Fifty Conservative Thinkers
In an age where what passes for the archetype conservative are the likes of Candace Owens, Bill Mitchell, Sean Hannity, Matt Gaetz, Tomi Lahren, and the President, it can be discouraging for those of us who take pride in the rich legacy and colorful history of conservative thinkers.
Earlier this week, Gracy Olmstead published a piece in ISI listing over fifty conservative thinkers. Gracy correctly acknowledges the inherent difficulty in compiling a list of conservative thinkers—not the least of which is profound disagreement on what “conservatism” means and who would qualify as a “conservative”. Doubtless, it contains some biased selections on her part from people who have had an impact in shaping her worldview.
In that same spirit, I’d like to offer the reader my own list of conservative thinkers well worthy of your time and attention. Earlier this year I produced a list of non-famous Millennial conservatives you should get to know. In contrast, what follows is a listing of established individuals—those who probably have their own Wikipedia page—who are mostly much older than Millennials or now deceased.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’m going to say it just the same: this list is imperfect and incomplete. If I were to revisit the list next year or possibly even next week, I’m sure there are plenty of names I’d believe should supplant the names here. The names below are not listed in order of preference or importance, but they are all important and preferred.
Fifty Conservative Thinkers
Milton Friedman – Few economists have endeavored as hard as Friedman to reach out to the rest of us non-economists and explain free market theory in such a winsome and digestible manner. Friedman helped popularize the Chicago school of economics and won a Nobel Prize for his work on understanding the Federal Reserve’s role in the Great Depression. If you haven’t got time to read any of his books, you can find a ton of his public addresses and lectures on YouTube.
Wilhelm Röpke – The only person on the list with an umlaut in their name, Röpke was a thoughtful an forceful defender of economy ordered by free prices, free markets, and free people. His writings explore the moral and economic arguments for liberty in the market and its important role not only in human flourishing but in moral development.
David Bahnsen – It may be a little unfair to categorize Bahnsen as just an economist, but his work on understanding the role of morality and the Great Recession goes a lot further in addressing Millennial concerns on questions of the viability of capitalism than most of the voices on the Right today.
Edmund Burke – Most of the names on this list wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Burke who’s often considered the Father of Conservatism. His landmark Reflections on the Revolution in France initiated what became known as modern conservatism and his writings—though somewhat difficult to untangle—are still instructive today.
Barry Goldwater – Though Goldwater’s views may be more properly labeled as libertarian today, his book The Conscious of a Conservative, 1964 presidential campaign, and prelude to the successful candidacy of Ronald Reagan arguably did more to inculcate conservatism into the Republican party than any other politician of the twentieth century.
Ben Sasse – Although he’s been disappointingly quite in the era of Trump, Senator Ben Sasse still holds a special place in my heart for being an articulate advocate for conservative principles and a true forward-thinker seemingly one step ahead of everyone else on the issues we’re likely to face down the road.
John Adams – America’s second president and Founding Father John Adams was identified by Russell Kirk as the embodiment of American conservative thought. A voracious reader and writer, Adams wrote more than the other Founders combined on liberty, government, and much more.
Bradley J. Birzer – I was thrilled to have Dr. Birzer on my podcast recently to discuss the life and writings of Russell Kirk. Dr. Birzer is a professor at Hillsdale, authority on Russell Kirk, and wears far too many other hats for me to list here. He has a most gregarious personality and eagerness to impart the true, the good, and the beautiful to younger Americans.
Matthew Continetti – I know of no other Millennial who comes as close to untangling and explaining the complex web of American conservative history as Continetti. If you’re uncertain what to make of “neoconservatism” or how the traditional and libertarian aspects of the conservative movement all fit together, he’s your man.
George Nash – For those who dare to plunge deeply into conservatism’s intellectual history, few historians have offered more reading material than Nash.
Stephen J. Tonsor – Unsatisfied with surface-level conversations, Tonsor’s writings dig deep into the nuances of conservative thought and ideas. His writings explore the contributions (and limitations) of classical liberal thought in conservatism.
Peter Kreeft – A prolific author on subjects from theology to abortion to Biblical literacy to biographies to culture to an entire series on Socrates engaging in modern debates, Kreeft has something for just about everyone.
Roger Scruton – With the tragic passing of Sir Roger Scruton earlier this year, we lost who many conservatives considered to be the greatest conservative intellectual living. Personally, I believe that honor goes to the eighty-nine-year-old and still going strong Thomas Sowell, but Scruton was no doubt a legend in his own right. Fortunately, his legacy includes a great many books that will continue to challenge and encourage us in the days to come.
Jacques Ellul – Reading Ellul is not for the faint of heart (I don’t claim to understand him half the time), but his foresight on the challenges posed by technology were eerily prophetic.
Michael Oakeshott – Speaking of “not for the faint of heart” Oakeshott is a celebrated conservative philosopher whose work is foundational to conservative thought.
