Rauchway describes Gray as arguing that Thatcherite neoliberals assumed that reducing the size of the state and empowering markets would reinvigorate a mannered, respectable and traditionally moral middle-class culture within Britain. Instead, one of the fruits of neoliberalism on the domestic front was a less judgemental, more tolerant society that was even more socially and culturally decentralized than the post-1968 society the Thatcherites looked on with distaste. This, to Gray, explains the rise of neoconservative enthusiasm for state interventions into social, cultural and moral concerns.
With adaptations, this argument seems useful in the United States as well. For me, one of the key convergences of the last two decades in American political life has been in arguments used by a culturalist right and a culturalist left. Both factions assume that the only way to explain why many Americans do not “naturally” favor their own vision of naturally moral behavior is that the state and civic institutions are pervasively meddling with mass consciousness. Both groups ended up being challenged by the results of neoliberalism or deregulation of key social and cultural marketplaces.
In some cases, the consequence is that activists scurry back to brute-force conceptions of ideology or tradition, agreeing that in fact human beings do not naturally favor some ideal moral or social practice and must be compelled to do so in the strongest possible terms. In other cases, it leads to a desperate scavenger hunt for something, anything, that has yet to be subjected to neoliberal policy. Or, as in the case of some neoconservatives and communitarian liberals, to a belief that the state needs to reinvigorate its role as moral guardian and enforcer.
In terms of American conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, though, these kinds of shifts either mean that the foundational claims and intellectual waypoints that conservatives claimed as their own were never offered with genuine seriousness or that a lot of conservatives got cold feet once a more deregulated society actually presented itself to their view. If you only cite Edmund Burke when you’re trying to keep federal or state governments from enforcing racial desegregation (as some conservatives did in the 1970s and 1980s) but enthusiastically call for the use of centralized power to forcibly transform everyday life and practice when it is your own favored issues at stake, then you’re not a conservative, you’re just looking for a fig leaf to cover a defense of racism. If you’re all for neoliberalism until you find out that what people want, you don’t want them to want, you’re not much of a defender of free markets.