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‘Zombie Reaganism’ versus the New Right: The Wall Street Journal’s Elliot Kaufman on conservatism in the modern age

Podcast & Video

This episode features Sean Speer in conversation with The Wall Street Journal’s letters editor Elliot Kaufman about his journey from Toronto to the world of American conservatism and his views on the state of conservative ideas and politics, including the ideological threats posed by the so-called “New Right.”

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Elliot Kaufman who’s the Canadian-born, New York-based letters editor of The Wall Street Journal, and one of the most interesting young and up-and-coming conservatives that I know. I thought it would be interesting to speak with Elliot about his journey from Toronto to The Wall Street Journal, including his own intellectual journey and now unique vantage point from which he has to observe the current debates within American conservatism. Elliot, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up and go to school, and what ultimately led you to move to the United States?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: I grew up in Toronto, like you mentioned, near Bathurst and Eglinton, for those curious. I left Toronto at the age of 18 for university. I moved to the U.S. and went to Stanford University in California.

For my schooling in Canada, though, I went to a Jewish school called Leo Baeck. This was a reform Jewish school. Less religious than my family but it was nearby. They taught me all kinds of nonsense about how, nothing in the Torah really happened, but isn’t it a wonderful story all the same? In any event, I didn’t take them too seriously.

From there I moved to Upper Canada College. As I began there, I could feel the expectations rise. All of a sudden I’m tying a tie in the morning and I’m calling my teachers Ms. Brooks and Mr. Sharp instead of Miriam and Amy or something. Here was a school that very much took itself seriously, which I think freed many of us to do so as well. My economics teacher, Mr. Lagonesse, would show us Milton Friedman in videos. My English teacher was Mr. Bald. Dr. Churchward had us read Cormac McCarthy, David Mamet. Fantastic stuff for an all-boys school, in particular, I think. I loved it.

Expectations were high and I think we rose to meet them. And one thing I think I’ll add is that it pains me now a little bit to see the school embrace every sort of fashionable race-obsessed dogma. It’s interesting to see how it proceeded, as an alumnus.

Then just to finish up, I moved to the United States for Stanford, but also because I loved America. I always had. You know those displays of patriotism before sports games Americans are always doing? A fighter jet flies over the top, that kind of thing? Many people find it trashy, in my experience. I always respected it.

I always found that when we did patriotic things in Canada, at least in my milieu, there was a bit of irony attached. Always an implied eye roll. A kind of, “Come on, this is Canada that we’re talking about at the end of the day. Nothing to get too excited about.” Little jokes about our military, things like that. Don Cherry memorably called this the “Canadian syndrome”, where if it’s Canadian, it’s nothing much. I felt the Americans didn’t do that. They were proud of who they were and I thought they had an awful lot to be proud of, and that made me an unusual Canadian. So unusual you might even conclude that I’m now trying to become an American myself.

SEAN SPEER: Holy smokes, Elliot, there’s a lot there. It sounds to me like what we need from you is a Canadian version of God and Man at Yale called God and Man at Upper Canada College, but we’ll leave that for now.

Let’s move on from your migration from Toronto to Stanford to now your work at the Wall Street Journal. How did you get started at the WSJ? What’s your job like? You get letters from senior politicians, business leaders, thought leaders, et cetera. How do you decide which ones to ultimately run?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: Well, okay, first, how did I get there? At Stanford, I began not by writing, but by becoming a student manager for the basketball team over there. But my parents suggested that maybe I should be doing something a little better with my time than doing laundry for the team and rebounding for drills and that kind of thing, and they were probably right. I joined the campus conservative newspaper founded by Peter Thiel, actually, the venture capitalist, among other things, and was working there, writing there.

At some point, came into a dispute with some of the other editors there over some of the things that would end up roiling the conservative movement at large. I quit and I started submitting articles to real publications outside of the university and to my great surprise they started saying yes. I was writing about campus issues typically. That was the one thing that I had some comparative advantage in my writing. For National Review, the website, and then for Commentary Magazine.

