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Saturday, March 12, 2005



posted by Razib Khan at Saturday, March 12, 2005 permalink View blog reactions
Words have power. Those on the Left side of the political spectrum know this, for decades the world liberal was hurled at them as if it was an insult. Occassionally other appellations, from Communist to atheist to abortionist, popped up. Many on the Left objected to these definitions, an acknowledgement of the need for regulation is not tatamount to Communism, an espousal of a high wall of separation between church & state is not equivalent to atheism and finally, acceptance of the right of a woman to choose whether to have an abortion or not is not the same as performing the act.

The Right's demonization and mischaracterization of the Left has had two primary consequences. First, it has resulted in a string of tactical victories over the past two generations. Second, I believe it is fueled the degeneration of society-wide discourse and engagement. Words are the currency we use to communicate, and their short term debasement tends to have long term bitter yields.

That is why I am deeply disturbed by a trend I have noticed on the Left: to use the term neocon promiscuously as one of generalized opprobrium. Neocon seems now to be a catchall for the boogey-monsters of the Right. This flies in the face of fact of the reality that neoconservatives are a narrow group of intellectuals whose political position is noticeably distinct from other factions on the Right. There is a tendency among humans to simply condense those who stand in opposition from you into one group or faction. Tactically this may be wise, but in the interests of communication, dialogue and discourse it simply throws up a cloud of ignorance that obstructs genuine information exchange.

I knew that something was wrong when I saw the immigration restriction site VDARE characterized as "neocon" by the SPLC. You see, VDARE publishes several writers who excoriate neoconservatives. They have taken to calling National Review the "Goldberg Review" (after Jonah Goldberg), a swipe at the neocon (and concomitantly Jewish) ascendency at the magazine in recent years. VDARE has also published the anti-Semitic thinker Kevin MacDonald, whose beat is in large part "the Jewish Question." I also knew something was afoot when a very liberal neighbor of mine complained about the "neocons" at her workplace. I had discussed the situation with her enough to know that her objection was their subtle promotion of their evangelical Christian faith in the workplace, so her use of the term "neocon" seemed a bit off. A few days ago I read a Max Boot piece where he observed that The New York Times labelled a "Politically Incorrect" history book written from an isolationist, pro-Confederate and mildly racialist angle as "neocon."

These are all symptoms of a diease, and that disease is the debasement of language, terminology and the confounding of various elements of the Right. It is a reflection, in my mind of shortsightedness and an inability to take the long view, because the long view is premeated by the reality that we are all citizens of the same nation, and so to some extent in the same boat. That implies that we have to communicate and engage each other, and also practicipate in political coalitions. A condensation of the term "neocon" as being coterminus with the Right does nothing to foster these aims, rather, it offends both neocons and non-neocons on the Right and makes it clear that their political opponents take no interest in the detail or nuance of their position.

Before I proceed further, I want to stipulate that I am not a neoconservative. My own politics are mildly Rightish-libertarian (socially liberal, fiscally conservative, see my politican position here), but I tend to dissent from the neocons on a host of points, and frankly, I am not so sure that neocons are "conservatives" at all, but on this issue I will cede ground to societal consensus that puts them on the Right. My objection is to the abuses of language, and, a concern that practical alliances may be prevented because of inevitable misunderstandings and misperceptions based on the aforementioned abuses.

The very term neocon should highlight the reality that the term connotes a special sect or faction on the Right, for neocons are an arriviste gaggle. The older generation of neocons began on the Left, with many even being Trotksyites (according to Irving Kristol). Sometime around 1970 they began to become disillusioned with what they perceived were the excesses of the Great Society and the social decay being engendered by full bore liberalism. By the 1980s they shifted to the Right, though a substantial minority like late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ben Wattenberg remained Democrats.

But the neocon shift to the Right was not simply a reflection of their own ideological migration, they changed the center of gravity in the Right itself. The neocons, former Cold War liberals, brought an acceptance of the New Deal (Truman and FDR remain heroes in their constellation of greats) and an intolerance of racialism. Both these specific issues highlight a reality of current neocons: on economic and social issues they are relatively moderate, sometimes even liberal.

