The recent death of conservative commentator William F. Buckley reminded me of when I lived in Boston in the mid-1990s, when, for lack of a better term, I became a “born-again” conservative.
Although I already considered myself a conservative, one day I came across The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk. I had never heard of the book or the author, but I thought it might be worth a look. It changed my life.
Kirk outlined a conservative tradition steeped in the philosophy of everyone from English statesman Edmund Burke to poet T.S. Eliot; he even devoted an entire chapter to Southern conservatism with an emphasis on John C. Calhoun. Kirk emphasized caution and prudence over systematic ideology, tradition and custom over radical change, and the particularity of family and community over abstract concepts like “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat.”
The conservatism of which Kirk wrote is now called the “Old Right.” Its followers stressed the root notion of conservatism — conservation.
The Old Right believed that big government would have a corrosive effect on constitutional liberties and would hurt communities by erasing local custom and culture through federal dictates. The followers of this political philosophy also believed that big business would displace local economies and that collaborations between big business and big government would lead to the militarization of society and a war industry more concerned with profit than the national interest. The Old Right also stressed environmental stewardship and “agrarian” values, believing that the bottom line should never take precedent over the most conservative of material goods — the land itself.
Today, many of these concerns would place the Old Right on the contemporary left. The modern mainstream right no longer poses any serious challenge to big government — in fact, it often aids the expansion of big government. It also considers the advancement of corporate capitalism to be more important than protecting the community or the environment and sees war and never-ending military expansion as the greatest of American ideals.
President Woodrow Wilson’s mission to make the world safe for democracy through foreign intervention was considered by the Old Right to be a utopian fantasy, which betrayed the Founding Fathers’ intentions and radically altered American life forever. Today, the descendants of the Old Right, the paleoconservatives, continue to fight against the Democrat Wilson’s grand scheme of “global democracy” as it’s carried on by President George W. Bush and the GOP.
The Old Right also viewed Franklin Roosevelt as a villain. But now right-wingers like William Bennett and Newt Gingrich openly praise FDR and the New Deal and denounce those who dare to question the conservative credentials of America’s biggest big government president.
The prominence of the Old Right continued until about the mid-1950s with the founding of National Review by William F. Buckley. While Old Right thinkers like Kirk, Richard Weaver, Ludwig Von Mises, and others dominated the fast-rising conservative journal, with success came corruption. In 1956, Buckley declared in a famous commentary that conservatives should accept big government, military expansion, and the modern state inherited from Roosevelt and others in order to defeat the Soviet Empire. Once that objective was accomplished, conservatives could return to the business of dismantling government, promoting and preserving American culture, and fidelity to the Constitution.
This was not a hard sell to make to the Beltway and Manhattan-based conservatives hungry for respectability, and many were quick to follow Buckley’s lead as they happily embraced what Old Right libertarian Murray Rothbard called the “welfare-warfare” state.
Today, prominent paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul often seem like odd men out on the right, simply because they have kept the faith and insist on pursuing conservatism’s original mission. Buckley, a man with Old Right roots who should have known better, allowed the movement that he changed more than anyone to change him. Today, the old liberalism of Wilson and FDR masquerades as conservatism, while full-blown socialism is allowed to flourish under the more marketable banner of liberalism. The “new” Old Right, paleoconservatism, is alive and well in journals like Buchanan’s The American Conservative, Chronicles magazine, and popular websites like LewRockwell.com, but you would never know of their existence by reading magazines like National Review or neoconservative journals like The Weekly Standard, or by watching their media cohorts on FOX News.
Despite any positive contributions, this is the true legacy of William F. Buckley. By moving the conservative movement to the left, Buckley moved the whole of American politics to the left. He did not elevate conservatism. He repackaged liberalism and sold it as conservatism. And far from making conservatism respectable, Buckley did his best to make it invisible.
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