Neoconservatism: can there be a label more reviled? Condemned abroad, blamed for Iraq and Katrina, neoconservatism would seem dead and buried.
But not only will neoconservatism return, it remains the best hope for balanced two-party democracy in the United States.
The American right that has emerged since 2008, of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, is a movement of cultural protest. But protest is not enough. Americans won't reject even a badly damaged incumbent unless they see a credible alternative.
Neoconservatism's mission from the start has been to create such an alternative. As the late Irving Kristol wrote in 2003, "[T]he historical task of neoconservatism [is] to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy."
The term "neoconservatism" was coined in the late 1960s to describe a small group who'd noticed that the era's great liberal social reforms weren't working well: urban renewal was killing cities; poverty was worsening as fast as antipoverty programs were growing.
Most of these thinkers and politicians had begun as Democrats, and many remained so. But some did shift allegiance. They brought to their new home some valuable new insights and habits, which are as desperately needed by the GOP today as in 1970.
First: They were practical. These neoconservatives persuaded Republicans like Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan toaccept Social Security and Medicare. Now some conservative icons are denouncing the Federal Reserve (created in 1913!) as an unacceptable innovation. This is the route to the museum, not to government.
Second: They were scientific and details-oriented. They cared about getting the facts right. The reckless disregard of accuracy shown by those who invented the "death panels" charge was utterly alien to them. And they could admit when they were wrong.
Third: While expressing deep respect for the role of religion in society, they were firmly secular in their approach.
Fourth: They took for granted that politics demanded intelligence and substantial knowledge. They admired politicians like Sens. Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That's a far cry from this past year's dismissal of brains.
Fifth: The original neoconservatives felt a deep optimism about the United States. They despised alienated radicals who flung epithets like "fascist" at U.S. institutions and leaders. Now similarly angry talk is being heard from an alienated right. In 1967, Ronald Reagan signed a law forbidding the carrying of loaded guns in public. Today guns are again reappearing at political rallies—and this time there is no Reagan to say no.
It will take tremendous discipline to transcend today's partisan anger and rebuild conservatism as a broad national movement. Yet this work is essential to sustaining a competitive political sys-tem in the United States. In 2006 and 2008, Americans rejected a conservatism they saw as incompetent and irrelevant. But that rejection did not mean they wanted to hand the keys to the car to an unchecked Democratic Party. Americans want balance in their politics.
To provide it, America needs a practical, modern, secular conservatism that delivers results that benefit the ordinary voter. Maybe we need a new label. Neoneoconservatism anyone?