This probably culminated with a cover story I wrote for Commentary Magazine. A sort of early analysis of intersectionality with the new style of campus politics, and specifically the problem it runs into with Jews. Commentary is a Jewish magazine, among other things. This essay has since become a book chapter looking at intersectionality not so much as an academic framework, like it wants us to look at it, but more so as a method of political organizing, a kind of machine politics. And then second, as a kind of conspiracy theory about the connection of all oppression and oppressors, especially in the theory’s more vulgar things.

From there I got an internship at National Review where, to be honest, they’re a little crazy. They let me write an article or two every single day. Over nine weeks, I think I published 60 articles—that six-zero, over there. They never told me no so I just kept on writing, and it was the most wonderful experience. I hope the readers got something from hearing a 21-year-old’s thoughts about the world, but when I then applied to the Wall Street Journal—I actually, applied to National Review, got turned down, thought I would never get anything ever again—but I applied to the Wall Street Journal and was actually able to be a pretty decent candidate saying, “I’ve written 60 articles last summer for something real. Not just for my college newspaper.”

I landed there as a summer intern, then a year-long fellowship. I was an op-ed editor for three years and I’ve been letters editor for the last year, writing my own articles all the while for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. As letters editor, I get to read what the readers have to say, and they are very sharp. Just yesterday I got a letter from Bill Nye the Science Guy, I got a letter from Senator Marco Rubio, two letters from business associations, and a great deal more from average readers. Those are actually my favorites because Wall Street Journal readers, they miss nothing.

If we’ve made a mistake about some kind of airplane, some kind of obscure art, some political history, they will catch it every single time as a collective. From the retired lawyer in Scottsdale, Arizona, to the mother in New York’s Westchester County, they have interesting things to say all the time. There are some basic criteria for letters but, really, I just pick what I find interesting. I’m looking for something fresh, something clever, a good story. Probably my bias is toward historical or literary anecdotes. We probably get around 400 letters a day and so you might think it’s looking for a needle in a haystack but, in fact, it’s the opposite.

People across the country who’ve never met each other end up saying the exact same thing as each other using the exact same words. The same jokes come to mind. There is so much of that conformity of thought that when someone actually has something fresh to say, it leaps off of the page, and so I find it very easy finding the good ones.

SEAN SPEER: That’s fascinating. Let’s move to your own intellectual journey, not just your educational and professional journey. I don’t think I’m putting words into your mouth, Elliot, when I say that you’re a conservative. After all, you recently participated in a Manhattan Institute event called “Who’s Right? Millennials, Gen Z, And The Future Of American Conservatism.” When did you start to think of yourself as a conservative and what ideas, politicians, or issues, were most influential in your intellectual political trajectory?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: Sometimes I wish I had a grand conversion narrative here, but from as early as I had a politics, which was shockingly early, I was a conservative. For this, I can credit my parents, The National Post newspaper which I started reading at the age of seven every morning before school. Admittedly, I started with the sports section, but before long I was on to the front section. Yes, parents, National Post newspaper, and I would also say the trajectory of Canadian Jewry just in the background, as a background factor.

The paper played a big role in our house. We would all read it and then at the dinner table every night, we would talk about what we had read and we would argue about it. I would say Charles Krauthammer’s columns especially were treated very seriously. We only knew him through his writing, not so much through his TV appearances, and we would wait for it once a week syndicated in The National Post. There were others. We very much liked Rex Murphy on CBC, Dennis Prager the talk radio host. We got his tapes in the mail and we would listen to them on long car trips so this is perhaps not the most normal family, but I think it was a great education nonetheless.

By the way, it always had to be The National Post. Every now and then someone would come by and try to give us The Globe and Mail and we would take it. Then every now and then someone would try to give us the Toronto Star and we would refuse it. We would not let it inside of the home and we would give the poor marketing person a piece of our mind. Later on, it would be reading National Review online in college, getting into the world of conservative print magazines, and then reading certain books that had a big influence including Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.

