This course takes a close look at the two great rival partisan interpretations of liberal democracy in America. We trace the development of the left from the rise of progressivism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the implementation of FDR’s New Deal in the second third of the twentieth century, its expansion in LBJ’s Great Society programs, and President Barack Obama’s ambitious domestic agenda designed to further expand government’s reach and responsibilities. To understand the right, we concentrate on the emergence in post-World War II America of several strands of conservative thought—libertarianism, social conservatism, and neoconservatism—and then consider these various strands as they receive expression in the speeches of President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush.

Photo by “Campaign Buttons” by L. Allen Brewer | Flickr, CC BY 2.0

James Ceaser on Our Parties


Peter Berkowitz

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in America, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.

James W. Ceaser

James W. Ceaser is Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1976, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.  He has written several books on American politics and political thought, including Presidential Selection and Liberal Democracy and Political Science.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might one want to build or reconstruct society on the basis of reason?
  2. Why might one want to respect the organic growth of societies and the wisdom embodied in tradition?
  3. How does constitutional government reconcile the claims of reason and tradition?
  4. Is America’s founding (the revolution, the claim of rights in the Declaration, and the writing of the Constitution) more rationalist than traditionalist? If so, how is the support of these often considered more “conservative” today? Does the American founding represent another kind of conservatism than the European form?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the meaning of the idea that history progresses? Do you accept the proposition that things have gotten better? Does the record of the twentieth century provide evidence in favor of or against the idea?
  2. What, in terms of American politics, is progressivism?
  3. What is the progressive’s critique of the Founding? In what way was the Founding, especially the Constitution, inadequate?
  4. In what ways does the Port Huron statement capture the spirit of liberalism? In what ways does it depart from it?
  5. Compare and contrast progressivism with liberalism. How do both inform contemporary partisan debates?

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