alone the cruder variety. The writings of neo-conservatives generally evidence little interest in the “conversation” between classical authors, textual exegesis, or intellectual nuance in general. The influence of conservative political philosophy on the neo-conservative mandarins is overrated. Those preoccupied with it, indeed, only lend an air of intellectualism to what is little more than a brutal reliance on power and propaganda.

Neo-conservatives lack the complacent  “disposition,” the elitist longeur, the respect for established hierarchies, the fear of change, and the staid preoccupation with stability of more traditional conservatives. Their “resentment” of “intellectuals” is reminiscent of the petty bourgeois. Neo-conservatives are unconcerned with strengthening the ties that should bind—using another telling phrase from Burke—“the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.” They are revolutionaries or, better, “counter-revolutionaries” intent upon remaking America. Just as the avant-garde composer-hero of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann was obsessed with rolling back the most progressive achievement of modern music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so is the neo-conservative vanguard obsessed with rolling back the most progressive political achievements of the last century.

More important than the influence of elite conservative intellectuals is the simple anti-communism learned when many elder statesmen of the neo-conservative cause were youthful Trotskyites. There is a sense in which Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and others remain defined by the communist dogmatism they sought to oppose. The virtue of the “party” or clique—their party or clique—needs no complex justification: it stands for the interests of the “revolution” or, in this instance, “democracy.” Truth matters little, and morality—other than the morality of unquestioning allegiance to the given political project—matters less. Neo-conservatives share with Mao Zedong the belief that power only comes “from the barrel of a gun” and, like the commissars of old, that critics merely provide an “objective apology” for the “enemies of freedom.” 

Interestingly enough, the political outlook of future neo-conservatives in the 1960s was remarkably akin to that of the influential Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash). They too were vehemently anti-communist and strong on defense, accepting of the civil rights movement, and supportive of welfare state policies associated with the New Deal. They began, in short, neither as “know-nothing” populists nor advocates of the free market. Criticism of the social movements began with the emergence of black nationalism, concern over the growth of anti-Semitism, and left-wing criticism of Israel. Only during the Reagan administration, however, would it become necessary to choose “guns” over “butter.” Support for social movements and the welfare state thus melted away until, finally, a genuinely radical stance congealed that was intent upon abolishing the most progressive achievements of the century in terms of state action, foreign policy, civil liberties, and cultural freedom.

Neo-conservatives are today engaged in an assault upon a tradition of social reform that extends from Theodore Roosevelt’s attack on trusts and the most blatantly onerous practices of corporations to the New Deal with its “socialist reliance” on “big government” and the complex of programs associated with the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. Neo-conservatism also wishes to contest a democratic and cosmopolitan vision of foreign policy that extends from the beginnings of international law and the Enlightenment, to the critique of “secret diplomacy” by Marx, the support for international institutions by Woodrow Wilson and FDR, and the current struggle for human rights. In the eyes of neo-conservatives, moreover, the United States is a society always under siege. It has no room for the one who thinks differently: liberty is something each American supposedly possesses but none—other than the most righteous and most patriotic—should ever exercise.

Neo-conservatives insisted from the start on a muscular anti-communist foreign policy and a critique of détente, arms control, and the language of “idealism.” But they have proven willing to use the language of human rights when necessary and cloak their policies in the rhetoric of democracy. Often the ploy worked: it undoubtedly helped seduce various high-minded liberals like Michael Ignatieff and Paul Berman into supporting the invasion of Iraq. Such ideals, however, have generally been valued only in the breach. Most neo-conservatives made their reputations as “realists.” Foreign policy analysts like Robert Kagan have as little use for the “naïve” preoccupation with human rights as domestic policy analysts like Charles Murray have for the “do-gooders” seeking state intervention into the economy in order to aid working people and the poor.

Neo-conservatism is primarily concerned, however, with the erosion of America as a white, male, straight society: its representatives have targeted the attempts of what Norman Podhoretz termed an “adversary culture” of the 1960s to emancipate the individual from anachronistic religious and provincial customs. Their concern is with instituting a new respect for traditional political authority, capitalism, and the entire complex of concerns associated with “family values.” These are perhaps best expressed in the television shows of the 1950s and early 1960s like Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, Ozzie and Harriet, and the rest. The “other” never made an appearance: women were in the kitchen, blacks doffed their caps, and homosexuality did not exist.  Forgotten are the lives ruined and the talents squandered by this world of parochialism and prejudice.  