I guess central to me at the time was just the idea of unintended consequences. This seemed to me at the time a massive insight that even with the best of intentions, policies that purely wanted to do good and to help people could, in fact, do bad and hurt people, and probably usually would because government would be deciding for people instead of letting them decide for themselves and for their families.

The third big factor that I mentioned would be the trajectory of Canadian Jews. In America, Jews are still mostly liberal. As I was growing up in Canada, this changed. By the way, I believe it’s also changed somewhat in Britain and in France and other places. America is really the big outlier. Its community is also a little less religious on the whole. It may be a difference within reform and conservative Judaism rather than between those and the orthodoxy, but anyways, a subtle difference. I remember vividly how—I wonder which election this was. Maybe it was the 2004 election or the next one. Was it 2006? The UJA, United Jewish Appeal, put up a sign on the corner of my street that just had the Liberal party’s voting record on Israel at the UN. It was like, voted for Israel twice, voted against Israel eight times, abstained 33 times or something because, of course, the UN is totally fixated on Israel and has endless votes on it.

They put these signs up everywhere and people really thought about it. I think in 2004, my mother voted conservative for the first time, and the next time my father, who had been active in Liberal party politics, voted conservative for the first time, and it was a huge deal to us. We just thought, “Why should we put up with this? Why do we have to do that sort of thing?” The flipside, by the way, is that Harper was so good on this issue and seemed to really feel it. I think Harper understood something very important. He used to go after the anti-Israel side at international conferences and that kind of thing.

He understood that Israel is not on trial. Israel is not in the dock and you don’t let the hypocrites at the UN play judge and moral arbiter and then you play the defence attorney. No, that’s not how this should work. The tyrants and torturers of the Islamic world don’t get to lecture Israel about human rights. The Europeans who wouldn’t lift a finger when Israel’s life was on the line and when Arab armies were advancing with their leaders promising a second Holocaust just a few decades after the first one but European leaders wouldn’t even let American planes land on their soil to resupply Israel just to refuel. They wouldn’t let them. Why? They feared losing Arab oil. Now they fear losing Russian gas. So much has changed. And yet they still try to claim the moral high ground, these Europeans.

What Harper understood is you don’t give it to them. They are the ones that have something to answer for. Not us and not Israel. I think it’s because Harper understood that and spoke in that kind of way, in contrast with the Liberals, the combination of it really had an effect on the people around me that I grew up alongside.

SEAN SPEER: There’s so much there again, Elliot. I would just, note for the listeners, we had an essay on Charles Krauthammer’s intellectual influence and insights on conservatism at The Hub in the past couple of weeks. We’ll include that in the show notes. As for the UN, we’re having this conversation on July 13th and this episode will be posted on The Hub website next week when we’ll also be running an article based on insights from former Israeli ambassador of the UN, Danny Danon, about precisely some of the issues that Elliot raises with respect to the tendency on the part of the UN to put Israel on trial as opposed to deal with real tyranny and illiberalism around the world. Those points are well taken.

Let’s unpack a bit, Elliot, your own personal brand of conservatism. You work at the Wall Street Journal, which is the standard bearer for economic conservatism. You yourself have been critical of certain developments on the right including the rise of illiberalism and flirtations with statism. How would you describe yourself? Are you a classical liberal? Or something else?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: That is a good question and there’s nothing conservatives love more than talking about conservatism. I think the word conservative will do for me. It’s more accurate than classical liberal. I could call myself a free market conservative but I don’t want people to think I’m not also a social conservative, so conservative is just fine. It’s not so easy to define. I think liberalism and socialism are much easier to define. Each of them have tenets and they have a uniform program such that a liberal in Canada and a liberal in Iran should theoretically believe the same things, and a socialist in both places, certainly.

However, a conservative in Canada and a conservative in Iran mean drastically different things and so that right there should hint that there’s something less precise, or certainly less uniform, about the term. I think part of it is that conservatism accounts for history. It accounts for the different characteristics of nations, and not so much in the lazy way of multiculturalism saying that you have a respect for all nations but don’t go beyond that. Don’t actually understand them.