It is true that neocons were instrumental in laying the intellectual groundwork for the rollback of the welfare state, but remember that many of the reforms in the Great Society projects were enacted during the Clinton adminstration! Alas, the neocons are no fans of laissez faire, and Irving Kristol has even referred to libertarians as amoral "pagans." The neocon position is a realistic acceptance of the active hand of government, so it makes sense that recently it has morphed into a "National Greatness" movement which endorses government for patriotic nationalistic ends.

On social issues many of the older neocons were repulsed by what they saw as the excesses of the 1960s. Nevertheless, the newer generation seem rather open to gay marriage, some, like David Brooks seem to assume that it is a fait accompli, and they tend not to talk in heated tones about issues like abortion or pornography. From where I stand, it seems that both the Left and the Right have won the culture wars, the Left substantively, the Right rhetorically. We are a God-fearing nation which also produces a great deal of the world's pornography, we acknowledge that marriage is sacred, but also have very high divorce rates, and so on. The neocons seem relatively secure with this arrangement, the factions on the Right who are not as happy with this pleasant hypocrisy are driven by evangelical Christian religious fervor, something that is relatively alien to the neocons. Neocon conservatism on social issues like abortion, gay marriage or stem cell research seems more driven by a circumstantial prudence, rather than a principled objection to change it is more a pragmatic demand for a slower pace.

It is on the issue of foreign policy that it seems that the neocon boogey-man really earns his frights. There is little I want to say here, because I am suspicious of Empire myself. That being said, the conflation of "neocon" with the "Right" tends to ignore the reality that a substantial number of conservatives oppose Empire as well. By using terms like neocon to denigrate non-neocons, it closes off avenues of alliance, just as associating neocons with segregationists and creationists tends to turn them off on any collaboration with reforming the welfare state or promoting racial equality (the implication of course is that on the Right "anti-Imperial" rheotric and talking points tend to issue from quarters that are not particularly happy with the New Deal or the results of the Civil Rights Movement, you can't have the best of all worlds).

My personal feelings about the neocons are mixed. I am aghast at their naked Imperial aspirations, though I tend to not be wholly unsympathetic to their realist concerns when it comes to international terror and chaos. I am not totally at peace with their sanguine attitude toward big government, but I am in such a small minority of Americans that I have made my own separate peace with the reality of the Leviathan. But, on making racism unacceptable on the Right I think the neocons have done a lot of good (though that has come at the price of a somewhat excessive use of the anti-Semitic slur against those who disagree with them, but all good things have a price).

All I am asking is that people be careful about how they label others, because those labels have power to alter dynamics of possible future alliances or coalitions. Human beings are a collection of expressed discrete bits of DNA, and they are also a collection of disparate and only partly covarying ideas. Insults hurled without thought in one context can nullify a possible partnership in another. Several disagreemants do not imply a chasm across the full spectrum of possibilities. Other human beings are as three dimensional as you or I, textured and dripping with unexplored nuance. In a lesser fashion the same applies to political ideologies, but all too often the reality of this is only acknowledged for one's own place on the field of ideology (for oneself I suspect any given individual could string together 3-6 modifiers to express the particularity of their position, for those on the "other side" one modifier seems to do).


I think you're hinting at this, but there are lots of different kinds of neocons, too. You've got your Larry Kaplans and then you're got your Charles Krauthammers and Richard Perles. To say nothing of your Frankie Fukuyamas, William Kristols, and Robert Kagans, all of whom have different views (except for Kagan and Kristol, who are pretty similar).


sure, there are in reality hundreds of millions of political positions in the world. if you simply take a string of positions, and assume a 'yes' or a 'no,' you have myriad possibilities.

that being, there are clusters of concentrations in multidimensional political space. so how granular do you want to get? i tend to agree with francis fukuyama more than most of the other neocons because he is more empirical and realist (see his dust-up with krauthhamer over iraq), and less normative and ideological, from what i can see (i disagree with fukuyama on many things, for example on posthumanism, but knowing he is an aristotelian i can see the reasoning). but, there is only so much the public can digest.

as a first aproximation i think it is important that people start to be more cautious about mapping the two-party dichotomy on to a multi-ideological world. political blocks are important, but if you care about single political issues (stem cells for example bring together libertarians and modernist liberals on the one hand and to some extent neocons, religious conservatives and postmodern greeny liberals on the other) you can't let your political block consciousness blind you to fact that you're best served to cross the aisle now and then....


razib, I think that graph you pointed to (the libertarian derived construction of economic left/right versus social left/right) is missing a dimension - foreign policy left/right. Or foreign policy aggressive vs. non-aggressive.

