Lessons From 100 Years of American Conservatism
Matthew Continetti, a journalist and historian of American conservatism, is currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He joins this Saturday edition of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his new book “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”
Continetti’s book covers the history of American conservatism stretching back to the 1920s and the presidencies of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, making thought-provoking observations.
“I’m looking at how the intellectuals, the writers, the thinkers, the economists responded to politics; how they influence politics; how they reacted to political developments,” Continetti says. “And then I’m also looking at how the institutional Republican Party, how did it fit into this picture? What conservative ideas did it adopt? How did it begin to regain its majority after the New Deal era?”
Much of the conservative movement is led by The Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center campus in Washington, and the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life. The challenge is for these institutions to help provide policy solutions rooted in a populist conservatism that is grounded in constitutional institutions.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Richard Reinsch: Today, we’re talking with Matthew Continetti, author of the new book “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.” Matthew Continetti is a journalist, an intellectual historian of American conservatism. He’s the founding editor of The Washington Free Beacon. He’s currently a columnist for Commentary Magazine. He’s also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of a couple of books, including “The Persecution of Sarah Palin” and “The K Street Gang.” Matthew, welcome to The Daily Signal. And thank you for joining us to discuss this new book.
Matthew Continetti: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Reinsch: So, Matt, thinking about the subtitle of this book, it sparks a question, “The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism,” that would put us back in the 1920s as a basis for evaluating contemporary conservatism. Why start in this decade?
Continetti: Sure. I began to write in the 1920s for a couple of reasons. The first is that I wanted to provide a sort of pre-history of American conservatism. Many of the standard accounts of the history of the American right begin at the end of the Second World War, really starting with the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.” And then they carry on through and most of the standard accounts culminate either with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, or perhaps as a coda with Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
So I wanted to widen the lens. I wanted to take into account not only what had happened prior to America’s entry into the Second World War, but also everything that has happened since Reagan’s election, since Barack Obama’s election, since Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
The second reason I began in the 1920s was the 1920s was a decade where progressivism found itself confined to one political party. Prior to 1920, the philosophy of progressivism, the rule by experts social uplift through the agencies of government, it was really in the air and there were Democratic progressives and there were Republican progressives. But with the election of Warren Harding in 1920, and then through the Coolidge presidency and the rest of the decade, the Republican Party was aligned against progressive philosophy, right? So you could see the beginnings of American conservatism in the rejection of progressivism.
And the third reason, briefly why I began in the 1920s was when you look at the GOP of the 1920s and what it stood for, you see, in my view, some similarities to what the GOP of the 2020 is standing for.
Reinsch: It was interesting also, I think you start with the 1920s, and I think you briefly touched on it in your answer. It may be that if we only look at American conservatism from the standpoint of the postwar period, which is American conservatism, that is Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, but of course, he’s famously appealing to Edmund Burke and to certain British conservative ideas. Robert Nisbet, among others.
That may be a conservatism in America that’s not, let’s say, directly in touch with the country at large, as certainly not with a, I don’t know, a more grassroots understanding of conservatism or how people are actually living. I mean, that was certainly one critique that Willmoore Kendall raised later on.
And so the 1920s could be, as I think you’re suggesting, the real time when a group of people in America start to realize there’s a threat to constitutionalism at large, as you’ve just said, this sort of enlightened, expert-driven government, which wants to be heavily involved in the national economy.
Continetti: That’s right. And also that the Republican Party and this anti-progressive philosophy was in power in the 1920s, right? It lost power in 1932 and didn’t really regain power from a conservative standpoint until the election of Ronald Reagan. So I think it’s important then to see what the conservatives in the postwar era were reacting to. And that was the fundamental changes in the nature of American governance that Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced after his election in 1932.
Reinsch: Talk about the nature of the book you’ve written. You say in the introduction, this is not a book like George Nash’s “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.” That’s a book near and dear to my heart as a book that I remember reading as an undergraduate, had an impact on my thinking. What kind of a book have you written?
Continetti: Well, I recommend the Nash book. Of course, it’s a very important book to me as well. George Nash’s history of “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945” is exactly that. It’s an intellectual history. It gets really into the weeds of various figures. It has a lot of quotes. It really explores their ideas where they disagreed, where they agreed. I have a fair amount of intellectual history in the right, but it’s also a political history.
