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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The birthrate in the United States, and in many other countries around the world, has been declining for decades. The US birthrate now is at 1.8, which is below the need for a stable population—the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Yet the profound consequences of this change take generations to play out. In this Conversation, Jonathan V. Last, author of What To Expect When No One’s Expecting and Executive Editor of The Bulwark, shares his research into demographic decline and spells out some of the current and potential future consequences that might follow from it. Last argues that we’re likely to see a steep fall in the global population beginning later this century, which could produce alarming geopolitical dangers. As for America, Last notes that declining fertility could put major pressure on the social safety net—and change the nature of our society. This is a sobering and important Conversation on a neglected but extremely important subject.

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What is the political and economic situation in Europe today? How should we think about contentious issues like stresses in the European Union, Brexit, the migration crisis, and the rise of populist parties of the Left and the Right? In this Conversation, AEI economist Stan Veuger shares an incisive and—against the conventional wisdom—rather encouraging account of Europe today.In support of this assessment, Veuger presents a qualified defense of the project of European integration, noting that in the last decades European countries have successfully warded off violent conflict and have enjoyed greater economic prosperity (despite serious problems with the Euro currency). Veuger highlights the imperfect character of the Euro, but argues that there does not seem to be a plausible alternative to it, today. In contrast to his confidence about the general prospects and benefits of the EU common market, Veuger shares specific concerns about national defense, the migration crisis, Brexit, and the rise of populist parties. However he says he is less worried [about the future of Europe] now than people rightly were five years ago.

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How is the US economy performing today? How should we think about the turn against free markets by prominent figures of the Left and the Right? What economic policies might spur innovation and growth in the future? In this Conversation, Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw analyzes the current moment and shares his perspective on the major economic policies and ideas of the Left and the Right. According to Mankiw, the American economy remains robust and dynamic, despite only good (rather than excellent) economic growth in recent years and increased consternation about the rise of inequality. Criticizing policies that rely excessively on central planning, Mankiw calls for high-skilled immigration, innovative approaches to education, and maintaining incentives that yield investment in research and development. He also suggests some alterations in tax and welfare policies that might help ameliorate problems we face in the short and long term.

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Jack Goldsmith is a professor of law at Harvard, an expert on national security, terrorism, and cybersecurity—and a regular guest on Conversations. As he reveals in a fascinating new book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, from the age of 12 in 1975 he was personally wrapped up in one of the most contentious episodes in American history—the disappearance of the powerful Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa. In this Conversation, Goldsmith recounts how his stepfather, Chuckie O’Brien, became the prime suspect in Hoffa’s disappearance, and how this affected their relationship over the next decades. Goldsmith then shares his own research into the Hoffa case and what he learned along the way about his stepfather, the life and career of Jimmy Hoffa, the history of labor unions in the United States, and the rise and fall of the mob. This is a deeply personal, moving Conversation that has much to teach us about the complexities of family, law, and politics.

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As we head into the 2020 election year, veteran political strategist and commentator Mike Murphy joins Bill Kristol to discuss the state of the race for the Democratic nomination, and the general election to follow. What are plausible paths to the nomination for Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and possible dark horse candidates? What are Donald Trump’s chances for reelection against possible democratic nominees? Murphy shares his perspective on the race with his usual blend of humor and insight.

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Best known for his 24 years in the Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927 – 2003) was a major figure in the political history of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. In this Conversation, political scientist Greg Weiner, author of a fine intellectual biography of Moynihan, reviews Moynihan’s political career and his approach to political and social problems. In his rejection of extremism, his defense of proceduralism in government, and his willingness to use good social science while also seeing its limits, Moynihan’s example has much to teach us today. Kristol and Weiner also consider the extent to which Moynihan benefited from the political thought of Edmund Burke, and why Burke remains highly relevant to our times.

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Is America the best place in the world to get medical care? How should we think about recent proposals for healthcare reform like “Medicare for All” or creating new incentives for controlling costs? In this Conversation, James Capretta, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a leading scholar on health policy, presents an incisive, nuanced, and accessible account of American healthcare today. According to Capretta, the American healthcare system remains open and adaptive—and continues to offer high-quality care to the vast majority of the population. For access to the most cutting-edge innovations in the diagnosis and treatment of serious illnesses, American healthcare remains unmatched. And yet, as Capretta points out, the American healthcare system has struggled to control rising costs as a percentage of GDP. To meet this challenge, Capretta suggests market-driven reforms that—without rationing care as public healthcare inevitably does—create realistic incentives for controlling costs and public spending. This is not only a must-see Conversation on healthcare. Capretta’s analysis is a model of how to think seriously about the many public policy challenges we face.

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Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, certain writers, scholars, and amateur sleuths have questioned whether William Shakespeare, the actor and son of a glovemaker from Stratford, really could have written Shakespeare’s plays. Possible alternatives posited by Shakespeare skeptics have included the philosopher Francis Bacon and the courtier Edward de Vere (The Earl of Oxford). A recent article in “The Atlantic” suggested a poet Emilia Bassano as another possible candidate. In this Conversation, Paul Cantor explains the history of this controversy, reviews the evidence, and explains why the author of Shakespeare’s plays was none other than Shakespeare from Stratford, himself! Cantor argues that behind this search for an alternate author lies a disbelief that such an individual could possess an astonishing ability to imagine and portray the full variety of human types, whether aristocratic or common, male or female. And yet, this ability to transcend oneself and imagine other people, times, and possibilities is a true mark of literary genius. As Cantor puts it, “There’s no way to explain [Shakespeare’s genius]. It’s just one of the great miracles.”

