The Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism

The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009

Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea

Neo-Conned!: Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq

Neo-Conned! Again: Hypocrisy, Lawlessness, and the Rape of Iraq

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Interview with C. Bradley Thompson about Leo Strauss and the Neoconservatives

The American Conservative – Everything Old Is Neo Again

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Cato Unbound – March 2011

Lead Essay
Neoconservatism Unmasked by C. Bradley Thompson.

Neoconservative intellectuals often describe themselves as having a particular mode of thinking — maybe even just a “mood.” C. Bradley Thompson argues that neoconservatism is much more than that. Its key philosophical inspiration of comes from Irving Kristol, and particularly from Kristol’s engagement with the philosopher Leo Strauss. Thompson argues that, under Straussean influence, neoconservatives champion the rule of a philosophically cunning elite over a population that will never be able to understand their intellectual masters. Instead, the populace is steered toward self-sacrifice, war, and nationalism — as well as a set of religious and moral beliefs that the elites in no way share. Such a doctrine, Thompson charges, points disturbingly toward fascism.

Response Essays
Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, and the Foundations for Liberty by Douglas Rasmussen.
Douglas Rasmussen argues that post-Lockean natural rights theory does not entail nihilism, as Strauss seems to have feared. A further error of Straussean neoconservatism, Rasmussen argues, is that it often conflates society with the state. Although the members of a civil society may rightly desire that society’s continuance, it does not follow that the state must coerce people into being good. Statecraft is not soulcraft; governing consists of setting ground rules that leave individuals free to seek the good.

The American Roots of Neoconservatism by Patrick J. Deneen
Patrick Deneen disagrees that neoconservatism is alien to the American political tradition. In particular, founders such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton envisioned politics as a realm where men of extraordinary wisdom and talent would shape the course of the new nation. The idea that commerce may corrode the morals is certainly present at the founding, as are civic virtue, self-sacrifice, and concern for the public good, the latter to be divined by wise statesmen. The neoconservative claim to Americanism is as strong, if not stronger, than Thompson’s preferred libertarian ideology.

Strauss and National Greatness by Damon Linker
Damon Linker argues that, although Thompson’s treatment of neoconservatism has considerable value, he errs in his characterization of Leo Strauss and his followers’ political theory. Strauss was an Aristotelian, Linker argues, and Aristotelian political thought is comparatively benign. Linker also argues that national greatness conservatism—a staple of today’s neoconservatives—is a 1990s addendum to the philosophy with little relation to Strauss, Irving Kristol, or the other early lights of neoconservatism.

5 Responses to The Rise and Fall of Neoconservatism

  • OK, a lot to unpack here of this fascinating topic. We’ve had at least 10 discussions of what American conservatism is here on this site over the past few years or so, the most recent being here: http://the-american-catholic.com/2011/01/05/bleg-on-matters-economic-what-distinguishes-conservativism-from-libertarianism/

    Neoconservatism as a matter of historical etymology has two distinct phases, and the dividing line was when the “Old Right” was pushed to the margins of the American conservative coalition in the 1980s (it was, but they tend to whine about it a bit too much).

    Pre-80s = leftist, statist social scientists with significant qualms about the developments of the New Deal and the Great Society (mostly the latter). Many come to accept that rightist criticisms of these programs in their growth have merit, especially as it relates to the destructive influences of the family (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q. Wilson, Kristol).

    80s – forward = the term comes to be applied to those who advocate for an agressive foreign policy to combat Soviet influence and expand American influence. They would have been Wilsonians 70 years earlier, especially those who don’t care about social conservatism (Kirkpatrick, Henry Jackson).

    There is also, of course, overlap – these are not neat lines (Norman Podhoretz).

    The Old Right (Kirk, Gottfried, M.E. Bradford, and among others Buchanan, who joined after leaving the Reagan White House….the descendents of John Flynn and I. Patterson and Meneken, but with more Catholics than in the past) offers many perceptive criticisms of these “interlopers,” and many don’t have problems with a “welfare state” under certain conditions (Kirk voted for Norman Thomas twice). The libertarian (that is, an offshoot of liberalism) movement joins up with many neo-conservatives to decry statism, but only half-way – they also to tend to oppose the “warfare state” (or, at least, the “paleo-libertarians”). Most despise the “mainstream conservative” voter, who likes “Star Wars” defense programs and their Social Security checks but distrusts social liberalism.

    So, a lot to unravel here. But the point is that the term “neoconservative” has two meanings – a social science one of criticism and a Wilsonian one. Neither are comfortably “conservative” if you believe that only Europe has an authentic conservative tradition because Ameica was born of revolution and likes its theoretical liberalism (which I do).

  • Check out the important thought of Mr. Harry V. Jaffa from the Claremont Inst. on our topic as well.

  • Damon Linker is a distasteful fellow.

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