Neo-conservatism has served as a badge of unity for those in the Bush administration advocating an aggressive foreign policy, massive military spending, disdain for international law and institutions, an assault on the welfare state, and a return to "traditional values". So, with the Bush era winding down in a tailspin of plummeting popularity and high-level resignations, has the neoconservative movement, too, run its course?
Neoconservatism began with different premises from traditional forms of conservatism. Because reforms can become part of "our" heritage, traditional conservatives can adapt to change, even taking credit for negotiating the connection between past and future. By contrast, neoconservatism's adherents are unconcerned with what Edmund Burke called the ties that bind "the dead, the living, and the yet unborn". On the contrary, they are revolutionaries or, rather, "counter-revolutionaries" intent upon remaking America and the world.
Indeed, in a certain sense, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and other neo-conservative elder statesmen remain defined by the communist dogmatism they sought to oppose when they were youthful Trotskyists. The virtue of their "party" or clique needs no complex justification: it stands for "American values," while critics merely provide an "objective apology" for the "enemies of freedom".
Until the 1960s, future neoconservatives shared the Democratic party's vehement anti-communism, acceptance of the civil rights movement, and support for President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal welfare-state policies. Tellingly, the influential neoconservative Richard Perle said in 2003 that he was still a registered Democrat, out of "nostalgia" for Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the powerful former Senator who embodied these commitments.
For future neoconservatives, however, the 1960s produced a "trauma" that transcended the humiliation of a lost war and the disgrace of Richard Nixon. What in the 1950s had seemingly been a culture of contentment was transformed into what Podhoretz called an "adversary culture". New social movements, seeking to de-mythologise history, rejecting platitudes justifying the policies of elite interests, and demanding greater institutional accountability, seemingly threatened the entire "establishment".
Nevertheless, it was not until Ronald Reagan forged an alliance between conservatism's two traditionally warring factions that the political foundations of neoconservatism's triumph were secured.
One faction primarily comprised elites opposed to state intervention in the market. Its members cared little about the verities associated with "community" or "family values". Their best intellectual arguments derived from Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and Robert Nozick, who sought to challenge collectivist theories of society in general and "socialism" in particular.
The other faction was rooted in 19th-century "know nothing" populism, with its flights of nationalist hysteria, defence of traditional prejudices, and resentment of intellectual and economic elites. However, its members do not necessarily oppose social legislation that benefits working people - especially when white workers are privileged - and some even retain a positive image of the New Deal.
Neoconservatism thus cannot be reduced to advocacy of the free market or rightwing populism, since its ideological specificity consists in the fusion of these contradictory outlooks. The question was how to package elites' interest in free-market capitalism with the provincial temperament of a parochial constituency.
What sold best was an image of oppressive "big government", reflected in a tax system that was increasingly burdensome to ordinary people, combined with anti-communist nationalism and barely veiled racism. After all, everyone understood who the "welfare cheat" was, and who Kristol had in mind when he famously quipped that a neo-conservative is "a liberal who has been mugged by reality".
But, with the demise of communism, neoconservatism's two factions once again seemed fated to clash. Economic globalisation risked provoking a backlash by provincial populists, while the external enemy - the glue that held the neoconservative movement together - had disappeared.
Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From the beginning, senior Reagan era officials were wary of pursuing a unilateral response. It was clear to many that Islamic fundamentalism was not comparable to communism, and, particularly in Iraq, military leaders saw the dangers in stretching American forces too thin.
But their arguments did not carry the day. For the neoconservative enterprise, 9/11 helped to create a new context for linking the quest for American hegemony abroad with intense nationalism - and an even more intense assault on the welfare state - at home. Employing a crude form of "realism", which has traditionally viewed the state as the basic unit of political analysis, neoconservatives portrayed al-Qaida in terms of familiar enemies, namely fascism and communism, with backing from "rogue" states that must not be "appeased". Thus, the "axis of evil" and the "pre-emptive strike".
This new "hyper-realism" has little in common with old-style realism. Churchill and Roosevelt did not lie to the international community about the threat of fascism, construct an artificial "coalition of the willing", or employ violence without accountability: these were the tactics of their totalitarian enemies. Today, a meaningful realism calls for recognising the constraints on building democracy: suspicion of western values generated by imperialism, the power of pre-modern institutions and customs, and the still-fragile character of the state system in most of the world.
But genuine realism, unfortunately, is beside the point. Given the inherent tension implied by neoconservatism's simultaneous embrace of secular free-market capitalism and "traditional" values, its strategy, perfected since the Reagan era, has been to redraw the lines of division: then, as now, the west is "at risk" - which requires nurturing a strongly emotional distinction between "us" and "them".
That strategy's popular appeal will not end with the Bush administration, because neoconservatism feeds on a set of public fears that are deeply rooted in American history. Changing that will require not merely confronting a new ideological outlook, but also deciding which policies reflect what is best about the American political tradition.
In cooperation with Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2007.
Stephen Eric Bronner is professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation.
© 2007 The Guardian