I’ve recently published a couple of articles focused on the Neocons, the ideological faction that has now dominated American foreign policy for more than thirty years.
- Did the Neocons Save the World from the Thucydides Trap?
Ron Unz • The Unz Review • April 18, 2023 • 6,500 Words
- Dislodging the Neocons, Difficult But Necessary
Ron Unz • The Unz Review • April 24, 2023 • 5,500 Words
Having their earliest roots a half-century ago, the Neocons eventually became a very powerful force in our political system, but although I’ve sometimes mentioned them in my articles, I’d never discussed their origins nor their rise to power, and I think these have often been misunderstood. One of the reasons for this confusion is that the very word “Neocon”—short for “neoconservative”—has undergone dramatic changes over the decades, eventually coming to mean something very different from how it was first understood.
The term neoconservative had originally appeared in the early 1970s, applied by critics to a small group of social scientists and other intellectuals who had rejected the radicalism of the 1960s and gravitated towards more moderate positions. Figures such as Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Seymour Martin Lipset were among the most prominent names usually mentioned, with James Q. Wilson and Thomas Sowell also often grouped into that category. In 1965, Bell and Kristol had co-founded The Public Interest, a semi-academic quarterly journal focused on matters of social policy.
Many of these individuals were Jews originally from New York City, often with deep personal roots in the non-Stalinist Left including Trotskyism, and the severe problems their metropolis faced during the late 1960s and the 1970s became an important factor behind their ideological shift, as they grew disgusted and horrified by the rampant crime and racial confrontations, along with the threat of fiscal bankruptcy. Also around that time, Commentary magazine, edited by Norman Podhoretz and based in the same city, moved in a similar direction, replacing its enthusiasm for the radical New Left with sharp criticism, and becoming the leading American publication associated with the early neoconservative movement.
In those pre-Internet days, professionally-produced print publications with a national circulation were an extremely scarce intellectual resource and as such could serve as the focal point for a nascent ideological movement. So Commentary played such a role in shaping the Neocons much as William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review had earlier helped to create the modern conservative movement in the late 1950s. But Commentary was also the flagship publication of the American Jewish Committee and Podhoretz himself deeply identified with Jewish issues. Those factors impacted his editorial line, which naturally included a major focus upon Israel and the Middle East along with the plight of Soviet Jewry. Partly for such reasons, a hawkish foreign policy including heavy emphasis on the Cold War soon became important Neocon concerns.
The aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate dominated the 1970s with the overwhelming majority of influential American publications and the intellectual elites who followed them skewing liberal or even radical in their political orientation. National Review had already spent many years as the lodestar of the conservative movement and many Republicans, but the overwhelming majority of the contributors and readers of Commentary were Democrats or even Socialists, and it had recently been very influential in such circles, so it could easily draw in the sort of disgruntled Democrats who might have dismissed Buckley’s publication out of hand. Thoughtful conservatives hoped to broaden the intellectual reach of their growing political coalition and they recognized how valuable Commentary might be in assisting that project. In a famous 1979 example, the magazine had published “Dictatorships and Double Standards” authored by a conservative Democratic academic named Jeane Kirkpatrick, an article that brought her to the attention of Ronald Reagan, who named her his U.N. Ambassador after he reached the White House.
During the Reagan Administration of the 1980s, Neocons often spearheaded such foreign policy projects and these began overshadowing the domestic social issues that had once dominated the movement. This was partly because Reagan proved much more successful at implementing the former than the latter, with Congress passing his large military buildup against the Soviets even as his efforts to roll back affirmative action, bilingual education, or multiculturalism languished.
Furthermore, some of the earliest neoconservative figures who had focused on domestic matters gradually disassociated themselves for a variety of reasons. Bell had long rejected the claim that he was any sort of conservative, neo or otherwise. Moynihan had won a New York U.S. Senate seat as a Democrat in 1976, becoming an influential figure in that party, but being subject to different ideological pressures he then became a fierce critic of the Reaganite foreign policy promoted by his erstwhile allies and proteges. Glazer, a mild-mannered academic scholar, also retreated from some of his earlier views, eventually even publishing a book entitled We Are All Multiculturalists Now.
So an ideological movement that had once consisted of moderate social scientists became much more strongly identified with fiercely hawkish militarists preoccupied with Israel, the Middle East, and the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. This transformation was gradual enough and the overlap in personnel and beliefs sufficiently strong that the original name continued in use and those underlying shifts received little public attention. However, I’ve always regarded the changes as so dramatic that I usually refer to Bell, Moynihan, Glazer, and others of their ilk as Elder Neocons in order to clearly distinguish them from their very different political heirs.
Read more in The Unz Review.
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