Embracing the Permanent:
William F. Buckley and Populism

I never heard my friend William F. Buckley, Jr., opine about the merits or deficiencies of “populism.” But I often heard him discourse about the virtues of liberty and the political, social, and moral liabilities of the Left-liberal consensus. In my view, what we call “populism” was an important ingredient in liberty as WFB understood it. That was the point of one of his most famous mots. “I’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory,” he said, “than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

Was this wealthy and sophisticated gadfly pulling our leg? Was this Yale man just guying his rivals in Cambridge?

I don’t think so. Buckley, who died in 2008 at 83, did as much as anyone to make conservatism intellectually and (just as important) socially respectable in the United States. He was too urbane and too verbally nimble to be dismissed as another troglodytic tobacco-chewing throwback. (For one thing, Bill took his tobacco in elegant little cigarillos.)

Nevertheless, he had an abiding appreciation of the wisdom of the people and a corresponding suspicion of the elites, especially in their overbearing, Potomac-fever incarnation. “I rejoice in the influence of the people over their elected leaders,” he said on that same occasion, “since I think that they show more wisdom than their leaders or their intellectuals.” 

The fact that a man of Buckley’s pedigree could prefer a promiscuous sampling of the census rolls to the educated tony-ness of Harvard not only offers us insight into his own political filiations: it also offers us some lessons about some contemporary political controversies. 

What would Bill Buckley have thought about Donald Trump and his “America First” platform? The one column that I am aware of that he wrote about Trump was highly critical. But it was written years before Trump became a political force and took no cognizance of the fundamental datum of the 2016 presidential election: that it came down to a choice between Hillary Clinton, whom Bill held in contempt, and Trump. 

About both the 2016 and 2020 elections, I suspect that Bill would have invoked the Buckley Doctrine, usually formulated as the idea that conservatives ought to rally around the most conservative candidate who is also electable. 

As Buckley’s friend and colleague Neal Freeman has demonstrated, however—and Freeman was there when the principle was first uttered—the usual formulation is not the accurate formulation. Freeman went back to 1964 when the choice in the Republican primary was between Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican establishment’s darling, and Barry Goldwater, the impossible (may I say “populist”?) firebrand. Whom should National Review endorse? The debate raged for some time in the sancta sanctorum of NR’s editorial offices, some editors arguing one side, some the other. In the fullness of time, the dictum came down from WFB himself: National Review would support “the rightward-most viable candidate”—i.e., Barry Goldwater, unelectable in 1964 but viable in the sense of representing a robust and coherent conservative vision of the world. 

It was the same in the 1965 New York mayoral race, whose chief entertainment was the candidacy of Bill Buckley himself. Bill hadn’t a chance of winning. Indeed, when asked what he would do if he were to win, he famously replied: “Demand a recount.” But Bill’s candidacy was viable because it enabled him to put before the public an articulate case for various important conservative ideas. 

The underlying point is that powerful ideas can have powerful consequences. Barry Goldwater didn’t stand a chance of winning in 1964, but his candidacy was part of the galvanizing force that ushered Ronald Reagan into the White House 15 years later. Bill’s mayoral race didn’t see him into Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence, but it was one of the propaedeutic elements that helped see his brother Jim into the U.S. Senate a few years down the road.

In one of his earliest essays, from 1951, Bill wrote about Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (itself then less than a decade old) and limned two critical dangers facing liberty: the external threat of Communist imperialism and the homegrown threat of “government paternalism.” The fall of the Soviet colossus signaled not the end but the dissipation of the former threat, its distribution over a more amorphous field of action. 

The threat of government paternalism is today more patent than ever. Indeed, reading through Bill’s essays, I am often brought up short by a sense of historical foreshortening: Bill was writing in 1957 or 1967 or 1977, but his essays read as if they were written yesterday, or possibly this morning. Environmentalism. The oil crisis. The Religious Right. States’ rights. Reforming health care. Immigration, illegal and the other kind. The future of Social Security. Israel. Irresponsible accusations of racism. The Supreme Court. Iran and the bomb. Sexual “liberation.” Governmental overreach at every level. The substance as well as the subject might have been taken from what is happening now, today. 

In part, no doubt, the contemporaneous feel of so much that Bill wrote is explained by a passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” But there was also Bill’s unerring instinct for the pertinent. When he wrote about a matter of public interest, he went for, and generally hit upon, the jugular. I do not mean only that he deployed the successful debater’s trick of touching on spots that were sore or weak. Bill was an able debater, and was plenty adept at ferreting out and exposing his opponents’ weaknesses, evasions, ambiguities, enthymemes, and unwarranted presumptions. But he also had a conspicuous talent for getting to the heart of a matter.

