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Where do things stand in the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden as we head into the final two months of the campaign? What strategies are the candidates pursuing? What pitfalls do they have to watch out for? What expected or unforeseen events might shape the race? Joining us this week is veteran Republican operative and frequent guest Mike Murphy. Kristol and Murphy consider possible paths forward for the election and particularly how undecided voters, in swing states like Florida, might play a decisive role in the outcome of the race.
How should we think about the American founding? What role does slavery play in the history of the United States? What should be done about Confederate monuments? How might we think about the legacies of revered figures from America’s past?
Over the past year, these perennially important questions have been unusually central to our public life.
In this Conversation, the distinguished Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shares his perspective on the current debates and the importance of the study of American history. Wilentz argues that understanding America’s past—from the inspiring to the shameful—is vital for what he calls informed citizenship. Nonetheless, he warns against falling into the trap of oversimplifying history. According to Wilentz, the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which argues that slavery is foundational to the United States, is one recent example of this pitfall, because it minimizes important anti-slavery efforts at the time of the American founding. Wilentz calls for renewed efforts toward a reflective and nuanced study of the past. He further asserts that these efforts could help us recover a space in American politics for informed, thoughtful, and respectful debate—not only about the past but also about the future. Wilentz and Kristol also discuss the legacy of civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis about whom Wilentz recently published a thoughtful and important reflection.
What is the state of the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden? How might decisions such as Biden’s vice-presidential pick and campaign events like the conventions change—or not change—the race? What possible moves might we expect from the Trump and Biden campaigns as we head toward the fall? In this Conversation with Bill Kristol, veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi shares his perspective. When Trippi appeared on Conversations in March of 2019, he predicted (against conventional wisdom!) that Biden would prevail in the Democratic nominating contest. Now, while highlighting challenges and potential unknowns in the race, Trippi argues that the dynamic that helped Biden in the primaries—the view that Biden can make government work and tamp down civil tensions—likely will help him in November, as well.
What are the motives and impulses behind the current wave of online denunciations of incorrect opinion? What is distinctive about the recent rise of mob violence? How does political extremism threaten American principles of government like toleration, free speech, and compromise? In this Conversation, Christine Rosen, a senior writer at Commentary, shares her perspective on cancel culture and the illiberal turn in American politics. Rosen argues that worthy goals like confronting injustices in American civic life are liable to be hurt rather than helped by extremism and violence. According to Rosen, there is no alternative but to rely on American’s time-tested methods of resolving disputes: the processes of liberal constitutionalism.
Born in 1950 in New York City and raised in Montreal, Charles Krauthammer, who died two years ago on June 21, 2018, was an indispensable voice in American public life for nearly four decades. His writing and speaking—covering politics, religion, religion, technology, sports, and many other subjects—enriched our public life profoundly. A staunch defender of American exceptionalism, he was one of the most eloquent writers of his generation. As Bill Kristol put it, he was a rare combination of extraordinary courage and intellect. Originally released in April 2015, this Conversation with Charles covers his education, his political reflections from the 1980s through the 2010s, his upbringing in Quebec, his work in medicine, and his thoughts on Israel and Zionism. In it, some of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary wit, wisdom, and character shine through.
What is the current economic situation of the US in light of the ongoing public health crisis? How successful have policies been in addressing the economic crisis? What are possible paths forward for the American economy in the short and medium term? In this Conversation, Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute shares his perspective on the serious economic challenges we face. Veuger argues that the fiscal and monetary policies so far have averted the worst possibilities for the economy. However, the sheer number of lost jobs and productivity, along with the still unfolding future of the health crisis, means the economic pain likely will continue in the short and medium term. According to Veuger, there are reasons for concern about the pace of recovery—which ultimately will depend on how quickly America can overcome, or at least contain, the public health crisis.
Tensions between the United States and China have been rising as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. There is urgent need to think about the U.S.-China relationship and how the U.S. should confront the challenge. In this Conversation, Princeton professor and author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, Aaron Friedberg argues that the pandemic has accelerated a fact apparent for some time—namely, that strategic competition between the U.S. and China is likely to be the central question of geopolitics in the years ahead. According to Friedberg, one effect of the current crisis may be emerging bipartisan agreement that China represents a serious threat to American interests and principles. Friedberg asserts that it is yet unclear how America will react to the challenge from China—much will depend on elections, strategic choices, and other factors. But, Friedberg argues, we are unlikely to return to a policy consensus that seeks seamless integration of China into the world order. And, in this timely and important Conversation, Friedberg sketches some political, ideological, and economic factors the United States will have to confront as it attempts to develop a comprehensive China strategy.
What will the campaign between Donald Trump and Joe Biden look like amidst the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis? What strategies might each candidate pursue? What strategies should they pursue? Joining us—in our first socially-distanced audio Conversation—is veteran Republican operative and frequent guest Mike Murphy to discuss the state of the race. As usual, Murphy is provocative, humorous, and insightful—both about the current dynamics of the campaign as well as how things might unfold in the months ahead. This is a must-listen Conversation at a pivotal and unprecedented moment in our politics.
