But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. — Niccolo Machiavelli, in Chapter 15 of The Prince. According to Harvey Mansfield, these lines including the phrase effectual truth—a term invented by Machiavelli—are central to Machiavelli’s founding of the revolution in philosophy, science, and politics that we call modernity. In this Conversation—our 200th episode!—our first and most frequent guest Harvey Mansfield returns to the program to discuss his recent work on Machiavelli, and presents an incisive and provocative account of some of the more challenging and too-little-understood aspects of Machiavelli’s teaching. In particular, Mansfield draws out the world-historical significance of Machiavelli’s discovery or invention of the effectual truth and shows why Machiavelli can justly be called the founder of modernity. This Conversation has also been added to the Harvey Mansfield site on Contemporary Thinkers and the Machiavelli site on Great Thinkers.

In a recent law review article, University of Chicago law professor William Baude writes, After the 2020 presidential election, the peaceful transfer of power can no longer be taken for granted. How well did our institutions respond to the challenges? What vulnerabilities in our electoral processes and loopholes in our laws represent the most critical threats for the future? In this Conversation, Baude shares his perspective on the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath—and particularly the efforts in certain states and in Congress led by President Trump and those who fought for him to overturn the electoral victory of Joe Biden. Baude explains how these efforts to subvert the election create a dangerous precedent. Baude contends that the courts and other institutions resisted the attempt to overturn the election reasonably well. But, he argues, we cannot be complacent about concerted attempts to undermine the electoral process, and the threats to the rule of law in the years ahead.

Eight months into his presidency, how is Joe Biden doing politically? How should we understand the current dynamics in the Democratic and Republican parties? What key things should we look for as we head toward the midterm elections in 2022? To consider these questions, we are joined by veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, a shrewd and incisive analyst of our politics and our parties. As Trippi sees it, and noting Liz Cheney’s removal from House leadership, the Republican Party is locked in to a series of loyalty tests around Donald Trump, which diminish the party’s appeal to independent voters. The Democrats’ problem is they are divided, and currently facing quarrels in Congress between the moderate and progressive wings of the party. For the Democrats to succeed in the midterms, in Trippi’s view, Biden must be perceived as generally successful at managing the concrete challenges the country faces, while the Democrats in Congress must grow up and help Biden pass popular legislation. Further, the Democrats need to broader their tent to include more independents and former Republicans. Kristol and Trippi also consider what the primary elections of the Democrats and Republicans between now and the midterms will reveal about the direction of the parties.

Donald Kagan (1932 – 2021), who passed away this summer, was a preeminent historian of both the ancient and modern worlds. In 2015,  we were privileged to host Professor Kagan for a wide-ranging Conversation about the major themes of his work. We are pleased to re-release the Conversation here. In the Conversation, Kagan and Kristol discuss what humanity’s greatest wars—from the Peloponnesian War to World War II—can teach us about the nature of war and the sources of human conflict. Kagan also discusses his education in history at Brooklyn College, his groundbreaking work on Thucydides, and his distinguished teaching career at Yale. Finally, Kristol and Kagan discuss the state of the study of history and the liberal arts more generally in America.

How will the American withdrawal from Afghanistan influence US-China relations? How should we understand China’s geostrategic ambitions—and the threat to Taiwan in particular? How is America dealing with the challenge? To discuss these questions, we are joined again by Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy and the forthcoming Getting China Wrong. Friedberg explains how Americans often have misunderstood and underestimated the challenge from China on political, economic, and technological fronts. Friedberg calls for an integrated approach in which the US, in concert with allies, develops an alternative to the current paradigm—building and developing networks of industrial, technological, and political capacities in order to defend ourselves and Western principles. This is a timely and important Conversation that can help us think through the many political choices required to sustain a more effective strategy for countering the threat posed by China.

Civilian control over the military, and a non-partisan military, have been bedrock principles of American government since the founding of the country. In recent times, however, significant strains have developed in our civil-military relations. Why should we be alarmed about the growing politicization of the military in America? Why must partisan neutrality prevail, and why must civilians avoid using the military to advance their own partisan causes? In this Conversation, Eric Edelman shares his perspective.

Edelman organized an important letter in January 2021, signed by all living former secretaries of defense, reminding military and civilians at the Defense Department that the peaceful transfers of power…are hallmarks of our democracy. The need for such a letter, according to Edelman, underscores how the bedrock principles of American civil-military relations have been challenged, especially within the last years, both from within the ranks and in our politics. In this timely and urgent discussion, Edelman explains how we have reached the current situation. He calls for reinforcing the norm of keeping the military out of partisan politics—and politicians not seeking military support for partisan aims.

Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to defend the ratification of the Constitution, The Federalist has long been recognized as a fundamental text in American political thought. Yet the complexity and subtlety of The Federalist as a work often is not sufficiently appreciated. In this Conversation, David Epstein, author of The Political Theory of The Federalist, (1984), shares his perspective on why The Federalist should be taken seriously as a work of political thought, and on its enduring importance. Epstein guides us through central themes including representation, the separation of powers, the roles of interests and ambition in politics, and how popular government can be made to be good government. Throughout, we come to see the complex character of The Federalist—and its sometimes surprising point of view on these fundamental aspects of American government. Finally, Epstein and Kristol consider the ways in which The Federalist, irrespective of our own political choices or policy preferences, remains a vital source for learning to think about politics.

Where do things stand with Covid-19? How has the emergence of the Delta variant changed the situation? How might things look in the US as we had into the fall? To discuss these questions, we are joined again by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Jha explains why the highly-contagious Delta variant, coupled with greater-than-anticipated resistance to vaccines, now threatens a return to normalcy that seemed on track throughout the late spring. Today, all Americans have ready access to vaccines that are extraordinarily effective at preventing hospitalization and death. Jha stresses that exposure to Covid now is much more likely than just a few weeks ago, perhaps inevitable, so the choice in America now is binary: to get vaccinated, or get infected. Jha and Kristol consider choices in public policy and in the private sector we face now including whether to mandate vaccines, the role of the CDC and FDA, and the global dimension of the pandemic—and the ramifications of these choices as we look ahead to the reopening of schools, business, and other indoor activities, in the months ahead.

First released in June 2014, this Conversation is the first in our series of Conversations with Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield, one of the leading students of political philosophy. In it, Mansfield reflects on the importance of studying political philosophy and discusses, in brief, his work on great thinkers of political philosophy such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Niccolo Machiavelli. He also discusses the influence of Leo Strauss on his work. This Conversation offers a great introduction to Mansfield’s thought and work. It is very much worth revisiting for those who heard it at the time and it serves as a great introduction to Mansfield’s work for those who may be new to it.

The Biden Administration has announced that all American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of August. This would, in Biden’s words, bring to end America’s longest war. In this Conversation, Eric Edelman shares his perspective on the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. While recognizing the challenge of rallying the nation throughout our long involvement in a difficult country, Edelman raises doubts about the wisdom of removing America’s small footprint in Afghanistan. Edelman considers some potentially dangerous possibilities that might follow from the withdrawal—including greater destabilization of Pakistan and the threat of loose nukes getting into the hands of jihadists. Finally, Kristol and Edelman consider constructive things the Biden administration can do to reassure allies in the region that America will remain involved even after troops leave Afghanistan.

Where do the Republican and Democratic parties stand almost six months into the Biden presidency? How could changes in emphasis and legislative priorities for each party influence the direction of our politics? What are possible paths forward for the parties’ electoral coalitions as we look toward the 2022 midterms and beyond? In this Conversation, Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics and Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, shares his perspective on the latest polls and his analysis of the dynamics of the parties in this era of polarization. He presents a fascinating account of the challenges and opportunities facing the parties and candidates, today, and reflects on what we can learn from American political history.

How has America become so polarized? Has negative partisanship opened the floodgates for disinformation and propaganda in our politics? How is cancel culture related to information warfare? How can those who believe in free government fight back? In this Conversation, Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, shares his perspective. Drawing on his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch argues that to understand contemporary polarization, we must focus on deliberate campaigns of disinformation conducted by political actors who benefit from the weakening of institutions through the diffusion of falsehoods and conspiracy theories. Considering the phenomenon of cancel culture, Rauch argues it should be understood as a systematic attempt to weaken the expression of opinions and civil debate upon which American government rests. Though alarmed about the spread of disinformation, Rauch suggests we may be seeing the beginning of mobilization against cancel culture. He calls on those who believe in America’s constitutional government, civil society, and pluralism to stand up on behalf of those institutions.

What is the nature of comedy? How does it differ from tragedy? What can we learn from Shakespeare’s comedies that we might miss if we focus only on tragedies? In this Conversation, Paul Cantor presents a tour-de-force analysis of the nature of comedy—and explains how and why Shakespeare’s comedies exemplify it. As Cantor shows, comedy portrays human beings as worse than they are in order to puncture the sometimes unrealistic and destructive aspirations for ourselves and for our desires. Comedy is therefore meant to show us it’s a mistake to take too seriously things that do not necessarily deserve to be taken seriously. Too often our pride or self-importance leads us to make much ado about nothing. Cantor explains how Shakespeare’s comedies are a necessary complement to his tragedies—and as pointing to a workable middle way between the desires and even dreams humans have, and the conventions and accommodations they need to live together and flourish.