So what I try to do in the right is I try to synthesize the intellectual and the political. I’m looking at how the intellectuals, the writers, the thinkers, the economists responded to politics, how they influence politics, how they reacted to political developments.
And then I’m also looking at how the institutional Republican Party, how did it fit into this picture? What conservative ideas did it adopt? How did it begin to regain its majority after the New Deal era? What does Reaganism look like and then what does Trumpism look like?
So my book, rather than just being an intellectual history, is a synthesis of the political and the intellectual. And I think it tells a little bit more of a narrative story than, say, the Nash book, which of course is among my favorites.
Reinsch: I want to put to you some questions you ask in your introduction. You ask is the American right, the party of insiders or outsiders is the right, the elites, the men and women in charge of America’s political economic, social, cultural institutions, or is it the people? And you say, is the right even able to answer such a question? But I suppose reading your book, the answers to those questions change.
Even if we think about your starting point in the 1920s, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge aren’t exactly … Calvin Coolidge in particular … this is not a man from a ruling-class family, he’s a man from a very sturdy Protestant, New England family that gives him a lot of virtues and self-control for thinking about how to navigate the world, and he carries that with him into politics. But I don’t also think he would have viewed himself as an outsider or a man of the people. Now, of course, thinking about conservatism, it seems we’re all about the people.
Continetti: Yes, I think the answer to the questions that you read from the book, Richard, depends on what point in time we’re discussing. Right?
And ultimately, though I think one of the lessons of the book “The Right” is that conservatism needs both to be populist and to have a respect for institutions and the contributions of intellectuals. And that’s where I come out at the end of my hundred-year history. But when you look at the history of American conservatism, this question is a live one. And sometimes the right is more populist and more grassroots. Other times it’s more rarefied, more elitist.
One of the interesting things about the 1920s as I was doing my research is even though the Republican Party was so institutionally powerful during that decade, the intellectuals that we associate with the right of the time were actually quite divorced from politics and contemptuous of mainstream American politics.
And here I’m thinking of figures like Albert Jay Nock, Henry Louis Mencken, and some of the figures behind the new humanist school of literary criticism and social thought. They were removed from politics at a point where the Republican Party represented, as Coolidge put it Americanism.
And the narrative carries through periods where the intellectuals found themselves much more connected to the institutions of the Republican Party, suggesting policy ideas, even sometimes intellectuals becoming politicians themselves or becoming office holders and government themselves.
I think now we’re in a period, actually, where there is some space that has reemerged between some of the thinkers that we associate with the right and the actual institutions of the Republican Party, where they’re headed.
Reinsch: Talk about that briefly, where do you see that happening?
Continetti: Well, the periods of Reagan presidency, the Gingrich revolution on Capitol Hill extending through the George W. Bush presidency in the early part of this century were periods when there was a synthesis between the conservative think tanks, the conservative policy publications and small magazines, and what was forming into a conservative governing class in government, in the bureaucracy and in the judiciary.
That synthesis was disrupted beginning with the presidency of Barack Obama. It really, actually, the synthesis started to come apart in the final years of George W. Bush. But with Obama and the tea party, it came apart to quote the title of one of the books of my colleague, Charles Murray.
It’s much more populist. It’s much more grassroots-oriented. It’s responding to revolts of the public that are real. And when we think about, say, parental rights in education, or the anti-tax and anti-spending protests that animated the Tea Party or the kind of grassroots rebellion against some of the immigration policies of Biden administration, these are real responses to public policy problems, but they’re bottom up rather than directed from above.
And the question is, can the right today reconnect to some of the thinkers who are able to offer plausible and effective solutions to these problems? I think some of the mechanisms that had been in place beginning with the Reagan era, that what, actually, Burton Pines, who had long associated with The Heritage Foundation, once called the decision-making loop in Washington, D.C.
I think that’s kind of broken down and we need to reassert it as conservatives if we’re actually going to address successfully some of the very real problems America has.
Reinsch: On that decision-making loop and reasserting it, you also note in the book the viral president of Donald Trump, and you offer two thinkers that you say who really, not necessarily political thinkers, but men who understood how American opinion-making was going to change with the advent of digital technology and social media.
