Politics & Policy

Philadelphia Society at 50

We have the better ideas. Why are we losing the political game?

On November 3, 1964, Barry Goldwater went down to a defeat recalled by some as the worst shellacking of a major-party candidate since Alf Landon’s in 1936; recalled by others as the culmination of a gallant effort to bring conservative ideas to the public stage, by a man who had known, ever since JFK’s assassination, that no Republican could win the presidency in 1964.

Ten days after the election, five men gathered at an elegant Manhattan restaurant, Voisin, for what would prove to be a historic meeting. The five were Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman, Frank Meyer, Ed Feulner, and Don Lipsett, a young organizer for the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (as ISI was then known). It was Lipsett who had called the group together. The purpose: to get the big names of Buckley and Friedman behind a nascent organization for which Lipsett had begun planting the seeds the previous spring.

The meeting was a success, and the Philadelphia Society was born. And there’s a little side story here that I love. This is the way WFB later recalled that day, speaking to the society in 1991: “It was almost 30 years ago that Ed Feulner and I each put up $50 to incorporate the Philadelphia Society. I swear, I never got a bigger bang for a buck.” But when I quoted that in a talk about Bill at the Heritage Foundation a few years ago, Ed corrected the record: “I was still in graduate school,” he told me. “I didn’t have a spare $50! Bill put up the whole 100. All I did was take it to the bank and open the account.” But Ed and I agreed that the way Bill had misremembered the incident was entirely characteristic of him.

In any case, the society held its first national meeting the following spring, and it was a stellar occasion. More than a hundred people from all across the spectrum of conservative thought met in Chicago to discuss “The Future of Freedom: Problems and Prospects.” The speakers included libertarians/classical liberals Antony Fisher, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Benjamin Rogge; traditionalists Father Stanley Parry, Russell Kirk, L. Brent Bozell, and Eliseo Vivas; and fusionist Frank Meyer, arguing — as he had done two years earlier in his classic exchange in National Review with his close friend and sparring partner Bozell — that it is wrong to treat devotion to the liberty of the person and devotion to the transcendent goals of man as being opposed to each other; they are instead the two streams of the Western tradition, which came together, under the guidance of the Founders, to form the American tradition of “a free and ordered society,” as the Philly Soc’s mission statement puts it.

That statement concludes, “We shall seek understanding, not conformity,” and by and large members of different parts of the society’s spectrum hold true to that — although there have been some notable snipings over the years. But there was no sniping at this spring’s celebration of the society’s 50th anniversary.

Fifty years is indeed something to celebrate, and the Philadelphia Society came up to the mark at its meeting in Chicago. Ed Feulner, the outgoing president of the society, is the only one still alive of the men who met that long-ago day in New York, and he was fittingly the chairman of the meeting. We were celebrating the society’s continued existence and robust recent growth, and also celebrating the service of economist Bill Campbell, who was stepping down as secretary after 19 years of, as Feulner put it, “indefatigable” service. He had taken over that post when Don Lipsett fell ill in 1995 and had to relinquish it; now historian Lenore Ealy, a past president of the society, was taking it over from Campbell.

But the meeting was not all celebration. Its title was “The Road Ahead: Freedom or Serfdom?” and the speakers did not take the answer for granted.

How has the American landscape changed in the last 50 years? There are certainly pluses, and the speakers who took a more positive view focused on those. When the  Philadelphia Society was founded, it joined a very small band of consciously conservative institutions: basically, National Review, ISI, the Foundation for Economic Freedom, the Mont Pelerin Society, and Human Events. In the years following, that band grew hearteningly: the Heritage Foundation, the Liberty Fund, The American Spectator, The New Criterion, to name just a few. On the academic front, George Roche transformed Hillsdale College from a very good but fairly standard liberal-arts college to an excellent and conservative liberal-arts college. Since then, Thomas More and Thomas Aquinas Colleges have been opened, to turn out solidly educated traditionalists. As economist Scott Beaulier put it at the meeting, 50 years ago, Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek were voices crying in the wilderness, dismissed by the economic establishment as living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Within 15 years Hayek and Friedman were Nobel Laureates, and even Harvard’s Larry Summers has declared that Friedman changed his life. 

