Buckleyism: The Harmless Persuasion

[See also William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP—Sort Of, by Peter Brimelow, and OK, William F. Buckley Helped Create The Modern Conservative Movement—But What Did It Conserve? By Marcus Epstein]

In a seminal essay in his book Beautiful Losers, Sam Francis dubbed neoconservatism “the harmless persuasion”. Francis argued that, far from being a staunch opponent of liberalism, neoconservatism was merely “the right wing of the New Class”.  Francis maintained that the neoconservatives were unable to make a definitive break with the New Class because they were the “products, socially and intellectually, of the northeastern urban academic establishment” and that “[i]f there is a future for the American Right, it lies in the heartland of Middle America”.

I was reminded of Francis` essay as I read the many glowing tributes given William F. Buckley by the left. To be sure, some of these tributes may best be seen as reflections of Buckley`s undoubted charm, wit, and eloquence, but something else was at work, too.  Almost all of them praised Buckley for ridding conservatism of its undesirables, and for making it “respectable”, a synonym for harmless in this context.

Then there was the dog that didn`t bark: One of the tributes to Buckley came from Christopher Hitchens, who normally reacts to the death of anyone who had opposed his own brand of leftism with vicious calumny, as shown by his posthumous attacks on John Paul II, Mother Teresa, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, and even Bob Hope. But instead of this customary rancor, Hitchens praised Buckley for having

“picked an open fight with the John Birch Society, taken on the fringe anti-Semites and weirdo isolationists of the Old Right, and helped to condition the Republican comeback of 1980. Was he really, as he had once claimed, yelling `stop` at the locomotive of history, or was he a closet `progressive?`” [A Man of Incessant Labor, Weekly Standard, March 10, 2008]

(My emphasis).

One cannot imagine Hitchens asking such a question about Sam Francis, or Peter Brimelow, or Steve Sailer, or Pat Buchanan, or any other conservative who continued “Standing athwart history, yelling Stop” after National Review`s policy changed to “Standing athwart history, crying `Uncle`”.

Despite its real and significant contributions during the Cold War, Buckleyism has been flawed, from the start, by its need to be seen as “respectable”. Given the ascendancy of liberalism in American politics, the price of respectability for conservatives is an acceptance of the premises of liberalism—especially the premises of egalitarianism and democratism—and a willingness to wage war against those further to the right. Although Buckleyism did not fully accept the premises of liberalism until the movement was finally co-opted by the neocons, he was always willing to wage war against those further to the right.

Of course, some of those from whom Buckley sought to distance himself and his magazine were genuinely distasteful. But many merely had a different vision of conservatism than Buckley—such as the weirdo isolationists mentioned by Hitchens.

And there is a difference between refusing to associate with someone of whom you disapprove, and seeking to destroy that person politically and even professionally. All too often, Buckley sought to destroy those of whom he disapproved on the right. Indeed, one of the last things he wrote was a piece for Commentary in which he boasted of having administered a “fatal” wound to the John Birch Society, a group that is neither racist nor anti-Semitic but that did disagree with Buckley over Vietnam. [Goldwater, the John Birch Society, and Me, March 2008, and see Buckley`s "5,000-word excoriation of Welch:" The Question of Robert Welch, February 13, 1962 (PDF)]

Even when the views Buckley opposed were repulsive, he employed tactics against those further to his right he never used against the left. Thus he decreed that no one who continued to write for the American Mercury could write for National Review, even if the writer did not at all share the attitudes to Jews of other writers at the Mercury and even if what he wrote was in fact blameless. Significantly, no such restrictions were in place for the New York Times, Washington Post, or New Republic—publications that have caused far more damage to America than the John Birch Society or a fringe publication, no matter how repulsive, ever could.

To take just one example important to me as a Catholic—the faith that Buckley himself professed—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic helped lay the groundwork for legalizing abortion in this country. They have remained unstinting advocates of a “right” that Buckley believed, correctly in my opinion, has cost millions of American lives. Yet, since those journals are the very font of respectability, no NR contributor was looked at askance for writing for them, much less prohibited for writing for NR on account of such associations. Indeed, NR has always been open to writers who favor abortion, and arguments favoring abortion have even appeared in its pages.

Buckleyism has always been far more comfortable with “respectable” liberals than with disreputable rightists. Is it any wonder that American society has moved inexorably leftward during the time when Buckleyism has been the authorized voice of the conservative opposition?

The Buckleyite purges had another unfortunate effect as well. By doing such things as holding writers accountable for things others wrote, Buckleyism has contributed to the erosion of free and unfettered debate in America, the type of debate Americans once thought of as a birthright and is now all too rare across the political spectrum. Any movement that celebrates itself for its purges is bound to move in that direction. Once someone was deemed unfit for the readers of National Review, such as the eminent Austrian economist Murray Rothbard, his disappearance from its pages was only slightly less total than the persons airbrushed out of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, no matter how valuable his contributions were after the excommunication.

