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What is Neo-Conservatism?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 17, 2024
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The terms neo-conservatism and conservatism are often used interchangeably, but the two have very different meanings. It may help to distinguish other forms of political ideology to explain what neo-conservative means. For example, the term “paleo” conservative represents the “Old Right” or traditional conservatives, while “neo” conservative refers to new or modern conservatives.

The latter appears oxymoronic in that conservative means to conserve, or preserve, traditional ways or views. The terms new and traditional simply do not gel. What many find surprising is the fact that the man known as “the godfather of neo-conservatism” was politically left of center, although this fact does help clarify the issue. Using the term neo-conservative is rather like saying liberal-conservative.

The man dubbed the godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, was liberal but apparently couldn’t find what he was looking for on the left. He didn’t find it on the right either, so he essentially molded an ideology that combined various philosophies. He wrote more than one book of note on the topic of neo-conservatism and was extremely influential in advancing the neo-conservative movement.

His son William Kristol, is probably most well known for his role as editor of The Weekly Standard. The publication is considered by many to be conservative, although adding the “neo” prefix is more accurate. The younger Kristol describes a neo-conservative individual as a liberal mugged by reality. William Kristol is also the chairman and co-founder of PNAC, the Project for a New American Century. PNAC is represented as a think tank, and one of its self-proclaimed goals is to provide “a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad.”

Congressman Ron Paul has used the shortened version of the term neo-conservative, “neocon,” on several occasions to describe those who support government solutions to social problems as well as foreign interventionism. In a speech on the House floor titled, “Neo-Conned!” which is now part of the Congressional Record, he said, “In many ways, there’s nothing "neo" about their views, and certainly nothing conservative.”

The neo-conservative ideology embraces interventionism if perceived as being to America’s benefit. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in committing American wealth and might only when presented with a true and imminent threat or an attack on America or its allies. Paleo-conservatives do not embrace involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, nor do they espouse policing the world, “spreading democracy,” or nation building.

The differences between the paleo-conservative and neo-conservative wings of the Republican Party are many and varied. Thus, to be accurate in discussion of conservatism it is important to differentiate between traditional and “New Deal” conservatives.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1002140 — On Sep 15, 2019

I personally prefer the word 'reactionary' rather than neocon. I've been mugged by reality more than once but I am still an out-of-control liberal, according to Trump.

There are people that I admire, and people that I don't. As far as I am concerned, none of them is worth worshiping as either a savior or as a devil.

By watson42 — On Jan 13, 2011

@mitchell14, I think that is true, though it makes sense that an article might try to maintain a more basic view, rather than one entirely based on the most modern interpretations of American conservatives. Admittedly, I do think that a comparison between "paleo" and "neo" conservatives might be made more compelling with a commentary on where the Tea Bag party feels it stands within that line.

By mitchell14 — On Jan 12, 2011

The article tends to adopt a very general description of conservative. While admittedly the technical ideas include, for example, the rejection of war unless in extreme cases, the last decade gave us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq- imagined, begun, and then prolonged by conservative politicians. While they general prefer isolation, it seems that almost any chance at increased money or power is enough to convince at least some conservative factions to break their own rules.

By behaviourism — On Jan 09, 2011

Of course, in the past couple of years the Tea Bag party has suddenly taken over as the newest part of conservative politics; neoconservatives will likely find, by the end of this new decade, that there is very little "neo" about their ideas anymore, especially when faced with the likes of Sarah Palin and the new "new" conservatives, who are much more extremely on the right side of the spectrum.

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