Reflections on Matthew Continetti’s Seminar on The History of American Conservatism

The Buckley Program hosted Matthew Continetti for a seminar series on the History of American Conservatism from October 1st to 15th. Mr. Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A prominent journalist, analyst, author, and intellectual historian of the right, Mr. Continetti was the founding editor and the editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon. Previously, he was opinion editor at The Weekly Standard. Mr. Continetti is also a contributing editor at National Review and a columnist for Commentary Magazine.

By: Libby Snowden

Despite my liberal leanings, I love to engage with conservative thought—there’s a reason I’ve found myself in the Buckley Program. Plus, I have a strong affinity for history, particularly for U.S. and political history. As such, I was instantly drawn to Matthew Continetti’s three-week seminar with the Buckley Program, The History of American Conservatism. The seminar was divided into three parts: Conservatism Past, Conservatism Present, and Conservatism Future. 

Conservatism Past established the foundation for our discussions, laying out the origins of modern-day conservatism in the context of the Cold War and the Reagan Era featuring readings from figures like Charles Kessler and William F. Buckley, Jr. We discussed how liberalism’s focus on individualism failed to provide Americans with the security they longed for in a time when people feared the rise of Communism. Conservative principles, namely, the strength in national pride, the stability of the family, and the value of faith, calmed those fears and attracted Americans from all backgrounds. Presenting a united front in protecting Americans from the spread of Communism largely contributed to making the uniquely American conservatism we have today. 

Conservatism Present focused on how the last few years have featured a conservatism defined by personalities rather than principles. We mainly discussed how the rise of Trump was a major contributor to this change. We dove into exploring whether Trump was a true conservative. While his policies may have fit the definition, the anti-elitist rhetoric that made him popular among his base leaned more populist than conservative. Mr. Continetti explained that the conservative-populist dichotomy Trump created has made it difficult for conservatives to define themselves. What are the principles that define conservatism today, and is conservatism dominated by these tenets or the people that steer the movement? 

Conservatism Future dove into those questions the American conservative movement will face in a post-Trump era. When such a personality has been dominant in our lives for the past five years, with each person in Washington defined by their association with him, it is hard to imagine what the political landscape could look like without Trump in it. Conservatives, Mr. Continetti argued, are dealing with an issue of realignment. How do they know what they are for if they don’t have a clear sense of what they are against? How does conservatism attract supporters without merely serving as an ideology people turn toward when they are dissatisfied with the liberal alternative? How can conservatives encourage a new generation to see value in religion and take pride in its country? How can conservatism get back to being a movement defined by following its principles rather than its personalities? These are just some of the many questions Mr. Continetti posed in order to make us ponder the American conservatism that will shape our future political lives.
Mr. Continetti emphasized that “when we’re focused on ideas, we tend to minimize the role of events on history.” While the ideals of conservatism are rooted in the ideas of thinkers like Edmund Burke and politicians like Benjamin Disraeli, American conservatism is also a product unique to the events of the Cold War, the Reagan years, and the Trump Era. As someone who typically feels lost when discussions are centered around political theory, Mr. Continetti’s seminar coherently brought together the ideas and events responsible for today’s American conservatism and the Buckley Program. I gained a greater appreciation for the problem our political institutions face in defining themselves, and I was reminded why the principles of conservatism should always have a seat at the table when addressing problems in the American social and political landscape.

Libby Snowden is a Sophomore from Norfolk, Virginia and potential Chemistry major in Berkeley College. Outside of Buckley, she’s a member of the Moot Court team, an Advising Fellow in the Yale chapter of Matriculate, and a first year ambassador on the Berkeley College Council. She served on the Buckley’s Board as the Recruitment Director during 2021.