I think of Edmund Burke, often considered the father of conservative thought. First thing to note about him is he wasn’t a philosopher. He was a statesman. He was involved in the nitty-gritty of politics. He gave this wonderful speech just before the American Revolution when hostilities hadn’t broken out, but arguments certainly had. He was arguing to his fellow British parliamentarians that you can’t try to impose these things on Americans. Why? They’re different. What makes them American is their peculiarly passionate attachment to liberty, even in ways that seem crazy to us.

Tocqueville recognized this also and I think both of them also commented specifically about even American slaveholders. In some ways, because they were slaveholders, were even more jealous of their own liberties and even more sensitive to attacks on their liberties. This was an American difference that he thought British parliamentarians had to take into account or they would lose America forever. “Get in between Americans and their idea of Liberty,” he argued, “and it’s over.” Of course, no one listened to him, and of course, he was right.

I think about this in terms of, maybe, gun laws between Canada and the U.S. Just as how I wouldn’t want to impose American gun laws on Canada, I also wouldn’t want to impose Canadian gun laws on America. Both nations have just had very different histories that inform the way they think of their relationship with the states and all kinds of things like that. To impose one program of one country on another without attention to that history is a dangerous thing. These histories have shaped us and produced institutions and cultivated values that preserve our order.

When we ignore that, not only do the policies sometimes fail, but we risk undermining those hidden threads that hold together civic peace, prosperity and so much more. In this sense, I think that conservatives actually take diversity much more seriously than do liberals who never stop talking about it but yet seem to have derived principles and come up with the same kind of program wherever they are. The conservatism that I think of really pays attention to history and therefore to diversity and to culture.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great answer, Elliot. It reminds me of Samuel Huntington’s observations about the contingent particularist nature of conservatism juxtaposed against, as you say, the universalist presumptions of liberalism.

Let’s take up the state of modern American conservatism if we might. In the history of modern American conservatism, I think, for instance, of the Reagan era, your brand of conservatism was really at the centre of the American Right. Where do you think it stands today, and to the extent that it’s being challenged by different ideas or points of emphasis by the so-called New Right, what do you think is behind these developments?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: I am pretty optimistic. I think free market conservatism is doing okay and I try not to lose my head about what I see as these micro-movements that have popped up to challenge it and argue for a greater role for governments in particular—these things pop up all the time but they lack staying power. They say things that no one really disagrees with. Things like, “There’s so much more to life than money” or “The things we really care about aren’t really decided in the market.” All true, and yet, when we have to put a price on these things, the only real way to measure what we’re losing and what we’re giving up in efficiency, in jobs, in prices of goods and all kinds of things, tend to be economic measures and the people tend to return to them fairly quickly.

These movements come up all the time. Especially in Britain, I think, where if you go back into history, there’s Young Democracy, Tory Democracy, Distributism, Red Toryism, more recently, the Big Wociety of David Cameron. Theresa May had some Red Tory election manifesto that went nowhere. It’s not so new. In America, George Bush, people now think of him as Reaganism. His thing was compassionate conservatism. What is behind this kind of thing?

Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father, who was really the ideologue of Tory democracy, when he was asked what it consisted of, he said opportunism, principally. The idea is people want certain things, let’s not let our principles get in the way of giving it to them. I think behind the latest in the U.S. is Trump in the same kind of opportunism. The sense that this is what the people want so we’ll give it to them. Of course, the people saying this, interpreting what the voters really want, are themselves Washington think tank creatures and Capitol Hill interns and that sort of thing, so they’re grasping just as much as anyone else is.

Many of them have rallied around industrial policy. Really? That’s what the voters were saying they wanted in 2016 rejecting Hillary Clinton? They were saying we want old-style industrial policy? I’m not so sure.

