The Slow, Agonizing Death of Neoconservatism

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Matthew Continetti, writing in Commentary, credits leading neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol and his son Bill Kristol, with “modernizing” conservatism so that the Republican Party — which neoconservatives reluctantly joined after they lost influence with the Democrat party — could suitably govern a modern democracy. And he laments the fact that since the rise of the Tea Party movement, neoconservatives have gradually lost influence with a populist-nationalist Republican Party. Leading neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Jonah Goldberg (then at National Review) publicly opposed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. As a result, neoconservatism is now a movement without a political party.

The immediate causes of neoconservatism’s decline in influence within the GOP were the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, begun during the George W. Bush administration. Initially, most conservatives supported the war in Afghanistan, even while some questioned the need to invade Iraq. But Bush transformed those wars into a crusade for democracy, which is when many conservatives — including William F. Buckley, Jr. — got off the bandwagon. Neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz called the terrorist attacks of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, culminating in 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars, “World War IV” in articles in Commentary that were later collected into a book with that title.

Podhoretz is a compelling writer, and his comparison of Bush’s Global War on Terror to America’s hot war against Nazi Germany and Japan and its Cold War against the Soviet Union convinced many that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of a larger existential conflict with radical Islam. And that is how Bush portrayed them in speech after speech and in formal national security documents. The result was twenty years of “endless wars,” in which American blood was shed and American treasure was expended in a futile effort to democratize those two nations. Bush’s greatest cheerleaders were David Frum, Max Boot, Bill Kristol, and other neoconservatives. When the futility of those wars became obvious to anyone not blinded by ideology, these neoconservatives continued to urge greater American military efforts.

In the end, the neoconservative crusade failed, but rather than learning the harsh lessons of their failures, they doubled down and found a new crusade: Ukraine. Neoconservatives are the most vociferous supporters of doing more to preserve Ukraine’s independence, often invoking the “lessons of Munich” to justify risking war with Russia.

Neoconservatives first gained influence in the GOP during the Reagan administration when most of them were still Democrats. Many of the neoconservatives were “Jackson Democrats” — that’s Henry “Scoop” Jackson, perhaps the country’s leading Cold Warrior and one of the few leading Democrats who did not sit out the end of the Cold War in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1980, fed up with the weakness of the Carter administration, many neoconservatives supported Ronald Reagan for president, and some of them joined the administration and, to their great credit, helped win the Cold War. (Scoop Jackson served on Reagan’s transition team.)

After the Cold War ended, as Continetti notes in his article, fissures began developing within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. The issues that caused these fissures included immigration and foreign policy. And neoconservatives increasingly felt uncomfortable with the rise of populism and cultural nationalism, especially, Continetti writes, among “non-college-educated blue collar workers disaffected from the electoral process and contemptuous of political, business, social and cultural elites,” including, one may add, neoconservative elites.

And in foreign policy, the fall of the Soviet Union deprived neoconservatives and their former political allies of a common enemy. And populist-nationalist conservatives never accepted the neoconservative claim that the Global War on Terror and the crusade for democracy that attached to it was a vital American interest worth twenty years of war.

Continetti, however, assigns all of the blame to the populist-nationalist conservatives, and he names names: Patrick Buchanan, Samuel Francis, Angelo Codevilla, and other writers associated with the American Conservative and the Claremont Review of Books. Those two journals and their writers provided the intellectual meat on the bones of the populist-nationalist takeover of the Republican Party. They provided intellectual gravitas to “America First.” Continetti laments that the Obama administration and the criticism of it by Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham “pushed Rush Limbaugh ever rightward.” Rush, too, became a champion of the populist-nationalists. And all of those conservatives eventually supported Donald Trump, which, in the eyes of Continetti and his neoconservative brethren, was their greatest sin. (Continetti fails to mention that Norman Podhoretz also became a Trump supporter.)

Continetti also laments the closing of Bill Kristol’s magazine, The Weekly Standard, which was a reliable voice of neoconservatism that, however, could not make it in the marketplace of ideas. Meanwhile, National Review effectively became another mouthpiece of neoconservatism, while still occasionally publishing writers sympathetic to populist nationalism, such as Victor Davis Hanson. Buckley’s old magazine, which played a huge role in founding the modern American conservative movement, is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the populist-nationalist GOP.

Neoconservatism has lost its home in the Republican Party. But the neoconservatives do not have a home in the Democrat party, either, which has moved so far to the left politically and culturally.

Continetti concludes his Commentary article by claiming that it is the neoconservatives who remain “committed to the principles and institutions of the American Founding and to the ordered liberty at its heart,” whereas the Trump-led populist-nationalists and their intellectual supporters have abandoned those principles. But Continetti should read George Washington’s Farewell Address, which contains a lucid and enduring summation of the nation’s founding principles and aligns quite comfortably with “America First.”

Washington told his countrymen that America “has a right to concentrate your affections.” He warned against “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” He warned against “faction,” which could result in “a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community” replacing the “delegated will of the nation.” He praised our system of checks and balances while noting that “religion and morality” are two necessary pillars of “political prosperity.”

In foreign policy, Washington urged his countrymen to “observe good faith towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” He counseled to avoid “inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others” because such approaches could impel the nation to “war … contrary to the best calculations of policy.” We should not “sacrifice the interests” of our own country to foreign quarrels that have nothing to do with America’s interests. “Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another,” he wrote, “cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.” “Real patriots,” he continued, “who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.” The United States, he concluded, should “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Those “founding principles,” not neoconservatism, should guide the modern conservative movement.

Reporting from American Thinker.