And so whether his subject was environmentalism, school choice, race relations, religious observances, foreign policy, or encroaching statism, what he wrote was likely to touch upon what was central and enduring. That is one of the benefits of conservatism: embracing the permanent, one may be unfashionable, but one is never out of date. Literature, said Ezra Pound, is news that stays news. I have met few people better informed about public affairs than Bill Buckley. But his mastery of the day’s ephemera was only a prelude to his embrace of the principles that underlay the controversies.

Like Athena, Bill seems to have sprung forth fully armed. He was barely graduated from Yale College when he published God and Man at Yale. The book catapulted its 20-something author to an atmosphere of hostile notoriety from which, despite Bill’s later acceptance by the world of high society, he never completely descended. It is difficult at this distance to recreate the stir—no, the tornado—that book precipitated. American readers may recall the apoplexy that greeted Allan Bloom’s book The Closing of the American Mind in the late-1980s. My, how the left-wing academic establishment loved to hate that book! 

Double that enmity, treble it: that will give you some sense of the hostility that engulfed God and Man at Yale. Bill’s opening credo that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world” was simply not to be borne. His codicil—“I further believe that the struggle between individualism [i.e., conservatism] and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level”—elevated disbelief into rage. The liberal establishment, Dwight Macdonald observed at the time, “reacted with all of the grace and agility of an elephant cornered by a mouse.” McGeorge Bundy pronounced anathema upon the book in The Atlantic Monthly. The (then) well-known Yale philosopher T. M. Greene deployed the word “fascist” three times in as many sentences. “What more,” Professor Greene asked, “could Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin ask for?” Well, as Bill observed in his response, “they asked for, and got, a great deal more.”

In retrospect, the reaction to Gamay (as the book was nicknamed by the Beaujolais-minded publisher) is partly amusing, partly frightening. The amusing part arises from the elephant-cornered-by-mouse aspect Dwight Macdonald mentioned. The frightening part comes when you realize how contemporary Bill’s travails seem. Professor Greene went on to pontificate that

What is required is more not less tolerance—not the tolerance of indifference, but the tolerance of honest respect for divergent convictions and the determination of all that such divergent opinions be heard without administrative censorship. I try my best in the classroom to expound and defend my faith, when it is relevant, as honestly and persuasively as I can. But I can do so only because many of my colleagues are expounding and defending their contrasting faiths, or skepticism, as openly and honestly as I am mine.

Sound familiar? But this, Bill rightly noted, is “ne plus ultra relativism, idiot nihilism.” No ethical code requires “honest respect” for every divergent opinion. “Eating people is wrong,” as Flanders and Swann put it, and you needn’t be Aristotle to extend the list of things unworthy of toleration no matter what a “divergent opinion” might dictate.

“Complete moral tolerance,” as James Fitzjames Stephen noted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), “is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other—that is to say, when society is at an end.” Besides, Professor Greene’s aria about tolerance would have been sweeter—or at least ostensibly more plausible—had he deigned to practice what he preached. “An honest respect by him for my divergent conviction,” Bill wrote, “would have been an arresting application at once of his theoretical and his charitable convictions.”

The nerve that Bill struck with God and Man at Yale is still smarting; indeed, it is throbbing uncontrollably, as anyone can attest who has contemplated the discrepancy between proclamations of “diversity” on campuses in Western academia and the practice there of enforcing a politically correct orthodoxy on any contentious subject. 

The bottom line: There is plenty of room for “diversity,” so long as you embrace the Left-liberal dogma. Diverge from that dogma and you will quickly find that the rhetoric of diversity has been replaced by talk of “prejudice,” “hate speech,” and the entire lexicon of Left-liberal denunciation.

Let me move on to a Buckleyism even more famous than his mot about the advantages of the Boston phone book compared to the faculty of Harvard. I mean his declaration of war against the Left-liberal consensus in 1955 in the inaugural issue of National Review. Bill noted that the new magazine would be “out of place” “in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.” It is out of place, he said, because, in its maturity, “literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” The brash new magazine had arrived with its brash young editor to cast a cold and inquisitive light upon that presumption. National Review “stands athwart history,” Bill announced, “yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” 

Although written almost 70 years ago, that statement of purpose has a preternaturally contemporary relevance. Bill warned about “Radical social experimentation”; “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul”; “the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country.” If those yelling “Stop!” in 1955 were “out of place,” how much more out of place now, in 2022, when what Bill observed “the relationship of the state [and the administrative state] to the individual” has become one of the most fraught questions now facing Western polities?

An exigent question, of course, is what individuals and enterprises are “out of place” in the salubrious, house-cleaning sense that Buckley articulated back in 1955? I am not going to start down the invidious road of naming names but, in closing, will simply note that I suspect Bill Buckley would find himself with many new and different friends were he with us now.

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