William F. Buckley and the Importance of Conservative Unity
By Tyler Syck
This post is from a new series that will highlight Conservative leaders from history. Once a month, Tyler Syck, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and native Kentuckian, will highlight someone we think our readers ought to know more about. Sometimes they'll be politicians, other times they'll be thought leaders or intellectuals.
On November 19th, 1955, the first issue of National Review was printed. The publication brought together right-leaning journalists and thinkers of all stripes – libertarians, anti-communists, traditionalists, Catholic theologians – to argue on behalf of one unified conservative vision. Such a magazine was a novel idea in the nineteen-fifties. At that time there was no conservative movement, and certainly no outlet through which to advance the principles of figures like Edmund Burke and John Adams. At the helm of National Review was William F Buckley. As the longtime editor of the publication, Buckley became the leader of the conservative intellectual world. Pulling together the greatest minds on the American right and expelling those who could set the movement back. It is through his tireless work that a unified conservatism emerged in the United States, and his is a model we could all follow today.
Born into a wealthy Connecticut family, Buckley rose to prominence for his condemnation of the moral degradation of America’s institutions of higher learning in his first book God and Man At Yale. When this book was published in 1951 there was no conservative movement to speak of. Right-leaning intellectuals and politicians were scattered and often spent more time arguing with one another than attempting to challenge leftist ideas. In particular, libertarian and conservative intellectuals feuded constantly and largely ignored the dominant progressive intellectuals. Buckley saw this and believed that it made conservatism weak and open to attack. He teamed up with the political theorist Frank Meyer to promote an idea called fusionism. Fusionism is the view that libertarianism and traditionalism do not have to be enemies. That if done right, economic freedom and an appreciation of inherited tradition could reign supreme on the right.
Nation Review represented Buckley and Meyer’s effort to make fusionism politically mainstream. However, Buckley was a skilled salesman of his ideas and as his career wore on he moved outside mere print publication. Buckley launched a tv show – firing line – in which he would debate almost any public intellectual or politician and ardently defend his fusionist idea. Buckley’s vision of the right caught on over time and though he never managed to intellectually merge libertarian and conservative thought, he did manage to unite them in the practical realm of politics. This eventually culminated in the Regan Revolution and his two electoral landslides.
It should be noted that part of this success derived from Buckley’s willingness to “excommunicate” elements of the conservative movement that were radical and polarizing to voters. Buckley happily jettisoned the radically free market and individualist Ayn Rand from the movement, arguing that her philosophy was cruel and squinted towards totalitarianism. Likewise, he condemned the John Birch Society as a conspiracy theory weaving as radicals out of touch with reality.
In closing, though Buckley has become increasingly controversial in some segments of the American right his ability to unite the movement is something we can all admire and endeavor to emulate. Instead of feuding amongst ourselves we must take a page out of his book, and work together on the things we have in common.