Skip to comments.What Would Buckley Do?
Posted on 11/03/2013 8:29:07 AM PST by Kaslin
In the ongoing dust-up over tactics currently dominating conservative sites turning former comrades against each other and causing many consternation about the fate of the GOP it was probably inevitable that the name of William F. Buckley Jr would be brought up at some point.
Given that Buckley, in contemporary terms, was to many generations of conservatives what Jon Stewart is to the current generation of liberals (a witty, biting, contrarian commentator with a flair for style as great as his flair for beating his opponents in debate), this is unsurprising. Given that Buckley was also arguably the organizational as well as intellectual founder of the modern right, it is appropriate. Given that Buckley is also the author of the famous Buckley rule, (i.e., that Republicans should nominate the rightmost viable candidate) it is to be expected. And finally, given that Buckley was the founder of National Review, which recently dipped its toes in the tactical water with an editorial titled Against Despair, it is practically mandatory.
The invocation of Buckley comes, in this case, from Erick Erickson at Redstate, who taken the occasion to reply to National Reviews editorial in no uncertain terms thusly:
In 1955, William F. Buckley wrote,
Conservatives in this country at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is serious question whether there are others are non-licensed nonconformists; and this is dangerous business in a liberal world, as every editor of this magazine can readily show by pointing to his scars. Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal, moving beyond Buckley. For that matter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and most of the defunders have largely made their peace with the New Deal. And still National Review is too timid to join the merry band of defunders themselves, too timid to approach the parameters under which William F. Buckley started his charge. The editors have conformed to the politics of necessary victories, instead of the policy of standing athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.[...]
National Review once believed, that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. The truth is that Obamacare is deeply destructive and an assault on individual liberty. It should be fought by all means, with or without a Senate majority or White House. The fight should not depend on electoral outcomes and should not be delayed pending reinforcements, many of whom will flee the field once elected.
While Ive often admired Ericksons willingness to tell unpleasant truths to his readers, not to mention skewering some of the lefts most embarrassing exponents, and much as I think many of his diagnoses of the GOPs failings after the 2012 election were spot on, I cannot pretend to anything but absolute, unconditional disagreement with his preferred strategy, both during the shutdown and, apparently, going forward. I do not think this is cause for hostility between us, as two conservative bloggers can often produce (at minimum) three opinions. Nor do I mean to rehearse my many reasons for that disagreement in this article.
However, what I do mean to do is to politely and firmly contest Ericksons assertion that William F. Buckley would stand with his preferred strategy, whereas the presumptively craven current editors of National Review are not doing so. While I understand Ericksons frustration that National Reviewis not the publication it was in 1955, and am prepared to accept that reasonable people can disagree about NRs adherence to its founders principles, it is simply not the case that its recent decision to editorialize against the defund caucus is out of keeping with the spirit of Buckley. If nothing else, Buckleys collected writings and speeches from the 1950s through his death argue emphatically against this idea, as I can prove with multiple quotations from Buckleys columns over the years (many of which are not digitized, but can be found on Hillsdales excellent Buckley archive).
What is more, I am a little surprised at Ericksons choice of citation, given his previously expressed contempt for the Buckley rule. However, as Erickson describes himself as a devoted fan ofNational Review from childhood, I take him at his word that he views the current iteration of the magazine as an inferior specimen to what he remembers. Nevertheless, I remain puzzled at the beliefs he attributes to Buckley, who, if nothing else, is famous for the line Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.
Ericksons grounds for his argument is National Reviews 1955 mission statement. Now, while this piece is attributed to Buckley on NRs website (he being the most high-profile author of it), its not completely accurate to consider it an unadulterated sample of Buckleys views. National Reviews initial publisher, Willi Schlamm, probably would have had some say over the document. I bring this up only because Schlamm, and his eventual successor William Rusher, were notably less cautious in their approach to conservatism than Buckley himself (in fact, Rusher dissented from Buckleys famous denunciation of the John Birch society). As such, while the 1955 mission statement says much about National Review collectively, I am not sure its the perfect sample of the unadulterated ideas of Buckley, though it is far from an inaccurate one. Rather, Buckleys own columns and books still seem to me to be better primary sources.
Moreover, the choice of National Reviews initial mission statement as a source ignores the fact that Buckley himself ended up shifting very quickly away from a desire to stand athwart history, yelling STOP, whatever the cost. Indeed, it took only four years from the mission statement for Buckley to bemoan the failure of the conservative demonstration as a major obstacle to conservatives gaining political power, and began sounding very much like the current NR editorial Erickson condemns. Compare this passage from the recent National Review article linked above:
The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were defeatists. Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.
Efective political movements create the conditions for their own success. Conservatism has not done enough of that, but when it has prospered it has never been moved by despair. The apocalyptic style of politics holds that the future of the country is at stake. That is true, which is why conservatives need to get to the work of persuading and electioneering and drop the fantasy of a shortcut.