The new architects of reaction understand that the trauma associated with 1968 transcends the humiliation created by a lost war, a vice-president who barely avoided going to jail on charges of bribery, and the resignation of a president who clearly was a “crook.” Since that time the government and what President Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex” must count on public skepticism from its citizens with respect to its motives and policies. What in the 1950s had seemingly been a culture of contentment and passivity was transformed during the 1960s into a new culture that was critical of the “silent majority” and no longer complacent in its assumptions about what Daniel Bell termed “the end of ideology.”  New social movements called upon middle class citizens to look at history in a new way; they decried platitudes justifying the policies of elite interests; they demanded institutional accountability; and they sought a new appreciation for what Montesquieu termed “the spirit of the laws.” All this is still seen by neo-conservatives as undermining American power and the self-confidence of its citizens. Mobilizing against the legacy of the new social movements required both daring and vision.


It is hard to believe that the old man, now sick and senile, held his head so high when he entered the presidency during what was the equivalent of a coronation ceremony.  His critics liked to make light of him during the 1980s. They snickered when he fell asleep at meetings, they joked about his intellect, and rolled their eyes at his policy proposals. While the left was laughing, however, Ronald Reagan was making a revolution by transforming the foreign policy, the domestic priorities, and the ideological agenda of the United States. His administration had little use for back-door diplomacy, arms control, and the old policy of “containment.” President Reagan dared the Soviet Union to compete with his militarism, which it foolishly chose to do, heightened tensions with defense plans like the Star Wars project, intervened repeatedly in Latin America, and showed himself unconcerned with legal niceties when it came to scandals like Iran-Contra. The most influential contemporary neo-conservatives cut their teeth under Reagan and it is worth pointing out that, when push came to shove in the contested election of 2000, it was his former secretary of state, George Schultz, and his former chief of staff and secretary of the treasury, James Baker, who were calling the shots for George W. Bush 

The Reagan administration insisted upon an outrageous military budget and, in conjunction with the introduction of new tax incentives for the rich and a general commitment to “supply side economics,” it created huge deficits thereby setting the agenda for cutting the welfare state or, in the current parlance, “starving the beast.” His presidency also began the assault on unions, community groups, and those whom the president termed “special interests.” Women were thrown on the defensive with the attack on abortion and the practice of equality. The race card was played in launching a war against affirmative action and social programs directed toward the poor and people of color. Union membership also dwindled in the 1980s, or what is still characterized as the “Me Decade,” and the “decade of greed.” Platitudes abounded like “Just say no”; the slogan may not have had much of an impact on the war against drugs, but it was the first salvo in the fight for “family values.” The buck stopped—and started—with Ronald Reagan. He secured the political foundations for the triumph of neo-conservative ideology by forging an alliance between two factions that had traditionally been at war within the reactionary camp.

One faction was comprised primarily of elites opposed from the standpoint of principle and interest to state intervention in the market. Its members basically cared little about the verities associated with “community” or “family values.” They became the champions of “globalization” and a version of civil liberties intent upon liberating business from “regulation.” The intellectual arguments of this reactionary camp derived from Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, Charles Murray, and Robert Nozick; its public face was best represented, however, by near forgotten politicians like Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater. Essentially, this faction of the neo-conservative constituency was reactionary in the sense that it embraced the old capitalist belief in what C. B. MacPherson termed “possessive individualism” to challenge collectivist theories of society in general and “socialism” in particular.

The other faction within the camp of the reaction has its roots in the “know nothing” populism of the 19th century. Its members have always been prone to nationalist hysteria, traditional prejudices, and parochial values. These are the preachers of fire and brimstone, the Babbits, the Klansmen without hoods, those on the wrong side of the Scopes monkey trial who turned into adherents of “creationism,” and the residual supporters of McCarthyism. Out of this cauldron come the religious fundamentalists and Christian Zionists—the opponents of gay rights and abortion—looking backwards longingly to a small-town way of life that never existed. 

