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The Progression of the Ideological Right. A look at Liberalism and NeoConservatism and the Dilemma Today

Updated on May 23, 2013

A little humor to lighten it all up

Introduction

Political thought on the ideological right evolved between World War II and 2012, mainly because of the views of conservative thinkers like Irving Kristol, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, William Kristol and Michael Lind. The impact of conservatism has taken many turns and splits and even emulates the most liberal of thought. This has had an impact on the Republican party as it struggles with losing its intellectual capacity and has moved towards an emotional and even religious ideology that leaves no room for any conservative not of the same mind. Conservatism crosses the lines over to liberalism simply because of the influences of such people as Reagan, which leaves many liberals afraid to reason with emotion of the “other side”. For the intellectual conservative, that fear of the use of reason is even more traumatic – what choice is there but to go along? There are ebbs and flows to political thought where emotion and religious morality, tend to temporarily grab the masses; and it seems that today’s conservatism is simply following a pattern. In looking at these thinkers, we can see the evolution that has taken place which has led up to this failure in the Republican Party to meet the needs of many conservatives.

Cold War Liberalism

The political position known as Cold War Liberalism and was the dominant ideology in the United States until the 1960s protests began. William F. Buckley through his National Review began attacking liberalism from the right which ironically carried some New Left themes. Buckley had begun these attacks in 1951 before the National Review’s founding in God and Man at Yale. In this, he claimed that universities were promoting conformity in liberal orthodoxy. In his first issue of National Review, he vowed to expose the liberals “who run this country.” Other conservative writers from the postwar era questioned the liberal anti-communist ideology and so defined conservatism differently. This split conservatism into two groups: traditionalists who believed the need for order and hierarchy using stabilizing influences of both religion and elites; and libertarians who supported the market but were willing to allow for cultural differences. Libertarians thought traditionalists were accommodating Cold War liberals with welfare and union policies. Traditionalists on the other hand did not see libertarians as conservative at all.

Economist, Milton Friedman, denied that the Depression happened because of any inherent flaw in capitalism. In a reformist, utopian manner, Friedman argued that the negative consequences of government was not where the emphasis should be placed, but on the positive side of free market. Libertarian conservatives agreed. Allowing the market to correct itself without government intervention appealed to the American exceptionalist. Friedman’s proposals included elimination of many governmental programs including, tariffs, price support for agriculture, government-authorized monopolies for the railroad, public housing, social security, national parks, social security and the Draft. As hard as these reductions were to grasp, the public as well as politicians, continued to review these proposals.

Neo-Conservatism

The neoconservative movement had begun in the 1950s, but Irving Kristol became a leader during his era. The neoconservative emphasis was on the need to consider social order in society. By this time, neoconservatives consisted mostly of those who were disillusioned reactionary liberals. They felt liberalism was not able to reconcile cultural contradiction between capitalism and hedonism it created. Kristol sympathized with the backlash of the capitalist culture in the 1960s. He blamed the libertarians and considered Hayek and Friedman to be extremists because of their emphasis on individual gain as the asset for a just society. Kristol contended that going back to “the classics” to re-evaluate a virtuous life and its link to individual happiness as well as social stability was the essential route to take.

Ronald Reagan

Both of these trains of thought addressed the economic and political issues of the 1970s. Libertarians argued that a solution could be had with the expansion of free market. Traditionalists however believed the answer was through moral revival. Ronald Reagan combined both to develop the Reagan Revolution. Reagan challenged the long-standing policies and ideologies of Roosevelt, claiming the New Dealers’ political model was fascism. While critical of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, he admired his pre-World War II stance against Germany. Rather than focus on economic elites, Reagan focused on big government elites, shifting his emphasis from big capitalism to big government. In addition, he ignored the divisions in the conservative world by combining things like tax cuts and deregulation of industry that pleased the libertarians with the appointment of federal judges who would sympathize with moral issues for the traditionalists, such as prayer in schools, abortion and crime issues. His stance on the Cold War kept both conservative groups together. Reagan’s low tolerance of communism led to a support of anti-communist guerilla warfare around the world rather than simply focusing on containment. Of course, he was instrumental in the end of the Cold War, which became his most popular legacy, to the chagrin of many.

Michael Lind
Michael Lind

Intellectual Decline in Conservatism

Jim Franke contends that there has been an intellectual decline in conservatism, most notably that neo-conservatism is engineered by emotion and religion, with little having to do with anything intellectual. The policies put in place by neoconservatives are weak to begin with, and so not surprisingly, they fail. By the fall of 2008, the Republican Party consisted of Sarah Palins and Joe the Plumber. Intellectuals who are conservative are left without a party. Unlike neoconservatives of the past who accepted New Deal reforms, Michael Lind and today’s neoconservatives claim that had there not been a defense of social programs, there would not be any reason to have the word “neo” before the word conservative.” Originally, neo-conservatism was, rightly so, a defense for the New Deal and Great Society liberalism against radical countercultural left as well as its own defects. The right today is similar to the left of the 1960s and 1970s because there was little intellect, in fact, there was a sense of anti-intellectualism. Both run on emotion and today on religion as well. In addition, theatrics play a role in both – from tea bags sent to senators, which can be purchased by sympathizers for one dollar a piece, to Abbie Hoffman’s Uncle Sam costume, the teabaggers are the yippies of the right. (Franke) This is evident in such things as California Tea Party Patriots demanding Christmas Carols be sung in public schools and repeals of child labor laws, backed by Newt Gingrich.

William Kristol
William Kristol

Guided Populism

William Kristol said that the best hope for democracy was guided populism. In his senior thesis, he claimed it “is necessary for those who now direct society to educate democracy.” By this, he means that it is important to stand up to the ills of public opinion, particularly in a democracy. This follows Leo Strauss’s idea that reasoned men are needed to control the passions of a less enlightened population. But Kristol is cynical towards citizens, or the public: Because we live in a democracy, there are times you need people on your side. But there is a difference between the present majority and what majority might be and changing majority opinion is risky and requires courage. It means convincing people to move from what they think to what they might think. This is not easily done when no one is listening.

Conclusion

The impact of conservatism has taken many turns and splits and even emulates the most liberal of thought. Conservatism crosses the lines over to liberalism simply because of the influences of such people as Reagan, which leaves many liberals afraid to reason with emotion of the other side. For the intellectual conservative, that fear of the use of reason is even more traumatic – what choice is there but to go along? There are ebbs and flows to political thought where emotion and religious morality, tend to temporarily grab the masses; and it seems that today’s conservatism is simply following a pattern. However, in an ever-small world dependent upon globalization and where democracies are springing up “everywhere”, in my opinion, it is more important than ever to do as William Kristol suggests and be courageous to use reason and intellect to save our democracy.

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