History of American Conservatism

More Americans today describe themselves as “conservative” than they do “moderate” or “liberal” – a feature of American political life that has remained unchanged for decades. What does this mean? Who is a conservative? Is there a consistent conservative identity in American history? What cultural, political, religious, and societal forces help make the United States a “center-right” nation? In recent years historians have begun to seriously interrogate these questions. This course explores these questions and surveys recent scholarship on the history of American conservative thought and action. This is not a course on political theory or ideology. Rather, in this course I focus on the history of cultural conservatism: the ideas, beliefs, practices, peoples, and movements associated with conservatism in the United States. Organized by themes in a loosely chronological framework, this course traces the trajectory of the twentieth-century conservative ascendancy from its low-point in the 1950s to its current iteration in the post-Trump era. We will grapple with the complexity of the movement by reading not only seminal texts, but also studying a variety of sources from the “grassroots” in order to learn more about why conservatism appealed to various Americans at different points in time. Ultimately, we will grapple with the question of whether the nation has actually become more or less conservative over time, and the degree to which our current political debates mark a fundamental transformation in American conservatism or are simply continuities from the past.

Learning Objectives of This Course

  • Understand the meaning and historical context of key terms such as liberal, conservative, progressive, libertarian, Left and Right.
  • Explain the major ideological divisions of the mid-twentieth century and how those divisions resulted in political coalitions that were crucial to the ascendancy of the conservative movement.
  • Recognize the major intellectual contributions to the “conservative canon” and demonstrate expertise on one work of conservative literature through an analytical book review.
  • Appreciate, critique, and deconstruct arguments by authors in a seminar-style discussion with peers. Debate and weigh the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in a respectful and engaged manner with peers.
  • Gather, organize, and evaluate primary and secondary sources.
  • Analyze data and sources to create an authentic thesis-driven and evidence-based original research project on a subject related to the history of American conservatism.

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