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Did William F. Buckley’s Conservative Project End in Failure?

Julius Krein misunderstands the profound influence and success of Buckleyite conservatism.

There may not be many positions in American journalism reserved for recognizable conservatives, but there is at least one that guarantees the standard 15 minutes of celebrity. It’s that of the conservative critic of conservatism who laments that conservatism is not what it used to be and probably never was. Some distinguished writers have occupied this position — Garry Wills, Andrew Sullivan — generally on the way to something better; and some duds have too, generally on the way to various types of literary obscurity. The latest occupant is Julius Krein, editor of the new journal American Affairs, who used the opportunity of a review in the Washington Post of Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new biography of William F. Buckley to seize the post.

And “seize” is the word. His first sentence declares that the biography arrives “just after the political and intellectual collapse of Buckley’s conservative project.” Now, that’s telling it straight. All the same it contains too much prediction for my taste.

American conservatism is undoubtedly in flux and arguably in decline, but the cycle of political events which drives us to that judgment is far from complete. Without going to the lengths of Chou En-lai, we should wait a few years to see how fortune and philosophy favor the Trumpettes, the Never Trumpers, and everyone in between, including the latest “new nationalist” intellectuals grouped around American Affairs.

I should also enter a second qualification: Mr. Felzenberg’s biography has not yet reached Budapest where I am now ensconced. All that I have learnt about it, as Bill himself would have guessed, is that I am mentioned once, on page 298, quite neutrally, as having taken over NR’s editorship a little before the magazine’s 35th anniversary. So, I shall be a disinterested but vigilant critic when I get the book. Until then, I can’t comment on Mr. Krein’s criticisms of the book’s merits or otherwise.

Buckleyite conservatism itself is another matter. On that I have opinions, which are provoked by this early passage in the review:

Buckley exerted a significant degree of influence on only one president, Ronald Reagan. He loathed Dwight Eisenhower; was considered a nuisance by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and both George Bushes; and was shut out of Barry Goldwater’s campaign.

Let’s examine this passage from back to front. Was WFB shut out of Goldwater’s campaign? Not at all. He was skeptical of its chances and gave its handling to William Rusher, NR’s long-standing publisher, to whom Bill deferred on a number of major questions. Rusher was one of a small coterie of Republican activists who pushed Goldwater into running and shaped the early campaign. It fell apart after the convention. But NR was key to its rise through Rusher. And Buckley demonstrated that the ideas fueling Goldwater’s rise had a potential national appeal when he ran on them for the New York mayoralty.

Was he considered a “nuisance” by Nixon, Ford, and the Bushes? At times certainly; that’s an occupational hazard, and not the worst one, for scribblers advising the Prince. Machiavelli was sent to the torture chamber; Buckley was bought off with a post at the U.N. that he turned into a book. Game, Set, and Match to Buckley on that one. And though Buckley lost most of his battles with moderate Republican presidents, he did so on a rising tide of influence as Nixon’s GOP led to successively more conservative ones and for most of Buckley’s life America became an increasingly conservative country.

Did he loathe Eisenhower? For most of Eisenhower’s time in office, yes. In fact he defined the new conservatism largely in opposition to the policies of Eisenhower whose conservatism deserves more criticism than it receives today. It was a largely inert one in domestic politics; social problems grew while the economy boomed; in foreign policy it encouraged an illusion of “rollback” while privately embracing the “containment” it had denounced in the 1952 election. When Hungarians rose in 1956, the Eisenhower administration cold-bloodedly turned its back on them. Buckley was not alone in thinking this a shameful betrayal and organized protests against it. But he was persuaded not to pursue this to the point of third-party politics.

But it is the line “Buckley exerted a significant degree of influence on only one president, Ronald Reagan” that most startled me, reminding me of an old Soviet-era joke. At a Moscow meeting of the Union of Socialist Writers, one regional representative gives a buoyant report: “In our region, Soviet literature has made astounding progress. Today, we have no fewer than 277 writers producing literature full-time, whereas in backward Czarist times the region could claim only one: Leo Tolstoy.”

To exert a significant influence on the president who won the Cold War, revived the American economy, created the conditions for the information revolution, helped to shape a new kind of open-world capitalism, and handed his successor a strong partisan lock on the presidency is no mean claim (or in Mr. Krein’s case, no mean admission). To be sure, Buckley had important disagreements with Reagan in office — Bill was by nature too restive to be a loyalist for long — and Reagan had important failures of policy. That said, there is a clear overall link between the major policies advocated by Buckley and NR (and adopted more generally over the years by the conservative movement he helped to create) and the principal successes of the Reagan administration, which, as it happens, were world-historical successes.

There is a clear overall link between the major policies advocated by Buckley and NR and the principal successes of the Reagan administration, which, as it happens, were world-historical successes.

Mr. Krein might agree with much of this, and maybe I should end there. But he goes on to make a larger argument that tempts me: “that 20th-century American conservatism simply never made any sense. Far from a coherent program of high principle, it was always a largely accidental combination of inherited reflexes and political opportunism.” He thinks there was no central core — “no there there” — in conservatism. And he asserts that this incoherence reflects the trajectory of WFB’s own career, which began with defending segregation and ranting against Eisenhower and ended with counseling against deficits and the Iraq War while in the meantime protecting conservatism against crackpots and bigots only at the cost of staffing it mainly by “talk show hosts, sycophants and second-rate economists.” And more in like vein.