Allan Bloom – Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind paved the way for much of the Right’s critique of higher education.
C.S. Lewis – Possibly no one else in this list has had a more personal impact on my thinking and mindset. Lewis was considered by many to be the greatest spokesperson for Christianity in the twentieth century. His popularity remains for two reasons: 1) his writing is very enjoyable to read and 2) much of what he was writing about were challenges he foresaw that have become all the more present to us today. The Abolition of Man is a powerful, amazing book, Mere Christianity is a good place to start, and Til We Have Faces is my personal favorite and the only book to make me weep.
G.K. Chesterton – No doubt there are many who would reserve the glowing endorsement I gave to Lewis for Chesterton. Though less known to us today, Chesterton was an equally eloquent and persuasive spokesperson for the Christian faith and worldview amicable to conservative thought. His Orthodoxy is one of the most disarmingly unique works on apologetics I’ve ever encountered.
J.R.R. Tolkien – Since we’re on the subject of British authors, the writings of Tolkien continue to entertain and encourage people to this day. Check out his Leaf by Niggle for a short story on lose, disappointment, redemption, and wonder.
Wendell Berry – I’ll be honest: I’m not well read in Wendell Berry. But few people I know are as respected by so many of the people I respect that I feel he is particularly deserving of making my list.
T.S. Eliot – As a poet, Eliot often stretched the imagination beyond the sometimes dry, reductive dialogue of the political Right. His politics were infused with notions of humanity’s limitations and capacity for evil. Russell Kirk, who was personal friends with Eliot, credited Eliot as the endcap in his masterpiece The Conservative Mind line-up of conservative thinkers.
Ross Douthat – Refreshingly witty on matters of politics and faith and charitably moderate on the French Ahmari Wars, Douthat is an important voice in contemporary conservatism. He’s widely respected among friends and foes of conservatism alike and provides a certain cheerful seriousness to the debates of today.
Irving Kristol – Considered the Father of Neoconservatism, this former socialist, then liberal, and finally Neoconservative found a way to embrace the ideas promulgated on the Right in such a manner that he took legions of other anti-Communist FDR Democrats along. Though some found (and still find) him insufficiently pure in his conservative mindset, his numerous essays are still instructive today and provide a certain pragmatism often lacking in the idealistic.
Michael Brendan Dougherty – Senior National Review Online writer Dougherty has consistently produced thoughtful commentary that carefully walks the line between the classical liberal and anti-liberal opposing fronts of the current debates over nationalism, populism, and Lockean liberalism.
Jonah Goldberg – Probably the wittiest and most entertaining voice on the Right today, Goldberg has forged an intellectually honest path through the swamp of MAGA Trump-mania and the most radical anti-Trumpers and, in so doing, has helped along many not entirely sure where conservatism goes from here to find their way. His show The Remnant remains my favorite podcast with incredible guests, excellent analysis and insights, hilarity, and nudity that’s (almost) always tasteful.
Timothy Carney – Carney’s insights on why parts of the country are thriving while others are falling apart in his book Alienated America does an excellent job shattering the myth of the Left that economic/material equality are all that’s necessary to cure what ails us.
David French – If there’s a kerfuffle between conservative intellectual camps these days, you can bet David French will be right in the middle of it. Which is hilarious because—so far as I can tell—he never plans it that way. Reflective and mousy, one would hardly peg David French as the rabble-rouser he’s often portrayed to be. But his stance on drag queen story hour was deemed insufficiently hostile for some and his stance on the Alt-Right during the 2016 elections was deemed overly hostile by others. French remains a highly respected voice for both Evangelical and conservative current affairs and is well worth following.
George Will – The slightly pompous and verbose George Will has been a stalwart defender of classical conservative ideas for decades. I encountered with him years ago when he was among a line-up of conservative celebrities to speak and—in my humble opinion—blew everyone else out of the water.
William F. Buckley – I’ve often credited Buckley with giving modern conservatism the credibility and sensibility it enjoyed in the latter half of the twentieth century. Aside from founding National Review and hosting Firing Line (for over three decades!), Buckley was arguably the national figure most responsible for ridding the Right of the more fanatical, racist, and antagonistic elements of the day. His statesman-like presence has been is sorely missed!
Patrick Deneen – Deneen’s controversial book Why Liberalism Failed has been viewed as a condemnation of conservatism by some and an argument for conservatism by others. While I don’t fully endorse all of Deneen’s views, he does represent—in my opinion—the most articulate and thoughtful critique of classical liberalism’s influence on modern conservative thought and we ignore his message at our own peril.
Russell Kirk – Dr. Bradley Birzer (listed above) joined me on a recent podcast to discuss our mutual admiration for Russell Kirk. There is simply too much to say about Kirk! He was largely responsible for the development of conservative intellectual thought in the post-WWII era and is considered by many—myself included—to the be Father of American Conservatism. Having written more than the average intelligent adult is likely to read in their lifetime, Kirk left us with a wealth of insight and inspiration.
