In the last couple of decades, the conservative movement has grown so large, and subdivided into so many factions, that even discriminating observers can be forgiven for confusing one with another. Just who are these “neoconservatives,” who are allegedly so influential in the Bush administration, and how do they differ from ordinary, garden-variety conservatives? Where did the “paleoconservatives” come from? What exactly do they stand for?
I offer the following definitions to navigate through the swamps of terminology.
Back in the late 1950s, most of the conservative movement could and did meet for lunch in the company dining room of Bill Buckley’s family oil business on East 37th St. in Manhattan. They were devout Cold Warriors and, in domestic affairs, were generally opposed to the steady growth of government. On both counts, they opposed the policies of the liberals, who ran the country. They called themselves, simply, “conservatives.” No one rose to protest the term.
From the start, the conservatives recognized the existence of a group of country cousins who called themselves “libertarians.” The libertarians had been around for a while. Their big obsession was government, which they wanted to keep as small as possible. The conservatives had considerable sympathy for this view, but thought there was more to conservatism than just that. Moreover, the libertarians’ antagonism to government action kept them from endorsing wholeheartedly government measures needed to win the Cold War.
Things rocked along this way until the mid-1960s, when a small but influential group of liberals and leftists – mostly New Yorkers – got fed up with liberal acquiescence in the antics of the noisy New Left (especially in opposing the Cold War) and broke with liberalism altogether. This group, led by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, long resisted being called conservatives, but eventually agreed to be described as “neoconservatives.”
In the early 1970s, a group of young conservatives – led by Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips – began arguing that a large number of formerly Democratic blue-collar workers were ripe for recruitment by the conservatives on the basis of their social values (the family, etc.), which were under heavy attack from the left. They were labeled the “New Right,” and their analysis was correct: In 1980, millions of former Democrats backed Reagan.
Meanwhile, in 1978 a liberal move (subsequently abandoned) to eliminate the tax deductibility of religious schools so alarmed politically quiescent Christians that they organized themselves for political action. Thus was born the “Religious Right.”
In or about 1986 (there is some dispute over the exact year), a group of conservatives who disliked the interventionist foreign policies and alleged indifference to big government that was being displayed by the neoconservatives, ferociously denounced them, loudly abandoned the conservative movement altogether, and called themselves “paleoconservatives.” Most of their names are not nationally familiar, but Pat Buchanan probably belongs in (or somewhere near) this group, since he favors America First isolationism and trade protectionism (tariffs).
Finally, in 2000, Bill Kristol and a handful of younger neoconservatives began advocating a combination of a tough foreign policy and a lean, but muscular, domestic government that they have dubbed “national greatness conservatism.” Just how far they will get, it is still too early to say.
So there’s a brief guide to the zoo that the conservative movement has become. As for liberalism, far from proliferating, it is hanging on by its fingernails. Have you noticed that the liberals don’t even have the guts to use the word “liberal” to describe themselves and their ideas? They prefer to use “progressive” instead. Well, who can blame them?