For instance, Glenn Reynolds would be somewhere very close to you on the graph, but is IIRC a self-described neocon. I can't think of a significant issue I differ with Glenn on. i.e. He is more aggressive on foreign policy than you are.

But tell you what, I sure hope the republicans can handball the religious right crazies off to the democrats, although personally I don't see it happening.


tas, yeah, the foreign policy is a dimension often left off. the only issue though is that i think it is a variable that is rather erratic as a function of time, there are very few people who are pro-intervention in all circumstances and anti-intervention in all circumstances. there is a subjective nature to how you weight where you should intervene and the rationales given are often not predictive....


This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.



"often left off". Can you point me to a graph (would have to be three dimensional) where it is left on? For my own curiosity.

To my mind it seems like many of the same sorts of people who oppose things like vietnam, fight against communism also oppose Iraq etc. In addition it seems like the LP was against Kosovo intervention, and has stayed the course (as foreign policy leftists) in opposing Iraq.

Perhaps a better dichotomy is isolationist versus imperialist, for want of a better word. While not really imperialist in the sense of 19th century England, there is the extent of US influence abroad, even if we aren't selling Iraq's oil as our own.

It's still a useful way of looking at things, especially in these times. IMO it was the defining issue in the last election, it would be kind of dumb IMO to think you can describe a person's political stance without some reference to it. Witness the wholescale evacuation of 9/11 republicans from the Libertarians, for instance.

Of course, the LP aren't going to want that. If they have no hope of winning an election by use of their world's smallest political quiz propaganda tool, what hope have they got if they start self describing as economic right, social left and foreign policy left?

If time varying in individual people is a factor that would invalidate the utility of such a model, consider the wholescale change in politics that occurs with marriage (see Steve Sailer's marriage gap), or when a previously poor person finds themself with some money.


tas, you're describing the isolation tail. many liberals/democrats supported the kosovo invasion, but not iraq. many conservatives/republicans were against kosovo and in favor of iraq. the people who were consistent were outliers: libertarians (opposed always), peaceniks (opposed always) and neocons (they backed clinton both on bosnia and kosovo).


as for the time issue...yes, people often become pro-life or anti-tax as their circumstances change (the miracle of pregnancy, higher income, etc.). but, the question that you ask people, "do you support abortion on demand?" "are taxes too high" remain the same. on the other hand, a generic "do you support intervention abroad to defend american interests?" seems too open-ended (who doesn't?). but if you ask "do you support invasion in iraq?" the question would change constantly.


razib, Mark Novak sez--

"Then, too, the Left has developed a tic about neoconservatives. These former leftists (for a former leftist is what a neoconservative is, of the first generation anyway) do have a vision of the future, a bright vision to rival that of the Left. They fight the Left, ideology for ideology, policy proposal for policy proposal, class analysis for class analysis. The neoconservatives side with the conservatives on most issues, but with an attitude, and an aim, and a determination. They are, in the life of the intellect, warriors. Their sharpest weapon is the reality check. That is their comparative advantage over the Left. They have been “mugged by” and won over to reality."

According to that definition, I might be a neocon. But the Politcal Compass says i am a libertarian. Still, i am in general in favor of the pre-emptive strike. Because of sims and modelling-- you always have to weigh the cost of inaction against the cost of action.
So maybe i am a statistician/libertarian, and we support the war in Iraq.

Still, Novaks statement points the oppositionary model you and Aziz try to avoid.


Umm, adversarial model, i like that better. ;)



Neocons have made their peace with big government, along with a slew of other things. Neocons also tend to take up pragmatic concerns about issues such as creationism in order to create a consensus and prevent the political right from tearing itself apart in internecine ideological battles concerning what they consider to be trivial issues that may undermine their more far-reaching political objectives.

Generally, you'd probably be better off calling yourself a neo-libertarian. I've called myself a libertarian a lot in my life, although I've become much more oriented towards ideas of "national greatness" as time has gone by and have been disillusioned by the libertarian movement. Defining myself in one or two words is damn near impossible anymore, so I just describe myself as a "libertarian conservative" anymore. It's broad and it works. If one must choose a label for themselves, it's best to confound those who want to label you and have them ask your positions instead of walking into their trap where they can easily attack you as a "neocon."

