July 22 – August 4, 2018

Varieties of American Conservatism

Washington, DC
Application Deadline
February 12, 2018
Apply Now
Part of our 7-week Political Studies Program. Apply for this course or our full summer program. $1,000 stipend, plus course materials and housing.

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.

Time and Location
This two-week course will take place in Washington, DC. It is a full-time commitment for Monday–Friday, with required sessions in the morning, afternoon, and some evenings.




Week I

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.


Discussion Questions:

“The Relation of Economic Freedom and Political Freedom”

1. Why, in Friedman’s view, is capitalism a necessary condition for political freedom?

2. Why is “freedom of exchange” so crucial in protecting individual liberty?

3. What are the lessons Friedman intends by his “hypothetical example” on p. 16?

4. How does the market ensure freedom of thought?

“The Role of Government in a Free Society”

1. When is coercion of individuals by the government justified, according to Friedman?

2. Why is absolute freedom impossible?

3. What is Friedman’s example of railroads in the US meant to show about monopoly power?

4. How do Friedman’s examples illustrate the limits of privatization? When should a domain of the economy be nationalized in Friedman’s view?

5. What is the “paternalistic ground for governmental activity”? Why is some measure of paternalism necessary?


Discussion Questions:

“The Errors of Ideology”

1. What is ideology?

2. What are the three vices of ideology, according to Kirk? Why is ideology attractive?

3. How does Kirk distinguish the conservative from the ideologue? Why can’t conservatism be reduced to an ideology?

“10 Conservative Principles”

1. What is “the principle of prescription”? How is it related to the permanent moral order, according to Kirk?

2. What makes a tradition good, according to Kirk? How does one know when a tradition is just?

3. Why does the notion that man is imperfectible make one conservative?

4. Why must conservatives be in favor of restraints on liberty?


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. Why are the two “dramatic episodes” of 1956 (the “East European affair” and the “Suez episode”) significant?

4. What is “peaceful coexistence”?

5. What is at stake in the Vietnam War? How is it a “turning point”?


Discussion Questions:

1. What does Kendall mean when he claims that our politics tend to be “low-key” politics?

2. What were the “high-key” quarrels that Americans engaged in during the past? What do they have in common?

3. Why were McCarthyites and anti-McCarthyites so “mad” about McCarthyism? What are the three “easy” answers that Kendall offers? Why is Kendall not convinced by each answer?

4. What is the “correct” answer? What, according to Kendall, was the “original” and deepest issue that divided McCarthyites from anti-McCarthyites in the debate over Communism? How and why was that issue superseded by the second issue of whether Communism posed a “clear and present danger”?


Discussion Questions:

“Founding Documents”

1. What is the “liberal orthodoxy,” according to Buckley?

2. What are the conservative convictions, according to Buckley? Do they differ from Kirk? Do they differ from Friedman?

“Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”

1. Why is conservatism so hard to define?

2. Why is Ayn Rand’s philosophy incompatible with conservatism, according to Buckley and Chambers?

3. What is problematic about the extreme distrust of the state?

4. What was the John Birch Society? What are Buckley’s objections to it?

5. What are the three distinctive “American patterns of thought” (pp. xxxvii–xl)?

Week II


Discussion Questions:

“Autobiographical Memoir”

1. What effect did Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling have on Irving Kristol?

2. What was the “most controversial” essay of Kristol’s career? Why was it so controversial?

3. Upon what grounds did Kristol object to “social democracy cum liberalism” of the 1950s?

4. What is “supply-side” economics? How did it challenge the dominant economic thinking of the 1970s and 1980s?

“Forty Good Years”

1. What is “neoconservatism”? How does it break with the old conservatism?


Discussion Questions:

“Message from MARs”

1. Who are the MARs? What “attitudinal quality” defines them?

2. Who are members of the “elite”? What opinions define them? How did the elite come to dominate American life?

3. What do the MARs and the “New Right” seek? Why are large corporations enemies of the MARs?

4. What is the attitude of the “New Right” toward government intervention in the economy? When is government intervention justified?

5. What is the foreign policy of the “New Right”? How does it conceive of America’s role in the world?

“The Future of American Politics”

1. What did the “emerging Republican majority” look like in 1968? How and why was George Wallace attractive?


Discussion Questions:

“Evangelicals and Catholics Together”

1. Why should evangelicals and Catholics unite toward common political ends? What are those ends (see especially the section “We Contend Together”)?


1. What is the “culture of life”?

2.Why do the claims of Catholics and evangelicals in the public sphere not violate the “separation of church and state”?

3.What is the “culture of death”? What are the causes of our society’s drift towards “the culture of death”?


Discussion Questions:

“Universal Dominion”

1. What was the developing split between conservatives after the fall of the Soviet Union? What was the split on the left?

2. How will those cleavages be overcome, according to Krauthammer?

3. Why is the isolationist position inadequate?

4. Why should one prefer a “unipolar world”?

“America First—and Second—and Third”

1. What are the grounds for preferring isolationism over universalism?

2. Why should America not engage in democracy promotion?


Discussion Questions:

“Rise of the alt-Right”

1. What is the doctrine of the alt-Right? Does it have any unifying idea or shared principles?

2. How and why did the alt-Right emerge, according to McConnell?

3. What does Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations reveal about the rise of Trump (and the alt-Right)?

“One Nation, After All”

1. What are the causes of the dysfunction of our national politics, according to Levin?

2. Is polarization an adequate explanation for our contemporary dysfunction?

3. Why should public policy in the twenty-first century be more “diverse, dispersed, and diffuse”? What is “subsidiarity”?

4. What are the three kinds of limits that the “hyper-individualist, twenty-first-century notion of liberty” seeks to overcome?

5. Why have the conservative objections to the understanding of liberal society espoused by Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey “not reached the root of the problem”? What is the “highly individualist conservative idea of liberty”?

6. What “formative social and cultural institutions” ought conservatives commit themselves to and why?

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