Friday, May 27, 2005

The Rise of the NeoCons

Who are the neo-conservatives? How are they different from traditional conservatives? How has the neo-con movement, barely on the radar when Ronald Reagan was elected, become the dominant and animating movement of today?

James Piereson, the executive director of the John M. Olin Foundation, (about which we wrote here) has composed an excellent short history of the conservative movement in the United States from Friedrich Hayek until today. This 'short' history is actually quite long and, extremely worthwhile. The difference between traditional conservatives and the neo-cons:

Writers and editors like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Hilton Kramer and Michael Novak had for the most part spent their formative years on the left. Rather than by Hayek, their ideas had been influenced by George Orwell, Lionel Trilling and Raymond Aron--intellectuals of Hayek's generation who had dwelled on the evil of totalitarianism from a moral and political standpoint. Many of them, like Hayek, traced their intellectual lineage back to the 18th-century Whigs, but in so doing they once again emphasized the moral and cultural rather than the economic dimension, typically preferring Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" to his "The Wealth of Nations." In brief, they understood the moral foundations of a free society to be prior to and more important than its economic foundations.

At the same time, according to Piereson, the Democratic Party moved away from its liberal roots and became a sprawl of interest groups:

Following the tumult at their 1968 convention in Chicago, the Democrats established a commission, chaired by Sen. George McGovern, whose mandate was to make the nominating process more representative. Quickly captured by liberal activists, the commission pushed through new delegate-selection rules requiring the representation of women, blacks and young people in line with their respective proportions in the population.

The effect was to displace the elected officeholders, party officials and union leaders who had controlled Democratic conventions in the past and to replace them with activists speaking for designated groups. Under this approach, the groups that now found a home in the party began to look very much like the ones Bundy had tried to organize through the Ford Foundation. In many cases, they were the same groups.

Piereson closes with the contention that the rise of the neo-cons was due to the fundamental strengths of its ideas - ideas nurtured with care by philanthropists over the last half century. To maintain its vibrancy conservatives and neo-cons must continue to compete and prevail in the marketplace of ideas and philanthropy in support is critical.

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