Obsessed with tradition and conformity, fearful of radical change and any encounter with the “other,” these half-baked communitarians have no use for the new social movements and their concerns with identity. But that is not to say they necessarily oppose social legislation of benefit to working people. The neo-conservative base hates the intellectual and economic elites, or what is often referred to as the “eastern establishment,” and some of them even retain a positive image of the New Deal. Thus, while the elite defenders of the market contest anything smacking of socialism, this other faction composed of communitarian populists detests anything associated with liberalism.

Neo-conservatism is reducible neither to the advocacy of the free market nor right-wing populism and religious zealotry. It instead is predicated on the fusion of these contradictory attitudes into a single amalgam that can serve as a response to the two great political heirs of the Enlightenment: liberalism and socialism. Combining an unqualified commitment to the market with xenophobic and religious zealotry would give the neo-conservative movement its ideological specificity. The question was how to package the interest of elites in a free market with the provincial temperament of a parochial constituency. Or, to put it a different way, how it give “government back to the people” and simultaneously cut essential programs that serve the “people.” Selling this, indeed, was no easy task. 

What sold best was a new image of “big government” working in favor of the “welfare cheat,” a tax system increasingly burdensome to everyday people, and a healthy dose of anti-communist nationalism peppered with racism. That savings and loan scandals costing trillions dwarfed the greatest ambitions of the welfare cheat would prove irrelevant. These scandals created only resignation about a “system” for which there was no alternative anyway. That social programs would become more affordable if different political priorities were set and tax codes were revised in a progressive fashion didn’t matter. Such programs would only create new layers of “bureaucracy,” waste, and abuse by those—with a wink— outside the white, religious, and male community. Everyone knew what Irving Kristol had in mind when he made the famous quip that a neo-conservative is really “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

Capitalism once again became equated with individual responsibility and the daring business entrepreneur. It was only the need to defend “our” way of life from enemies abroad that justified the myriad subsidies for the “military-industrial” complex. But this was seen as unavoidable insofar as the United States remained enmeshed not merely in a cold war with the Soviet Union but indulged in hot wars with movements for national self-determination. The original context thus emerged wherein the interests of business elites in eliminating “external costs” and pursuing imperialist designs conflated with the interests of a parochial constituency bent upon recovering a sense of national pride and increasingly willing to identify the welfare state with the interests of the “other.”

The victory of capitalism over communism created the need for nations to “compete” in what was becoming a genuinely global market: this meant “streamlining” production, “trimming the fat,” “downsizing,” and “outsourcing.” But the old enemy against whom “our” way of life needed defense had now disappeared.  Once again, or so it seemed, the capitalist values of elites and the provincial concerns of the base were ready to clash. The glue was missing. And then came 9/11. The legitimate outrage against a set of criminal terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden gave rise to yet another war and a new enemy: Saddam Hussein and Islamic fundamentalism. It didn’t matter that Saddam was not a religious fundamentalist, or that weapons of mass destruction were missing, or even that he posed no genuine threat to the United States. Here was the “other” in a new guise, an unknown guise, which could easily be manipulated by a media fearful of being labeled “anti-American.”

From the very beginning, however, major figures with roots in the regimes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush were wary of pursuing a unilateral approach to the problem of Iraq. Various military officials also saw the dangers in stretching American forces too thin. It was also clear to many that Islamic fundamentalism could not simply serve as a substitute for the communism of old. But their position did not carry the day: it avoided the material interests and political imperatives of the neo-conservative enterprise. Perle, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and others had been calling for the ousting of Saddam Hussein for more than a decade. More important, however, was how 9/11 helped create a new context for linking imperialist ambitions and the quest for American hegemony abroad with hyper-nationalism and an even more intense assault on the welfare state at home. This would reinvigorate the alliance between capitalist elites and “know nothing” populists along with the power of a neo-conservative clique.    


Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, neo-conservatives had been formulating policies whereby the United States might finally finish with the trauma induced by the Vietnam War. The events of 9/11 provided them the justification for, once again, exercising power in an uninhibited fashion. There is now no question but that plans for invading Iraq had already been formulated under the regime of George Bush by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. It has also become clear from the writings of Richard Clarke and others that, immediately upon hearing of the attack on 9/11, George W. Bush became interested in the prospects for invasion. Terrorists bent upon assuming “the worse the better,” and long addicted to a romance associated with the “propaganda of the deed,” would get what they wished though, as usual, others would have to pay the price.   