Clearly, Donald Trump effectively used Twitter in the 2016 campaign. They didn’t like that he used their technology to help win the presidency. And it seems to my mind that they tried to pull back on his ability to do that during the presidency as well as for conservatives generally. And now, we’re in a very aggressive stage of that.
That decision-making loop, though, you describe is obviously challenged, not only by populous sentiment, but the way in which it can be expressed in a format that does not lend itself to deliberation or conversation. And so you have a lot of voices collaborating to be heard in ways outside of institutions or as your colleague Yuval Levin says, “The institution itself becomes a platform that I stand on for my own personal gain.”
Continetti: Right. Those two thinkers I discussed, one is Martin Gurri, who is a former CIA analyst who came up with this idea of the revolt of the public that social media technology allows the public to express their displeasure in an unmediated form to organize into large groups that can overturn governments, say, in the case of Egypt in 2011, but can also create mass movements if you think of, say, the Black Lives Matter movement or conversely, if you think of the Trump movement, the “Make America Great Again” movement, also use social technology to disrupt political institutions.
The second thinker is a man named Michael Goldhaber who really popularized the term, the attention economy, which is that in the global economy of today thanks to these technologies, everyone is competing for everyone else’s attention. And if you can grab someone’s attention you have a leg up on everybody else.
So I think President Trump excels at the attention economy. I also think though he’s beginning to have copycats, not just on the right, but also on the left. I think if you look at someone like [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she is also able to harness information technology and social media to grab our attention.
So when we look at the viral presidency, which is a pun about the Trump years, I see a revolt of the public taking place where all sorts of ideas are being promoted and amplified through social media, leading to social disruption. I also see the triumph of the attention economy, where exactly, as you said, more people are treating institutions as platforms for themselves rather than molds that they can inhabit and can shape them.
Reinsch: So thinking about your book and the history you tell, if we think about populism then conservatism, you also, I think, observe in the book, populism is a thread running throughout American conservatism and helps it regain its popular and electoral footing in the aftermath of World War II, whereas it had stumbled during World War II. It was unable, despite being fairly faithful to an anti-spending small government message, unable to really dent any of the momentum from FDR’s New Deal.
And after World War II it finds its footing and sort of an anti-communist message and real and perceived failures of progressives in government to be aware of communists in their midst. But there also was, according to the James Burnham or Whittaker Chambers, a real desire to take on what they sell as the existential threat of Soviet communism.
Continetti: Yes, absolutely. I think anti-communism not only was a thread that connected all of the various groups on the right and the aftermath Of World War II, but it was also a thread connecting the right with the American public as a whole. So it provided the ground that the American right could build on politically.
And the other thing, though, that helped the right gain traction and find a popular audience in the decades after World War II was the failure of liberal governance manifested in national security and the Vietnam War, and all that the war did to break apart the Democratic coalition and the Democratic establishment, but also in some of the issues that we’re seeing today, when you think about the Democrats of the time being unable to control inflation, and then also problems with rising crime in this period.
Reinsch: Daniel Mahoney had a great essay a number of years ago delineating first-wave neoconservatism and second-wave neoconservatism. If we think about first-wave neoconservatives of the late ’60s, 1970s period, they’re shocked by the failures of urban policies and just in general policies coming out of the Great Society and they move toward the right. It seems to me also there’s a new generation. I won’t say neoconservatives, but certain liberals horrified by transgender ideology.
I think of Kathleen Stock in the United Kingdom. She’s not American, but there are a number of people in this country horrified by certain excesses of progressivism now who seem to be moving toward a more critical posture, perhaps a more conservative posture as well. This is also sort of, I think, one of these influences that can also, maybe, I don’t know, I don’t want to use the word discipline, but sort of channel a lot of populist frustration in a certain direction that’s more politically salient. How do you see that?
Continetti: I think that’s right. I say at the end of my book “The Right” that one possible direction the American right could take would be this new neoconservatism, a neo neoconservatism welcoming in a new generation of thinkers from the left, who in this case are liberals who are becoming just upset and disgusted at not only the transgender ideology, but also some of the race politics, identity politics that has been injected into American life.
So they find themselves now without a political home. It’s been one of the great, I think, advantages of the American right over the years that it has welcomed defectors from the left. You mentioned Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, for example, who were ex-communists, and yet so important to the modern conservative movement.
