“Neoconservatism” is a contentious term, but it’s useful as a description of a movement that attempts to moderate and so stabilize liberal modernity. In particular, neoconservatism accepts both the modern aspiration to reform all things and bring them in line with clear universal principles, and the liberal choice of freedom, equality and efficiency as the principles that are to be made authoritative.
What defines the post-60s public world is unreserved acceptance of liberal modernity. Neoconservatism is the only kind of conservatism that can appear reasonable or even sane in such a world. Domination of popular conservatism by neoconservatives should therefore come as no surprise. A movement must be able to explain itself to the educated public, and other forms of conservatism can’t do so because under accepted principles of public discussion their views are evil or insane. The point is illustrated by David Frum’s recent article attacking paleoconservatives, in which he is able without argument to treat beliefs that ethnicity matters, and that there are standards by which the actually-existing polity can be found wanting, as proof of unfitness for participation in public life.
What gives neoconservatism somewhat of a conservative tinge is that it recognizes that at some point liberal principles become self-destructive. Neoconservatives therefore define freedom and equality in less ambitious ways than liberals in an attempt to make them consistent with a stable and orderly society. They praise Martin Luther King to the skies as a hero of equality, but their MLK is one who favors moral restraint and the merit standard. Long-term social well-being, they believe, urgently requires such a Martin Luther King. Their entire project thus depends on their ability to determine the content and meaning of accepted political concepts and symbols.
It follows that for ambitious intellectuals and publicists neoconservatism has a special appeal. It demands that public life be based on uniform rational principles interpreted in a particular way that most people don’t accept as a matter of course. If follows that it requires centralization of education, and of intellectual and cultural life, so that the necessary principles can be correctly articulated and explained and continuously inculcated. It also demands that inconsistent views be squashed. A necessary consequence is to give a great deal of importance to those who are in a position to define the principles and their meaning, and who have a taste for squashing. Hence, among other manifestations, the Frum article.