Inspired by a particularly vulgar form of “realism,” which has traditionally seen the state as the basic unit of political analysis, neo-conservatives interpreted the actions of al Qaeda in terms of those enemies with which they were familiar, namely, fascism and communism. This enabled neo-conservative policy-makers to assume that the terrorists were sponsored by any number of “rogue” states that had to be dealt with forcefully rather than “appeased.” The obvious need for a response to al Qaeda, which was accorded protection by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, could thus be quickly transformed into the call for a more general confrontation with the “axis of evil”—Iran, Iraq, North Korea—and a new doctrine of the “pre-emptive strike.” That none of these states actually had anything to do with al Qaeda, again, made little difference. Objectivity no less than international law would give way before the right of the United States to intervene anywhere its leaders might feel its security interests threatened.

“National security” has always served as an excellent slogan for equating the imperialist ambitions of elites with the interests of ordinary citizens: Making such an identification has been turned into an art form by Israel and, for their part, neo-conservatives recognized that this little nation had much to teach. Israel had already engaged in pre-emptive strikes against Libya, Iraq, Lebanon, and other neighboring countries long before the articulation of the Bush doctrine. Then too, while constantly invoking its legitimacy as a state created by the United Nations, Israel has consistently flouted demands that it return to the borders of 1967 and a host of measures concerned with the human rights of the Palestinians. Neo-conservatives could also see the suicide bombings directed against Israeli civilians as anticipating the terror of 9/11 and the brutal, overwhelming, responses in the occupied territories as a lesson for how the United States should deal with its enemies. These tactics are indeed now being used by American forces in Iraq: collective punishment of entire towns for individual acts of terror, the demolition of houses, political assassinations, mass arrests, torture, and the use of overwhelming force in responding to demonstrations. Israel plays such an important role for neo-conservatives because its most reactionary political expressions serve as a positive image for what America can become.

There should be no mistake. Zionism has never dominated the neo-conservative worldview. Frank Gaffney, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak and any number of leading neo-conservatives are not even Jewish. They also recognize that Israel offers no real economic benefits to America or American capitalism. Israel became important to neo-conservatives only after the Six Day War of 1967 when it emerged as a military power in its own right. The interest of American neo-conservatives in Israel has always been geo-political. The see it as the “outpost” for American foreign policy in a region that is, in the words of Wolfowitz, “swimming in oil.” Increasingly important for neo-conservatives, however, is the way Israel serves as an ally for the West in what Samuel Huntington has called the “clash of civilizations.” Indeed, many tend to forget about the influence of Christian Zionism and the institutional practitioners of what Edward Said termed “orientalism” upon neo-conservative elites and the formulation of American policy in the Middle East.

Neo-conservatives are engaged in a cultural war against the “adversary culture” at home and “anti-Western” values abroad. Religious media, financial support, and the benedictions of Pat Robertson and other preachers for Ariel Sharon and Binjamin Netanyahu now suggest that even Jews are better allies than Arabs for the far right. Neo-conservatives concerned with the growing Latino threat to the Anglo-Protestant identity of the United States are watching carefully how the “wall of separation” being built by their erstwhile ally is helping preserve the Jewish character of the Israeli state from what Netanyahu has termed the rising “demographic threat” of Israeli Arab birthrates. Then, too, it seems the point is never for Israel to fit into the cultural context of the region but rather for the region to accept Israel as its military hegemon and as a western society. Not to think about the use of Arab stereotypes in the “clash of civilizations,” and how Palestinian control over the holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere might threaten “Judaeo-Christian” civilization, is to underestimate the need for neo-conservatives to balance the geo-political interests of elites with the parochial prejudices and cultural interests of a mass constituency.

Neo-conservatives see the United States, like Israel, standing essentially alone in a war against terror that, like the occupation of Palestine, seemingly has no end in sight. Ungrateful former allies in Europe opposed to intervention in Iraq left “us” in the lurch: they are either too stupid or too malevolent to realize that “we” are fighting for “them.” Critics at home are meanwhile too stupid or too malevolent to realize that the enemy is stealthily preparing for another attack or that Hezbollah, Hamas, Indonesian rebels, al Qaeda, the Islamic Brotherhood, and “the rest” are all working together. The West is “at risk” and dealing with that risk requires introducing into the United States what has already been introduced into Israel: an ideology cable of drawing—in the most radical fashion—the emotional distinction between “us” and “them.”


