Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism (Basic). He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.
How did you come to take up this topic?
One of my hobbies is reading the back issues of little magazines. Twenty years ago, as a young writer, I went through the archive of The Weekly Standard. From there, I moved on to the collected Public Interest, Commentary, National Review, The American Spectator, and of course City Journal.
By 2012, I had become interested in how the arguments and attitudes of these small-circulation journals reflected, interacted with, and influenced trends in American politics and public policy. What did the conservatives get right and wrong? Where did they agree or disagree? And how did populism fit into the intellectual framework of conservatism and the electoral fortunes of the GOP? A decade of research, writing, and teaching culminated in the publication of The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.
Why did you choose a century ago as the starting point for your history, as opposed to the end of World War II—where many histories of modern American conservatism begin?
Yes, the standard history of the American conservative movement begins near the end of World War II, with the publication of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It ends anywhere from Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency or Barack Obama’s. I wanted to widen the perspective to include the pre-World War II Right as well as contemporary ideas, personalities, and events.
I begin with the inauguration of Warren G. Harding because he repudiated the philosophy of Progressivism embodied in the policies of Woodrow Wilson. Harding’s Republican Party stood for a pro-business, constitutionalist “Americanism” that the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt would later overturn. American conservatives defined themselves in opposition to FDR’s New Deal and to FDR’s foreign policy.
As I worked on The Right, I began to see parallels between the Republican Party of Harding and Calvin Coolidge and the party of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Starting my narrative with the 1920s raises the question of whether the post-World War II conservative movement was something of an aberration in the longer history of the American Right. It also reinforces the truth that there is nothing new under the sun.
Do you see signs of a conservative resurgence in cities, given that education policy and public safety are becoming major issues for urban voters?
If there is a conservative resurgence in America’s cities, it is dispositional rather than political. The election of Mayor Eric Adams demonstrated that there is an electoral majority in New York City that supports safe streets and quality schools. I think similar majorities exist throughout the country. Reviving the American city through public policy, however, will require that conservatives focus less on partisan affiliation and ideological factionalism and more on persuasion and coalition-building.
What does the book suggest about where the conservative movement is headed? And are you more optimistic or pessimistic about that future?
The conservative movement and Republican Party took a populist turn during President George W. Bush’s final years in office and have been heading in that direction ever since. By “populist,” I mean hostility to expert and elite decision-making in both political parties. Populism always will be a feature of American politics. For populists to succeed, however, they need to empower their own set of experts who can address the conditions behind social and economic upheaval.
The GOP has done a good job in recent years of channeling public discontent with progressivism into victory at the ballot box. It’s been less successful in implementing its own set of answers for the problems afflicting America. Insecure borders, violent crime, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, decaying family structure, deteriorating public education, a rising cost of living, and deaths of despair all cry out for empirical, good-faith deliberation and policymaking.
I worry that, instead of appealing to independent voters in America’s suburbs, populist conservatives will blame scapegoats, fall for conspiracy theories, and embrace demagogic strongmen who undermine our Constitution. These temptations always have been there for the Right. History shows that conservatives lose credibility with the American mainstream when they indulge in such habits.
Am I optimistic or pessimistic? Let me put it this way: I’m a conservative, which means I’m a realist. There is a lot of work to do.
What were some of the books and authors you found most insightful as you researched and wrote?
I benefited the most from primary sources, including Russell Kirk’s letters, William F. Buckley Jr.’s collected speeches, and Ronald Reagan’s presidential diary. Memoirs also provided the brick-and-mortar of the story I tell. The autobiographical writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, Robert D. Novak, Peggy Noonan, Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, and Pat Buchanan were especially helpful. Intertwining these personal narratives with the larger political history of America made my work enjoyable.
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