Neoconservatism is the worldview developed by the journalist Irving Kristol and a small coterie of liberal intellectuals – including a number of university professors and literary figures – who had spent their formative years as Democrats but had grown disenchanted with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society projects of the 1960s and felt “mugged” by the Democratic Party‘s leftward drift on defense issues in the 1970s. The word “neoconservative” was coined in the early 1970s by Michael Harrington and the editors of Dissent magazine, to describe their old leftist friends who had moved politically to the right.
Initially, neoconservatives placed their hopes in Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson as a presidential candidate in 1976. But this centrist liberal — “soft” on domestic policy, but a hardline opponent of the Soviet Union — was rejected by his party, which had been taken over by the New Left in 1972. These intellectuals subsequently aligned themselves with Ronald Reagan and the Republicans, who pledged unapologetically to confront Soviet expansionism.
The “godfather” of neoconservatism was Irving Kristol, who had been a Trotskyite during his youth. Kristol famously defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who was mugged by reality.” Other early luminaries of the movement were Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, James Q. Wilson, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Leo Strauss (a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy who had a great influence on Kristol). Neoconservative authors regularly contributed essays critical of existing government policy to The Public Interest, which was founded in 1965, and Commentary, the publication of the American Jewish Committee.
Early neoconservatives focused more heavily on economic policy than on foreign policy; they had grown weary of the federal government’s failed programs to eliminate poverty, crime, racial discrimination, and other domestic evils. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” embodied the movement’s chief concerns at that time. Moynihan asserted that government programs which aimed to lift African Americans out of poverty by means of wealth redistribution would ultimately amount to nothing, if the collapsing family structure of blacks were to continue unabated. Two years later, Moynihan published Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, a collection of lectures he had given on the failure of the government’s “war on poverty” to alleviate family breakdown.
Neoconservatives today generally favor laissez-faire economics and low tax rates, viewing such policies as conducive to economic growth. Nonetheless, they generally are not as troubled by the expansion of the welfare state as libertarians and traditional conservatives are. Kristol himself has famously been described as “a welfare state conservative.” According to Kristol:
“Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they … do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.”
While neoconservatives continue to weigh in on the subject of economic policy, their primary focus in recent decades has shifted dramatically to the area of foreign policy and military affairs. In the 1980s, a number of neoconservatives were appointed to positions in the Reagan administration. The most famous was Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was the American Ambassador to the United Nations from 1981–85. Just a few years earlier, in 1976, Kirkpatrick had served in the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention.
A major refrain of modern-day neoconservatives is their contention that the best way to ensure U.S. national security is to expand democracy overseas by means of American hegemony, even if this means military intervention. This policy is founded on the theory that liberal democracies rarely fight one another or sponsor terrorism. By logical extension, if the U.S. is to avoid another 9/11, it must help to liberalize the Middle East — a goal that traditional conservatives view as unachievable and neoconservatives view as crucial.