You mentioned the first-wave neoconservatives who were Cold War liberals. They were anti-communists, but they also believed in a welfare state at home. And they, too, became disgusted with the student revolt with the disorder and riots in America cities in the late 1960s and the anti-American tendencies of the counter culture and anti-war movement in this period, and they eventually became part of the conservative movement.
So there is an opportunity here, I think, to welcome some of these new figures. And what you find in the history of the right, as I mentioned in the book, is that every time a new group of defectors from left joins the right, they tend to reinvigorate the right, provide it with new arguments, new ideas tend to ground it more in reality rather than in a vision of nostalgic romantic past. So this could be a great opportunity, but as President Trump likes to say, “We’ll see.”
Reinsch: So a couple of thoughts come to mind. So we’re thinking about this anti-communist populist moment. On the one level, it gives us men like James Burnham. It gives us this incredible literary investigation of communist ideology by Whittaker Chambers, spiritual, political, factual, factually true in account of leading progressives in the Roosevelt administration who were loyal to the Soviet Union.
But it also gives us Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society. But conservatives of that period found a way to take those energies, exclude the ones that refused to think more deeply about their ideas and bring that together into a very powerful political movement. But that problem, that question, I think exists now.
I think one way that it happened was a broadly speaking fusionist conservatism. But of course, now we’re told at the same time coming out, another book is Yoram Hazony’s “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.” I’ve just read that book. Basically, everything that’s gone wrong in conservatism in the last 20 years is because of Frank Meyer’s fusionism. So maybe it’s not the answer. How do you see all these things playing out?
Continetti: I think when we look at the history of the right that I go over in my book, what was important to separating the right of the mid-20th century from the conspiratorial fringe, which dogged the conservative movement and the Republican Party through the election of 1964. And through Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson.
One of the reasons that Goldwater lost was he was viewed as out of the mainstream by a large majority of the American public. There were two changes that happened that allowed the conservative movement to distance itself from institutions such as the John Birch Society.
The first was there was a change in leadership in the conservative movement after 1964. William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, who is an opponent of the founder of the John Birch Society, Robert Welch, he became America’s foremost conservative spokesman through his run for mayor of New York City in 1965. And then in 1966, the launch of his public television show Firing Line.
And then also in 1966, Ronald Reagan, who had made his debut really as a political figure in support of Goldwater in ’64. Well, in 1966, he wins the governor’s mansion of California in a landslide.
Having Buckley and Reagan as the spokesmen of American conservatism was revolutionary because they were not part of the fringe. And it was next to impossible for the liberals to paint them as part of the fringe.
The second thing that happened is that the John Birch Society in 1965 turns in an anti-communist direction, begins thinking that America is so infested with communists, that America itself is on the wrong side, and it turns against the Vietnam War.
So that discredited the Birchers among the right in addition to the larger American public, and that was critical to separating the conservative movement from the John Birch Society.
So I think if we look today, we would need a combination of both those factors. We would need a new leadership that doesn’t frighten away people who are not already committed to the cause. We’d be paying attention to do some of these movements turn in such an anti-American direction that they delegitimize themselves in the eyes, not only of the larger public, but also other conservatives.
Reinsch: Thinking about that answer, what comes to my mind is, obviously, Buckley via pedigree, wealthy oil family, he had gone to boarding schools, he went to Yale, saw himself thoroughly at home as an American elite even though he writes a book defending McCarthy. He writes famously “God and Man at Yale,” a book repudiating much of the pedagogy he had received at Yale. So he wasn’t afraid to call out problems in important institutions in American life. But he did it in a certain way.
It also seems to me the case when that conservative movement emerges, it’s not the case that America’s major institutions had so thoroughly turned against. I mean, they wouldn’t have said turned against conservative ideas, but turned the way they have in our day. I think of the major institutions, not only education, culture, media. I mean, across the board. It makes it difficult it seems to me for someone to emerge in such a way that they could do that kind of work.
Continetti: Well, I’m not sure the conservatives of the time thought of it that way. I think they held a similar view that all of the institutions were dominated by liberals and they had no purchase. In fact, remember, I don’t need to remind you, of course, the conservative movement in some ways defines itself against a popular Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. So they didn’t even have the Republican Party.
