Conscience of a Conservative: Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake speaks at Chancellor’s Lecture Series

photo of Jeff Flake, Zoe Chace, Chancellor Zeppos and Jon Meacham sitting on stage
Sen. Jeff Flake (second from right) fields questions from Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos (right), presidential biographer and visiting professor Jon Meacham (left), and This American Life producer Zoe Chace at the Jan. 17 Chancellor’s Lecture Series event. (Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)


Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake drew a capacity crowd at Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium on Jan. 17 as part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series, discussing shifts in the Republican Party, the midterm elections, and fiscal challenges facing the federal government.

Flake was joined on stage by Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, This American Life producer Zoe Chace, and Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Visiting Professor Jon Meacham.

Earlier in the day, Flake visited a political science class for a question-and-answer session with students that lasted more than an hour. Later he spent time in interviews with The Vanderbilt Political Review and the Vanderbilt Hustler, before attending a meet-and-greet event with the Vanderbilt College Republicans and Vanderbilt Student Government.

At the lecture series event, Zeppos quickly brought up the government shutdown. “Do you think we’re in danger of losing control of our governance?”

“As much as it would be easy to blame the president, we’ve been laying the groundwork for this for a while,” Flake said of the federal government more broadly. He explained the history of failed government efforts to rein in entitlement programs and called for those difficult negotiations to take place.

Chace, who shadowed Flake last year as he pursued a deal to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and also covered his retirement, asked a question about the man Flake modeled his political career after: the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Flake’s 2017 book Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle (Random House) borrowed its title from Goldwater’s work.

“Since Goldwater was against the Civil Rights Act, I wonder if this is a case where an ideology could make that big of a historical mistake and still be a good guide later on. Those roots may make nonwhite people feel less comfortable in conservatism. How have you squared that?” she asked.

photo of Jeff Flake talking to students in a classroom
Sen. Flake talks with students in a political science class. (Vanderbilt University/Susan Urmy)

Flake pointed out that Goldwater thought the Civil Rights Act was a constitutional issue, and most Republican lawmakers supported it. However, the party must be vigilant in rooting out racism, he said, noting that he supported Iowa Congressman Steve King’s Democratic opponent after King made racist comments.

Flake also called for more civility in political discourse on both sides of the aisle. He said he disagreed on many points with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but they worked together on key issues as well.

“We understood that people on the other side of the aisle are our opponents, not our enemies,” Flake said. “The idea that anyone would call them on Twitter ‘losers’ or ‘clowns’ was unthinkable.”

Meacham asked the night’s final question: What is Flake’s hope for the future? The former senator said a trip through the National Archives reminded him how much our system of government has overcome.

“The big challenges we face on the fiscal side, our debt-to-GDP ratio, that will take some tough leadership and tough medicine,” Flake said. “There are rogue states, terrorists, the Russian bear coming back, China—lots to worry about—but we have a good system that tends to withstand those who go through it.”