The other side of it is entitlement reform where it’s true the people don’t want it and so the political innovation of these New Right micro movements has been to kick the can down the road just like everyone else has. That’s not new thinking, I’m afraid, and that’s not much of a solution. Yes, the emphasis on state power on getting over the Right’s suspicion of big government and instead using it for our purposes, this is out of whack with the American difference that I was talking about earlier that conservatives should be attuned to. I think if ever embraced fully, it would threaten to throw the country off balance. Surely the country needs one party advocating some restraints in the growth of the state and for me, it’s not conservative as much as for any of its sins against the free market.

Just to finish here, I think in the U.S. its moment has passed. For some, it’s forever 2017. Trump was in, anything was possible, but it’s a different moment now. The main concerns are inflation at home, dishonour abroad. We just saw a government run roughshod over civil liberties and make a total mess of our COVID response, and now is the time to drop our default suspicion of state power? I don’t see it.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve argued, including in the Manhattan Institute event that I mentioned earlier, Elliot, that the Reagan model is still politically relevant. As you’ve just said, it may even be more relevant than it has been in a long time in light of current economic and geopolitical developments. What, in your view, do those who talk about “Zombie Reaganism” get wrong?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: “Zombie Reaganism” is a slogan that comes up and it does worry me slightly because a friend’s line about how Washington works is that you say the same five slogans over and over again until someone puts you in power. Let’s hope this one will not make it in. I think the people who talk about Zombie Reaganism, they get two things wrong. They don’t understand Reagan and what Reaganism was and they don’t understand our political moment right now.

Reaganism was not a kind of doctrinaire libertarianism. Oddly, some of its proponents and some of its opponents seem to have converged that that’s what it was, but it was not that. The American founding wasn’t that either, by the way. Again, proponents and opponents sometimes agree on these things, which I think aren’t true. If it was that diehard libertarianism, it would never have been as politically successful as it was. Actually, Reaganism won three straight Republican terms as president and really it should have been four but for some other contingent circumstantial things. Reagan took over the Republican Party by unifying the conservative movement with the New Right of the 1970s. Now we talk about a New Right again, but like I said, these things come up periodically.

The New Right of the 1970s emphasized cultural and religious concerns much more urgently and needed someone to speak to that. The sense that the America they recognized was slipping away at home and that there was a weakening in the opposition to communism abroad for some of the same reasons. Reagan kept winning by bringing in what came to be called the Reagan Democrats who were union guys—like him I should say. I do like to point out that Reagan was America’s first and perhaps only union leader who became president having led the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood.

Anyways, union guys, many of them Catholics who had revered FDR. Reagan did also. He wasn’t advocating overturning the New Deal. He thought that there should be a safety net for people who fall on hard times but he didn’t believe it should be forever—supporting people for life whether they’re willing to work or not. He thought that was wrong. He thought that would be an abuse. In a situation like that, government had become the problem, not the solution, like he said, and it had actually become a moral problem. I think that was one of the keys for him.

He recognized the new issues of the day and he made small government solutions seem the most reasonable thing in the world. Unlike Barry Goldwater, the conservative standard-bearer in 1964 who believed the right things, but made it sound totally radical and alienated people. Like I was alluding to before, the challenges before Reagan, you can count them off: Inflation, stagflation, welfare dependency, rising crime, and dishonour abroad. At the Manhattan Institute event, I said we now have four out of five. All of them except stagflation. It’s a few months later and we may get five out of five. Reaganism has gone stale? Not even close. I think we need to confront new problems of affordability, especially, with small government solutions rooted in that same kind of popular morality.

Just one note here to finish up, I kind of wonder if, in Canada, Pierre Poilievre could work something like that with, perhaps, less of an emphasis on individual liberty to adapt it to Canada. I think the key for him will be to speak common sense, not ideology. It occurs to me that he’s not so far from this kind of formula. The new concerns paired with small government solutions posed in terms of popular morality.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just slip in one more question about Reaganism. One of the trademarks of many voices in the so-called New Right is a degree of grievance and even anger. How much was Reagan’s persona and political approach as a happy warrior a key part of understanding his political fecundity?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: I think it played a big role but perhaps sometimes people make too much of it because Reagan was not always above being a canny politician and sounding some dark notes, especially speaking in the south, although he would later apologize for that and it would be one of the things that he regretted most.