What is the role of immigration in the history of the United States—and the idea of America? Why has America been uniquely successful at integrating immigrants while other countries often fail? What is the connection between immigration and American patriotism? Joining us to discuss is Roya Hakakian, the distinguished author and poet, who emigrated from Iran in the 1980s as a teenager. In this Conversation, Hakakian recalls her first impressions of the United States and describes her experiences as an immigrant. She then shares her perspective on why immigration to the United States has been a positive force for both America and the world—as well as her personal reflections on how immigration has contributed to the American story.

How should we analyze the economic policies advanced by the Biden Administration? What are the possible effects of the trillions of dollars in government spending and the various programs proposed by the administration? What is America’s overall economic outlook coming out of the pandemic—and how might things play out under various scenarios? Joining us to consider these questions is American Enterprise Institute scholar Stan Veuger. Analyzing Biden’s economic agenda, Veuger and Kristol address the paradox that it is both extraordinarily large in scale but doesn’t create large structural changes to the economy, as would the institution of single-payer healthcare, for example. Veuger reflects on the degree to which the territory we face in fiscal policy is uncharted: the extent of domestic spending, outside of a crisis, without sufficient tax revenue to pay for it. Veuger also addresses topics ranging from the threat of inflation to where things stand in our politics relative to immigration and trade.

What can reason tell us about rights, freedom, responsibility, and the common good? What obstacles stand in the way of human beings developing clear thoughts about politics and its role within nature? How can attention to our experiences—for example, of freedom and rights—help us understand the nature of these political phenomena? In this Conversation, Claremont McKenna philosopher Mark Blitz presents his approach to the study of politics and human nature. Drawing on his new book, Reason and Politics: The Nature of Political Phenomena, Blitz argues that we should take our bearings in the study of political things not, in the first instance, through recourse to rigid rules or theories then imposed on the world, but through an open-minded encounter with political phenomena as they come to light through our own experience of them. Employing this approach, Blitz makes a series of stark and revealing comments about the nature of rights, liberty, equality, virtue, and human excellence. Finally, Blitz explains how his approach relates to thinkers including Plato and Martin Heidegger. This is a deep, challenging, and rewarding Conversation that has something important to say to anyone interested in liberal democracy, the American regime, and the nature of politics more generally.

How has Joe Biden done in the first months of his presidency? What role might Donald Trump play in the Republican Party as we look ahead to 2022 and 2024? What challenges do the parties face—from the culture wars to economics? We are delighted to be joined for the first time on Conversations by James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist. Carville expresses cautious optimism about the Biden presidency but highlights the fragility of the Democratic coalition—and the possibility, in 2022 and 2024, of missteps in the culture war overshadowing the successes of a Democratic administration. He warns his party about vulnerability on issues like defund the police and the talk of socialism. As for the Republicans, Carville argues that Trump is in a weaker position than one might have anticipated—and that Republicans have proven surprisingly unable to challenge Biden’s agenda much beyond opposing the Democratic Party and the media on cultural grounds. Finally, Carville shares advice for those aspiring to run for office, and shares fascinating anecdotes from his distinguished career in politics.

What makes a people a people? What forms its communal identity? The second book of the Bible, Exodus, tells of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, their journey through the wilderness, the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, the building of the tabernacle, and much else. Exodus and its abiding mysteries have been studied for millennia as a source for wisdom and understanding about theological questions as well as human affairs.  Joining us to discuss Exodus is Dr. Leon Kass, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Kass has just published the new book Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, a monumental work in which he considers Exodus in a philosophical spirit, and shares striking insights on its theology, anthropology, and especially its politics. In this Conversation, he reflects on what he has learned through his study of Exodus—and argues that, regardless of our religious affiliation or beliefs, Exodus has much to teach those who read it with an open mind.

What are the latest developments in Russia with the Putin regime? How have recent protests surrounding the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny affected it? What is the nature of Putin’s power and why have his tactics so often been effective? To discuss, Bill Kristol is joined again by former world chess champion and human rights activist Garry Kasparov. According to Kasparov, the recent protests have demonstrated deep dissatisfaction in Russia with the Putin regime and the depth of its corruption. However, Kasparov notes that Putin has proven stubbornly effective at maintaining power and may yet weather this and other challenges he faces. In response to Putin’s authoritarianism, Kasparov calls for America and the leaders of the West to develop a coherent strategy for countering Putin’s aggression and for defending the principles of liberty, democracy, and free markets that have been the source of our strength.

How should we think about fiscal stimulus in an era of low interest rates? Is $1.9 trillion too much? Is the proposed relief package sufficiently well targeted? In this Conversation, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers shares his analysis of the American economy and the challenges we face. Summers argues for substantial fiscal stimulus but emphasizes the importance of investments in infrastructure that could lay the groundwork for durable economic growth. Summers warns about the dangers of inflation—and especially if the accommodative fiscal and monetary policies of the crisis era become standard practice. Finally, Kristol and Summers discuss the state of higher education and how universities should conceive of their mission today.