Conservatives still can learn from WFB’s example, starting with his pragmatism.
By Ramesh Ponnuru
February 27, 2009, 4:00 a.m.
William F. Buckley Jr. died a year ago today, and plenty of people would say that the conservative movement he founded died around the same time. A president allied to that movement has left office widely discredited. Republicans have had their worst two back-to-back elections since Buckley started National Review in 1955.
The financial crisis, meanwhile, has shaken what had previously been a formidable conservative self-confidence. The outgoing Republican president authorized massive federal intervention in response, and now Washington is earnestly debating temporary bank nationalization, which would have seemed like the cause of a left-wing fringe only three years ago.
When Buckley’s son, the novelist Christopher Buckley, endorsed Barack Obama in the presidential election, many saw it as a dramatic illustration of the conservative soul-searching that has marked the last year. Republican politicians are wondering whether it is any longer possible to appeal both to conservatives and to moderates, or whether conservatism has become an isolated subculture. Right-leaning thinkers are wondering where they went wrong, and whether the conservative movement even wants intellectuals on its side any more.
The situation of contemporary conservatives is both easier and harder than the one Buckley and his colleagues faced in the 1950s. It is easier because conservatives do not need to build from scratch a conservative infrastructure: Many of the institutions Buckley midwifed are still on the scene. It is harder because conservatism then had little history to overcome and no political fall from which to recover.
However different our own circumstances may be, today’s conservatives can nonetheless learn from Buckley’s career. Perseverance is not the least important of the lessons. In the editorial for the first issue of National Review, Buckley commented that “it seems altogether possible” that if the magazine did “not exist, no one would have invented it.” America was widely considered a conservative country at the time — but not a country hospitable to Buckley’s type of conservatism, unreconciled to the idea that history must continue to move along the direction of the New Deal. A popular Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, had refrained from disturbing the New Deal consensus and had, indeed, built upon it.
Moreover, the coalition Buckley assembled against this consensus seemed to be a ramshackle affair. It included anti-Communists (who were frequently ex-Communists), libertarians, traditionalists, and even the odd — very odd — monarchist. They disagreed with each other on everything from the existence of God to the necessity of government-run lighthouses. Conservatives and liberals said this coalition made no intellectual sense and could not possibly hang together politically, let alone succeed. But common interests, chiefly in resisting liberalism, kept Buckley’s movement in one piece.
The free-market Catholic Buckley collaborated with Sidney Hook, an atheist and socialist, on anti-Communist projects. The conservatives of today have smaller bridges to build. If Buckley could work with Hook, surely we can make the effort to reach out to environmentally conscious suburbanites and new Hispanic citizens.
In the 1970s, Buckley welcomed the neoconservatives to the fold. While we now associate neoconservatives with an aggressive foreign policy, at the time they were primarily thought of as supporters of the welfare state who criticized its excesses. Buckley made common cause with them, too. Liberalism had spectacularly discredited itself from the late 1960s through the 1970s, but Buckley understood that to overthrow it conservatives needed to present superior solutions to the challenges of the moment. The neocons, in part because they did not share Buckley’s principled aversion to big government, came up with attractive reforms to domestic policy.
Buckley was always a very practical ideologue. When he turned against the war on drugs, for example, he did so less because he believed in an individual right to use drugs than because he thought the war had failed. His pessimism about the occupation of Iraq developed along similar lines: He did not think it wrong in principle, but doubted it would advance national objectives.
There is a lesson here, too, for conservatives, who have been marked by a taste for theoretical debates. One of their favorite slogans, “Ideas have consequences,” predates Buckley’s fame. Buckley himself was sometimes criticized for never producing a book that elaborated the first principles of his political philosophy. Theoretical debates among conservatives and libertarians can be interesting, and Buckley participated in them with characteristic zest. But we conservatives could use a little bit more of Buckley’s practicality as well.
If there is to be a conservative comeback, it will not happen because conservatives have finally hashed out a view of the ideal size of the federal government. It will be because we have practical and attractive solutions to problems as quotidian as traffic jams and as weighty as Iranian nukes — because we have answers to the problems of the world that Buckley has left to us.
Through victory and defeat, finally, we should have fun. Conservatism begins with an appreciation of the world as it is, unreformed and fallen. For Buckley, skiing and playing the harpsichord were not distractions from conservatism.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. On Tuesday he will participate in a panel discussion, “On the Ropes: What William F. Buckley Jr. Can Teach Today’s Conservatives,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.