I think what was crucial is that Reagan was not a defeatist. If the battle’s already over, why fight? Reagan understood that Americans love America, they don’t hate it, so if the message was so upset with what was going on in America that started to sound like anti-Americanism, he would lose people.

Reagan spoke to the best in America, said it was “morning in America”, spoke about the greatness of America’s past and how it was still there right now. He said freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. He didn’t say freedom is extinct and there’s a big difference with that. He recognized the threats on the horizon but spoke to an American audience that liked America nevertheless.

SEAN SPEER: Just as an aside, I take your point that, like assessing any aspect of Reaganism, it’s important to bring a degree of nuance and not succumb to the mythology that is built up in the intervening decades, but it does seem to me that there is a pretty stark difference between the “Shining City on the Hill” and the Trump inaugural address which I think, in some ways, is a proxy for the kind of tone and approach of many on the New Right.

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: I would agree. By the way, I would just add that sometimes people do overlook that Trump’s slogan, after all, was “Make America Great Again.” He had definitely shifted over to a darker picture of America perhaps matching the circumstances. We shouldn’t sugarcoat it, but still, I think, held out that basic sentiment which some of the Trump imitators I think do not understand and they take it even further.

SEAN SPEER: To that point, Elliot, how much would you attribute these developments to generational change? Is the New Right merely a case of a new generation of conservatives looking to put their stamp on the movement and in turn reflects something of a combination of youthful exuberance and, perhaps, arrogance? If so, is it likely that we return to a political equilibrium that resembles something like Reaganism? Or how open are you to the argument that this is a genuinely disjunctive moment in the world of conservative ideas and conservative politics?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: It’s a very good question. On the one hand, I remember reading somewhere the line something like, “If the young are rebelling against established authority, we should remember that they’re only acting traditionally.” I think it is worth remembering that. For many on the young Right, Trump is the only successful right-wing president they’ve known. Maybe they tuned in toward the end of the Bush years when the whole country hated that and wanted something different.

I guess it really shouldn’t be such a surprise that the other models of conservative leadership, they look like losers. I think who wins going forward may go a long way to shaping the views of young conservatives as they mature. We shouldn’t forget how contingent some of these things are. Even if each individual, it seems like, comes into one’s own judgments independently. I would say the question is complicated by the disjunction between professional conservatives in Washington, D.C., and conservative voters.

Young conservative voters are more likely to favour strong action to fight climate change. They’re less likely to be opposed to gay marriage, to Black Lives Matter, all kinds of things like that. The young conservative [intellectual types] on the Right are much more radicalized and so the disconnect is massive. I tend to think that you cannot dismiss either one. The ideas percolating in D.C. do matter. What the voters want matters. I guess the way I framed it, I hope that on both sides people come to their senses as they get older.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask you a penultimate question. Who in your view is thinking of these questions with their senses? In other words, who should our listeners be reading to understand the political moment, including on the American Right?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: Well, I would have to recommend that you read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, first of all. If you want to see defences of the free markets, if you want to see, particularly now, a dissection of what happens when, like the Biden administration, you really hand off policy-making to the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

I think it’s also worth remembering that when these arguments were really raging on the Right, the New Right micro-movements were saying things like, “Listen, the free market, free trade, this gets lower prices, but so what? Who cares if, say, your toaster at Walmart is a little cheaper?” Talking about how lower prices don’t matter isn’t going over so well anymore.

I would say read the Wall Street Journal editorial page if you want to hear about some of that including defences of the conservative legal movement which has been vindicated in a big way. Many other elements of that kind of strain of the Right that I stand with. The work of Barton Swaim in particular at the Wall Street Journal, he gets into some of the more theoretical issues. As a daily newspaper, we can’t do that so much, but I think he does it in particular very well.

On conservative history, I think the guy I go to is Matt Continetti. He has a new book out about it, but I would say, especially his essays, actually. He has an essay in Commentary Magazine going over the history of the fight between the first-generation neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives and bringing it back to our day. How these fights have come back alive. I thought that one was brilliant.

