In our season of discontent, it is unsurprising that many conservatives look back longingly to a time when the intellect and panache of William F. Buckley Jr. defined conservatism in the public square. When you are, as George Will described him, “the most consequential political controversialist since Thomas Paine,” people are bound to remember you for your most memorable sayings. Buckley had a knack for clever rejoinders and witty turns of phrase. More important, he had a unique talent for distilling complex philosophy into succinct statements. He called this talent the possession of a “jeweler’s eye” for political truth, and it often harmonized with his cleverness, much to his amusement and our benefit.
Now, ten years after his death, conservatives are asking themselves how Buckley’s legacy should shape the future of the movement. By what set of beliefs should conservatives explain themselves today? To what extent are populism and economic nationalism antithetical to the limited-government ethos of Cold War conservatism? Has the end of the Cold War rendered the philosophy of limited government anachronistic? What shape must responsible conservatism take to address contemporary challenges? These are difficult questions that admit no easy answers.
Nevertheless, since we must answer these questions, we should keep two things in mind when drawing from Buckley’s legacy.
First, there is a pressing need to get back to basics to restore clarity and direction to the debate over the future of the Right.
According to The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, George Nash’s authoritative history of American conservatism, the Right underwent a major expansion beginning in the 1980s. Specializing itself into a thousand niche markets, it lost a sense of “movement consciousness.” The end of the Cold War catalyzed infighting within the multi-chromatic coalition, as groups clashed over ideological questions and competed for scarce resources.
The rise of the Internet added another dimension to the equation. Since technology has democratized opinion-making, established organizations have lost their gatekeeping ability. Today, there are at least nine identifiable denominations of intellectual conservatism, according to ISI’s “Confused Student’s Guide to Conservatism.”
The loss of coherence further strained the political and philosophical foundation of the modern conservative movement. Politically, we’ve held too many grudges against one another for opinions held during previous elections. Philosophically, we’ve suffered under the tyranny of small differences. The opening line of Buckley’s forward to Harry Jaffa’s American Conservatism and the American Founding comes to mind: “If you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him.”
Ultimately, the proliferation of varieties conservatism — tea-party conservativism, natural-law conservativism, growth conservatism . . . — has heightened the need to rearticulate the common goals of various sects and the relationships among them.
Second, the Right must avoid nostalgia because it blinds us to the challenges of our own time.
Few would deny the desirability of a conservatism rooted in high culture and cleverness, but is it possible to maintain an exclusively high tone, given the relevance of social media and its rough-and-tumble nature?
It’s comfortable to fight old battles against known enemies, but nostalgia prevents us from candidly acknowledging that the political landscape has changed in important ways. As previously mentioned, social media and the decline of the traditional newspaper industry have democratized opinion-making, because they decrease the barriers to entry. Not only do an unknown number of websites cater to an infinite number of ideological factions, but advances in communication technology also have made “every smartphone a printing press,” in Matt Continetti’s memorable phrase. Few would deny the desirability of a conservatism rooted in high culture and cleverness, but is it possible to maintain an exclusively high tone, given the relevance of social media and its rough-and-tumble nature?
What’s more, nostalgia is not the best way to honor our heroes. Writing mere months after Buckley died, Charles Kesler cautioned conservatives against resting on their laurels. “We honor our heroes,” Kesler argued, “not by nostalgia but by emulation.” Given that socialism remained a “perennial heresy,” Kesler wrote, and that “the deep-seated relativism of elite culture” threatened to erode the renewed confidence in the justness of the Western tradition, conservatives needed to “dig deeper the wells that our fathers dug.” In short, nostalgia would be the wrong way for us to honor Buckley for the same reason that Buckley worked so hard: In this life, there are no permanent defeats because there are no permanent victories.
Though deeply indebted to the wisdom of the past, the modern intellectual conservative movement has never been defined by an attachment to a certain period of time, contrary to the claims of its critics and misinterpreters. Instead, it has asked itself — and, as Buckley said, must always ask itself — “what shape should the world take, given modern realities?” Conservativism distinguishes itself from liberalism because it addresses both parts of the question. Put differently, conservatives “acknowledge the need to live in this century,” yet “never, ever, to acclimate” themselves to it, as Buckley said of Evelyn Waugh. The perpetual challenge is to walk the fine line between acknowledging modern realities and becoming afflicted by them.
No wonder that Buckley, like Whittaker Chambers, referred to conservatives as “cliff-dancers.”