To speak of the “birth and death of the neoconservative movement” would be a misnomer.
After all, there was no such movement. Rather, as Irving Kristol argues, neoconservatism is a 'persuasion,' a persuasion that happened to find its intellectual attitudes in favor after 9/11. After all, George W. Bush ran his first campaign on domestic issues (remember "compassionate conservatism"?), not on the muscular foreign policy that he adopted after 9/11.
But what exactly is the "neoconservative persuasion?" And what future does it hold? And where did it come from, anyway? Is it really a cabal of Jewish thinkers who would want to sell out America for Israel's interests? And does it have much of a future?
Those are the questions that The Neocon Reader, an excellent set of essays by neoconservatives (and a few friendly dissenters), seeks to answer.
As neoconservatives have largely been identified by their foreign policy, the essay includes essays on what neoconservatives think about domestic issues, including the economy and social mores. But even that is putting it too strong: as numerous articles point out, neoconservatives sometimes disagree with each other about both foreign and domestic policy. If nothing else, they are under a big tent.
What, then, is neoconservatism?
For one, neoconservatives are generally more comfortable putting more restrictive power in the hands of the state than libertarians would allow. Hence Irving Kristol's classic and self-explanatorily titled, “Pornography, Obscenity, and the Case for Censorship.”
With respect to foreign policy, neoconservatives are "neo-Wilsonians" in that they support the spread of liberal democracy to countries around the world. However, they differ from what Max Boot describes as "soft Wilsonians" in that they place their confidence in American power to promote liberal democracy, rather than international organizations. But promoting liberal democracy isn't pure altruism--rather, they see it as in America's best interest to have liberal democracies thrive.
Undergirding the neoconservative position that liberal democracy is good for everyone is a philosophical commitment to universal human values. If liberal democracy has been good for America, it will be good for the Middle East. Hence the support of Israel.
With respect to the economy, neoconservatives focus on economic growth, which means removing the budget deficit from the center of economic theory and cutting taxes even when the deficit increases.
Such descriptions are grossly simplified, and doubtlessly untrue of certain neoconservatives. Numerous essayists point out the diversity within the neocon persuasion.
In all, The Neocon Reader is a book worth owning. Not only does it demystify neoconservatism, it does so by providing an interesting historical snapshot of an ideology that has had a profound impact on American culture and politics.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.