The story of American politics in the twentieth century cannot be told without reference to the conservative movement. This collection of journalists, policy experts, activists, and politicians, and the journals and institutions around which they congregated, had a decisive impact on the Republican Party and on the country that is still being felt today. Indeed, so successful was modern American conservatism in reorienting the intellectual and political direction of the country that its opponents have sought to emulate its tactics if not its goals.

Whence did this movement arise? How did the ideas and arguments put forth in obscure magazines come to shape the worldview and policy of American presidents and congressional leaders? Who were the principal intellectual figures of the conservative movement, and how did they seek to influence American elites? Through a close reading of essays, opinion pieces, and political speeches, students will trace how the principles of conservative leaders have been translated into concrete reality. Students will recall the biographies and histories of important conservative figures and publications such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, Irving Kristol’s Public Interest, Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary, and Robert Bartley’s Wall Street Journal. And they will reflect on what the story of that movement might teach us about the status and prospects of conservative thought and practice today.

This course will consist of two sessions per day over a two-week period. The first week will cover the early years of the conservative movement, with sessions on libertarianism, traditionalism, anti-Communism, and the founding of National Review. The second week will cover the 1960s to the present day, with sessions on neoconservatism, populism, the religious right, and the current conservative moment.

Images courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential LibraryNARA

Matthew Continetti on conservative intellectuals

Faculty

Matthew Continetti

Matthew Continetti is Editor in Chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was Opinion Editor of The Weekly Standard, where he remained a Contributing Editor. 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

Recommended Reading:

To learn more about the figures covered in this course, we encourage you to visit ContemporaryThinkers.org, a website devoted to the ideas and influence of pioneering intellectuals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Sponsored by the Hertog Foundation, ContemporaryThinkers.org includes sites devoted to Irving Kristol, Edward C. Banfield, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, and many others.

 

Readings:

 

Video:

 

Magazines:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the circumstances that led to the classical liberal revival?
  2. What is classical liberalism? Is Hayek correct that it is not conservative? Why or why not?
  3. What is the relationship of economic freedom to political freedom?
  4. What is the attitude of classical liberals toward democracy? Toward the masses?

Readings:

 

Video:

 

Magazines:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the crisis of modernity? What aspects or propensities of modern life contribute to this crisis?
  2. Consider the following themes in each of the readings:
    1. the intellectual mistakes or vices characteristic of modern thought (e.g., “rationalism,” “nominalism,” “gnosticism,” “relativism,” and “historicism”),
    2. the importance of liberal and political education,
    3. the return to classical or Christian models of wisdom,
    4. the role of religion and its relationship to philosophy and politics
  3. What similarities do you find in the various authors’ diagnoses of the modern condition? What differences? What prescriptions do they offer?
  4. Does conservatism have a foundational principle—e.g., tradition, revealed religion, natural right?

Readings:

 

Videos:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. According to Burnham, what is the “key” to the current political situation? Why is it so difficult to identify, particularly in America?
  2. What are the special features of the Cold War? What makes the Cold War different from other wars of the past?
  3. How did the struggle against Communism shape American conservatism? Why is Burnham anti-Communist? Why is Chambers?

Readings:

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the “second wave” of neoconservatism? How did foreign policy come to occupy a central place in neoconservative thought?
  2. How do American values influence American foreign policy? Should they?

Readings:

 

Videos:

 

Magazine:

  • Conservative Digest (1975–89), out of publication

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the situation of the conservative movement in the 1970s?
  2. What was the “New Right”? How did it break with the “old” Right?
  3. What is the attitude of the “New Right” toward government intervention in the economy? When is government intervention justified?
  4. What is the foreign policy of the “New Right”? How does it conceive of America’s role in the world?
  5. What was Reagan’s vision for a “New Republican Party”? How did he propose to bring together the “two different conservative constituencies?”

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