alien & sedition.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
  Buckley: Thwarted by History?

It's worth reading the article by Sam Tanenhaus at the New Republic, on the twilight of William F. Buckley. The angle is about how Buckley has turned against the current of the movement he did so much to create, denouncing the war in Iraq and expressing shock and dismay over Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. The larger portrait is of Buckley as a particularly old-fashioned sort of conservative: pragmatic, aristocratic, aloof - and increasingly unsure of exactly what defines a conservative anymore.

What's fascinating - and this is further illustrated in Isaac Chotiner's follow-up interview with Tanenhaus - is how Buckley serves as a marker of just how much the modern conservative movement has changed since he helped found it in the 1950s. Growing beyond the movement's distant origins in anti-Wilsonian isolationsim, Buckley was the prototypical modern conservative. For his time, he was ideological, engaged, impatient with moderation, and committed to an understanding of conservatism as a defined and self-conscious movement. The conservative movement of 2007 is all of those things - only vastly more so. It has not changed in kind, but it has been transformed by degree.

The question of power has always been a central problem for modern American conservatives. As this blog has sought to document, governmental power is a dilemma for a movement predicated on denying the positive power of government. The movement seeks power with desperate abandon, yet, having power, it is forced either to confront itself with greater honesty, or - more often - to rely on rhetorical constructions having little to do with reality. This exchange from the Cotiner-Tanenhaus interview is instructive:
But do you think it's possible to have, given the size of the American government now and a country of 300 million people, the preeminent economic power in the world, and an ageing population with needs in terms of health care and so on. Do you think it's possible for an individualist, or libertarian as you say, party to attain electoral success? Or do you think you need to sign prescription drug bills and so forth if you want to obtain political power in 2007 Washington?

Yes, I think you're right, and I think every serious conservative knows this. The important thing to keep in mind about American conservatism is much of it--and this is not said in a denegrative way, as it goes to the essence of modern conservatism--is as much about rhetoric as it is about policy. There's a fascinating piece--I just glancingly refer to it in my little story for you all for TNR--in which Buckley defended the new governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan, because he had submitted his first budget and shocked many on the right and on the left by increasing taxes and actually just growing entitlements which is of course was what Reagan also did when he was elected president. So the essence there is a kind of maneuverability. And what Buckley says in the piece is that rhetoric precedes policy; so to be a kind of card-carrying, acceptable, ideological conservatism is often just about certain things you say, certain cultural values, religious values, political values. This is why Reagan was able to oppose a lot of what we now think of as the ideological agenda of the right, and hardly ever be criticized for it, even from the activists, or what Garry Wills calls the hard workers, the ones who actually get win primaries and get people elected and drive the agenda of the party. So as long as someone talks the talk they really don't have to walk the walk so much, and they can constantly make the sorts of real-world adjustments that any real-world political figure does. And there's another component to this, too. When Buckley and company started out in the 1950s and began to attain some real visability partly through Buckley's own fascinating campaign for mayor in New York in 1965, they were very much on the margins. They'd never governed, so it was very easy for them to criticize on these purist ideological grounds what was happening in government. Well now they've been in power for, what, a quarter of a century? Not exclusively, but for much of that period starting with Reagan's election. So someone like Buckley, a movement elder, understands very well that once you control the reins of power, that policy gets enacted in a very different way, so of course you have to win votes, and of course you have to present entitlements and all the rest. Nixon saw this too in his presidency, so slack will be cut, adjustments will be made, as long as the so-called core values remain in place. And there will always be a struggle about the sort of balance between the two; of the values on one hand and the practical politics on the other.
Buckley understood this, but as the movement he founded has grown larger and more aggressive, it has refused to admit the limitations imposed by political - or even physical - reality. The revelation of the Bush administration, for a large part of the conservative movement, has been that talking the talk is no longer enough. Thus conservatives seem to have become largely split between a faction that insists upon sticking to its principles - no matter how untenable - and one that abandons all principle and operates purely as a political machine.

There seem to be very few left who, like Buckley, have any skill for striking a balance between the two. In part this is because conservative philosophy makes it difficult to achieve such a balance. But in part - and this is a warning for the nascent progressive movement, as well - it is because the more powerful a political movement becomes, the less likely it is to feel restrained by trivial matters like reality.

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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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