Fifty Conservative Thinkers
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
In an age where what passes for the archetype conservative are the likes of Candace Owens, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Matt Gaetz, Charlie Kirk, and Donald Trump, it can be discouraging for those of us who take pride in the rich legacy and colorful history of thinkers on the Right to be associated with such grifters, demagogues, and charlatans.
Though I’ve called myself a conservative for as long as I’ve had a political memory, I’ve spent much of that time oblivious to the true depth and character of the conservative movement and worldview. Trying to define conservatism is challenging and trying to compile a list of individuals who best exemplify conservatism is problematic. Yet this is becoming increasingly important in a world where “conservatism” is quickly being coopted by reactionary nationalist populists who have little to nothing in common with the namesake.
Thus, I’d like to offer my own list of conservative thinkers well worthy of your time and attention.
This list is imperfect and incomplete. If I were to revisit the list next year or possibly even next week, I’m sure I’d find plenty of additions and replacements. I do not endorse all of the views and actions of the individuals listed below and recognize that some have a complex history of both laudatory and appalling acts. Some of these individuals may even be uncomfortable with the label “conservative”, or shocked to be sharing the list with some others, though they all share aspects of the broader conservative worldview.
I would also like to acknowledge that this list is underrepresented by women and minorities. There are many reasons for this. Intellectual history of any political persuasion tends to be male-dominated; and the American conservative tradition, which often looks to the founding generation, has long been steeped in white authors and thinkers. Speaking as a young conservative in a nation that is rapidly diversifying, this represents a serious challenge to the long-term viability of the movement. If conservatism is going to hold any answers worth our time, it must find a way to appeal beyond a shrinking majority to the broader population. Happily, as the list shows below, many women and minorities are beginning to make their mark in this tradition and, I suspect, the conservative movement will someday soon look more like the population at large.
Finally, the names below are not listed in order of preference or importance, but they are all insightful and noteworthy.
Fifty Conservative Thinkers (Worth Your Time)
Someone needs to remind the ninety-two-year-old Thomas 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’s writings span over forty insightful books covering topics from economics, history, sociology, culture, and politics to name but a few. Sowell’s contributions to conservative thought began later in life. Born into an impoverished home and orphaned as a child, Sowell identified as a Marxist even as he studied under the great free market economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Yet his brief stint working in government cured him of any further illusions of the ability of the collective few to organize society to our liking. Sowell has a gift for discussing complex issues in plain English that makes most of his work very accessible. 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. Some of my favorites are Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which will forever change how you look at history and Basic Economics, the perfect primer for anyone interested in free market thought. A Conflict of Visions is a Sowell classic that illuminates the foundational beliefs that shape the Right and Left. Fellow podcaster Alan Wolan and I recorded an all-Thomas-Sowell conversation for my 100th episode of the Saving Elephants podcast if you’d like to learn more about this remarkable man.
While Thomas Sowell may have been his most famous student, Milton Friedman is supremely noteworthy in his own right. 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. Take, for example, how well he points to the flaws in collectivist thinking on the old Phil Donahue show. Friedman helped popularize the Chicago school of economics and won a Nobel Prize for his work showing the Federal Reserve’s role in exacerbating the Great Depression. If you haven’t got time to read any of his many books, you can find a ton of his public addresses and lectures on YouTube, particularly on the Free to Choose Network’s page.
The only person on the list with an umlaut in their name, Wilhelm Röpke was a thoughtful and forceful defender of an 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. His work contributed greatly to the economic re-awakening of Western Germany after the devastation of World War 2.In Dr. John Zmirak’s book on Röpke he described him as “probably the most unjustly neglected economist and social critic of the twentieth century. Exiled by Hitler's regime, Röpke was a passionate critic of socialism and the welfare state who was nonetheless keenly attuned to the limits of capitalism."
F. A. Hayek
Though he objected to Russell Kirk’s brand of traditionalism in his essay Why I Am Not a Conservative, F. A. Hayek’s writings have been instrumental in both traditional conservative and libertarian arguments for generations. His popular classic work, The Road to Serfdom, launched much of the free market movement in the twentieth century that’s still widely read and studied today. While Hayek’s Serfdom was written for a broad audience, much of his writings are less accessible to the average person than those of Friedman and Sowell. As conservative historian Matthew Continetti likes to say, English was not the Austrian-born Hayek’s native language, though he often naively thought he could masterfully communicate to the masses. Here he is on William F. Buckley’s show Firing Line sounding a lot like Albert Einstein explaining physics. Some of his more challenging yet incredibly important works include his central arguments against socialism in The Fatal Conceit and his views on a free society in The Constitution of Liberty.
