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What is Neo-Conservatism?

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Neo-Conservatism is not a set ideology and as such there are many and varied strands of Neo-Conservatism. What I will do in this essay is to concentrate on defining the Neo-Conservatism as seen in its the most dominant form, Neo-Conservatism as contained within the Republican Party of the USA, traditional protestant Neo-Conservatism.

From doing this I will attempt to show the historical ideological origins of traditional Protestant Neo-Conservatism. I will this by examining the historical orientations of the Neo-Conservativism, so as to explore the history of the United States of America, and its philosophical origins in English Calvinism. Whilst it is a difficult task to attempt to define any political ideology in just a few thousand words, I shall attempt to define Neo-Conservatism from an academic perspective.
Neo-Conservatism is a reactionary counter-revolutionary movement that has sprung up as a result of the breakdown of traditional American values. The classification of Neo-Conservatism as an ideology does not adequately describe the nature of Neo-Conservatism. It is not so much an ideology in its self but more of a movement from within a certain political perspective. Irving Kristol describes for us the true nature of Neo-Conservatism when he states,
neoconservatism…is not a ‘movement’, as the conspitorial critics would have it. Neoconservatism is what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers, called a ‘persuasion’, one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect. Viewed in this way, one can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism ignored against their perspective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy. (Kristol 2003:54)