As Richard Weaver, an early Philly Soc member, put it, “Ideas have consequences.” We have the ideas, and, thanks to the above-mentioned publications, colleges, and foundations — plus too many others to name in one article — we are disseminating them. So, are we better off than we were 50 years ago? Alas, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “We have the better ideas, but they have the rhetoric.” And so, as Daniel Oliver, a former chairman of NR’s board, told the society, “with a few exceptions, it’s been downhill all the way.”

When National Review was founded in 1955, one of Bill Buckley’s biggest complaints about President Eisenhower was that he was making no attempt to roll back the New Deal. Ten years later — and one year after the Philadelphia Society was founded — LBJ, so far from rolling back the New Deal, launched the Great Society. Government spending and the tentacles of regulatory agencies have grown ever since — with the exceptions cited by Oliver, which mostly occurred under the aegis of Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich. As Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn put it, “The heart of the new problem in America is that government is intrusive into every corner of the land.”

And now we have a president, as the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger told the society, who practices “the politics of coercion,” as exemplified most clearly in the Obamacare mandates. And Obama reflects the shift in his party, which 50 years ago was, Henninger reminded us, the party of unions, but “unions rooted in the private sector” — and I would add that many of their members would become Reagan Democrats. It’s still the party of unions — but now they’re public-employee unions, intent on “accumulating power and using it to control the private sector and private life.”

The rhetorical problem conservatives face is illustrated clearly by the Obama administration’s Internet ad The Life of Julia. As political scientist Patrick Deneen described it, Julia is “supported at every stage by the caretaker state.” To those assembled in Chicago, that sounds like serfdom — but, as Deneen persuasively argued, Julia doesn’t see it that way: “She has been liberated to be the person she wants to become by virtue of being the beneficiary of the government dime.” And enough of her fellow Americans apparently felt that way to elect Barack Obama not once but twice.

So: Do we conservatives stay at home, reading our Buckley and Kirk and Hayek and Meyer, until there is nothing at all left of the America that Feulner described: a land of “liberty, rule of law, and prudential action by free and informed citizens”? Or do we, as Midge Decter put it, do battle — “but cheerfully and in fellowship”?

Those assembled in Chicago were not disposed to give up. And I believe NRO readers are of the same mind. In Oliver’s words, “In sports, the rule is: If you’re playing a losing game, change it.”

More easily said than done, of course. But several of the Philly Soc speakers had practical suggestions, large or small. Longtime NR contributor Neal Freeman pointed out that in these days of “talk radio and Internet bloggery,” we have forgotten one of the great lessons of Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley: “We have learned to savor the many satisfactions of talking to ourselves, while forgetting how to talk to people who do not yet agree with us.” Calling our opponents names and repeating our own opinions like a mantra is a losing game. To change it to a winning game, we need to relearn how to “beguile and persuade.”

And one of the things we need to beguile and persuade our fellow countrymen about is the importance of Burke’s “little platoons.” As Deneen put it, we “must turn creatively to promoting ideas, policies, and ways of living that show, support, and protect the excellence of the life, not of Julia, but of families, communities, churches, and institutions that have always been the schoolhouses of republican self-government.”

Arnn offered a suggestion that should be at the top of Republicans’ agenda upon the fervently hoped-for retaking of Congress: a law stating that each new regulation imposed by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats is voided if not ratified by Congress within 90 days. This would reestablish “the authority of the people to decide what’s done to them.” 

And in the longer term, as Feulner put it, “We must pass on our tradition to future generations, or else, as Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘We’ll have to sit around telling our grandchildren what it was like to have free institutions.’”

— Linda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.


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