While David Bahnsen may be lesser known than the other economists on this list, his insights are of particular importance to the present day. Bahnsen’s expertise in both free market capitalism and Christian theology puts him in a unique position to effectively communicate the relationship between morality and the economic welfare of the state. His take on the role of character in the market in his book Crisis of Responsibility offers a compelling case for how Millennials might both support the free market while understanding its failures over the Great Recession. Bahnsen also appears on multiple podcasts where his audience can catch his insights on a whole host of current events.
A prolific writer of scholarly journals, columns, articles, and books from a range of publications too numerous to list here, Walter Williams’ work on economics and minorities provides valuable insights into the relationship between liberty and the alleviation of poverty. Williams was a favorite substitute guest host of the Rush Limbaugh program when Rush was away and a celebrated speaker at multiple conservative conventions.
Those who’ve read my blog or listened to my podcast are no doubt already aware I throw in my lot with conservatives who look to 18th century British statesmen Edmund Burke as the foremost conservative who is most responsible for laying the foundations of the modern conservative worldview. Of course, not all conservatives agree on this matter. Burke’s most famous writing—Reflections on the Revolution in France—is one of the most eloquent and powerful counter-revolutionary texts ever written. It can be challenging, then, to wrestle with how one combines Burkean conservatism with the American Right, who draw inspiration from our own revolution. The Straussians (see Leo Strauss below) may admire Burke but ultimately find fault with his beliefs and point to the ancients for their justification for a free and ordered regime.
Burke wrote eloquently, but his writings can be difficult to untangle as he deliberately avoided political “systems” or grand principles and instead spoke only in specific instances unique to each circumstance. Thus, to understand Burke one must understand the context in which he was writing. Burke abhorred what he called the “metaphysicians” of his day who devised complicated ideologies that ignored particulars and sought to impose their views universally. Some believe this suggests that Burke was a utilitarian at heart (caring not for which direction we were headed so long as it was gradual and prudent).But Burke scholar Peter J. Stanlis argues forcefully in the introduction to Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches this was not so. Burke’s views were deeply interwoven in his Christian theology and his admonition to seek gradual change was a reflection on his underlying faith in God’s Providence.
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.
Ronald Reagan – Speaking of the Gipper, no politician has come closer in recent generations of applying conservative ideas to the circumstances of their times than former President Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration was seen by many as morning in America where we turned the tide in the Cold War, ended stagflation, and restored what it meant to be the city on a hill.
As a general rule, American conservatives revere the Founding Fathers as a whole. Yet the degree to which each Founder may be called a conservative thinker varies (which is why some truly incredible individuals from Washington to Hamilton to Franklin didn’t make the list). Perhaps no Founding Father better embodies American conservative thought than our first Vice President and second President, John Adams. Russell Kirk counted Adams as “the founder of true conservatism in America” in The Conservative Mind and Peter Viereck considered Adams to be America’s first conservative.
Ever the traditionalist, Adams understood the American Revolution to be a restoration of the rights and privileges enjoyed by English subjects of the Crown and not a populous uprising against all authority in favor of an entirely new and innovative system. As such, the American Revolution was far more successful than its bloody and chaotic counterpart in the French Revolution. And to a great extent all Americans have John Adams to thank for the ordered liberties we enjoy today.
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.
While Adams gets top billing among the American Founding Fathers in Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, James Madison’s role is conspicuously absent. As Matthew Continetti (listed below) observed in his book The Right, “In almost five hundred pages, Kirk makes one passing reference to [Madison], the chief theorist of constitutionalism in the United States.” Why? Continetti further speculates, “To Kirk, the text of the Constitution and Bill of Rights was less important than unwritten, untaught ideas about manners, etiquette, and conversation.” Ever the Burkean, Kirk was reticent to confine conservative ideas to written systems of statecraft. This represents one of (many) divisions within conservative thought where others have pointed to the Constitution as the ultimate establishment of a regime birthed in conservative principles.
For myself, I land somewhere in the middle. Yet I must also acknowledge that any list of fifty conservative thinkers would be incomplete without James Madison. Madison superbly charted a middle ground between the excesses of Jeffersonian populist liberalism and the High Federalists who sought refuge in a strong, central state. The genius of his famous, pithy Federalist Papers No. 10 and its profound insights on the challenges of combining liberty with human nature alone earn him a stop on this list.
