What spurs ideological conversions? How do intellectuals who hold strong political views come to change their minds and adopt different — sometimes opposing — views?

In this online seminar, led by American Enterprise Institute fellow Matthew Continetti, students will track the ideological odysseys of five prominent intellectuals who broke ranks with their fellow partisans. Students will survey thinkers who journeyed from Left to Right (Whittaker Chambers, Norman Podhoretz, and Christopher Hitchens) and from Right to Left (George Will and Francis Fukuyama). In so doing, they will meditate on the nature of political ideology and identity, the conflicting pull of loyalty and dissent, and the larger shifts in American political and intellectual life over the last generation.

Images originally from Washington Post, Gobierno de Chile, Fred Palumbo, New York Times, & Commentary Magazine.

Matthew Continetti on the Future of the Conservative Movement

Faculty

Matthew Continetti

Matthew Continetti is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Prior to joining AEI, he was Editor in Chief of the Washington Free Beacon. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

  • Daniel Oppenheimer, Ch. 1, Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century (2016)
  • Whittaker Chambers, “The Direct Glance,” in ed. William F. Buckley, Jr., Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (1970), pp. 489–509

Suggested Viewing:

Discussion Questions:

  1. What drew Chambers to membership in the Communist Party? What pushed him away from the Party and from communism?
  2. What does Chambers identify as “the problem of man in this century”? And what is his answer to it?
  3. To what degree did Chambers’ personality change along with his politics?

Readings:

  • Oppenheimer, Ch. 4, Exit Right
  • Andrew Ferguson, “Making It Final,” The American Spectator, July 1995
  • Norman Podhoretz, “From Breaking Ranks: Prologue” and “From Breaking Ranks: Postscript,” in ed. Thomas L. Jeffers, The Norman Podhoretz Reader (2003)

Suggested Viewing:

Discussion Questions:  

  1. Why did Norman Podhoretz admire Norman Mailer? How did this admiration relate to Podhoretz’s ambitions and journey?
  2. What role did “the politics of interest” play in Podhoretz’s ideological transition?
  3. What is the connection Podhoretz draws between the politics of interest and the preservation of political liberty?
  4. What is Podhoretz’s explanation for radicalism? Where does he see radicalism in the postscript of Breaking Ranks? Where might he see it today?

Readings:

  • Oppenheimer, Ch. 6, Exit Right
  • Andrew Ferguson, “Naughty Boy,” Washingtonian, November 1993
  • Christopher Hitchens, “Against Rationalization,” “Taking Sides,” and “So Long, Fellow Travelers,” in eds. Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left, pp. 44–46, 101–08

Suggested Viewing:

Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe the personal and political qualities that made Hitchens unique in 1980s Washington, DC.
  2. What role did Hitchens’s personal commitments have in his support for the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq?
  3. Did Christopher Hitchens leave the Left, or did the Left, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, leave him?
  4. What values did Hitchens absorb from the Left – and were these values compatible with those of the Right?

Readings:

  • Wesley Yang, “Democracy and Its Discontents,” Esquire, October 17, 2018
  • Francis Fukuyama, “The Neoconservative Moment,” The National Interest, Summer 2004, pp. 57–68
  • Charles Krauthammer, “In Defense of Democratic Realism,” The National Interest, Fall 2004, pp. 15–25
  • Francis Fukuyama, “After Neoconservatism,” The New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2006

Suggested Viewing:

  • Francis Fukuyama, “In Depth,” CSPAN BookTV, March 5, 2006

Discussion Questions:    

  1. What provoked Fukuyama’s break with neoconservatism?
  2. What do you make of the Krauthammer/Fukuyama debate? Who scored the most points?
  3. What is Fukuyama’s general critique of neoconservatism? How is it different from or similar to other critiques on the Left and Right?
  4. Are we still living in the end of History?

Readings:

  • Andrew Ferguson, “The Greatness of George F. Will,” The Weekly Standard, October 12, 2017
  • Kristen East, “George Will Leaves the GOP,” Politico, June 25, 2016
  • George F. Will, “The Tempting of America,” Newsweek, December 4, 1989
  • George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft (1983), pp. 122–39
  • George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility (2019), pp. 155–207, 227–39

Suggested Viewing:

Discussion Questions:  

  1. Explain why George Will opposes Donald Trump, and how that opposition affected his decision to leave the Republican Party.
  2. What is the difference between the jurisprudential views expressed in Will’s review of Robert Bork’s book and those in his own Conservative Sensibility? Do you agree with Will’s assertion of a difference between “judicial activism” and “judicial engagement”?
  3. Why did George Will change his mind on the virtues promoted in a commercial society? Which George Will presents the best evidence for his compelling case?
  4. Reflect on the relationship between personality and ideology expressed in the lives of all of our subjects. Did people change, or did circumstances change?
  5. Which of our subjects changed the substance of their views, and which simply found themselves in a new political orientation based on the flow of events?

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