Resources for Understanding
The resources on this page were selected to help you explore the “moral matrix” of American conservatism. There is no one definition of conservatism, but across every era of American politics people claiming the title of “conservative” have tended to be those who believe that a shared moral tradition and limited government are the keys to public flourishing, for they create environments in which individuals can develop the virtues, self-control, and sense of personal responsibility needed for democratic citizenship. For American conservatives, the best society combines individual rights with moral commitments to families, religious institutions, and communities. (Conservatives in other countries aim to conserve different traditions–not necessarily individual rights and small government–although conservatives usually share an emphasis on family, religion, and other institutions that provide order and structure.)
American conservatism is made up of various subgroups that disagree on important matters. Constitutional conservatives, religious conservatives, neoconservatives, and nationalists are all influential parts of the current coalition—often cooperating under the Republican Party mantle, but retaining their own values and political priorities. Constitutional conservatives seek limits to the size of government, believing that state power left unchecked tends to squeeze the rights of citizens and limit the positive effects of free markets. Religious conservatives champion the Judeo-Christian heritage of the nation, in the interest of preserving the moral traditions that they value, and which they believe were the foundation of America’s past success. Neoconservatives support an interventionist foreign policy to spread democracy and American ideals to other countries. And nationalists, including many of the most vocal supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, believe that the government should do more to support its own struggling citizens before looking beyond its borders.
Of course, there is plenty of overlap among these groups. For example, a typical conservative might support both cutting federal spending and bolstering counterterrorism efforts overseas, believing that striking a balance among competing aims is essential to the nation’s health. Fundamentally, conservatives are united by their belief that Americans have inherited something precious—and that, despite the country’s faults, we should take great care to protect and preserve the way of life that we’ve constructed across many generations.
- How Do We Make Society Better? (5:53). Conservative pundit Dennis Prager explores the differences in the right and left’s visions of how to improve society. Prager explains that the right focuses on the individual’s moral failings while the left focuses on society’s moral failings. Prager explores the practical implications in these differences in moral visions.
- Russell Kirk, “Ten Conservative Principles,” adapted from The Politics of Prudence (1993). Political theorist Russell Kirk introduces conservatism by explaining that it is not a fixed ideology, but rather “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” Kirk then presents ten principles that constitute the core tenets of conservatism.
- J.D. Vance, America’s Forgotten Working Class, TED Talk (14:42). The author of Hillbilly Elegy describes his experience growing up in a poor Rust Belt city of southern Ohio. Vance gives a first-hand perspective on the challenges that many working-class families face and the loss of the American Dream.
- Arthur Brooks, A Conservative’s Plea: Let’s Work Together, TED Talk (14:14). President of AEI Arthur Brooks encourages progressives and conservatives to overcome partisan differences and work together on the shared goal of alleviating poverty.
- Interview with Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash (5:57). Historian Nancy Isenberg explores how class differences continue to divide America.
- David Brooks, Character in the Selfie Age (3:21). Political and social commentator David Brooks traces the societal changes that have resulted in a new generation of individuals with an enlarged sense of self. Brooks argues that people are becoming morally inarticulate and as a society, we focus too much on how to build a good career instead of on how to cultivate good character.
- There is Only One Way Out of Poverty (4:10). Arthur Brooks discusses the differences in policy approach between progressives and conservatives on combatting poverty. Brooks states that the two sides do not disagree on the importance of lifting individuals out of poverty, but rather on the best methods to accomplish this objective.
- I.O.U.S.A.: Chapter 1 (9:40). A clip from the documentary “I.O.U.S.A.” which examines the four main fiscal deficits in the U.S. and their implications.
Understanding Conservative Principles
- Peter Berkowitz, “What Unites Conservatives,” (2015).
- Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the French Revolution, Paragraphs 125-149,” excerpt from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
- Gene Callahan, “Michael Oakeshott on Rationalism in Politics” (2009).
- Samuel P. Huntington, “Conservatism as an Ideology,” (1957).
- Rusell Kirk, “The Essence of Conservatism,” adapted from The Intelligent Women’s Guide to Conservatism (1957).
- Yuval Levin, “A Conservative Governing Vision,” adapted from Room to Grow (2014). Levin makes the case for conservatism, arguing that a bottom-up, decentralized approach to government helps foster the environment where individuals and society can thrive.
- Aaron McLeod, “Great Conservative Minds: A Condensation of Russell Kirk’s ‘The Conservative Mind,’” (1953).
- Jerry Muller, “Introduction: What Is Conservative Social and Political Thought?” excerpt from Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present (1997).
- Robert Nisbet, “The Problem of Community” from The Quest of Community (1953).
- Jonathan Neumann, “God, Hayek and the Conceit of Reason” (2014).
Understanding the Perspective of Trump Voters
- Arthur C. Brooks, “How Donald Trump filled the dignity deficit,” (2016). Arthur Brooks argues that rising inequality has been accompanied by a new “dignity gap” as unemployed working-class males have lost pride in themselves. Brooks contends that Trump seized on this vulnerability by promising to restore this group’s jobs and dignity.
- Susan Chira, “‘You Focus on the Good’: Women Who Voted for Trump, in Their Own Words,” (2017). Interviews with female Trump voters in which they describe their motivations for supporting President Trump.
- Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People,” (2016). Interview with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Dreher and Vance discuss the poverty, desperation, and hopelessness of the white working class.
- Nancy Isenberg, “Five myths about class in America,” (2016). Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, provides a more nuanced view of the role of class in America, revealing the challenges that the poor face regardless of race.
- Jayne Riew, “She’s with Him,” (2017). Riew, an artist and photographer, provides portraits of seven female Trump supporters, shedding light on their personal stories and insights.
If you have time for further reading, we recommend you begin by delving deeper into the philosophical and psychological roots of political differences. For the conservative perspective, we recommend A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell, which offers an integrative framework for thinking about all sides.
- Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (2007). Economist Thomas Sowell offers an enlightening theory about the origin of the political divide. He shows how progressives have–for centuries–held an “unconstrained vision” of human nature: they think that human nature is fundamentally good, and that it is malleable enough that if we can create the right social conditions, we can approach ever closer to a perfect society. They generally favor removing “constraints” on people. Conservatives, in contrast, generally hold the “constrained vision” of human nature. They believe that human nature is morally mixed and morally flawed; people require social constraints in order to behave well. They believe that social traditions and institutions generally provide those constraints, and so they resist progressives’ efforts to change those traditions and institutions.
Additional Conservative Readings:
- Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America (2015).
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (full text).
- Barry M. Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960).
- George Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016).
- F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988).
- Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016).
- Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953).
- David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions (2003).
- Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (2016).
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1943).
- Jerry Z. Muller, Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present (1997).
- George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976).
- Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975) (see excerpt).
- Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative (2015).
- Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks & White Liberals (2006).
- J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).