Good post, btw, Razib. Over at Majority Rights, they're demonstrating again why the neocons purged them from the movement (thank god):


arcane, you are right-- it would be very hard for me accept Creationism in any circumstances.
But I'm a neocon as far as foreign policy and interventionism go. That's a survival issue. When you get your first clearance you'll understand. ;)


I think the issue here is not that using the neocon as an abuse debases the language; as you said, republicans have benefited from making 'liberal' a derogatory term. The democrats want to win elections too, so there's no point in being holier-than-thou on this point. If labeling your opponent a neocon is a good way for democrats to win elections (I don't know if this is the case), then they should consider using it. Neocons themselves aren't exactly above smear tactics, either.

It's more interesting to me to try to answer why the term neocon (who, as you demonstrate, differ from the democrats less than other republican factions) is reserved as a term of abuse (if this is so). Is it the neocons' apostasy from liberalism which infuriates their opponents? their dominant ethnicity? their intellectual combativeness? what exactly?


praktike, I think Dr. Krauthammer calls people like me (and like himself), "democratic realists" on the foreign policy angle. From Democratic Realism.
here's the pdf:



I prefer to call myself some sort of libertarianish or libertoid hawk at the moment.

I guess a person has to ask what a tool like the world's smallest political quiz attempts to accomplish? Is it a propaganda tool or is it somehow useful to map political leanings of populations at a given point in time and find out quickly how a person is likely to vote?

To the extent that it has found currency outside the libertarian movement I'd argue the latter. I certainly have found the quiz useful, but a meaningful discussion involving a 2 dimensional quiz in politics these days is like discussing gun laws without discussing race.

With such an isolationist/interventionist set of questions, you are going to see massive shifts after any direct attack on a country, for example pre-WW1 and WW2 there were huge pacifist movements that got a rude awakening when war broke out.

Such questions might include:
-Do you support pre-emptive strikes on enemies of your country?
-Do you think empire building is ever in the national interest?
-Do you support a closed border as part of the national interest? (This question is usually in the social category of the quiz IIRC)
-Do you think the UN should have final say over the actions of your country?
-Is it sometimes necessary to act as the world's policeman? (US only)



You have a pretty good little set of criteria there for a political quiz. I'm not a big fan of the world's smallest political quiz, since it is purposely designed to make people think they are libertarians based on just a few issues that most people in America take for granted; to put it simply, it's an LP recruiting tool.

I've seen three dimensional political compasses before, but it's damn near impossible to write up a script for one, unless you're like a video game programmer, so nobody has done anything. The guy who made the world's smallest political quiz developed one, I think.

You might also want to look up the Vosem Chart... again, nobody knows how to write up a script for such a thing.

Anyways, about one of the issues you mentioned: closing off the border as part of the national interest. On this issue, neocons take a libertarian position: they support both open borders and free trade. So on this you have to take economic positions into account, because one can support closed borders and free trade (conservatives), or closed borders and "fair trade" (paleocons and some organized labor), or open borders and free trade (libertarians and neocons), or open borders and "fair trade" (leftists). And then of course you have the moderates...


All this nice talk ignores the fact that the power-neocons (wolf, feith, perle, etc.) committed fraud on the American people in order to get us into the Iraq war.

This goes beyond legitimate policy debate. These people are dishonest.

The neocons wanted to go into Iraq as early as 1996 – see the clean break paper. They were lobbying for invasion of Iraq years before the 9/11 event.

And according to Richard Clarke they lobby for invasion of Iraq after 9/11 before invasion of Afghanistan!!!

They spread all the false stories of WMD including discredited stories of uranium cakes, "tubes" and just flat out saying “we know they have WMD”.

Wolfowitz consistently played down the effort necessary to control Iraq. They were obsessed.

These people are dishonest and don't deserve the respect accorded to normal policymakers.


"VDARE has also published the anti-Semitic thinker Kevin MacDonald, whose beat is in large part "the Jewish Question.""

Lol, I'm sorry, you were saying something about labels? Hypocrite.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.