Modern American Conservatism — Are ‘Neocons’ Really Conservatives?

I strongly dislike litmus tests. I strongly dislike describing sets of belief as being ‘real’ or ‘not real’.

Yet since the early 1970s when Neocons — New Conservatives — began migrating from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party the question has been asked: Are they actual conservatives? Or are they a preexisting movement that has aligned itself with conservatives due to shared cultural identification?

In essence, American conservatives tend to be dominated by evangelical or Catholic Christians that see a mandated role (‘the great commission’) to convert the world to our own beliefs and that serves the purpose of Neocons.


At the heart of conservatism, all flavors except neo-conservatism, is the supremacy of the individual.

The Neocon movement is statist in its basic premise that the world must come to be rebuilt in our image and supportive of our policies.

Neoconservatism is all about achieving a world order. Statism and individuality do not easily coexist.

Question: Are Neocons really conservatives?


The modern Neocon movement is directly traceable back to the era and policies of Woodrow Wilson. Their belief structure is almost unchanged between then and now. There are also a number of other influences from this same time period which evolved into the neo-conservatism that we know today.

“Neocon” is both a derogatory name used by many conservatives when discussing the movement, and used by neo-conservatives in describing their own philosophy.

Neocon or ‘new conservatives’ migrated to the conservative world in the 1970s because the Democrats — their prior power base — began to look inward and to become isolationist, the exact opposite of the Neocon world view of engagement and attempting to shape the world in our (their) own image.

With time Neocons have blended somewhat into the larger conservative world but there is an inherent tension.

Within Neocon literature the individual is almost non-existent except as a player in the struggle to manage the evolution of foreign policy and institutions to support our own national goals and objectives … and quite often those of Israel even when to the larger detriment of America’s best interests.

An example of neo-conservatism working against America’s best interest (regional peace): can we really be pursuing regional peace if we allow Jewish settlers to build on disputed land — and often to build with U.S. taxpayer funded foreign aid? Is it not a natural inclination to expect the displaced to become anti-American? Is it not a natural expectation that the settlers will come to see the land and surrounding areas as their home and not want to leave? How is this in America’s interest?

Part of the inherent tension between neocons and other conservatives is that to even ask the question posed above is to be seen as anti-Israel. Why is that? I strongly believe in an unconditional support for defense of Israel’s borders. I do not consider myself pro-Israel or anti-Israel. We have a special relationship with Israel but that does not mean that I support all of its policies. Yet! Yet to many neocons you are anti-Israeli even to discuss the merits of such policies.

History and Beliefs of Neocons

Wikipedia provides a fairly balanced outline of the history of the Neocon movement and the tension between its ‘new conservatism’ and the rest of the conservative spectrum: — a central repository of sorts on various conservative thought is less diplomatic than Wikipedia. In its view, the current objective of neo-conservatism: “In 2010 the highest priority of the neoconservatives is to increase military action by the United States in the Middle East, and to expand it to an American confrontation against Iran.”

A short version of neo-conservatism’s belief structure was outlined in January 2009, at the close of President George W. Bush’s second term in office.

Jonathan Clarke, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the CATO Institute, and coauthor of ‘America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order‘, proposed in 2009 the following as the “main characteristics of Neoconservatism”:

  • A tendency to see the world in binary good/evil terms.
  • Low tolerance for diplomacy. (We want it. Do it.)
  • Readiness to use military force. (That’s why we have a military.)
  • Emphasis on US unilateral action. (We want it. Do it. Allies waste time.)
  • Disdain for multilateral organizations. (We don’t plan to compromise our objectives so why seek support for them?!).
  • Focus on the Middle East. (Never question support to Israel. Muslims are inherently untrustworthy. When in doubt: Israel’s position is the better choice.).
  • An us versus them mentality. (There is good. There is evil. We are the good).

Within parens are my translation of Johnathan Clarke’s points.

Nowhere in the above belief structure is there a fundamental concern for the supremacy of the individual — to be judged based upon their merit, their achievement and their desire to accomplish.

There is an almost explicit direct opposite emphasis within neo-conservatism over the primacy of the individual: we know best and you will comply.

I know a number of Neocons that I would consider as having conservative beliefs. Politics has and will always be a mix-and-match world. My intended implication being that there are conservative Neocons.

The question is: are Neocons as a movement and political philosophy actually conservatives?

America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order


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