The Six Components of Neoconservatism


The first and most fundamental proposition is a theory of history. That theory finds its point of origin in the depression decade of the 1930s, a decade that for Podhoretz and other neoconservatives serves as a parable. That parable conveys two large truths, applicable in all circumstances and for all time. The first truth is that evil is real. The second is that for evil to prevail requires only one thing: for those confronted by it to flinch from duty.

In the 1930s, with the callow governments of Great Britain and France bent on appeasing Hitler and with an isolationist America studiously refusing to exert itself, evil had its way. The result was horrific savagery, culminating in the Holocaust. Perhaps worst of all, that catastrophe was an avoidable one, directly attributable to the pusillanimous behavior of the democracies…

…The second proposition relates to power. Diplomacy, bribes, accommodation, sweet reason, appeals to decency, fairness, or a larger community of interests: none of these deflected Nazi Germany from the path of aggression on which it had embarked. Just as it eventually required armed might to destroy the Nazi regime, so too only the possession of—and willingness to employ—armed might could possibly have deterred Adolf Hitler. The lesson was clear: at the end of the day, in international politics there was no substitute for power, especially military power.

In emphasizing the centrality of power, Podhoretz and other writers associated with Commentary reflected a realist perspective. They had no patience for – indeed, viewed with alarm—schemes that looked to international law, disarmament, or anything like an “international community” as alternatives to power. They judged such ideas to be hopelessly utopian. They treated with particular disdain expectations that the United Nations might evolve into a vehicle for world peace or for the advancement of liberal values…

…On this issue Podhoretz did not permit dissent: America had a mission and must never “come home.” This was the third proposition that defined the neoconservative position. Alternatives to or substitutes for American global leadership simply did not exist. For all that Vietnam may have been “an act of imprudent idealism,” a challenge that had exceeded “our intellectual and moral capabilities,” the United States simply could not allow failure there to become an excuse for turning its back on the world.18 History had singled out the United States to play a unique role as the chief instrument for securing the advance of freedom, which found its highest expression in democratic capitalism. American ideals defined America’s purpose, to be achieved through the exercise of superior American power…

The fourth proposition defining the neoconservative persuasion concerns the relationship between politics at home, especially cultural politics, and America’s purpose abroad. At the center of that relationship is an appreciation for authority.

The new radicalism, Podhoretz and other neoconservatives concluded, promised utopia but delivered little apart from sexual license, vulgarity, and an absence of standards. The sixties had warped the arts, cheapened intellectual discourse, corrupted universities, and spawned a host of bizarre ideas.23 Worse, the most ardent proponents of this variant of freedom harbored anti-democratic and even authoritarian urges. For Podhoretz, the radicalism of the 1960s, based on the conviction that political action might alleviate “the spiritual ailments of the age,” had instead “led again, as it had so often led in the past, either to nihilism or to . . . ‘the totalitarian temptation.’”

As one consequence of this assault, traditional sources of authority in American society—high government officials, the police, the clergy, even parents—found their influence sharply curtailed. This virtual collapse of institutional legitimacy was central to the neoconservative perspective on domestic politics. To Podhoretz, the absence of institutions able to command broad popular support imperiled democracy at home. It also under- mined efforts to fulfill America’s calling abroad…

…The fifth proposition defining the neoconservative persuasion: the United States after Vietnam confronted a dire crisis; absent decisive action to resolve that crisis, unspeakable consequences awaited.

Particulars might change, but for neoconservatives crisis is a permanent condition. The situation is always urgent, the alternatives stark, the need for action compelling, and the implications of delay or inaction certain to be severe. On the one hand—if the nation disregards the neoconservative call to action—there is the abyss. On the other hand—if the nation heeds that call—the possibility of salvation exists…

…According to Podhoretz—according to neoconservatives generally—the antidote to crisis is leadership. This is the sixth and last component that defines the neoconservative persuasion.

Among neoconservatives it is an article of faith that men, not impersonal forces, determine the course of history. Curbing the isolationist tendencies of the American people, steeling the nation against the lure of appeasement, summoning it to pursue its destiny: these become impossible without flinty  determination, moral clarity, and inspiration at the very top. Americans, neoconservatives believe, hunger for and respond to heroic—even Churchillian—leadership. In a sort of weird homegrown variant of the Fuehrer Principle, neoconservatives themselves share that hunger.


  1. Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. 73-71.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Politics

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