Modern American Conservatism: A Spirited Conversation at the Hoover Institution

March 20, 2015

By Rushad L. Thomas

Hoover picture
Coolidge Foundation Chairman Amity Shlaes speaks at the joint Coolidge-Hoover event. She was joined on the panel by former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, Hoover Fellow David Davenport, and Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards. (Credit: Jay Mallin Photography)

It can be said with a high degree of certainty that Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover did not have the warmest of relationships. As the trailblazing Secretary of Commerce Hoover campaigned for industry standardization and greatly increased the influence and power of the sleepy backwater Commerce Department. Coolidge never thought highly of Hoover’s activist sentiments, referring to him as “wonderboy.” Nonetheless, Coolidge supported Hoover in both 1928 and 1932, giving his last public speech in the run-up to the 1932 presidential election in Hoover’s favor.

Given this frosty history it might seem strange that the two foundations dedicated to these presidential rivals would team up on any significant endeavor. On Monday the Coolidge Foundation and the Hoover Institution fortunately convened in Washington, D.C. to bury the proverbial hatchet, and jointly celebrate the

contributions of Presidents #30 and #31 to the modern conservative movement.

Our own chairman, Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes, began the conversation with a deeply interesting discussion of three major themes in President Coolidge’s life that retain major relevance today: faith, unions, and taxation. She described how Coolidge’s confidence in faith communities led him to extol examples of civil society relieving the burden on government to provide social welfare. She also recounted Coolidge’s actions during the 1919 Boston Police Strike, in which he rebuked striking officers in declaring “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Amity then explored Coolidge’s experience with “scientific taxation,” in which he cut the top marginal tax rate down to 25%, leading to an increase in revenue due to more high-wage persons exposing their earnings to the reduced income tax rate.

The second panel featured Hoover descendant Margaret Hoover, Dr. James Ceaser of UVA, the Manhattan Institute’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth, and Dr. Yuval Levin of National Affairs. (Credit: Jay Mallin Photography)

Hoover Institution Fellow David Davenport, co-author with Gordon Lloyd of the recent book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, argued that the roots of modern conservatism lie with Herbert Hoover’s crusade against the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s. This is a widely overlooked aspect of President Hoover’s legacy. Recent scholars, including our National Advisory Board member Dr. George Nash, have done important work to bring this period of President Hoover’s life back into the historical conversation. Davenport argued that the foundations of modern American conservatism lie with Hoover because of the central importance of the New Deal to the conservative critique of American liberalism over the course of the 20th century.

Heritage Foundation Fellow Dr. Lee Edwards brought the conversation to a more recent period in history, placing the roots of modern conservatism in a book (Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind), a magazine (William F. Buckley’s National Review), and a political campaign (the 1964 presidential bid of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater). Edwards argued that Kirk provided a historical framework through which modern conservatives could view their philosophy, tracing the roots of the movement back to the ideas of 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. William F. Buckley’s publication provided a proving ground for conservative thought leaders to flesh out their ideas and coalesce around shared principles, leading to the strategy known as “fusionism,” in whi


ch anti-communist defense hawks, fiscal and economic libertarians, and social conservatives could join in a common political project. Goldwater’s 1964 campaign provided the first opportunity for Buckley’s fusionist coalition to test its electoral strength. While that effort ended in a huge defeat to President Lyndon Johnson, Edwards quoted Dr. George Will who has often remarked that Goldwater won the 1964 election, it just took them sixteen years to count the votes; they view Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 as the culmination of the Goldwater movement’s hegemony in national politics.

The Coolidge Foundation is tremendously grateful for this collaboration with the Hoover Institution. We hope to bring you more joint Coolidge-Hoover events in the future!

Full List of Panelists:

  • James Ceaser, Professor, University of Virginia and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
  • David Davenport, DC Director of Programs and Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
  • Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow, Heritage Foundation
  • Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
  • Yuval Levin, Editor, National Affairs
  • Amity Shlaes, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation

You can view the entire event below

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