The conservatives’ response in the mid-20th century was to create counter institutions which conservatives have been very good at doing. So the American right today I don’t think is anywhere as endangered as it was in the mid-20th century. It has a dominant position. I wouldn’t say a controlling position, but a dominant position in the Republican Party.
It can’t be ignored, the conservative movement. It has talk radio, it has Fox News Channel, it has the internet podcast, social media. Ben Shapiro is the most popular Facebook page. His Daily Wire gets shared everywhere.
So there’s no question that the conservative message, I think, is present in the American debate in a way that it simply was not. It just wasn’t for much of the 20th century. What needs to be done now is I think new thinking about counter institutions as well as recognizing that the real dangers to the American right come from within the American right. Liberals are in the process of discrediting themselves once again. I mean, we’re living through it.
The only thing that can defeat America is America. I think the only thing that can defeat American conservatism is American conservatism giving into some of some temptations that have dogged it in the past. And we just don’t know whether that will happen again, whether we’ll have leadership who prevents it from happening again, whether we’re going to have an agenda that will anchor the Republican politicians who I think will be elected than large numbers as November. It remains to be seen.
Reinsch: So talk, if you would, more particularly about those dangers.
Continetti: Well, in “The Right,” I discuss how both populism and elitism or reliance on expert opinion have dangers and we’re well aware I think of the dangers of elitism. But populism also has some dangers.
One is that populism easily can lead into conspiracy theory. Populism also has a tendency to scapegoat people and groups of people. And then populism also has a tendency, because it wants the will of the people to be expressed, sometimes it’s willing to embrace strong men to get the job done rather than rely on the constitutional structures of the American founding.
So I see these things present throughout my history. And I think that they’ve always led to problems for the right. And they’ve always led into rabbit holes that don’t serve the cause very well.
I think Ronald Reagan’s great skill was that he was a populist, but he didn’t scapegoat people, he scapegoated big government. He scapegoated the bureaucrats and he also had optimism. It wasn’t anger that he was feeding people back. He understood that the public was angry at what liberals were doing, but then he channeled that anger into a hopeful vision of what America could be if we got government under control.
I think that’s the type of leadership that has led to the American right’s greatest successes and could lead to similar successes in the future.
Reinsch: Reagan also, he said, “Morning in America.” That was one line. He wasn’t afraid to quote from Thomas Paine. Not exactly a conservative, but someone who expressed a certain amount of optimism and freedom that Reagan wanted to channel as well.
Also, Matt, the book is personal, I think to you, as much as you write as a historian and as a journalist. You say, when you came to Washington in the early 2000s, the center of conservative gravity was at the address 1150 17th Street, which housed The Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Project for the New American Century. And you say simply that is no more, both physically and also in terms of ideas.
You say that the center of gravity shifted to The Heritage Foundation and also the Hillsdale D.C. campus, the Kirby Center, and the Claremont Institute Center for the American Way of Life. Would you say their challenge now is to articulate what Willmoore Kendall might have argued as a conservative populism anchoring that in constitutional institutional design?
Continetti: Yes, I think so. I begin the book, with a description of me showing up to work at 1150 17th Street. As you mentioned, Richard, literally the building doesn’t exist anymore. And in fact, a friend reminded recently that not only does the building not exist, but on election night, 2016, a fire broke out in the empty hulk of the building before it was totally demolished. And of course, the magazine where I worked for eight years and contributed to for many more was The Weekly Standard and it was ended in 2018.
So that doesn’t exist. There’s a new conservative establishment that is being born. And the question to me is will this establishment provide the ideas. Not only the ideas, but an actual concrete agenda that the public will rally around and that will address the real problems America faces in a way that is effective and demonstrably so.
This again was Reaganism. Reagan came into power. He saw the problem of stagflation. He saw the problem of rising Soviet Union. He saw that Americans were dispirited, had lost the sense that they lived in a great country. And he set to work reviving that spirit, putting in policies that ended stagflation and that policies that eventually resulted in the few years right after he left office in the end of the Soviet Union.