Bradley J. Birzer
Bradley J. Birzer – I was thrilled to have Dr. Birzer on my podcast 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. Continetti joined me on my podcast to explain the surprisingly nuanced history of neoconservatism.
Gertrude Himmelfarb – Himmelfarb made a name for herself as both a historian and a public intellectual. She specialized in Victorian era Great Britain but put that period into a larger context relevant to today. She has advanced the argument that a modern decline in emphasis on personal morality is at the root of political and social problems in much of her writings, most notably in The De-Moralization of Society and One Nation, Two Cultures.
George H. Nash
George H. Nash – For those who dare to plunge deeply into conservatism’s intellectual history, few historians have offered more reading material than Nash. Though an authority on Herbert Hoover, he is best known for his definitive work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 which set the template for how we think about the development of conservatism in modern America.
Stephen J. Tonsor
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.
Sir Roger Scruton – Until his death in 2020, Sir Roger Scruton was the most prominent conservative philosopher alive and one of the great conservative intellectuals. Fortunately, his legacy includes a great many books (over fifty!) on philosophy, art, music, politics, literature, culture, sexuality, religion, drinking, and more that will continue to challenge and encourage us in the days to come. How to be a Conservative is one of my favorites and his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands offers a compelling critique on the thinkers of the New Left.
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. Like Scruton, Ellul was the author of over fifty books, with his book The Technological Society being among the most prominent translated into English.
José Ortega y Gasset
José Ortega y Gasset – Ortega was a Spanish philosopher and essayist during the first half of the last century. The Revolt of the Masses is Ortega's best-known work, which defends the values of meritocratic liberalism against attacks from both communists and right-wing populists. Ortega spoke forcefully against the "tyranny of the majority" and the "collective mediocrity" of the masses, which he believed threaten individuality, free thought, and protections for minorities.
Michael Oakeshott – Oakeshott argued forcefully for a conservative understanding of history and worked on the premise that philosophical questions are interconnected and that answering them requires wide-ranging critical reflection. A recurrent theme in his writings on moral and political life is the tension between individuality, which implies plurality, and its denial, which he calls barbarism. Individual freedom is threatened, he thought, when politics is conceived as the pursuit of ideals. The book What is History? And Other Essays offers a good introduction to his work.
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.
C. S. Lewis
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 writing remains popular for two primary reasons: 1) he had an engaging style that’s enjoyable to read and 2) much of what he wrote was rather prescient and speaks to the challenges we face 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
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.
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. A friend of mine often cites lines from Berry’s poem The Mad Farmer Liberation Front as emblematic of the conservative mindset on the slow, careful cultivation of the good, true, and beautiful.
T. S. Eliot
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. Among his more celebrated poems are The Waste Land and Four Quartets.
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. His latest book, The Decadent Society, offers an insightful window into what happens when a rich and powerful nation stops advancing.
Mary Eberstadt – Eberstadt’s contributions to the intellectual landscape traverse several genres and draw from various fields including anthropology, intellectual history, philosophy, popular culture, sociology, and theology. Her books offer interesting, data-driven insights into the paradoxes of sexual liberation and loss of faith. Her latest, Primal Screams is a good place to start.
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.
M. Stanton Evans
M. Stanton Evans – A disciple of Frank Meyer’s political theory of fusionism (see below), Evans worked tirelessly to unite the various elements of conservatism into a cohesive philosophical movement. He was one of the key influencers behind The Sharon Statement, regarded as one of the most important declarations in the history of American conservatism.
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. Check out Neo-conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, a collection of his essays over a wide range of topics.
Jonah Goldberg – Probably the wittiest and most entertaining voice on the list, 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 “newsletter” The G-File is always good for a laugh and gives you something to ponder. His show The Remnant remains my favorite podcast with incredible guests, excellent analysis and insights, hilarity, and nudity that’s (almost) always tasteful. I was also thrilled to have him on my own podcast where we discussed why Woodrow Wilson was possibly an even worse human being than James Buchanan.
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 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 landed him in a world of hurt among social media trolls. French remains a highly respected voice for both Evangelical and conservative current affairs and is well worth following. His apply-named blog The French Press offers illuminating insights into religious and legal matters, as well as his bewilderingly wrongheaded tastes in music and pop culture. French joined me on the podcast to discuss his most recent book, Divided We Fall.