Neo-Conservatism in its dominating conceptualisation, American Liberalism, concentrates on the major perspectives of the traditional liberal perspective. Andrew Heywood (2003:28) outlines the traditional liberal stance as,
The moral and ideological stance of liberalism is embodied in a commitment to a distinctive set of values and beliefs. The most important of these are the following: ‘The individual”, ‘Freedom’, ‘Reason’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Toleration and Diversity’.
The origin of the Neo-Conservative perspective in American Liberalism serves as a basis of analysis. The strongest of which is the family which serves as the basis unit for participation in society. This differs from traditional conservatism which sees the individual as the base unit in society.
The social origins of what is termed ‘Neo-Conservatism’ came about as a reaction to the rampant excesses of American Capitalism and in this way can be viewed as what Marx called an ‘internal contradiction’ (Marx 1973). It was through the over bureaucratic of the governmental system the USA that ‘Neo-Conservatism’ developed. Dye & Zeilger (1984:103) explore the social situation that produced “Neo-Conservatism’,
The war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnston’s Great society, urban rioting, campus unrest, Watergate, and inflation all raised doubts in the 1960s and 1970s about the size and scope of government. A mood of disillusionment has penetrated elite circles and dampened enthusiasm for government intervention in society.
It was through this overdependence of government interference caused by the War on Vietnam that US intellectuals decide to re-examine liberalism. It was through the excesses of American capitalism with its failure to honour and promote the traditional American Liberal values that Neo-Conservatism was raised to the fore. The free-market Capitalist adventurer was seen as somewhat of a failure as it promoted a rampant individualism over the traditional base of American society, the Family.
The social origins of what is termed ‘Neo-Conservative’ originate as a reaction to the perceived rampant excesses of Capitalism in the United Sates of America (USA). It was through the over bureaucraticisation of the governmental system in the USA that Neo-Conservatism developed. Dye & Zeigler (1984:103) explore the social situation that produced the Neo-Conservative persuasion,
The war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnston’s Great Society, urban rioting campus unrest, Watergate, and inflation all raised doubts in the 1960s and 1970s about the size and scope of government. A mood of disillusionment has penetrated elite circles and dampened the elites’ enthusiasm for government intervention in society.
It was through this over dependence on government interference caused by the War on Vietnam that liberal intellectuals decided to re-examine Liberal-Democratic philosophy. It was through the excesses of American Capitalism with its failure to honour and promote the traditional American Liberal values that Neo-Conservatism was raised to the fore. The free-market capitalist adventure was seen as somewhat of a failure as it promoted a rampant individualism over the traditional base of American society, the Family.
Neo-Conservatism as an ideology is based on what is commonly referred to as ‘Family Values’. This differs from Neo-Liberalism which sees individualism as the be all and end all of society. Neo-Conservatism on the other hand strikes a balance with a dualistic concept, where the individual and their place in their social construct. Mike Harris (1999:61) discusses this concept of the Neo-Conservative perspective when he states,
neo-conservativism, to some degree, has had to react to the rise of the other main New Right strand, neo-liberalism, with its project of individualism, and markets, which seems to contradict neo-conservative concerns. Hence Letwin highlights ‘conservative individualism,’ where society is regarded as the cradle rather than the enemy of individuality.
It is through balancing individuals within there social context that Neo-Conservatives are creating a new balance between left and right perspectives. It is this perspective that has helped a progressive streak within the Republican Party of the United States of America. The steak whilst socially progressive is traditional in the sense that it promotes strongly a nationalistic identity, family values and social order. (Heywood 2003:98).
The ideological orientation of the Republican Party and thence its Neo-Conservative section originates out of an English Calvinistic Puritanical origin. The Calvinist Puritans who, in 1649 overthrew the evil and oppressive French Monarch in England also had a strong link to the United States of America. Cambridge Professor Christopher Hill (1990) describes for us the historical links between the founding of the United States and the English Revolution,
Returning New Englanders were to play a prominent part in the revolutionary movement of the forties. Cromwell was said especially to favour them in his regiment.
It was through the events of the Puritan revolution of 1649 that the philosophical origins for the Republican Party in the USA were set. These Calvinist ideas formed the philosophical background of the American Revolution which was to follow and hance form the philosophical underpinnings of both the Constitution of the United States of America and the Republican Party. It is a revival of these historical Calvinist values that serve as a basis for the ideology of Neo-Conservatism.
The Calvinist orientation of the Neo-Conservative perspective faction of the Republican Party can be seen in the traditional Puritan values. This nationalist orientation of Neo-Conservatism and its promotion of so called ‘American Values’, can be seen to originate I there support for the Constitution of the United States of America. The nationalist prospective of Neo-Conservative ideology can be seen when Ivo Dader states,
They are nationalists, and the nationalist direction of the administration’s foreign policy was set long ago by the President and he has answered from it since. The nationalist direction is clear: America is a great power that exists to do great things. (Dader cited Gawenda 2005:18)
The constitutional based nationalism of the Republican Party Neo-Conservatives. This nationalist based perspective differentiates them from Neo-Liberals who have a more multi-national perspective. The American nationalist ideology of the Neo-Conservatives and their constitution based philosophy reinforces the traditional Calvinist belief as it was these Puritans who are the ‘founding fathers’ of our great nation. It was also these Calvinists who rebelled against the evil Catholic Monarch and established the United States of America as a Free and Independent Republic.
The nationalistic perspective of the Neo-Conservatives is shown in their support for a Free and Independent United States of American from the dictates of Communist institutions like the United Nations. They see it is the right of thew US Government to act in a way that promotes there national interests. The origins of the Neo-conservative nationalist perspective can be seen in the ‘Declaration of Independence’ where it states,
These United Colonise are, of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDATNT STATES; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved: and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent states may of right do. (USDS 1999:8)
The Declaration of Independence along with the Constitution of the United States of America, are the base documents of the Neo-Conservative perspective. It is the need for a sense of security as expressed through the promotion of a nationalistic revival as a reaction against Globalisation that underpins the Neo-Conservative world outlook. It is this revival of nationalism through the documents associated with the national independence achieved through the American Revolution. The revival of these nationalistic ideology and its underlying religious philosophy Calvinism, has also lewd the revival in ‘Family Values’ and ‘Social Order’, which are the other key tenets of Neo-Conservatism. It is this way that Neo-Conservatism could be better labelled as Neo-Puritanism.
This Puritanical orientation for those of the Neo-Conservative perspective is common held view within the Republican Party. It is a long held view by Republicans of a Calvinist Internationalism. A perfect example of the Neo-Puritan orientation in American philosophy Republican is shown for us by Bernard Bailyn when he states,