As a result of Buckley`s influence, “movement conservatism” has become progressively obsessed with orthodoxy. Epithets took the place of analysis and people and ideas were far too often judged on the basis of their associations and not their merits. Conservatives rightly complain of the stultifying strictures of political correctness. But the tools employed by the PC enforcers to silence their opponents on the right are not all that different from the tools Buckley used to silence his opponents on the right. One example involving VDARE.COM: the extraordinary continuing refusal of Free Republic honcho Jim Robinson to allow postings of VDARE.COM articles because he viewed Steve Sailer`s discussion of the GOP`s need to mobilize the white vote as “racist”—even though this is in fact how Karl Rove won the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections for George Bush.

Buckleyism`s unquenchable thirst for respectability no doubt stemmed, in part, from the same northeastern roots that Francis ascribed to the neoconservatives. But this was compounded by the movement`s attempt to model itself after Edmund Burke. To be sure, Burke was a great man, and he tells us much about the things we wish to conserve and why we should wish to conserve them. But Burkeanism offers little guidance on how to conserve such “permanent things” in contemporary America.

As Sam Francis argued: “The basic flaw of the Burkean model is that we no longer live in the 18th Century, when a relatively conservative aristocracy prevailed”. In our day, by contrast, “the people and forces now in power in this country—in government, the culture, and Big Business—are the enemies of the real America and the real civilization of the West”. Deference to contemporary elites can only lead to a continued leftward drift in politics and culture. The task for conservatives today is to devise strategies to supplant those elites—instead of worrying about appearing “respectable” to them.

Buckley`s greatest political failing, of course, was his relationship to the neoconservatives. Buckley began by inviting them into his magazine, and ended by virtually ceding that magazine to them, and eventually allowing them to expel from National Review all conservatives of whom they disapproved.

I first became aware of the baleful influence of the neocons as a result of attacks on one of the finest writers ever associated with the magazine, Joe Sobran, and on the most promising conservative candidate for president since Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan.

Despite all the ink spilled over  Buckley`s opposition to anti-Semitism, my own sense was that something other than moral rigor was at work when Buckley joined these neocon attacks. Not only was Buckley`s analyis of Sobran and Buchanan unpersuasive, but when Buckley first acted to clip Joe Sobran`s wings in 1986, he commented, bizarrely, on the relative retaliatory prowess of blacks, Jews, and American Indians. [This was repeated in In search of anti-semitism, National Review, December 30, 1991(PDF)] If what a writer produces is offensive to another group, what difference should that group`s political power make—if the concern is really over the content deemed offensive rather than the political power?

The effect of Buckley`s failure was calamitous. Pat Buchanan has been right about almost every major issue facing America since the end of the Cold War, from the necessity of controlling immigration, to the dangers posed by multiculturalism and political correctness, to the wisdom of staying out of the quagmire of Mideast politics, to the need to defend American sovereignty, American jobs, and the American middle class. If Buckley had decided to embrace Buchanan rather than attack him, these ideas, rather than neoconservatism, might today characterize the American right. It is possible that Buchanan might even have gained the presidency.  

Instead, Buckley`s neocon friends congratulated him on yet another purge. And the attack on Buchanan helped pave the way for a conservative movement now defined in large measure by the disastrous George W. Bush, the neoconservative president par excellence, and soon to be effectively defined by the media`s favorite “conservative”, John McCain. Indeed, Buckley contributed to McCain`s presidential campaign. And his son Christopher recently defended McCain in the New York Times, [The Manchurian Conservative, February 19, 2008], scorning conservatives opposed to McCain`s embrace of amnesty and writing that “It would be interesting…to hear from Mr. Limbaugh, Ms. Coulter, and Mr. Hannity whether they`ve ever availed themselves of the services of illegal immigrants”—apparently believing that no one could go through life without theservices of illegal immigrants.”

Actually, there are tens of millions of us outside of the younger Buckley`s elitist cocoon who make it through the day just fine without “the services of illegal immigrants”. We`re called Americans.

An op-ed in the New York Times attacking conservatives for refusing to agree with liberals—what a fitting tribute to what Buckleyism has unfortunately become!

There were curious fragmentary signs at the end of his long life that Buckley might be regretting the course he had taken. Buckley wrote of his opposition to the Iraq War, and declared that George W. Bush was not a conservative. For his heresy on Iraq, Buckley was even upbraided by Norman Podhoretz on a National Review cruise.

On reading of Podhoretz`s graceless attack on Buckley, I felt sorry for him.

But, sadly, he had no one but himself to blame.

Tom Piatak (email him) writes from Cleveland, Ohio.