The Right has yet to Re-Form the Culture.
What Good is Bill Buckley Anymore?
The minor prophets of conservatism may be past their sell-by date.
Conservatives, or rather, conservative intellectuals—whoever may officially pass for one these days—have a nostalgia problem. To a degree, it’s inescapable. After all, the conservation of tradition—a kind of backward-looking, cautious naysaying—is what distinguishes us from the wild yes-making progressives.
So in a sense our nostalgia is both good and bad. It is good to remember our intellectual forefathers; good perhaps even to have canonized the greatest among them. But it is bad, doom-level bad, if we assume our intellectual ancestors—let’s, for the fun of it, refer to them as the Minor Prophets—approached political leadership in a way that’s still closely applicable to the challenges to come.
As a card-carrying conservative intellectual in good standing—you’re in good standing, right?— you know these Minor Prophets. At the very least, you can rattle off their names and their books if someone corners you at the American Enterprise Institute. Kristol (the Elder), Buckley, Podhoretz (the Elder), Kirk, Hayek, Reagan. This group may not have been as epochal as the generation of Washington or Abraham, but they were still good and just. Many of their policy ideas, and the aroma of their ways, are preserved by the intellectual wing of our tribe—and for the better.
In times of trouble, especially, the Minor Prophets are frequently invoked. “Oh,” some knowing 30-something will opine, in the pages of the usual suspects. “If only we had a leader with the courage of Reagan, the fluency of Buckley, the intellectual daring of Kristol. Then conservatives wouldn’t be in this mess.” Another post, this one “penned” by a late 40-something, might offer, “Well, don’t despair, conservatives have weathered worse (or so I’ve heard, my life hasn’t been that bad). Stick to first principles, keep strong that conservative conscience, and…wait, sorry, back soon, need to finish my column in the NYT.” All this is characteristically followed by some well-meaning rejoinder by a safely sinecured member of the over-50 crowd: “Well, children, I knew Bill Buckley, and let me tell you…”
So we beat on, boats against the current, secure in our understanding that if we could only rekindle the spirit of these Minor Prophets, things will right course.
And for the longest time, I sincerely believed this to be true. But then a colleague asked me, good-naturedly enough, how I conceived of political leadership—conservative style—today. He then put the question more directly: “What skills, if any, did Buckley have that are relevant today?”
And so I made an inventory unique to WFB (though I encourage you to choose a Minor Prophet at random and try this experiment for yourself). I catalogued his intellectual and practical toolkit to see if I could think through whether or not it would have been sufficient to address our problems in 2019—and, say, the next few decades. Without going through the laundry list, let’s agree that Buckley was a master of the medium of his time. He understood television and print, and wielded both to great effect. He mastered the use of those tools and used them in specific ways. So did each of the Minor Prophets.
But how would they fare today, in a world of new modes and orders? A world of half-baked integralists, Bronze Age Perverts, and Lord knows who else? Do Buckley and Kristol and Reagan still matter to young conservatives, and therewith to the future of intellectual conservatism, as they once did? Are the next conservative intellectuals—serious intellectuals, mind you—stressing about AEI and WSJ internships? Do they have an online subscription to National Review? Do Jonah Goldberg, Ross Douthat, or David Brooks move them any which way? Can they name a Founding Father?
Or are they paying attention to none of this, because they’re busy taking inspiration from…from…? Well, you tell me.