Mytheos Holt

The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal, moving beyond Buckley. For that matter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and most of the defunders have largely made their peace with the New Deal. And still National Review is too timid to join the merry band of defunders themselves, too timid to approach the parameters under which William F. Buckley started his charge. The editors have conformed to the politics of necessary victories, instead of the policy of standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”[...]

National Review once believed, “that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience.” The truth is that Obamacare is deeply destructive and an assault on individual liberty. It should be fought by all means, with or without a Senate majority or White House. The fight should not depend on electoral outcomes and should not be delayed pending reinforcements, many of whom will flee the field once elected.

While I’ve often admired Erickson’s willingness to tell unpleasant truths to his readers, not to mention skewering some of the left’s most embarrassing exponents, and much as I think many of his diagnoses of the GOP’s failings after the 2012 election were spot on, I cannot pretend to anything but absolute, unconditional disagreement with his preferred strategy, both during the shutdown and, apparently, going forward. I do not think this is cause for hostility between us, as two conservative bloggers can often produce (at minimum) three opinions. Nor do I mean to rehearse my many reasons for that disagreement in this article.

However, what I do mean to do is to politely and firmly contest Erickson’s assertion that William F. Buckley would stand with his preferred strategy, whereas the presumptively craven current editors of National Review are not doing so. While I understand Erickson’s frustration that National Reviewis not the publication it was in 1955, and am prepared to accept that reasonable people can disagree about NR’s adherence to its founder’s principles, it is simply not the case that its recent decision to editorialize against the defund caucus is out of keeping with the spirit of Buckley. If nothing else, Buckley’s collected writings and speeches from the 1950s through his death argue emphatically against this idea, as I can prove with multiple quotations from Buckley’s columns over the years (many of which are not digitized, but can be found on Hillsdale’s excellent Buckley archive).

What is more, I am a little surprised at Erickson’s choice of citation, given his previously expressed contempt for the Buckley rule. However, as Erickson describes himself as a devoted fan ofNational Review from childhood, I take him at his word that he views the current iteration of the magazine as an inferior specimen to what he remembers. Nevertheless, I remain puzzled at the beliefs he attributes to Buckley, who, if nothing else, is famous for the line “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.”

Erickson’s grounds for his argument is National Review‘s 1955 mission statement. Now, while this piece is attributed to Buckley on NR’s website (he being the most high-profile author of it), it’s not completely accurate to consider it an unadulterated sample of Buckley’s views. National Review‘s initial publisher, Willi Schlamm, probably would have had some say over the document. I bring this up only because Schlamm, and his eventual successor William Rusher, were notably less cautious in their approach to conservatism than Buckley himself (in fact, Rusher dissented from Buckley’s famous denunciation of the John Birch society). As such, while the 1955 mission statement says much about National Review collectively, I am not sure it’s the perfect sample of the unadulterated ideas of Buckley, though it is far from an inaccurate one. Rather, Buckley’s own columns and books still seem to me to be better primary sources.

Moreover, the choice of National Review‘s initial mission statement as a source ignores the fact that Buckley himself ended up shifting very quickly away from a desire to stand athwart history, yelling STOP, whatever the cost. Indeed, it took only four years from the mission statement for Buckley to bemoan “the failure of the conservative demonstration” as a major obstacle to conservatives gaining political power, and began sounding very much like the current NR editorial Erickson condemns. Compare this passage from the recent National Review article linked above:

The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were “defeatists.” Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.

Efective political movements create the conditions for their own success. Conservatism has not done enough of that, but when it has prospered it has never been moved by despair. The apocalyptic style of politics holds that the future of the country is at stake. That is true, which is why conservatives need to get to the work of persuading and electioneering — and drop the fantasy of a shortcut.

With this passage from Buckley’s 1959 book “Up from Liberalism” :

Conservatives have cheapened the vocabulary of caution — by defying the rhetorical maxim that one does not cry “wolf!” every day, and expect the community to heed one’s cries the day the wolf actually materializes. It is not safe to bank on the hearer’s perception of genuine distress. If one is on record as reiterating the prediction that the social security law will bring slavery to America in our time, after a while, one’s warnings will be automatically discounted.

Conservatives, as a minority, must learn to agonize more meticulously. We cannot expect the rhetorical license enjoyed by the liberals, who, as we have seen, are infinitely patient with one another.[...] We conservatives, on the other hand, are not allowed to forget the direness of our predictions. And indeed if we permit ourselves to go on saying the same things about the imminence of catastrophe–if we become identified with the point of view that the social security laws toll the knell of our departed freedoms, or that national bankruptcy will take place the month after next–we will, like the Seventh Day Adventists who close down the curtain of the world every season or so, lose our credit at the bar of public opinion, or be dismissed as cultists of a terrestrial mystique. The conservative demonstration, at the hands of the old guard, has not been made successfully, in part because of the exaggerated pessimism I speak of, in part because conservatism was made to sound by its enemies, frequently with the aid of its friends, like a crassly materialist position, unconcerned except with the world of getting and spending.

And lest you think Buckley became less concerned with power and more concerned with purity after 1959, the opposite is true. By 1960 and the publication of Young Americans for Freedom’s (YAF) famous “Sharon Statement,” (which Buckley also wrote), Buckley was observing:

What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon is theirappetite for power. Ten years ago the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not dream of victory.

That Buckley included himself in this power-focused cadre is obvious.

