Continetti looks at the past to look at the future of conservatism

As populist voices become louder, what does it mean for the future of the conservative movement in America?

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation recently hosted Matthew Continetti for a discussion on American political history, particularly the 20th-century Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Continetti is the Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Patrick and Charlene Neal Chair in American Prosperity at American Enterprise Institute. As a prominent journalist and intellectual historian, he founded the Washington Free Beacon and previously served as Opinion Editor at the Weekly Standard.

Continetti’s speech focused on the ideas covered in his most recent book, The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism. The book begins in 1921 with Warren Harding’s inauguration as president and ends in January 2021 with Joe Biden’s taking the oath of office.


To begin his account of the “war for American conservatism,” Continetti defined American conservatives as those who “defend the American founding and its ideas of liberty and the familial, communal and religious institutions that sustain that idea.” Further, he explains, “American conservatism must refer to our origin as a country. The American founding, if it is to have any anchor and enjoy any success, whom I answer is not the only option.”  Continetti argued that this focus on the American founding and its ideals is what unites the various factions within conservatism.

Continetti went on to emphasize how American conservatism has continually grappled with the tension between “elite intellectual ideas” and “populist grassroots mobilization,” striving to bridge the gap between the elites and the common people. There is a delicate balance between elite intellectual ideas and populist movements within American conservatism, he explains. 

As Continetti describes, in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Irving Kristol successfully used elite-driven strategies to influence policy and shape the views of intellectuals and policymakers. As Continetti explains, “These elite-driven strategies begin with the work of the intellectuals—the idea people—who then gradually shift the climate of opinion, climate change in a way, by permeating institutions and gradually shaping the views of the rising generation.”

Continetti paraphrased Jeffrey Bell, a former aid to Ronald Reagan, to define populism as “confidence in the decision-making power of everyday people” and defined elitism as “confidence in the decision making power of experts.”

He noted that conservatism often requires populist elements to gain access to the levers of power and he emphasized the role of populism as a catalyst for political change when elites fail to respond to changing circumstances. As Continetti said, “[populism] frames politics as a debate between the elites and the people. And whoever is on the side of the people, they tend to win.” Yet, he warned of the tendency for populism to become mob rule, as “populism, divorced from conservatism, has no guiding principle other than the people.” 


Further, he described how this partnership between populism and conservatism started to fracture during George W. Bush’s second term, particularly during debates over issues like immigration reform. Populist discontent with both liberal and conservative elites became more pronounced, leading to the rise of movements like the Tea Party. He cited Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign as a turning point, showing the divide between intellectual institutional conservatism and grassroots populism, with Romney seen as failing to represent the latter effectively. 

Finally, Continetti discussed President Barack Obama’s divergence from the normal political patterns, especially in his handling of immigration. This led many populist grassroots conservatives to believe that only an outsider like Donald Trump could rebalance the system since they believed that the normal rules no longer applied.


As Continetti explained, Trump’s campaign promised to run the government like a business, emphasized border security and immigration, and represented a stark contrast to Obama in every way.  Trump blamed the collapse of the American workforce on international trade, and he tied economics with the growing deaths of despair. Yet, Continetti believes that many of Trump’s most long-lasting effects will be policies that the conservative movement has been supporting for decades such as tax cuts and Supreme Court justice appointments.

Thus, in the early 20th century, American conservatism, initially championed by Friedrich Hayek, upheld classical liberal principles rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, in the 21st century, it has transformed into a rebellion against various elites, leaving conservatives to ponder their direction. 

As Continetti concluded, to navigate the future, conservatives should return to the wisdom of figures like William F. Buckley Jr., emphasizing the rediscovery of America’s founding principles and documents, particularly the Constitution. These documents form the bedrock of American conservatism, balancing individual rights and popular sovereignty, safeguarding liberty, and nurturing family, religion, community, and voluntary association. 

To succeed, conservatives must harmonize their principles with the sentiments of the populace to create a governing class and agenda that resonates with everyday Americans, ensuring the future of conservatism.

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