Nowadays, the term neoconservative is bandied about to refer to those who believe in the projection of power abroad in order to deter disorder, or else more cheaply it can mean either “a conservative I don’t like,” or, even more invidiously, a Jewish conservative. But the group of mostly—but not exclusively—Jewish writers and thinkers to whom the term was originally applied in the 1970s had a discrete set of ideas pertaining primarily to domestic policy. Theodore Kupfer explains how they came to these ideas, and their relevance to today’s ideological battles:
Nineteen sixty-five, the historian Justin Vaisse submits, is the earliest plausible year that neoconservatism can be said to have been born. That was when Daniel Bell, then a professor at Columbia, and Irving Kristol, then a professor at NYU, started The Public Interest, a high-brow public-policy magazine with limited circulation. Bell and Kristol had technocratic ambitions. They wanted to use cutting-edge social science to explore the intractable problems of the era. In the first issue, editors Kristol and Bell summarized their intended approach: “It is the nature of ideology to preconceive reality, and it is exactly such preconceptions that are the worst hindrances to knowing-what-one-is-talking about.”
The statement of purpose recalled Bell’s 1960 The End of Ideology, which declared that totalitarian political projects such as Fascism and Communism had run out of steam and that the future lay in a humbler, more pragmatic approach to governance. It also reflected Kristol’s recent encounter with Leo Strauss’s exposition of Aristotle, charting an approach to politics that, instead of interpreting the world through abstract universals, would grapple with facts as they came.
By 1967 The Public Interest began moving from case-by-case evaluation of public policy to the data-driven skepticism that became its hallmark. “Managing social problems was harder than we thought,” reflected Nathan Glazer years later, because “people and society were more complicated than we thought.” . . . . And the magazine began publishing pessimistic assessments of federal programs. Glazer wrote a 30-page analysis of Great Society housing policy, concluding, in a characteristic formulation, that “It has done little for a substantial minority of poor families who have not had the resources to achieve what the society considers (and they do, too) minimally desirable housing.”