With this passage from Buckleys 1959 book Up from Liberalism :
Conservatives have cheapened the vocabulary of caution by defying the rhetorical maxim that one does not cry wolf! every day, and expect the community to heed ones cries the day the wolf actually materializes. It is not safe to bank on the hearers perception of genuine distress. If one is on record as reiterating the prediction that the social security law will bring slavery to America in our time, after a while, ones warnings will be automatically discounted.
Conservatives, as a minority, must learn to agonize more meticulously. We cannot expect the rhetorical license enjoyed by the liberals, who, as we have seen, are infinitely patient with one another.[...] We conservatives, on the other hand, are not allowed to forget the direness of our predictions. And indeed if we permit ourselves to go on saying the same things about the imminence of catastropheif we become identified with the point of view that the social security laws toll the knell of our departed freedoms, or that national bankruptcy will take place the month after nextwe will, like the Seventh Day Adventists who close down the curtain of the world every season or so, lose our credit at the bar of public opinion, or be dismissed as cultists of a terrestrial mystique. The conservative demonstration, at the hands of the old guard, has not been made successfully, in part because of the exaggerated pessimism I speak of, in part because conservatism was made to sound by its enemies, frequently with the aid of its friends, like a crassly materialist position, unconcerned except with the world of getting and spending.
And lest you think Buckley became less concerned with power and more concerned with purity after 1959, the opposite is true. By 1960 and the publication of Young Americans for Freedoms (YAF) famous Sharon Statement, (which Buckley also wrote), Buckley was observing:
What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon is theirappetite for power. Ten years ago the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not dream of victory.
That Buckley included himself in this power-focused cadre is obvious.
What is more, when disagreements began to proliferate on the right in the aftermath of Barry Goldwaters crushing defeat, with both libertarians and traditionalists trying to write each other out of the movement by turns, Buckley stood practically alone as the ultimate anti-purist, a fact which angered everyone from his hyper-Catholic brother-in-law Brent Bozell to the anarcho-capitalist libertarian Murray Rothbard, who had ghostwritten parts of the aforementioned Up from Liberalism. In fact, when traditionalists and libertarians erupted into civil war at the 1968 Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention, it was Buckley alone who begged the radical libertarian faction to listen to reason:
I rue the unnecessary distance this country has traveled away from freedom for its citizens. YAF was founded among other things to brood over that excess, and to keep it constantly before the mind of the public. But to assume that young Americans, or old Americans, could have any freedom at all in the absence of a measure of sacrifice toward that common affection which lifts our society into being is to assume that each one of us is omnipotent, and to prove that each one of us is omnipotent only in the capacity to fool oneself, and to make oneself a fool. I hope it will not be thought a betrayal to observe that the fight for freedom and the fight to conserve require different emphases depending on the historical situation.[...]
Order has been challenged, and conservatives have always believed in the blessings of a rudimentary order.
Now, whatever one thinks about Buckleys position, these are clearly not the words of a purist. They are, rather, the words of a coalition builder, trying to smooth over doctrinal differences between members of his coalition. Indeed, it may be precisely because Buckley was holding together a coalition rather than attempting to remain perfectly philosophically pure that outliers within his coalition (and those who had been forced out of it) attacked him, and that his cautious approach frustrated even more dependable allies, to the point where it was a running joke among his fellow political commentators. As Buckleys frequent sparring partner, Arthur Schlesinger, observed wryly in 1970:
When one recalls [Buckley's] helpful perspective on the Eisenhower era (My guess is the Communists moved with whatever caution it can be said they did between 1953 and 1960 because they hadnt the least idea what Eisenhower was talking about, and thought a little prudence might be in order) one can only join in that old folksong for conservatives: Wont you come home, Bill Buckley/Wont you come home/ From the Establishment?
And did Buckley come home from the establishment, say, in the age of Reagan? Far from it. In fact, he sounded notes that, if theyd come from anyone else, would get him declared the squishiest of all squishes today. Shortly after Reagans inauguration, in an essay called Reagan the Pragmatist (yes, really), he wrote:
Ronald Reagan, in his first State of the Union address, can ask Congress to experiment with deep therapy. He can do so most persuasively not by asking for internal assent, but by asking for a renewal of the pragmatic spirit. Unlike Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who confronted a Congress he entirely dominated, Reagan confronts a House of Representatives organized by the Democratic opposition; and in the Senate, there are a great many single players. [...] The key to the projected operation is Lets try it; not We were right all along.
Note that in this essay, Buckley is telling Reagan to be extra cautious in almost the precise situation in which President Obama finds himself now controlling 53 seats in the Senate, but not the House. One can only imagine what hed say to Boehner, who controls a good deal less of the government than that.
