In an article at The American Mind, David Bahr asks, “What Good is Bill Buckley Anymore?” He concludes that William F. Buckley, Jr. (among other conservatives of the past) “may be past their sell-by date.” Setting aside a rather dismissive title, Bahr does address some important issues and questions that have plagued the conservative movement in America ever since Buckley died in 2008, if not before. Further, the election of Donald J. Trump disturbed the conservative intellectuals, even more, especially those who had vehemently opposed Trump in the primaries. Like most Democrats, they haven’t gotten over it.
First, there is a sense of nostalgia among some Buckley conservatives. If only there was someone as good as Buckley to provide answers to our current cultural and political problems! If only we could go back to how things used to be: a proper intellectual conversation without the shouting and name-calling on social media! If only we could get rid of vulgarity and be polite to our opponents! We are better than that!
There may be something to be said for nostalgia, but, as Bahr writes, it is “doom-level bad, if we assume our intellectual ancestors . . . approached political leadership in a way that’s still closely applicable to the challenges to come.”
Bahr is right to point this out but then, quoting a colleague, Bahr writes, “What skills, if any, did Buckley have that are relevant today?”
Here lies the crux of why a new generation of writers, insightful and well-intentioned though they may be, go too far toward a punkish rebellion. True, the old guard’s insistence on worshiping Buckley is as unseemly and unwise as any kind of political idolatry. But in making the center of their attack about skills, they are reducing Buckley to a résumé enhancer and doing him (and the history through which he lived) a great disservice. Sober minds will find neither WFB worship nor WFB dismissal a productive approach for advancing a rational politics for our time.
Asking whether Buckley would know how to navigate through the barrage of social media nonsense, or how to deal with anonymous scribes, such as Bronze Age Pervert, or whether young people would listen to him, or even whether he would have voted for Trump is useless. These are mere speculations and, although it may be tempting to go down that rabbit hole, it will only lead to a dead end. Buckley is no longer with us, and he cannot offer thoughts on specific events that we are currently facing. But he can still teach us many things.
Although hardly perfect, Buckley was an incredible force in the American conservative intellectual and political movement. In many ways, he was a revolutionary of his time, seeking to renew the foundational principles of America. As Jeremy Lott points out in his book, “Buckley sought to gather those all under the sail of ‘conservatism’ and fix the newly cast conservative cannons on the enemies of collectivism, liberalism, and Communism…”
Conservatism is often explained away as a regressive movement with no notion or intent to progress. But this is not a fair characterization. Conservatism, as understood, explained, and enacted by Buckley, was about creating a proper space where national sovereignty is affirmed and human flourishing happens when an individual voice is recognized. National Review’s original mission to “stand athwart history, yelling stop!” likewise is often misunderstood. But context is everything.
As Lott correctly notes, “It was really history with a capital H that National Review had objected to. At the time of the magazine’s founding, Leftists and Communists would regularly claim that the forces of history were bringing about a new Marxian reality.” Buckley was concerned with making sure Americans did not get swept up into thinking we could define and lead the world based on historical whims or fads because such definitions quickly slip into mindless ideologies. Rather, we have to understand and recognize that there are perennial ideas that need to be constantly refocused in the midst of changing realities, and more than anything that the order of things needs to be reaffirmed.
It’s difficult exactly to pinpoint where or when intellectual conservatism started to disappear. Even in the 1990s, Buckley was slowing down in his defense of conservatism as he had constituted it. Is this something we can point out as his failing? Perhaps. At the same time, the list of intelligent interlocutors and even political adversaries was thinning and perhaps the new order of things was not challenging enough for Buckley. This is visible in many interviews on Firing Line, such as with Ann Coulter or even with Rush Limbaugh. Buckley is visibly bored with the discussion and it was clear, even then, that he was tiring of the constant fight. People do grow old.
In spite of what some may term his failings, one of the most important aspects of Buckley’s intellectual and literary legacy is that his conservatism was not rooted in ideology but in disposition. A conservative is not someone who relies on constant changes to define his existential structure. Rather, a conservative knows that there will always be a push against the “permanent things,” to use Russell Kirk’s expression, and that truth, beauty, and goodness are not relative. This is immensely significant if we want to understand Buckley even slightly.
At its core, relativism is utilitarian and inevitably treats human life as disposable. Under such a banner, the idea of morality is effectively dead on arrival and unnecessary in our attempts to understand human nature. Buckley knew that if we forget or willingly ignore the principles of the human condition that never change, we will face both political and cultural chaos. Why then did Buckley choose to fight for conservatism and not, say, humanism or Americanism?
This is where the current projections either of Buckley dismissal or worship stray and end up in a meaningless loop. At the time, Buckley faced one omnipresent and existential threat—Communism—and it was both political and cultural. The intellectual Left at the time was strictly Marxist but it did not understand itself, necessarily, as anti-American. Nor would their anti-Americanism have been easy to demonstrate. So it made logical sense that in order to counter this brand of liberalism, one would do it under the banner of conservatism. For Buckley, defending conservatism was synonymous with the defense of the American principles of liberty, sovereignty, and anti-collectivism.
Today, we face a threat that is inherently Marxist but much more powerful—globalism. The globalist ideology is pervasive but its fluidity and shapeshifting create a constant need to redefine it in order to fight it. Unlike Communism, its totalitarianism is more metaphysical than political, and it seeks not only to subvert the political realities (such as national sovereignty), but also biological and ethnic differences. Globalism is powerful precisely because it is a totalitarian ideology that has seeped into every sphere of human life.
For this reason, today we cannot and should not waste time in trying to define conservatism, intellectual or otherwise. Strangely enough, I don’t think that Buckley spent much time doing that either. He saw totalitarianism and collectivism as the greatest threats to America, and the defense of conservatism as a defense of America. Buckley was doing this by a direct relation to the ideological expression of totalitarianism, which at the time, was known simply as liberalism.
His thinking had two components: the first was political, namely showing the difference between collectivism and individualism, and the second was philosophical, in which he expressed the gravity and importance of having existential foundations, both ethical and aesthetic. Through his intellectual project, he reminded people to not lose sight of the bigger picture but also to remain humble in the face of any fight against totalitarianism.
Buckley understood there are limits to any human endeavor. In his book, Up From Liberalism (1959), Buckley asks “Up where from liberalism? There is no conservative political manifesto which, as we make our faltering way, we can consult, confident that it will point sure finger in the direction of the good society.”
Although Buckley’s fights were not the same as our fights, he still has something to teach us about human nature and how the frailties of the human condition fit into our current problems. Let us be mindful of his legacy as the great defender of American principles that include defense of “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of the conscience, the spiritual view of life.”
Buckley was able to rise to the challenge before him because he didn’t waste time on peripheral matters. Likewise, we should endeavor t not to waste time wallowing in nostalgia or delighting in the hubris that would lead us to a dismissal of the past, and remember that it is, after all, “up from liberalism,” (or in our case, up from globalism), and not up from reason, imagination, and humility.