Yuval Levin – Few intellectuals command the respect Levin does on matters of political, social, and cultural theory. From his writings it would appear that few have as firm of a grasp or as deep of an appreciation for the viewpoints of both the Left and Right as Levin. His more recent books are most popular but, personally, I prefer The Great Debate. It helped me understand the divide between the Left and Right better than nearly anything else I’ve encountered.
Frank S. Meyer – Though he didn’t coin the term, Meyer is best known for his idea of “fusionism” which argued there was a commonality to be found between the traditional conservative and the libertarian that ran much deeper than a mere alliance of convenience. Few have so carefully balanced the conservative ideas held in tension of authority and liberty.
Alexis de Tocqueville – Tocqueville’s celebrated Democracy in America is widely considered to be one of the most insightful books on American government and society. It’s hard to miss Tocqueville’s genius as his ability to observe things that others missed and then express them in a way that we can all so clearly see to be true is second to none.
Charles Murray – Murray is one of the most influential social scientists in America. His book Coming Apart clearly lays out the growing division in white America in terms of education, opportunities, and class.
Robert D. Putnam – Though he was not the first to make the argument, in many ways Putnam was the first on the scene with the now ubiquitous conservative warning of the damage done by crumbling institutions and social cohesion. His book Bowling Alone shined a light on the dire state of our social capital.
Lord Acton – Lord Acton is best known for his most famous observation: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But his contributions to classical liberal and conservative thought loom large and his legacy lives on through the Acton Institute.
Eric Voegelin – With the possible exception of Burke, Voegelin is often quoted in the writings of many of the other intellectuals and thinkers on this list. His book The New Science of Politics and his philosophy of history contributed much to conservative arguments against radicalism and progressivism.
Leo Stauss – It’s hard to overemphasis Strauss’ influence on intellectuals on the Right. His work was instrumental in shaping the thinking of many who would later become the intellectual giants of the Neoconservatism movement. His insights on esoteric writing remains widely studied today.
Richard Weaver – Author of the celebrated Ideas Have Consequences, Weaver charts how progress and relativist thinking led to the decline of the West and how ideas can shape the world.
Kristen Soltis Anderson – One of the leading voices on how young Americans think, Anderson provides copious insights into how the Right and GOP can reach the next generation. Advice that, I’m sad to say, is largely ignored. I’m proud to say she joined my podcast for a bonus episode last year to discuss Millennials and the GOP.
Robert Nisbet – Decades ahead of the trend of conservative thinkers writing about the importance of social structures and institutions, Nisbet skillfully explains the importance of those intermediary institutions that stand between the individual and the state and the alienation, fear, boredom, and despair that creeps in when they are missing.
Arthur Brooks – Former president of AEI, Arthur Brooks has a refreshingly unique way of speaking that disarmingly cuts across partisan divides. His work on what makes humans happy is both intriguing and important.
Marian Tupy – Conservatives are often (rightly) accused of being a dreary lot. But there’s nothing dreary about Tupy. His scholarly work in human progress has consistently shown just how fortunate we are to be living when and where we do today and reminds us we have much to not take for granted.
Jordan Peterson – While he may object to the label “conservative”, Peterson has electrified younger Americans with his unyielding support for freedom of speech. He’s a very insightful speaker and author whose presence on YouTube clips are world-famous.
Charles Marohn – I heard Marohn speak in Tulsa several years back and was blown away by his insightful and important message of sensible, contemplative urban development. Marohn has a conservative attitude (I do not know if he would object to being labeled a conservative) that cuts across partisan divides and gets a the heart of what makes economic, practical, and even rational sense in how we structure the cities and towns we inhabit.
People who accomplished so many different things I dare not put them in a single category
Frederick Douglass – The famed abolitionist fought for a world free from slavery, racism, and bigotry. His journey from slavery to success is inspiring and his speeches are both convicting and encouraging.
Martin Luther King Jr. – Much like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, King looms so large in the minds and affections of the American people that the Left, Right, and everything in-between often claim him as their own. But King’s ideas of order and authority—particularly as expressed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail—are squarely in line with conservative thought.
Thomas Sowell – Someone needs to remind Sowell that he retired a couple of years ago as the man is still cranking out books! One of the last living conservative giants—by my lights—Sowell has written important and insightful books covering economics, history, sociology, culture, and politics to name but a few. He straddles the line between your traditional Burkean/Kirkean conservative and the Neocon variety in a manner that’s truly unique (Sowellean?). If you haven’t read any Sowell do yourself a favor and pick up whichever of his books looks the most intriguing and get to reading.
Do you agree with my list? Did I miss someone you believe deserves to be mentioned? Did I include someone you feel shouldn’t have made the cut? Let me know what you think.