The terms neo-conservatism and conservatism are often used interchangeably, but the two have very different meanings. It may help to distinguish other forms of political ideology to explain what neo-conservative means. For example, the term “paleo” conservative represents the “Old Right” or traditional conservatives, while “neo” conservative refers to new or modern conservatives.
The latter appears oxymoronic in that conservative means to conserve, or preserve, traditional ways or views. The terms new and traditional simply do not gel. What many find surprising is the fact that the man known as “the godfather of neo-conservatism” was politically left of center, although this fact does help clarify the issue. Using the term neo-conservative is rather like saying liberal-conservative.
The man dubbed the godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, was liberal but apparently couldn’t find what he was looking for on the left. He didn’t find it on the right either, so he essentially molded an ideology that combined various philosophies. He wrote more than one book of note on the topic of neo-conservatism and was extremely influential in advancing the neo-conservative movement.
His son William Kristol, is probably most well known for his role as editor of The Weekly Standard. The publication is considered by many to be conservative, although adding the “neo” prefix is more accurate. The younger Kristol describes a neo-conservative individual as a liberal mugged by reality. William Kristol is also the chairman and co-founder of PNAC, the Project for a New American Century. PNAC is represented as a think tank, and one of its self-proclaimed goals is to provide “a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad.”
Congressman Ron Paul has used the shortened version of the term neo-conservative, “neocon,” on several occasions to describe those who support government solutions to social problems as well as foreign interventionism. In a speech on the House floor titled, “Neo-Conned!” which is now part of the Congressional Record, he said, “In many ways, there’s nothing "neo" about their views, and certainly nothing conservative.”
The neo-conservative ideology embraces interventionism if perceived as being to America’s benefit. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in committing American wealth and might only when presented with a true and imminent threat or an attack on America or its allies. Paleo-conservatives do not embrace involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, nor do they espouse policing the world, “spreading democracy,” or nation building.
The differences between the paleo-conservative and neo-conservative wings of the Republican Party are many and varied. Thus, to be accurate in discussion of conservatism it is important to differentiate between traditional and “New Deal” conservatives.