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Building Coalitions for 2023

Bill Buckley’s legacy reminds us that coalitions win and factions lose.

William F. Buckley
William F. Buckley in 1958. (Getty Images)

Over at National Review, Neal Freeman has a remarkable reflection on the life and legacy of his friend William F. Buckley. The piece is adapted from a recent address to the annual meeting of The Fund for American Studies, which, Freeman reminds us, was one of many right-of-center institutions created by Buckley. Buckley’s role in founding both the venue for the speech and the magazine that published its transcript lends all the more credence to Freeman’s claim that “Bill Buckley did not resuscitate American conservatism. He did not rejigger it. He created it.”

Many regular readers of this magazine may lament the form that Buckley’s American conservatism ultimately took. Fairly or not, Buckley draws close associations with the “dead consensus” conservatism many of us are eager to move beyond. As Freeman notes, Buckley tried mightily to “live with the unresolved question — the strategic ambivalence — between order and liberty.” But it’s difficult to deny that the movement he created has too often prioritized individual liberty at the expense of order and virtue. Justice Kennedy’s notorious “mystery passage” from Planned Parenthood v. Casey comes to mind here, perhaps the apogee of libertarian-conservative nonsense.

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Freeman, for his part, recognizes that the balance between order and liberty may need to be recalibrated as political circumstances change—but a balance must remain:

Every generation must strike its own balance between the competing claims of personal freedom and social order. Why must they do so? Because it is axiomatic that if one side wins, both sides lose. Social order without personal freedom becomes tyranny just as surely as personal freedom without social order becomes anarchy. It is precisely the tension between these two powerful impulses that animates American society.

It’s an important caution for those of us hoping to forge a conservative politics more attuned to our current moment. And another lesson from Buckley is equally essential:

For years, decades even, [Buckley] was in constant motion, building the conservative majority, block by block.

He did so not because he had lax admission standards for the coalition, but, rather, because he had lofty ambitions. He had read the Constitution carefully. He had come to understand how James Madison had rigged the system. In American politics, by quite explicit Madisonian design, coalitions win and factions lose. Bill Buckley had no interest in losing, however gloriously.

As Freeman details, Bill Buckley was a master at creating a coalition that could win. It’s precisely why his work has had such a lasting impact on the country. A conservative coalition for 2023 may look different than the one that Buckley began to forge nearly 70 years ago. But a coalition it must be. That’s the task ahead of us, monumental though it may seem—and Neal Freeman has done yeoman’s service in reminding us that it has been done before.