The label ‘neoconservative’ was first used in the early 1970s by friends and enemies of a group of New York intellectuals who were critical of the leftward turn that American liberalism had, in their view, taken in the previous decade. What these intellectuals reacted against was a mix of social movements – like student protests, counterculture, black nationalism, radical feminism and environmentalism – and government overreach through Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ programs. While in no way defenders of the free market or the nightwatchman state like the true National Review conservatives, they stressed the limits of social engineering through transfers of wealth or affirmative action programs) and pointed out the dangers that the boundless egalitarian dreams of the New Left had created for stability, meritocracy and democracy. Intellectuals such as Nathan Glazer, Seymour Martin Lipset, James Q. Wilson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan coalesced around The Public Interest, a magazine created by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell in 1965, and a few years later around Commentary, whose editor was Norman Podhoretz.RTWT.
These original neoconservative were New York-based intellectuals, primarily interested in domestic issues, and they still regarded themselves as liberals. That is why the disconnect could not seem more complete between them and the latterday neocons, who are Washington-based political operatives identified with the right, interested exclusively in foreign policy, and who have a solid, if not excessive, confidence in the ability of the American government to enact social change – at least in Iraq or Afghanistan. There exists, nonetheless, a tenuous link between the two groups, which explains why the label has travelled through time. This link is provided by a third, intermediate family of neoconservatives, the Scoop Jackson Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s – named after Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (D-Washington)– and the real ideological ancestors of the contemporary neocons, the ones who literally invented neoconservative foreign policy.
The Scoop Jackson Democrats were also born of a reaction to the New Left, but this time, inside the Democratic Party, when Senator George McGovern won the nomination to be the Democratic candidate against Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern was seen by traditional Democrats as way too far to the left, both in domestic policy (he supported massive social programs and affirmative action through quotas) and in foreign policy, where he advocated a hasty retreat from Vietnam, deep cuts in the defence budget, and a neoisolationist grand strategy. Coalescing around Commentary, Scoop Jackson's Senate office and a group called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Democratic operatives and intellectuals such as Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Eugene Rostow, Ben Wattenberg, Joshua Muravchik, Elliott Abrams, and others, tried to steer the Democratic Party back to the centre. They wanted to get back to the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy: progressive policies at home, muscular anticommunism abroad, including the defence of human rights and fellow democracies. That is why they found themselves battling not only the left wing of the Democrats, but also Nixon and Kissinger's realist policy of détente, which included deemphasising ideological concerns and engaging Moscow, thereby legitimising the Soviet regime rather than trying to change it.
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