What is more, when disagreements began to proliferate on the right in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat, with both libertarians and traditionalists trying to write each other out of the movement by turns, Buckley stood practically alone as the ultimate anti-purist, a fact which angered everyone from his hyper-Catholic brother-in-law Brent Bozell to the anarcho-capitalist libertarian Murray Rothbard, who had ghostwritten parts of the aforementioned “Up from Liberalism.” In fact, when traditionalists and libertarians erupted into civil war at the 1968 Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention, it was Buckley alone who begged the radical libertarian faction to listen to reason:

I rue the unnecessary distance this country has traveled away from freedom for its citizens. YAF was founded among other things to brood over that excess, and to keep it constantly before the mind of the public. But to assume that young Americans, or old Americans, could have any freedom at all in the absence of a measure of sacrifice toward that common affection which lifts our society into being is to assume that each one of us is omnipotent, and to prove that each one of us is omnipotent only in the capacity to fool oneself, and to make oneself a fool. I hope it will not be thought a betrayal to observe that the fight for freedom and the fight to conserve require different emphases depending on the historical situation.[...]

Order has been challenged, and conservatives have always believed in the blessings of a rudimentary order.

Now, whatever one thinks about Buckley’s position, these are clearly not the words of a purist. They are, rather, the words of a coalition builder, trying to smooth over doctrinal differences between members of his coalition. Indeed, it may be precisely because Buckley was holding together a coalition rather than attempting to remain perfectly philosophically pure that outliers within his coalition (and those who had been forced out of it) attacked him, and that his cautious approach frustrated even more dependable allies, to the point where it was a running joke among his fellow political commentators. As Buckley’s frequent sparring partner, Arthur Schlesinger, observed wryly in 1970:

When one recalls [Buckley's] helpful perspective on the Eisenhower era (“My guess is the Communists moved with whatever caution it can be said they did between 1953 and 1960 because they hadn’t the least idea what Eisenhower was talking about, and thought a little prudence might be in order”) one can only join in that old folksong for conservatives: “Won’t you come home, Bill Buckley/Won’t you come home/ From the Establishment?…”

And did Buckley come home from the establishment, say, in the age of Reagan? Far from it. In fact, he sounded notes that, if they’d come from anyone else, would get him declared the squishiest of all squishes today. Shortly after Reagan’s inauguration, in an essay called “Reagan the Pragmatist” (yes, really), he wrote:

Ronald Reagan, in his first State of the Union address, can ask Congress to experiment with deep therapy. He can do so most persuasively not by asking for internal assent, but by asking for a renewal of the pragmatic spirit. Unlike Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who confronted a Congress he entirely dominated, Reagan confronts a House of Representatives organized by the Democratic opposition; and in the Senate, there are a great many single players. [...] The key to the projected operation is “Let’s try it”; not “We were right all along.”

Note that in this essay, Buckley is telling Reagan to be extra cautious in almost the precise situation in which President Obama finds himself now — controlling 53 seats in the Senate, but not the House. One can only imagine what he’d say to Boehner, who controls a good deal less of the government than that.

Finally, Buckley’s pragmatism persisted well into his old age. In explaining his about-face on the Iraq War, for instance, Buckley explained:

Mr. Bush has a very difficult internal problem here, because to make the kind of concession that is strategically appropriate requires a mitigation of policies he has several times affirmed in high-flown pronouncements. His challenge is to persuade himself that he can submit to a historical reality without forswearing basic commitments in foreign policy.

In other words, however high minded one’s principles are, if it won’t work, don’t do it.

Now, to be fair, Buckley was exceedingly critical of conservative writers and politicians in his early days. He also wrote some of the most scathing criticism of liberalism possible, as well as conservative rhetoric so potent it has yet to be equaled. However, his grounds for disagreeing with his fellow conservatives, as his quote from “Up from Liberalism” indicates, were not simply that many of them were unprincipled or inconsistent. It was also that they despaired too easily. I quote once more from “Up from Liberalism”:

Indeed. The machine must be accepted, and conservatives must not live by programs that were written as though the machine did not exist, or could be made to go away; that is the proper kind of realism. The big question is whether the essential planks of conservatism were anachronized by the machine; the big answer is that they were not. [...] We cliff-dancers, resolved not to withdraw into a petulant solitude, or let ourselves fall over the cliff into liberalism, must do what maneuvering we can, and come up with a conservative program that speaks to our time.

None of this is to suggest that Erickson and his followers have nothing to take from Buckley. Certainly, Buckley agreed with them that (to quote him), “I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” However, as I hope I have demonstrated, Buckley also believed that how he personally chose to live was distinct from how conservatism must operate if it was to ensure that freedom was protected for future generations.

And when you get down to it, that’s something everyone on all sides of the tactical debate really wants to do — preserve freedom for future generations. What is more, those of us who stand on the pragmatic side do not disagree with Erickson and the apostles of principle that a profound crisis is at work. We simply believe that crisis is the political current condition of the GOP, which is presently engaged in a chess match with political death that threatens its potential to be a viable vehicle for a message devoted to freedom.

Yet checkmate is not inevitable. Rather, to quote that mission statement which Erickson so embraces, once the movement gets its strategic house in order: “There is, we like to think, solid reason for rejoicing.”


Mytheos Holt

Mytheos Holt is an Associate Policy Analyst with the R Street Institute


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