True Conservatism is a worthy opponent!
by Charlie Leck
I have been working on this essay about true conservatism for months. It seems a bit silly to think that I, a self-admitted liberal, could write such an essay. That's precisely why I've been struggling. With the death of William Buckley in the last few days, I knew I had to move on with the task.
I was about to turn 19 years of age and I was soon to leave for college. It was 48 years ago. I was just starting to develop an interest in politics. I was very confused about what it meant to be a Republican, which my father claimed to be because he liked Ike, or a Democrat. I was asking myself some serious questions. What did it mean to be a conservative? What was a liberal? I'm not kidding when I say that I had no real idea.
A cousin of mine, two years younger and about 6 grade levels brighter, gave me a copy of a newly released book by William F. Buckley, Jr., Up from Liberalism. I have no idea why she gave it to me. She urged me to read it. I tried. I couldn't. It got shoved away on a bookshelf and it has survived all these years and stands now on the shelves in my study. The foreword to the book was written by John Dos Passos. I had no idea who he was in 1959. Now he is one of my favorite writers. As Vonnegut might have said, "That's the way it goes."
In about 1972, a good friend convinced me to read the Dos Passos trilogy, which included the 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen-Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936). This is not the place to break down these novels. The point I want to make is that when I read these I certainly would not have gotten the idea that Dos Passos was, in any way, a conservative. So when I carefully read Buckley's book ten years ago, I was mighty confused about why Dos Passos was associated with it. Let me answer that very simply. Dos Passos saw the conservative political movement as an attempt to conserve something – to preserve the principles upon which the nation was founded. Is that what true conservatism is? Let's delay the answer to that question.
"The radicals of the period of the first of the century's great wars were trying to conserve something too. We were pretty conscious of the fact that we were trying to conserve the independence of the average citizen which we felt the power of organized money was bent to destroy. This was the underlying theme of the Populist agitation, of the Progressive and Socialist and Farmer-Labor parties. Through the referendum and recall and primary elections and labor unions and cooperatives we thought that something like the old townmeeting type of self government could be revived. The aim of all the diverse radical movements of that politically fertile period was somehow to restore the dignity of the man who did the work. Staid Single-Taxers, direct action IWW's and bombthrowing anarchists had the same eventual goal. They believed that if every man could be assured of the full product of his labor, the Kingdom of Heaven would be installed on earth. Their quarrel was about ways and means." [John Dos Passos, foreword to Up from Liberalism by William F. Buckley, Jr., 1959, page viii).
There, you see? Dos Passos was the radical when he wrote his trilogy in the 30s. So where was he in 1959?
The argument that Dos Passos puts forward is that the great crash of the economy in 1929 did not lead to a takeover of power by the working man. He calls the crash the abdication of business and that gave birth to the new bureaucracy. "The radical theorists from the colleges crowded into Washington." The managerial class was born. Roosevelt personified it, managing both the massive labor unions and the community of big businesses. When the second Great War came to an end in 1945, massive government took over and "towered" over both the working man and big business. He sees the period as the birth of militant liberalism.
Enter William F. Buckley, Junior.
When the brilliant Mr. Buckley talks about conservatism, he is talking about preservation. He writes in the introduction to the book that the nation "is in danger of losing her identity – not on account of the orthodoxy that we are being told in some quarters threatens to suffocate us; but for failure to nourish any orthodoxy at all." These are the presuppositions he works from as he begins to develop his thesis.
His thesis then is that "conservatism is the only apparent rallying point." His objectives in the book were to "discredit doctrinaire Liberalism and plead the viability of enlightened conservatism." Buckley also argues that the differences between liberals and conservatives are completely negotiable even though the liberal community doesn't think so."
This conservative ideal, the grand concept of preserving what the founding fathers intended for the nation was the principle upon which Buckley and people like the famous Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, built the conservative movement of the early 1960s. Buckley says that conservatism is not "a crassly materialist position, unconcerned except with the world of getting and spending money." Remember, Buckley is speaking about classical conservatism.
Buckley's great fear (and the fear of the classical conservative) is a loss of freedom by attrition. His view (in 1959) was that the society in which he lived was moving head-long toward totalitarianism; that is, government's absolute control over virtually everything. It is nearly 50 years since he wrote of that fear. I don't think we're there and I don't think we've even inched in that direction although, in fairness to Buckley, the following, according to him, would be evidences of a diminishment of our freedom: "…the progressive income tax, the ban on religious teaching in public schools, the union shop, the FEPCs, the farm laws.."
In the end, it turns out, it is "the welfare state" that Buckley fears the most. Buckley warns that there is a significant difference between government services that provide dollars to the people, to do with as they wish, and providing services for him (by which he means things like "…federal aid to education, housing, rural electrification, small business,… insurance programs…" like health and accident insurance.
Here we must look at William Buckley to really understand where he is going with his strong argument against liberalism. First of all, it is quite easy to document that William Buckley was deeply in fear of communism and its worldwide outreach. Remember, Up from Liberalism came to the market in 1959. Most of the nation was living in absolute fear of communism. That fear had made the McCarthy movement possible. It is also easy to document that Buckley was a great supporter of what Senator McCarthy was trying to do when he began his hearings meant to expose suspected communists active in our government and society. It wasn't until late in the 60s that Buckley could admit that he had been wrong about McCarthy and that his great fear of communism was misplaced. By the time Vietnam came along, Buckley could see the foolishness of the McCarthy endeavor and of communism itself.