So what are our problems today? Well, our problems today, clearly, if you just look at the polls. We have a return of inflation and maybe soon stagflation. We have crime on the rise. We have an insecure border. We have a rising cost of living, especially with healthcare and education. So the challenge for the new conservative establishment is coming up with the answers that politicians can take to the people and that the people will say, “Yes, those are plausible answers to the problems that affect me in my daily life.”
I think we’ve seen some examples of that. I think if you look at the Glenn Youngkin election last year, we see how that can work. And the question is, “Will we be able to replicate it on a national scale?”
Reinsch: Listening to your answer, it’s something that I think you would agree with. You don’t exactly say this in the book and we talked a lot about the 2016 election being so consequential to this kind of a conversation. But also the 2012 election is really a turning point for a number of reasons. I think one of those reasons is it gets stated sometimes. Mitt Romney was the nicest man to ever enter national politics, and he is thoroughly bludgeoned by the Obama campaign, called everything you can imagine, which I think was a clue to a lot of conservatives of certain progressivism that they were encountering. And it, I think, helped people take the gloves off, we’ll say. But also the 2012 election, Romney and Ryan lose.
They are run on, not exactly in a policy terms, but a rhetoric of classical liberalism of job creation, economic growth, trim the welfare state, that’s inevitably there with the presence of Paul Ryan and they fail. And then the autopsy report, which you write about the famous autopsy report of the RNC, which is to focus more on immigration, being more liberal on immigration, also gets rejected by the party electorate.
We stumble our way into the moment of 2015, when Trump comes down the escalator and declares his candidacy. Talk about that process, how you see that unfolding and also signaling an end to a certain type of post-Cold War conservatism.
Continetti: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about that 2012 election, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Mitt Romney’s comment, remember, about Russia being a threat in 2012, and Barack Obama mocking him [in a debate], saying, “Oh, the 1980s are now calling. They want their foreign policy back.” And of course, Romney has been vindicated in my view, by the events in Eastern Europe in recent months. I believe it was a hinge moment. Let me explain why.
So populism really explodes on the right as I alluded to earlier in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency. There is great discontent among the conservative grassroots with George W. Bush’s views on immigration, which included an amnesty for illegal immigrants. There was a kind of a sub-rosa descent building about the conduct of the Iraq War that you could see manifest in the liberty movement of Ron Paul.
There was this idea that Bush hadn’t—it wasn’t an idea, it was a fact. The spending had exploded under Bush and he was not a small government guy. And then with Obama coming along in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the bailouts, this populism just explodes and it becomes the tea party. And the tea party is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s a populist movement. It comes from below and yet it’s looking at the constitution and the founding, right?
It’s also directed, not just against Democrats, it’s directed against the Republican establishment. So you see the tea party election of 2010, Republicans win the House of Representatives. They start reading the Constitution on opening day.
And there’s a big sense of momentum, I think, going into the 2012 election that the energies of the tea party, the reassertion of the American idea and the American founding would culminate in Republican victory over Obama, who in so many ways was a rejection of everything that conservatives believed about their country and about America’s role in the world.
But what happens? Romney and Ryan lose. And they lose very quickly. It’s clear by the 11 o’clock news that night—I was there—that they had lost. I think this was an extremely dispiriting moment. And on top of that, the GOP elite in Washington, D.C., takes all the wrong lessons from the election. They say that Romney and Ryan lost because they were not open enough to immigration and that they were too socially conservative.
Well, from the conservative perspective, that’s completely wrong. Why did Romney-Ryan lose? They didn’t generate working-class votes, especially in Ohio. So I think the populist right says, “OK, the Romney-Ryan model doesn’t work. We have to go for a disruptor. We have to go for someone outside the system. Maybe that’s Ted Cruz. Maybe that’s Herman Cain. Someone who’s ready to fight liberals.” And of course, that’s Donald Trump. And Trump comes as kind of the antithesis to Romney, right?
We tried Romney. It didn’t work. We were too nice. We played fair. We played by the Queensberry rules. Well, not anymore. And so we have Trump and Trump unexpectedly for much of Washington for half of America wins.
Reinsch: Yeah. Definitely. I want to also think here in terms of the future of conservatism, there’s another group out there, the new right. Some of this group calls themselves, post-liberal. Others, I think, think of themselves in pragmatic terms. And I think of Oren Cass’ group, the American Compass, and their solution is heavily economic in the sense of willing to employ the federal government to do things in the economy on behalf of rebuilding a working class, a middle class, even maybe single-income families again. And then there’s also this post-liberal group, which you write about in your book.