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. His columns at the Washington Post are pithy and well worth your time.
William F. Buckley
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 (the flagship publication for conservative thought) and hosting the television show 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 and fussing together the various elements of the Right to form a cohesive movement. His statesman-like presence has been is sorely missed!
Kristen Soltis Anderson
Kristen Soltis Anderson – One of the leading voices on how and what 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 to discuss Millennials and the GOP. You can find her on Twitter for daily insights and updates on her lovable Golden Retriever Wally.
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. His book The Quest for Community was celebrated by both the Left and Right in its day, though in our polarized age he is largely regarded as a figure of the Right.
Arthur Brooks – Former president of the American Enterprise Institute, 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. He’s the author of many books, among which Love Your Enemies seems particularly on point in today’s climate. His podcast The Art of Happiness is filled with good advise on how to live a happier life.
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. His book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting is an excellent resource for anyone interested in just how much we ought to be grateful for.
THE URBAN PLANNERS
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 at the heart of what makes economic, practical, and even rational sense in how we structure the cities and towns we inhabit. Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization advocating for a radically new way of thinking about the way we build our world.
THE BUSINESS LEADERS
Carly Fiorina – Fiorina is a passionate, articulate advocate for entrepreneurship, innovation, and effective leadership who was the first woman ever to lead a Fortune 50 company. Her insights into managing the practical world of business and politics and effectively communicating conservative values makes her an invaluable leader in the conservative movement. Her podcast By Example includes conversations with world leaders and those who lead “by example”.
THE POLITICAL THEORISTS
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—an articulate and thoughtful critique of classical liberalism’s influence on modern conservative thought and we ignore his message at our peril.
Harry Jaffa – Jaffa is among the more famous “Straussians” to leave his mark on conservative thought. His work as a distinguished fellow with the Claremont Institute leaves behind a rich legacy. He authored many books, and is best known for his work Crisis of the House Divided which analyzed the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
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. The Conservative Mind is his most famous work and his selected essays from The Essential Russell Kirk is a good place to start.
Frank S. Meyer
Frank S. Meyer – Though he didn’t coin the term, Meyer is best known for his view of “fusionism”, a philosophical orientation which sees the realms of virtue and order and working together, thus paving the way for libertarians and traditional conservatives to embrace a shared worldview. Meyer described the history of the West as “reason operating within tradition” and though he had many critics, his views ultimately came to dominate the conservative movement. Few have so carefully balanced the conservative ideas held in tension of authority and liberty. The book he edited, What Is Conservativism?, is a good place to start.
Alexis de Tocqueville
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.
Leo Strauss – 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 Neoconservative movement. His insights on esoteric writing remains widely studied today. He is best known for Natural Right and History, and he co-authored an indispensable book for those interested in political intellectual history entitled History of Political Philosophy.
Willmoore Kendall – The combative and disagreeable Kendall was a nonetheless brilliant a prolific author who conservative historian George Nash (see above) eulogized as the American version of Edmund Burke. Kendall was founding editor of National Review and offered a uniquely American argument for conservative thought, as shown in his book The Conservative Affirmation in America.
Lord Acton famously observed that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” His contributions to classical liberal and conservative thought loom large and his legacy lives on through the Acton Institute which describe Lord Acton as “one of the great personalities of the nineteenth century” and “universally considered to be one of the most learned Englishmen of his time.” He “made the history of liberty his life's work; indeed, he considered political liberty the essential condition and guardian of religious liberty.” Conservatism, which wrestles continuously with the tension between order and liberty, has benefited greatly from his life’s work.
Last but, most certainly, not least is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs, Yuval Levin. Few intellectuals command the respect Levin does on matters of political, social, and cultural theory. Levin is only in his forties and appears to be hitting his stride in what will hopefully prove to be a long and distinguished career. While the full breadth and depth of his wisdom could hardly be summarized, two areas of focus stand out: First, Levin’s observations on the demise of our institutions as they’ve slowly transformed from formative (places to form the individual) to performative (places where the individual can display themselves) is one of the most prescient diagnoses for what ails our politics. Check out his highly readable book A Time to Build to see what I mean. Secondly, Levin has a commanding grasp of the origins of both the Right and Left as he masterfully shows in his excellent book The Great Debate which illustrates how the arguments between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine would form the foundations for the Right and Left today. I was honored to have Levin on my podcast to share his insights on the importance of institution building.
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 in the comments below.