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What is the role of the Supreme Court in American politics today? How is the current Court dealing with hot-button social and cultural issues, as well as topics like regulation and the scope of the administrative state? What are the major ideas and debates in conservative legal thought today? In this Conversation, Adam White, Executive Director at George Mason Law School’s C. Boyden Gray Center and a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, offers an incisive analysis of the Supreme Court and the role of the judicial branch as a whole in America today. Discussing the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court, White highlights the tension between the desire for judicial restraint and the desire to revisit previous rulings that may have been wrongly decided. White argues that Chief Justice Roberts will have to manage this tension responsibly as he seeks to shape the character of the current Court. White and Kristol also discuss how both liberals and conservatives might treat the Court as a political issue in 2020.

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The conservative movement has been a major force in American political life since the 1950s. But in recent years conservatism has undergone fundamental changes. In this Conversation, Steve Hayes, the author and a former editor of The Weekly Standard, reflects on the extent to which today’s conservatism has been transformed by Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency. Hayes acknowledges that Trump has had certain traditionally conservative policy victories, but contends that rationalization of Trump’s conduct and political impulses has damaged the conservative cause. Hayes and Bill Kristol also discuss the prospects for conservatism and the Republican Party after Trump’s presidency.

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How have the transformations in our media environment—particularly the rise of digital and social media—affected American society and politics? Is the current volatility in our politics and media likely to persist?

In this Conversation, Jim VandeHei the CEO and co-founder of Axios and, before that, Politico, shares his perspective on our tumultuous media and political environment. Though he highlights some positive consequences of the proliferation of digital and social media, VandeHei argues that they have also facilitated greater polarization, extremism, new vulnerabilities to political and ideological manipulation, and, in general, more turbulent politics.

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In 2014, Bill Kristol sat down with General Jack Keane for a wide-ranging discussion about Keane’s distinguished military career. To commemorate 9/11, we are now re-releasing General Keane’s remarkable recollections of September 11, which were part of that larger Conversation. General Keane was in the Pentagon, and in this recording he speaks of the heroism and bravery he witnessed that day. (Originally released: Sept. 29, 2014).

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What role can America play in an increasingly complex and dangerous world—one in which America no longer maintains the overwhelmingly decisive advantage it enjoyed after the end of the Cold War? What steps must the United States take in order to improve its security and standing in a “Post-Post-Cold War” era? Why does American engagement abroad remain important for American safety and prosperity? In this Conversation, Eric Edelman of Johns Hopkins SAIS considers America’s strategic position today. Edelman highlights a clear decline in America’s military and diplomatic capacities as well as the growing strength of foreign competitors and rivals. To confront the challenge, Edelman calls for reforms in key institutions and practices—and a renewed commitment on the part of the American people to defend the liberal international order. This is a must-see Conversation for anyone interested in America’s role in the world.

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What is the status of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and liberal education on university campuses today? How has modern feminism shaped the modern university? In this Conversation, Harvey Mansfield considers some of the central issues and tensions in higher education today. Describing his own recent “disinvitation” from giving a commencement address at Concordia University in Montreal, Mansfield argues that the incident has much to teach us about current attitudes toward freedom of speech—and the importance of modern feminism in shaping these attitudes. Kristol and Mansfield also discuss the state of liberal education and free speech on campus and in America as a whole.

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What are the roots of our idea of “meritocracy”? Why has meritocracy become a subject of intense scrutiny in our politics? Can there be a legitimate meritocracy? In this Conversation, James Hankins, a professor of history at Harvard University, presents a historically learned and deeply relevant account of the idea of meritocracy. According to Hankins, our current idea of meritocracy is closely tied to the post-French Revolution effort to replace the old hereditary elite with a new elite based on talent or merit. Over time, however, our idea of merit has become more narrowly focused on scientific capability—and has avoided questions about the humanities. Hankins points both to the Renaissance in the West and Confucianism in China as important sources for revitalizing the notion that moral virtue is important to teach, and for prospective rulers to understand. In sum, Hankins presents a fascinating account of meritocracy in China, America, and the West as a whole.

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The speeches of Abraham Lincoln are well known for their enduring importance in the history of the United States. But they also remain incredibly significant as texts—works of political rhetoric that have much to teach us about the nature of politics and the American regime. In this Conversation with Bill Kristol, Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and a preeminent scholar of American political thought, demonstrates the depth of Lincoln’s speeches through an interpretation of two of his greatest orations: “The Lyceum Address” (1838) and “The Gettysburg Address” (1863). Schaub considers “The Lyceum Address” as a profound reflection on the dangers of democracy and why “rational reverence” for the law will be indispensable for the perpetuation of America’s political institutions. In a magnificent interpretation of the “The Gettysburg Address,” she explains how, for Lincoln, the Civil War was a trial not only about the future of the United States, but about the very possibility of self-government. This is a must-listen Conversation for anyone interested in American history, political philosophy, and statesmanship.

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