Finally, Buckleys pragmatism persisted well into his old age. In explaining his about-face on the Iraq War, for instance, Buckley explained:
Mr. Bush has a very difficult internal problem here, because to make the kind of concession that is strategically appropriate requires a mitigation of policies he has several times affirmed in high-flown pronouncements. His challenge is to persuade himself that he can submit to a historical reality without forswearing basic commitments in foreign policy.
In other words, however high minded ones principles are, if it wont work, dont do it.
Now, to be fair, Buckley was exceedingly critical of conservative writers and politicians in his early days. He also wrote some of the most scathing criticism of liberalism possible, as well as conservative rhetoric so potent it has yet to be equaled. However, his grounds for disagreeing with his fellow conservatives, as his quote from Up from Liberalism indicates, were not simply that many of them were unprincipled or inconsistent. It was also that they despaired too easily. I quote once more from Up from Liberalism:
Indeed. The machine must be accepted, and conservatives must not live by programs that were written as though the machine did not exist, or could be made to go away; that is the proper kind of realism. The big question is whether the essential planks of conservatism were anachronized by the machine; the big answer is that they were not. [...] We cliff-dancers, resolved not to withdraw into a petulant solitude, or let ourselves fall over the cliff into liberalism, must do what maneuvering we can, and come up with a conservative program that speaks to our time.
None of this is to suggest that Erickson and his followers have nothing to take from Buckley. Certainly, Buckley agreed with them that (to quote him), I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. However, as I hope I have demonstrated, Buckley also believed that how he personally chose to live was distinct from how conservatism must operate if it was to ensure that freedom was protected for future generations.
And when you get down to it, thats something everyone on all sides of the tactical debate really wants to do preserve freedom for future generations. What is more, those of us who stand on the pragmatic side do not disagree with Erickson and the apostles of principle that a profound crisis is at work. We simply believe that crisis is the political current condition of the GOP, which is presently engaged in a chess match with political death that threatens its potential to be a viable vehicle for a message devoted to freedom.
Yet checkmate is not inevitable. Rather, to quote that mission statement which Erickson so embraces, once the movement gets its strategic house in order: There is, we like to think, solid reason for rejoicing.
An absurd comparison right in the leading sentence.
I understand that the author means well, but...
Liberals won’t be turning to Jon Stewart in 40 years either... I couldn’t get past that sentence. Too stupid.
Is this an article about what Mytheos Holt says about what Erick Erickson said about what William Buckley said?
If you say so
Wish I could find more “Firing Lines” on Youtube. They’re a national treasure.
I have long looked at Buckley with distrust. His view of conservatism is an odd, New England variety, intertwined with a Cold War outlook to the military and intelligence community where more was necessarily better.
While he could certainly provide an intellectual backdrop to the criticism of liberals and radicals, his visions for the future are greatly removed from those of most conservatives today.
This is the kind of look-how-big-mine-is essay (referring to brain size, conservative pedigree, or something of that sort) intended to impress the folks at last night's party, all of whom were lefties or fake righties eager to be seen as "reasonable".
The country is intentionally being broken down, stave by stave, rib by rib. Every battle will be "fought by every means necessary" from here on out, or they will be lost, and soon there will be no more battles.
They sure are.
I wonder why?
Disown his son for a start.I know I would
No kidding, I can't imagine Jon Stewart's audience watching Firing Line religiously.
Both Reagan and Buckley had ungrateful children. (No, I don’t mean Michael Reagan.)
He was a Cold Warrior, a man of those times. But the world moved on. As have conservatives.
Conservatives have VISION?
Upon WHAT is it focused?
Do we deserve it?
2 Chronicles 7:14
If my people, who are called by my name,
shall humble themselves,
and pray, and seek my face,
and turn from their wicked ways; ,
then will I hear from heaven,
and will forgive their sin,
and will heal their land.
Are you still killing your unborn?
Infighting isn’t helping the cause of conservatism. I just wish the Establishment Republicans would spend half as much time fighting against the Democrats, as they do against the conservatives in their own party. The country would be in much better shape if they’d only stand against unbridled spending and over-reaching government, as the Republican party was always supposed to do.
To a great extent, conservatives imagine a restored America, having discarded the millstones of a hundred years of failed progressivism.
Progressives were always unhappy with America as it was, and assumed that they could change it for the better. But their endless social and political experiments, while trendy, were wanting, because they lacked the wisdom of the founding fathers.
Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Frank Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy, LBJ, Carter, Clinton and Obama have all created vast mountains of progressive failure that never belonged here and need to be expunged.
With the Cold War raging, conservatism in the time of Buckley and Goldwater were fighting a cultural fight, unlike today when conservatives fight a structural fight, with the realization that cultural battles are just brush fires compared to the dismantling of the system that facilitates the left.
Tear it down, and the house of cards collapses, and that is where the true conservative vision comes into play, replacing the grotesque and inefficient leviathan of government with one that works, performing the limited roles that it is supposed to perform. While at the same time repairing a hundred years of damage inflicted on our nation.
Sounds like my first wife!