On the other side, I find reading Christopher Caldwell indispensable. He has this rare ability to write about the present as though he were writing about the past. To stand back and get away from the partisan back and forth and see things that don’t seem connected but that, in a historian’s view, you might group. He’s very good on that. I’m a huge fan of the writer Helen Andrews. I think she is brilliant even though I often disagree with her. Yes, that’s probably a good group.

Maybe one last thing I’ll say is that a young professor at George Washington named Samuel Goldman, Sam Goldman, probably makes the most sense to me of anyone. I get annoyed that he has this little thing where he can never approach an issue head-on and just be totally for something or totally against a thing. He’s always coming at it from some little angle, but I think he makes an awful lot of sense, so I would recommend him too.

SEAN SPEER: A lot of great recommendations for our listeners there. I’d note that if you’re interested in Matt Continetti’s work on the history of American conservatism, including, as Elliot says, his new book, we recorded a podcast with him soon after the book’s release that was a terrific conversation.

Final question. We’ve talked a bit about the extent to which conservatism should be understood as a contingent and particularistic way to think about the world. Having spent so much time near the centre of these debates in the U.S., how similar or different in your view is American conservatism from Canadian conservatism? Is it a matter of degree or are the differences more fundamental than that?

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: I think it’s a very tricky question because in the past I would say something like this: I would say the role of social conservatives, and let’s say more or less radical libertarians, has been more pronounced in the U.S. and the culture war has been much more furious, and that would be the big difference between the two right wings. My sense is there’s been something of a convergence of late. Definitely not complete but noticeable.

All those articles written a few years ago, I don’t know if you guys saw them, but they were in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Atlantic, about how Canada is the only Western nation to avoid populism. Canada has the secret for how to keep politics between the safe, comfortable, 30-yard lines. That’s how people would talk about it. That has gone out the window. It’s funny.

I remember once hearing Stephen Harper speak after his years as prime minister. This would’ve been during the Trump years. He was talking to a group of Americans and he was saying, “You know, I led a populist government in Canada.” I was thinking, “What? Is he crazy? Populist government?” I would’ve called it a sort of unpopulist government or something like that. Now he had an argument for it, but I think to an American, if they understood what he was talking about, they would not recognize it as populism.

I think Canadians can also now recognize there’s something more populist than what Harper was doing on the Right. The Canadian Right is changing. Why is that? I think it’s largely because of the relentless cultural push from the Left and perhaps also a conservative frustration with the failure over the Harper years to achieve a deeper structural change. Now I’m a big fan of Stephen Harper. I think he governed very well and in what I take to be a liberal country. I think that’s probably as much as you can ask, but there are probably some missed opportunities along the way.

Where I look at it going forward, you might be surprised by this, I would say think about the role of America in Canadian politics. I’m very much influenced by J.J. McCullough on this, your friend, about how anti-Americanism has always been a part of Canadian politics and Canadian nationalism.

America has been a boogeyman in Canadian politics. Lately, and for as long as I’ve been following, it’s been one that the liberals use to smear the conservatives. I think the pendulum is now shifting the other way. I think that it is Trudeau and the Liberals and the CBC who are importing American social justice ideology, who are following Americans, apeing the Americans, and so that kind of anti-American politics, which I think has really powerful potential in Canada, I wonder if we’ll see it become a conservative angle of attack and a conservative advantage in Canadian politics.

SEAN SPEER: Well, that’s a fascinating thought to wrap up this conversation. Elliot Kaufman from the Wall Street Journal. This was the tour of force that I anticipated when I invited you to join me today. I look forward to having you back on Hub Dialogues to unpack some of the issues we’ve talked about and see whether indeed some of these nascent movements have more bark than bite in terms of the way in which they influence and shape both the world of conservatism, but ultimately, mainstream politics. Thank you so much for joining me today at Hub Dialogues.

ELLIOT KAUFMAN: Thank you, Sean.