Still another tradition, another group of writers and texts, that emerges from the political literature as a major source of ideas and attitudes of the Revolutionary generation stemmed ultimately from the political or social theories of New England. (Bailyn 1987:32)
It is the New England Puritan ideological perspective that lays the heart of Neo-Conservatism. The historical political ideology of New England Puritanism with its ultimate physical manifestation in the American Revolution gives the Neo-Conservative perspective its underlying conservative element. This reach into the past by members of the Republican Party as a result of the uncertain future of American identity caused by the process of Globalisation and the US’s defeat in the Vietnam War. It was the regime of Ronald Regan that the Neo-Conservative element within the Republican Party looked back at their ideological origins to assert a new nationalism.
The attempt to distance the social origins of US politics, from its religious orientations by liberal intellectuals led directly to a reaction by conservative nationalist intellectuals. It was through the dismissing of the religious orientations of Locke’s democratic philosophy and its influence on the Declaration of independence of the United States of America philosophical, that the neo-liberals got it wrong. It is through this attempt to reclaim the religious orientation of American Liberalism that the Neo-Conservatives have one many supporters. Leo Strauss describes the philosophical orientations on Liberalism in the United States of America as,
According to the common view, the sources of liberalism are found in the writings of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and the Declaration of Independence. (Strauss 1968:29)
It is through these two works that Neo-Conservatives get there conservative nature. It is the upholding of these democratic principles contained within these documents which give Neo-Conservatism a philosophical base. The use of the Declaration of Independence as a point of orientation also gives Neo-Conservative a radical and revolutionary militaristic element which can be expressed through such acts as the War on Iraq.
This religious origination with the US’s founding fathers who were suffering persecution from Imperial French Monarchs is not clearly understood by liberal intellectuals who attempt to rewrite US history. Graham Maddox explains this fundamental error made by the revisionist liberal historians,
After Puritanism ‘became the scapegoat of intellectuals’ it was fashionable to dissociate liberalism from its protestant origins, especially when the Calvinist roots of the Lockean paradigm were wilfully ignored. (Maddox 1996:167)
The blatant denial of the historical truth that the underlying principles of American Nationalism are to be found through its historical religious orientations is a grave error. It is this type of error which has seen a breakdown in American society. This breakdown is a result of Capitalist individualism and its denial cultural and moralistic values.
This cultural attack by liberal intellectuals on what it means to be American attacks it at its cultural foundations. The cultural basis of US society is undoubtably Calvinist. This essential characteristic of what it means to be an American today is equality through a democratic system of governance and that this is a God given right. Maddox gores on to show us how the Liberal Democratic Republican system of governance, that we all hold dear to our hearts, originated from the Puritanical Calvinist theological perspective,
Whatever direct influences New England Puritanism had on the inchoate democratic politics of the American colonies, we should appreciate the general impact of Puritanism on later American culture… One way or another- for democratic openness or for cultural conformity- Puritanism has been a decisive, if not the decisive, component of American life. (Maddox 1996:168)
The New England Puritans are seen by the Neo-Conservatives as not just the ‘founding fathers’ of America but also the founding fathers of democracy itself. It was through this democratic Revolution that belongs all citizens that the Neo-Conservatives se it as there duty to being this style of freedom and democracy to the ends of the earth. The founding of America by English based Puritans is seemed as the key event in the Neo-Conservative perspective.
The establishment of an official settlement in Massachusetts is seen as the key event led up to the establishment of democracy through the Constitutional of the United States of America. As a result the Governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop, whose family company also funded the transport of Puritans to the New England Colonies, is a key philosophical figure. He is held in such high respect that there are many institutions in the US named after him including a college at the world’s finest education facility, Harvard University. The puritan orientation of the Neo-Conservative perspective, can be seen in a speech made by John Winthrop on the way to the New England colonies wh9ch is described for us by Boyer & Nissenbaum (1974:104),
John Winthrop, the first governor of colonial Massachusetts, fully articulated this theme as early as 1630 in his lecture aborad the ship Arabella, as the first large contingent of Puritan settlers was sailing toward New England. ‘We must be knit together in this work as one man’. He declared; ‘We must delight in each other… rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body’.
It is this dualistic approach, as exemplified here where Winthrop states, ‘rejoice and mourn’, ‘labor and suffer’, ‘commission and community’ and ‘members and same body’ of the individual within there social setting that gives Neo-Conservatism from the stock standard style of conservatism and its ‘self-seeking individualism’. (Heywood 2003:77). The rampant individualism within American liberalism society and its lack of social ethics is the target of Neo-Conservatism. From the Puritanical Calvinist philosophical perspective, politically expressed presently through Neo-Conservatism. It is the failure to understand the dualistic nature of all life that the trouble of liberalism originates. Dualism in the Protestant application is the basis of all life.
This dualistic philosophy, which originated with Plato in ancient Greece, in his book titled ‘The Republic’. The major themes of this work were ‘Ethics and Education’, ‘Philosophy and Religion’ and ‘Society and Politics’ expressed the dualistic philosophy of life. It was as a response to these democratic ideals that gave Puritanism, and hence Neo-Conservatism, its democratic idealism.
It is through this historical American religious philosophy of Calvinist Puritanism, as expressed in the Republican Party, through its Protestant Neo-Conservative perspective that Neo-Conservatism can be rightfully called Neo-Puritanism. This can be seen in the Neo-Conservative commitment to family values, nationalism and social order. Whilst there are many and varying styles of Neo-Conservatism, its most dominate expression politically is through the Republican Party. It is the Republican Party with its historical origins in the American Revolution and its noble democratic doctrines contained within the declaration of independence and the Constitution of the United States of America, that the Neo-Conservatives establish the political justification. This Neo-Platonic Republican orientation of the Neo-Conservatives is expressed through their dualistic philosophy of the individual wand the individuals place in society. It is through there Neo-Platonic dualism that neo-conservatives can be seen to express there global agenda of freedom and liberation based upon the democratic philosophies of the United States of America.

References

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Boyer, P. & Nissenbaum, S., 1974, Salem Possessed, Harvard University Press,
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Dye, T. R. & Zeigler, L. H., 1984, The Irony of Democracy an Uncommon
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Heywood, A, 2003, Political Ideologies An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, New
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Hill, C., 1990, Gods Englishman Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution,
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Kristol, I., 2003, ‘The neo-conservative persuasion’, cited in Discipline of Political &
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Maddox, G., 1996, Religion and the Rise of Democracy, Routledge, London.

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Plato, 1987, The Republican, Penguin Books, London.

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Related

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