Recently I picked up as bedtime reading a book I hadn’t looked at since the early 1960s. I’m referring to Bill Buckley’s Up from Liberalism, which I bought second-hand in the original 1959 edition.
The book made a profound impression on me as a college undergraduate, and at the time I was converted to most of its arguments about big government and judicial overreach. Buckley warned against the expansion of centralized administration into our daily lives and was particularly upset by judges holding what he considered to be a political agenda. He castigated the Warren Court for how it decided the Brown v. Board of Education case. He questioned the court’s ahistorical view of the Fourteenth Amendment, especially its use of the equal protection clause to cover an area of public life, namely school segregation, which its authors never intended to touch. According to Buckley, “We are seeing the ascendancy of ‘inherent meaning’ over historical meaning, in matters of law, and with it, the moralization of politico-legal issues.”
Buckley also scolded a law professor from the University of Wisconsin who urged the federal government to take over the educational system of any state that closed public schools, in order to avoid integrating them. This represented for Buckley a form of “legal sophistry of a clearly totalitarian strain, bespeaking the intensity of ideological passion.”
Elsewhere Buckley observed that, “the commitment by the Liberal to democracy has proved obsessive, even fetishistic. It is part of their larger absorption in method, and Method is the fleshpot of those who live in metaphysical deserts. Even though democracy is a mere procedure, all the hopes of an epoch were vested in it.” Buckley further attacked the idea that applying this method of rule to the entire planet as moral good and a scientific way of determining what is best for everyone as a delusion. Given the possibility that communists could win elections in some countries at the time, Buckley may have had practical as well as other reasons for challenging a universal reliance on the numerically ascertained popular will.
For a contemporary reader, it is hard not to notice that some of Buckley’s positions have a faded look. Even on my first reading, during the Ice Age, it was apparent that the author was as preoccupied with fighting communism as his opponents were with defending it. As someone who regarded the Soviets mostly as a geopolitical threat, I was bothered by the fervor of Buckley’s anti-communism. Moreover, once the Soviet threat receded from history, the conservative movement that Buckley fashioned lost much of its ideological glue. The neoconservatives who by then held most of the good cards, enjoyed their preeminence largely because they had joined the anti-communist side with vast media resources. At the same time, the advocates of more traditional conservative positions were left in a less favorable position. By the end of the Cold War and after the ascendancy of the neoconservatives, another one of Buckley’s once signature positions, the defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, also lost support on a transformed Right. By the 1980s neoconservative publications were excoriating the Wisconsin senator and praising his presidential enemy, Harry Truman.
Buckley himself moved away from the anti-Brown v. Board of Education stance he had taken in Up from Liberalism. By the early 1970s he had become an ardent admirer of Harry Jaffa, who believed that American conservatism was identical with the defense of democratic equality. Buckley started suggesting government programs for American blacks to compensate for the discrimination they had previously suffered. By the 1980s and even earlier, the editors of National Review were gathering more and more neoconservative and Jaffaite contributors. Meanwhile, such neoconservative dignitaries as the Podhoretz and Kristol families started becoming regulars in Buckley’s preferred circle of acquaintances.
With the rise of the Trumpists, other Buckleyite positions once identified with the Right began to look shop-worn. In remarks in Up from Liberalism about “the mass suffering in Harden County, Kentucky, where coal mining has become unprofitable and a whole community is desolate,” Buckley pooh-poohs “the Liberal solution of immediate and sustained public subsidies.” He opts instead for the “conservative” solution. This recognizes that “coal mining in Harden County was becoming unprofitable” and therefore “one would have to face up to that realism by permitting the marketplace through the exertion of economic pressure of mounting intensity to require resettlement.” Guess which presidential candidate in 2016 would have been more likely to hold that position? It was not the one who won and certainly not the candidate who was considered to be on the Right.
As evidence as to where the conservative movement has moved since the 1950s, we might quote National Review senior editor Jonah Goldberg’s opinions about America in the 1950s: “The supposedly halcyon age of the 1950s and early 1960s was not as idyllic as the nostalgia merchants often claim (just ask blacks, women, Jews, gays, cancer victims, the disabled, people born too late for the polio vaccine, Korean War vets, et al.)” Although Goldberg may be exaggerating, neither he nor the other magazine’s editors share the founder’s view of the 1950s. Buckley denounced that decade not because it was insufficiently progressive (which is Goldberg’s gripe) but because it was infested with leftists. When the founder of National Review died, a writer for The American Prospect dug out a characteristic statement made by Buckley in a TV interview in 1957: “I am a revolutionary against the Liberalism of the present age.” In his mission statement for his new magazine in 1955, Buckley also famously claimed to be “standing athwart History yelling ‘Stop.’” That was during a decade that for National Review’s present editors may look more like a fascist fever-swamp than a liberal infestation.
Although it’s sometimes been observed that “the more things change the more they remain the same,” one wonders whether this applies to Buckley and his movement. Perhaps the opposite is true in this case. The more things change, the more they change.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.