Actually, this was written about 2 weeks before Glenn had his little fit in the paper about my being too lazy to look up what "neoconservative" meant. I don't mind him calling me a materialist who believes in infanticide (which I took to be lawyer-speak for atheistic baby-killer), but nobody calls me lazy without getting a response.
Someone e-mailed me a great question a few weeks ago about my use of the term “neo-conservative” and then, better yet, a recent letter to the editor complained that tagging state Sen. Glenn Grothman (RWest Bend) as a neocon was mean-spirited name calling and, finally, Sen. Grothman himself complained that I didn’t know what the term meant when I used it.
So, let’s start here. My e-mail correspondent wrote: “I see liberals throw this term (neoconservative) around frequently — usually as a pejorative — but yet few people use it in any similar or uniform fashion. Does it have genuine significance or do liberals just use it to try to delegitimize conservatism?”
I’m afraid I’m not able to speak for “liberals” anymore. Ever since the trickle-down supply-siders took charge of the U.S. in 1980, I haven’t fit into any of the usual political categories. Nowadays I simply follow the money to figure out what’s really going on; whether it flows into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hidden earmarks or into the bank accounts of Dick Cheney’s buddies at Halliburton.
“Neoconservative” is not pejorative, but has a precise provenance. Sen. Grothman’s version is a popularization, but the neoconservative movement actually got its start with people like the late Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie who, after Goldwater's defeat in ’64, legend has it, went to the Library of Congress and hand-copied 12,000 names from Goldwater's contributor list.
Adding “neo-” as a prefix indicates that these later conservatives are different from Sen. Barry Goldwater, who’s “Conscience of a Conservative” is the gold standard for post-World War II American conservative thought. The best treatment of this distinction is, perhaps, in John Dean's book “Conservatives without Conscience.” Dean, a Goldwater acolyte, has wondered publicly whatever happened to the fiscal conservatism of his mentor and, it should be noted, the Republican Party. Like any number of other pre-Reagan-era Republicans, I’ve wondered exactly the same thing.
We’ll be seeing this division flare up in the blood letting the Republican Party is about to undergo as the more fiscally conservative Eisenhower Republicans and the more socially active neoconservative Bush Republicans realize their interests are not the same.
Traditional conservatives are characterized by the belief that government works best when it stays out of the people’s personal and business lives. Language like “privatizing this or that aspect of government would be more efficient for the taxpayer” is a good example of old-time fiscal conservatism.
Social conservatives, by contrast, have a social agenda motivated by religious convictions. They oppose abortion and teaching evolution and, in a resurgent Calvinism that treats wealth as a symptom of God’s grace, oppose taxation on the often unexamined ground that it takes money away from the chosen people and gives it to sinful, slothful ones.
A simpler example of the classic difference between fiscal and social conservatives is probably found in Sen. Goldwater himself. A strong fiscal conservative, Sen. Goldwater was opposed to abortion but remained pro-choice because he believed, as a traditional conservative, that the government has no business interfering in the economic, spiritual or medical lives of We The People.
So, to answer my correspondents, the term “neoconservative” (as I’ve understood it from reading Goldwater, Dean and Irving Kristol) doesn’t de-legitimize or demonize conservatism in the least. On the contrary, calling the current crop of conservatives “neoconservatives” calls attention to the fact that traditional conservatism has not simply been reborn, but has also been co-opted by a selfish ideology which appropriated religious themes in order to get and keep power.
Don’t believe me? Consider the Bush administration’s handling of faith-based initiatives. As is now clear from published reports and David Kuo’s book “Tempting Faith,” the Bush administration never cared about the moral imperatives they preached to get elected – it was a sham to convince people at the bottom of the economic ladder to vote against their economic self-interests by appealing to their religious convictions.
If you still think “neoconservatives” are simply a new kind of traditional conservative, then here’s something to wonder about: If he were alive today, would neoconservative Republicans welcome Abraham Lincoln back into his own party or even those Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era with their “40 acres and a mule” giveaways?
Sen. Grothman argues that Teddy Roosevelt would be among them, but TR was the first president to argue that government needs to be big enough to protect the least powerful citizen from the most powerful corporation. I never heard anything like that from any of the “neoconservatives” Sen. Grothman mentions or, let’s be honest, from Sen. Grothman himself.
Every once in a while, more often than I like, I find myself agreeing with something Pat Buchanan says. In a recent New Yorker article about the trials of contemporary conservatism he paraphrased social critic Eric Hoffer and noted: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
Is that where we are now?
I guess we're going to find out.