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.
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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.
- George Nash, excerpt from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, pp. 1-10
- Milton Friedman, “The Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom,” from Capitalism and Freedom (2002)
- Milton Friedman, “The Role of Government in a Free Society,” from Capitalism and Freedom (2002)
“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?
- George Nash, excerpt from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, pp. 67-74
- Russell Kirk, “The Errors of Ideology” and “10 Conservative Principles,” from The Politics of Prudence (1993)
“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?
- George Nash, excerpt from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, pp. 88-95, 114-116
- James Burnham, “Communism,” in American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by William F. Buckley Jr.
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”?
- George Nash, excerpt from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, pp. 240-246
- Willmoore Kendall, “McCarthyism: The Pons Asinorum of Contemporary Conservatism,” from The Conservative Affirmation (1963)
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”?
- Lee Edwards, “Standing Athwart History: The Political Thought of William F. Buckley Jr.,” First Principles Series Report #29, The Heritage Foundation, May 2010
- William F. Buckley, “Introduction,” from Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? (1970)
- William F. Buckley, “Statement of Principles,” National Review, November 19, 1955
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)?
- George Nash, Excerpt from The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1996), pp. 343–46
- Irving Kristol, “Autobiographical Memoir,” from The Neoconservative Persuasion (2011)
- Irving Kristol, “Forty Good Years,” from The Neoconservative Persuasion (2011)
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?
- Alan Crawford, “Antielitism and the New Class Warfare,” ch. 6 from Thunder on the Right (1980)
- Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Why the New Right Lost,” in Commentary, February 1977
- Samuel Francis, “Message from MARs: The Social Politics of the New Right,” from Conservatism in America since 1930 (2003)
- Kevin L. Phillips, “The Future of American Politics,” Modern Age, Summer 1970
“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?
- Ross Douthat, “Resistance,” from Bad Religion (2012)
- “Evangelicals and Christians Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” from Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty (2015), pp. 6–23
- “Chapter 6: Pro-life,” from Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty (2015)
“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”?
- John Judis, “The Conservative Crackup,” The American Prospect, Fall 1990
- Charles Krauthammer, “Universal Dominion,” from America’s Purpose: New Visions of U.S. Foreign Policy, Owen Harries (1991)
- Patrick J. Buchanan, “America First—And Second—And Third,” from America’s Purpose: New Visions of U.S. Foreign Policy, Owen Harries (1991)
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?
- Scott McConnell, “Rise of the alt-Right,” The American Conservative, October 31, 2016
- Yuval Levin, “One Nation, After All,” from The Fractured Republic (2016)
“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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ADAM J. WHITE
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution based in Washington, DC, writing on the Constitution, regulation, and the courts. He is also executive director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
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 remains a contributing editor.
Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a senior editor of The New Atlantis, and a contributing editor of National Review and The Weekly Standard.