I don’t believe you write that much about the American Compass. Maybe it wasn’t launched yet when you’re writing the book. But we’ve got the journal American Affairs. You say it could have been a journal theorizing Trumpism instead it became a post-liberal journal. And then also thinking about American Compass and its agenda, which seems to be also about wage subsidies, labor unions, things like that. Do you see that successfully integrating itself into American conservatism? It seems to me one answer to that question is, is there a call for it from the conservative electorate?
Continetti: Yes. I mean, I think when you look at the demands and concerns of the American conservative grassroots, they’re not crying out for industrial policy. They’re not crying out for the return of mass membership unions. They tend to be animated by cultural concerns primarily. And that might make the room for a policy agenda that goes after Big Tech. How, I’m not sure, but I do think that would be there rather than say wage subsidy policy.
There are a lot of new rights. My friend counted them up and I think there are three new rights in my book. There’s a new right after the Second World War. There’s right in the 1970s. And now there’s a new right today as we talk in 2022. This new right is a smorgasbord, as you say. There are nationalists. There’s Oren Cass who wants to change the economic understanding of the conservative movement.
There are these post liberals who reject liberalism in all its forms, modern and classical. Where are they going to go? They’re clearly becoming a faction within conservatism and within the Republican Party, but right now I believe it is a minority faction. And though it’s very present online,.
You go on to Twitter and you see these ideas everywhere. And that may mean that these ideas are really influencing younger people in particular. So 20 years from now, when those young people are in power, this new right, this post-liberal right could be very influential. On the other hand, 20 year olds tend to go with whatever is popular at the moment. Right? I think about my own experience. When I was in college, we didn’t have Twitter. That allowed me to get a lot of work done when I was in college.
The hot thing was neoconservatism. The hot thing was democracy promotion, the freedom agenda. That was cool. That was the avant-garde of the intellectual right. Well, now it’s the post-liberalism. Now, it’s traditionalism, rad trad, radical traditionalism. It could be just another intellectual fashion. We don’t know. But I do think that when actual Americans, the people who vote in our elections look at some of these post-liberal ideas, they’re likely to shake their head and go, “What are you talking about?”
And in fact, I would include President Trump in that category. I don’t think President Trump is going to embrace Catholic integralism any time soon. I think President Trump has a lot in common attitudinally with the new right. But when you look at the policies he pursued while in office, they were pretty traditional, Republican conservative policies, right? Tax cuts, originalist judges, deregulation, spending more in defense.
Even the border wall, I mean, that’s been around as an idea for a long time in conservative circles. There’s nothing new there. So I pay some attention to this group in the book “The Right.” And I guess we’ll have to wait for the second addition to see, did they get more pages in the second edition because of their impact? Or did they just remain the same because the intellectual currents just go in another direction?
Reinsch: It was interesting, I mean, you mentioned your college experience. I think you and I are roughly the same age. Being conservative in undergraduate institutions and in graduate school, you have a sense that you’re different, that you’re a bit set apart from other students and the professors.
It seems to me those same students or conservative students now have a much more alienating sense on campus, particularly more elite liberal arts campuses. I think that also drives this. There’s a sense of a call to arms and a dramatic moral courage that I think they read in the post-liberal arguments, which helps motivate them. And then someone like me, say, who’s defending American constitutionalism, I’m actually defending a damaged brand.
Continetti: Yes. I think religion plays a big role in it too.
Reinsch: I think that’s right.
Continetti: I think for American Catholics in particular, young Catholics post-liberal thought goes hand in hand with the return to pre-Vatican to traditional Catholicism. So that’s the response to changes in the church and of course, changes in American society, primarily the collapse of religious attendance in American society over the last 20 years. And so that I think is making young people who are deeply religious, look to alternatives and more radical, not only explanations for this process of… It’s not even secularization so much, but it is just religions kind of collapsed, and also more radical solutions.
Reinsch: I suppose it’s a whole other conversation. I’ll bring ours to an end to think about the need for institution building in American conservatism as we look to the future. Matthew Continetti, thank you for joining us. We’ve been discussing with the author of the new book “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”
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