Neo-conservatism seems on the verge of crumbling. The Iraqi war has turned into a nightmare, many of its leading figures are on the ropes due to the scandal involving the torture of prisoners of war, and more establishmentarian conservatives in the business community are bemoaning the costs while, among the populist right, Pat Buchanan and others are openly voicing their criticisms. But there is a danger in being too sanguine. So long as neo-conservatism is contested merely in piece-meal terms, or with an eye on this or that outrageous excess, its advocates will continue to set the economic, political, and cultural agenda. It is not merely a matter of contesting this policy or that piece of legislation, especially given the current cultural climate, but of beginning the arduous process of fashioning a different vision for the United States. Here it is possible only to provide a few cursory remarks on the nature of such an undertaking.

With respect to the economy, first of all, mainstream critics have avoided dealing with the way in which the inherently dynamic system of capitalist production erodes the community values cherished by populism. The secular character of capitalism, its obsession with technological progress, its commercialism, and its contempt for the parochial and provincial tend to undermine the conservative insistence upon the importance of religious institutions, founding myths, and the received customs of the community. Neo-conservatism is incapable of resolving this tension. The left can intervene by asserting its traditional commitment to temper the whip of the market, highlight the concern for “people over profits,” and recreate a sense of solidarity and purpose in American life. The current conflict is—after all—not between “big” government and “limited” government, but over what programs and priorities deserve primacy. The left has a tradition on which it can rely in framing the choices facing the American people when it comes to government spending: it is the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Poor Peoples’ Movement.

The same can be said when dealing with foreign policy: America was respected by the world, or the Western democracies, when it stood for policies the world could support.  Talk about rejecting “appeasement” in a world war against terror is absurd when the rest of the “world” and, perhaps even more importantly, world public opinion understands the threat differently and is unwilling to support the self-serving and poorly formulated policy of a neo-conservative clique. Calling for “realism” in the struggle against authoritarianism, in the first instance, means recognizing the constraints on building democracy: the suspicions concerning western values generated by imperialism, the power of pre-modern institutions and customs, and the still fragile character of the state system in most of the world. Our current neo-conservative policy-makers, intent upon refashioning the world in line with their own visions of geo-political advantage, are zealots. They have little in common with the genuine “realists” of times past. Churchill and Roosevelt in the 1930s did not blatantly lie to the international community about the threat of fascism, conjure up stories about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, bully and bribe small nations into joining a “coalition of the willing,” endorse corrupt collaborationist regimes lacking support from the populace, or employ violence without any sense of accountability: these were the tactics of their totalitarian enemies.    

Then, too, there is the matter of civil liberties: the ultimate interest that “security” should protect. America gained respect in the world as a haven of freedom. It was the new contempt for religious fanaticism, the alliance between “throne and altar,” which differentiated the “old” from the “new” world. The neo-conservative call to constrain civil liberties in the name of “security” is, in fact, nothing more than the desire to shield their own incompetence and mendacity from public scrutiny. America has faced dangers in the past: it is always easy to make the current danger into the most dangerous. Civil liberties are easy to cherish under conditions of normalcy: but it is precisely under those conditions that they are meaningless. Civil liberties are not a luxury as neo-conservatives imply, but the foundation on which a free society remains free. 

Neo-conservatives are provincials who fear what they don’t know. They fear criticism of established institutions. They fear the prospect of liberating the individual from outworn prejudices. They fear engaging the “other.” They fear the loss of privilege. And, ultimately, they fear freedom itself. Neo-conservatives are the closest relatives the fascists of times past can have in a society wherein fascism has been discredited. Confronting neo-conservatism thus involves more than simply judging a new philosophical outlook. It calls for making a decision about the type of politics that are acceptable, and those that are unacceptable, in a modern democracy.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor (II) of Political Science at Rutgers University, Senior Editor of Logos, and most recently the author of Imagining the Possible: Radical Politics for Conservative Times  (Routledge) and Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (Columbia University Press).