Pure conservatism, as Buckley envisioned it, is a worthy and significant political movement – that is, the kind of conservatism that Buckley defines in the book we are writing about in this essay. Buckley had no appreciation for the kind of right wing conservative movement that was introduced into politics by the likes of Richard Nixon. The current right-wing, Christian evangelical movement of today's Republican Party is something that Buckley could have done without completely.
None of this is meant to say that Up from Liberalism was not an alarming book. It was. Clearly stated, the purpose of the book was "to bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent; and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable."
I would never have known it as a young man, but now I do; that is, Buckley's understanding of, and definition of, liberalism is all wrong. He claims that liberals believe that the human being is perfectible and also that "social progress predicable." Nonsense! Liberalism believes quite the opposite, but, nevertheless, moves toward the hope that man can be better and less self-centered and that society can be fairer and more just than it is.
In 1959, Arthur Schlesinger accused Buckley of being more interested in preserving his reputation "as the conservative enfant terrible than with any serious attempt to understand what contemporary liberalism is all about." I think this was more true of Buckley than any of us know.
A great deal of Buckley's 1959 book is a rant against Social Security – a still popular tirade among contemporary conservatives – and it becomes weak in its logic the longer it goes on. Finally, his most serious complaint is with the compulsory nature of social security, even with the understanding that "very few people, if given the opportunity, would opt for exclusion." He finally concedes that government could go ahead and give this money to folks, but it should hold the line on welfarism, which provides services to people.
Buckley also reveals a mild dose of ignorance in the book when he continues to defend government's denial of the vote to black Americans – an idea he later in life confessed was stupidity. Buckley would also oppose the civil rights legislation of 1964 and it wasn't until twenty years later that he finally acknowledged it was worthy and needed law. He also finally matured into the knowledge that his book (1954) defending McCarthyism was wrong and so was his illogical fear of communism. It is so odd to me, in reading this early Buckley book, that he was so willing, for the sake of rooting communists out of our government, to throw out all the constitutional protections he so reveres today.
Fortunately, Buckley matured over the years and, in the end, staked out a solid and defensible conservative position. Do not confuse Buckley with the John Birch Society, Newt Gingrich, Carl Rove or George W. Bush. He liked none of them nor did he care for their politics. According to Sam Tanenhaus, Buckley has said that "if the United States had been a parliamentary system, President Bush would be subject to a 'no confidence' vote." And Buckley was so uncomfortable with the war in Iraq that he wrote many columns in the National Review that clearly opposed it.
"He initially supported the war because he was impressed by the case Vice President Dick Cheney made that Saddam harbored weapons of mass destruction. Once this was proved to be untrue, Buckley told me that if Cheney had known the actual truth, then President Bush would be a candidate for impeachment." [Sam Tanenhaus]
We cannot forget, even though we would like to do so, that conservative Republicans have ruled the nation for 20 of the last 32 years. They remain a powerful force of political possibility in every state in the union. If credit is to be given to any single person for being the motivating force behind this movement, it would have to go to William Buckley who, as the founding editor of the National Review (with the credo, "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop"), formed his movement of conservative youth at his Connecticut home in 1960, and was the basic educator of political conservatives from that time until his death two days ago. As Dan LeRoy wrote in 2005:
"With the death of President Ronal Reagan last year, Mr. Buckley became the major living symbol of the modern conservative movement he helped found."
Russ Limbaugh has called Buckley "the godfather of the modern conservative movement." For the first time in my life, I may be in agreement with Mr. Limbaugh.
In 1965, embarrassed by the decisive defeat of Barry Goldwater in his run for the presidency, Buckley anointed himself, in humor, the conservative candidate for Mayor of New York City. His platform, printed in the National Review, contained some surprising proposals.
-To fight crime, either lock up teenage felons or make their parents legally responsible for them
-Legalize drugs for adults
-Cut off welfare to everyone except invalids and mothers looking after children 14 years of age or younger
-No more busing to achieve racial balance
The Sam Tanenhaus account of Buckley's run for Mayor in 1965 is one of the most delightful and interesting political accounts I have ever read. After reading it, one puts it down with the realization that William Buckley truly had gonads. Truly!
What really broiled Buckley was a haughty attitude he sensed among liberals – an attitude that allowed "the reflexive equation of liberalism with virtue" (as Sam Tanenhaus has described it). Buckley believed, right to his death, that liberals did not use logic and the intelligence that God gave them to arrive at their convictions, but that they were driven by petty emotions and the desire to do good.
In its 28 February obituary, the New York Times says that Buckley "was a magnet for controversy." Indeed, he was! Many of his contemporary men of letters were in constant and angry disagreement with him – men like Mailer, Styron, Vidal, Capote and Baldwin.
Had I read Up from Liberalism when it was given to me in 1959, I would not have understood it. I would not have realized how critical sarcasm and hyperbole and outrageous humor were to Buckley. Might it have changed my life if I had read it then? Would it have turned me away from the liberal ideology with which I fell in love? I doubt it very much. I think I would have been as shocked then by William Buckley's basic unfairness about the plight of people of misfortune as I am when I read him and listen to him today.
Let's give him all this, however: He was a man of humor and of serious letters; he had a great stage presence; and he spurred serious dialogue.
An excellent source for information about Buckley and his brand of conservatism: George H. Nash: The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.
An on-line source of most of Buckley's writings: Hillsdale College web site.