Letters: Looking forward to the rebirth
As we stumble into the religious holidays of the next few months, I couldn’t help but wonder whether American conservatism could be reborn, too.
Modern American conservatism is dead. Republicans killed it. And today’s pretenders don’t have the backbone or brains to change that.
American conservatism was an adaptation of European conservatism. European conservatism is based in hundreds of years of culture that we don’t share on this side of the big pond. And conservative principles have been hard to apply to the American frontier psychology or the liberal foundations of our Founding Fathers. I encourage you to read its history in conservative writer David Brooks’s article in the December 2021 issue of The Atlantic. But several adaptations of conservatism did come about here. It served us well for decades.
More recently, William F. Buckley, Jr. created the then modern conservative movement in the mid-1950s. He founded the National Review magazine and hosted the public affairs television show Firing Line that I watched with my Republican father. He wrote more than fifty books on a wide variety of topics, authored a nationally syndicated newspaper column and frequently displayed his verbal prowess at debate. He was an intellectual. He read books instead of burning them. His conclusions were based in fact, supported by history and were at times expressed with biting sarcasm. He welcomed debate.
I believe that he was wrong regarding many of his social conclusions but I appreciated his willingness to listen to differing views. How he expressed his core beliefs was worth watching. He did change some of his opinions over time.
American conservative historian George Nash described Buckley upon his 2008 death as “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century.” He was called the leading voice of American conservatism. What was conservatism to him?
Conservatism was free-market capitalism, American military might, social restraint and libertarianism. Conservatism focused on national issues. It had no place in local elections. He said that putting conservatism on display in local arenas such as school boards was “trivial.” Buckley believed that one did not further the cause of conservatism by putting it into this quarrel or that quarrel.
He criticized deciding who to vote for based on Democratic or Republican labels. Some of his closest friends were Democrats. They were smart and could go toe-to-toe with him in debate. They enjoyed each other’s company. He was interested in the understanding of complex issues.
He was of the view forty years ago that our political culture was becoming too polarized to intellectually discuss and debate important issues. He said that conservatism peaked in 1980.
Buckley disparaged fanciful ideologues such as today’s GOP leaders for using bumper sticker phrases and sound bites as a substitute for critical thinking. He saw a difference between someone who is conservative and a pretender who simply calls himself a conservative. In his view Reagan was conservative. George W. Bush was not.
The difference is that to be conservative you have to do more than self-apply the label: you have to actually be guided by conservative lodestars. You must know what you are talking about, explain it with facts, put it into historical context, defend it and act accordingly.
He was Christian but was against expressing conservatism in evangelistic extremes. Buckley once said, “When it is not possible to reason with holy warriors, it is necessary to immobilize them or crush them.”
Buckley also said, “You know, I’ve spent my entire lifetime separating the Right from the kooks.” He lost that fight to what is now the Trump Cult/GOP.
Polls consistently tell us that most of the Republican party embraces racist white nationalists, domestic terrorism (Jan. 6, 2021) and the Big Lie that Trump was reelected in 2020(61 failed lawsuits don’t lie when you truly believe in law and order). It believes that liberal policies have turned Republican men into “wussies.” I suspect that the late Bob Dole would be embarrassed by that admission of weakness. The party continues to suppress the voting rights of people of color. And it threatens to primary its own party members for daring to not blindly boot step behind Trump. There are no Buckley type intellectual debates or free exchanges of different opinions in the Republican Party. Ask Liz Cheney.
This is not conservatism. It’s banana republic. And simply saying, “Well, I don’t like some of what Trump says but I like Trump policies” is intellectually dishonest and cowardly when our democracy is under attack. When Trump gets his way, especially when he cheats his way into a second and an illegal third term, you won’t be allowed to say anything at all negative about the man. We see that today in his endorsements of GOP candidates who are the loudest in their support of him and strongest in condemnation of Republicans who don’t.
Those who killed American conservatism are now killing American democracy. (And calling me names won’t change that. It will only ratify Buckley’s condemnations of label-using ideologues who don’t have the brain power to be true conservatives.) I do wish for the rebirth of American conservatism. Our country needs it.
Merry Christmas. Prospero Ano.
— Charles Wieland,