For some months, we have been hearing a lot about how neoconservatism underpins the Bush administration's foreign policy, especially the war in Iraq. Now, some neoconservatives are saying that their philosophy underpins the administration's domestic and economic policy, as well. The evidence for this contention is strong, a fact that will undoubtedly exacerbate tensions between President Bush and traditional conservatives.
To understand what this debate is all about, one needs to know what neoconservatism is and where it came from. This requires one to know something about the early postwar intellectual environment. Liberalism absolutely reigned supreme, with no serious competition from conservatism of any stripe.
In 1954, Lionel Trilling, an important New York intellectual, famously remarked, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." No one seriously disagreed.
Conservatives retained a modicum of political power during the Eisenhower administration, but it was intellectually bankrupt. To fill this vacuum, columnist Bill Buckley started National Review Magazine in 1955. But owing to the shortage of authentic American conservative intellectuals to write for him, Buckley had to rely heavily on European conservatives and ex-communists to staff his magazine, both of which came out of traditions far different than those that defined American conservatism.
Even in the late 1960s, little progress had been made in developing a cadre of American conservative intellectuals. Advances had been made in the area of economics, where Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago made the free market respectable again. And the Cold War meant that there were plenty of anti-communists among the foreign policy elite. But on domestic and cultural issues, there was really no one articulating a sophisticated conservative position.
This is where the neoconservatives came in. All of those who came to be called by this name were conventional liberals who grew to be horrified by the excesses of liberalism. The New Left shocked many with its anti-Americanism, anti-intellectualism and embrace of violence to achieve its goals. At the same time, the rise of crime and welfare dependency and the deterioration of the cities forced many liberals to reassess their thinking. It was often said that a neoconservative was a liberal who was "mugged by reality."
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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