What is liberal democracy? What parts of human nature does liberal democracy rely on and try to cultivate? How can Aristotle help us understand America? In this thought-provoking and challenging Conversation, Harvey Mansfield shares his interpretation of liberal democracy as a regime that relies on both the democratic and aristocratic parts of human nature. However, citizens of liberal democracy tend to deny or misunderstand the aristocratic elements of the liberal democratic regime. According to Mansfield, this leads to the underestimation of the need for virtue in public and private life. And virtue is indispensable for a healthy politics. Relying on Aristotle’s classic account of the mixed regime, Mansfield argues that a deeper understanding of both the democratic and aristocratic parts of liberal democracy could help us better understand ourselves—and perhaps help us improve liberal democracy.
What reforms would most benefit American education? What are the obstacles to putting them in place? What changes to the education sector should we anticipate in the coming years? In this Conversation, Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education and veteran scholar of education policy, shares his perspective on the state of American education—covering preschool, K-12, colleges and universities, and continuing education. According to Finn, American education still boasts sources of strength, such as some very good institutions from pre-K to higher ed. However, he notes America is falling behind other advanced countries in overall educational outcomes. Finn and Kristol address various reform initiatives such as charter schools, the homeschool movement, the marshaling of technology to cut costs and improve outcomes, and various other policy tools that could attract better teachers or otherwise improve schools. While noting the promise in some reform efforts, Finn also highlights the obstacles they have often faced, and reflects on why the education system seems so resistant to change. This is a must-listen Conversation for anyone interested in a sector so closely tied to the success of America.
According to the standards of today, all philosophic and political writing is expected to be clear and unambiguous. Writers are told to be absolutely open about their suppositions and opinions—to lay all their cards on the table. In this Conversation with Bill Kristol, Michigan State political scientist Arthur Melzer reminds us that this was not always the case. Drawing on his recent book Philosophy Between the Lines, Melzer demonstrates that, from antiquity to the end of the Enlightenment, philosophers, theologians, and political thinkers practiced the art of esoteric writing. Esoteric writing is an elliptical mode of writing that employs rhetorical devices such as allusions, riddles, hints, repetitions, and contradictions that conceals the true thought of a great thinker from everyone except the most careful readers. In his research, Melzer has presented an impressive amount of evidence of the ubiquity of the practice among writers in world history. In this Conversation, he highlights some of the evidence and discloses (in a very forthright fashion) the series of motives that led writers to philosophize between the lines. Finally, Melzer and Kristol discuss why the practice largely disappeared from the nineteenth century onward, and what the phenomenon has to teach us about key themes in the history of philosophy and politics.
Is the current system of presidential selection—primary and caucus voting—working well? How did the framers of the Constitution think about presidential selection? How did presidential selection work at other moments in American history? In this Conversation, University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser shares his perspective on the character of presidential selection from the founding period through the creation of the party system to the nominating process we know today. As Ceaser argues, the founders thought very deeply about presidential selection, and sought to constitutionalize the process of presidential nomination and selection to promote fit characters and filter out demagogues. With varying degrees of success, the party system that grew up later in American history sought to perform a similar function, balancing the input of the populace and party leaders themselves. In recent times, however, the party regulars have lost control of the nominating process and it has opened up dramatically for outsiders. As Ceaser demonstrates, this has had, and may continue to have, dramatic effects on the kinds of candidates that may be nominated—and the character of the American presidency.
What was the Old West? How did Westerns emerge as a quintessential American art form? What are the greatest Westerns and what accounts for their enduring appeal—in America and around the world? In this Conversation, Paul Cantor explains how the Western rose to prominence—and the philosophical, political, and cultural themes that the greatest Westerns address. Cantor shares an extended interpretation of the films of John Ford and particularly Ford’s two masterworks, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. He also explains how Ford’s work and other Westerns influenced Akiro Kurosawa’s Japanese Samurai films. Cantor and Kristol also discuss how the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone influenced Clint Eastwood and other more recent American films. Here we see how an American art form spread around the world and later returned to reshape American culture. This is a must-listen Conversation for anyone interested in American culture and popular culture around the globe.
Though not read nearly as much as it should be, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) is a fundamental text in the history of political philosophy. Featuring key presentations of themes including the separation of powers, the effect of commerce in politics, and the nature of republican and monarchical governments, The Spirit of the Laws had profound influence on the founders and the Constitution—as well as on the school of political thought that came to be called modern liberalism. In this Conversation, Harvey Mansfield presents a powerfully illuminating introduction to Montesquieu’s great—though extremely challenging—work. He explains how Montesquieu opposed the idea of an unlimited concentration of power, a notion that came into the modern world especially through the teaching of Thomas Hobbes. In challenging it, however, Montesquieu does not try to return to Aristotle’s notion of a best regime, which, he implies, leads to imperialism. Rather, Montesquieu accepts the modern notion of power but turns it against itself through his doctrine of the separation of powers. As for the tendency toward imperialism, Montesquieu’s alternative is the commercial republic, which will inevitably try to expand but do so more peacefully. This is a must-see introduction to a work that can help us better understand both the United States and the modern world more generally.
In this Conversation, first released in 2018, Diana Schaub considers the life and ideas of the statesman and political thinker Frederick Douglass (c. 1818 – 1885). Schaub reflects on Douglass’s life, including his experience of slavery, his abolitionist politics, his work on behalf of the Union in the Civil War, and his post-war efforts to secure civil rights. Schaub demonstrates Douglass’s importance as a political thinker, pointing to his reflections on the corruptions of slavery, the meaning and requirements of freedom, the significance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the role of prudence in politics.