That strikes me as something of a caricature — Mr. Krein’s more than mine. Were Wilmore Kendall, Russell Kirk, Richard Neuhaus, and Milton Friedman among the talk-show hosts, sycophants, and second-rate economists cited above — or in more recent times Rick Brookhiser, Jonah Goldberg, Michael Novak, Ramesh Ponnuru, etc., etc.? I doubt it.

And has Buckleyite conservatism — which is undoubtedly in a crisis as evidenced by the shouting, curses, and stormings-out — really and finally cracked up? Or run out of steam philosophically? Or has it instead encountered new and massive challenges, which in turn have provoked disagreements and quarrels among people who had previously agreed with each other on most matters — as the French Revolution destroyed the long friendship of Burke and Fox?

Of course, public philosophies change over time, sometimes markedly so, because the problems that history throws at them change too. If they don’t change in line with history, what you get is a politics of frozen and irrelevant gestures — something like today’s leading Democrats playing members of the French Resistance about as convincingly as the cast of the British sitcom ’Allo, ’Allo. Today’s politics continue to revolve around some of the conservative themes that NR’s conservatism pioneered even after the Cold War had removed anti-Communism from our quiver. Tax-and-spending proposals don’t count here because they are always at the core of political debate (though conservatives ensure that there is a debate if they achieve nothing else). But immigration, which powered the rise of Trump in the primaries, was launched into post–Cold War politics by NR’s 1992 cover story “Time to Rethink Immigration” and was then kept alive through dry climes by the magazine among others. The very fact that there are serious, even quite bitter, philosophical disputes taking place both within National Review and between NR and its conservative critics on this and other issues is a tribute to the continuing energy and fertility of conservatism. If Mr. Krein wants another example, what about nationalism?

Today’s politics continue to revolve around some of the conservative themes that NR’s conservatism pioneered.

But I’m forgetting; nationalism is one of the main issues that American Affairs exists to explore and explain. It does so very well, incidentally, in both of its first two issues. I congratulate Mr. Krein on a lively and serious magazine, and I wish it well. And I couldn’t help noticing something else: the influence that the late James Burnham plainly exercises over the magazine. He is the subject of a major article in the first issue, one by Mr. Krein himself, and he crops up on several occasions in issue number two. His theory of the managerial revolution is one of the two main sets of theory explaining the current upheavals of the Western world, according to Michael Lind in an article on the New Class War. (The other theorist is J. K. Galbraith who, as Mr. Lind notes, was linked with Burnham by their joint friendship with WFB.) Mr. Lind is always worth reading, not least here where he develops a grand social theory on the largest scale, taking Burnham’s theory of managerialism and updating it to the post-industrial and financial global economy. But Burnham also crops up, less expectedly but in context quite naturally, in an article on whether Confucianism will become the next state religion of China. (Probably not, is the answer, but his thought will be incorporated in whatever does.) Indeed, a kind of self-conscious Burnhamite realism pervades the magazine in which a fragment of conventional wisdom, generally a conservative one, is looked grimly in the face, knocked down, and then reshaped into a dourly determined theory of not wearing ideological blinkers while pursuing the national interest. It’s all very exhilarating.

Reminiscent too. For James Burnham was, according to Bill Buckley, “the dominant intellectual influence in the development of this journal [i.e., National Review]. . . . His commentary, during such crises as are merely suggested by mentioning Budapest, Suez, Berlin, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, was sustained by the workings of a great mind.” That influence went beyond geopolitics, however. Burnham was also the main influence keeping Bill and NR from advocating either political abstention or third-party votes in the 1950s and later when he was clearly playing with such ideas in his visceral opposition to Eisenhower. He persuaded Bill that the way to long-term influence in politics was to establish and promote a conservative movement within the GOP rather than outside it. In that spirit, whoever coined the term, he argued that NR should always support “the most viable conservative candidate” in any race rather than the purest. And that course, pursued by Buckleyite conservatives, led to Reagan in 1980.

Why is Mr. Krein so dismissive of Bill Buckley and the conservatism he fostered when both men are pupils of the same master? One reason, always lurking in such judgments, is that he may know but does not yet feel the truth of Enoch Powell’s judgment that “all political lives . . . end in failure.” Buckley did know that and he spent the last decade of his life turning more and more to considerations of the next world. But a more likely and fruitful reason is that he misunderstands the real Bill Buckley.

He treats him in this review as a failed political philosopher who tried to keep too many balls in the air, with the result that most of them spilled off the stage into the wings or the orchestra stalls. Hence the seeming disintegration of a body that was never fully integrated. But Bill was not a Michael Oakeshott working out a new basis for conservatism or a Kenneth Minogue delving into the deepest errors of liberalism — though he liked to present such people, explore their ideas, and argue with them. He was several other things. In this context, there were really two Buckleys with two different roles on the world stage — one who was an irrepressible rebel constantly intrigued by amusing people and arresting ideas; the other who was (or was persuaded by Burnham to be) a serious man who over time disciplined his philosophical arguments and exploited his cultural prestige to bring about real political change in his time.

It sounds extravagant to say so, but this second Buckley was an Antonio Gramsci for the television age who transformed the fool’s gold of celebrity into the real gold of conservative votes. The first Buckley, no less extravagantly, was a Diaghilev of opinion journalism, determined to shock and entertain, turning to a succession of editorial Cocteaus and demanding: “Jean, Astonish me!”

That’s why I know how he would have responded to Mr. Krein’s review. He would have sent him a note congratulating him on the piece. Then he would have invited him out for a drink. Then he would have offered him a job at National Review.

Just ask . . . oh, any number of people in the Index of Authors.

Original article here.

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