New and Old Right
Kathleen Geier suggests here that today’s conservatives differ from those of the past in that the present movement is more populist, less hierarchical, and lacking a somewhat-respectable vanguard populated by the likes of a William F. Buckley, Jr. Much of this is true, with caveats: the populism of much of the far-right has been subsidized by billionaires (Koch funding to Tea Partiers), the hierarchy is topped by whomever is popular at the moment (various Fox News pundits, or Glenn Beck, or Ted Cruz), and the group of pseudo-intellectuals akin to Buckley have largely been replaced by pundits engaging in less than honest debate, often purposefully using argumentative tactics like shouting, hurling insults, or asking loaded questions. She goes on to say Republicans and rightists in general may rue the day they allowed their party to be shifted so radically by a fringe whose platforms are too extreme even for the normal self-identifying conservative.
While I agree that one day we’ll (hopefully) look back on these times and scratch our heads at the perfunctory habits of the far-right in both their promotion of and reaction to ideas, something I’m not sure about is her near-pining for a Buckley-esque figure to reappear, a stalwart individual with enough broad respect to be able to draw the line of what was and wasn’t allowed to enter conservative debate. Geier, of course, admits that Buckley and his National Review and the conservative icons that wrote for the magazine were out of touch and held repugnant viewpoints, but were powerful and respectable enough to disallow current neocon hero Ayn Rand to have a platform when she first surfaced with Atlas Shrugged. While openly racist, they at least evolved with the times and watched their language once civil rights were more widely accepted.
What Geier might not be considering, however, is just what a conservative vanguard of the kind she pines for would be at all helpful. Figures like Buckley were all the more dangerous because they held an aura of respectability—educated at Yale, founder of a well-written publication, that Transatlantic accent and verbosity—even though many of the beliefs he promulgated were outrageous. He was a fanatic supporter of McCarthy, an unapologetic supporter of American intervention and war, a blatant racist, and a propagator of bizarre tactics in dealing with AIDS patients. But because he didn’t appear to be a complete loon (compare Buckley’s engagement with guests of opposing ideologies on his show Firing Line to Glenn Beck and his chalkboard or Bill O’Reilly and anyone he deems ‘un-American’), he drew a large audience and became an important face in political punditry, a man whose ideas, however perverse, were tolerated because he’d spent so much time building respectability.
Sure, the conservatives today will have to backtrack on many of the far-right viewpoints that have penetrated the mainstream and have proved wildly unpopular, but the reason the conservative movement and perhaps the Republicans won’t be scathed by it is that the lack of that hierarchy, of those elite individuals able to declare where the movement shall go and what ideas it may adopt, excuses new voices that emerge from the quagmire conservatism is today. While Buckley, who was a major figure from the 1950’s through the late 90’s, lost credibility because of his previous stances despite his attempt to transform his views, the current conservative figureheads will simply be wiped away and replaced with another group. The whole ordeal appears paradoxical: Buckley lasted so long because of how he communicated his ideas despite their inanity, yet could easily be dismissed by any leftist due to his history. Simultaneously, radicals might spring up and temporarily take hold of the movement, but once they prove too crazy will be disintegrated and replaced with something else. Either way, far-right ideas get into the general discourse regardless of the form they take, though they equally lose credibility yet continue to persist.
This, though, seems to have always been the case, and Buckley and his acolytes appear more an exception to the rule of conservative intellectuals than the norm. Take a look at the 20th century and try to find as many prominent, recurring, important thinkers of the right whose public prominence and literary work has been championed and celebrated even into the present. It’s a peculiarly difficult task to assemble a list of more than a few. On the other hand, writers and thinkers of a leftist persuasion are easier to find: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Bertrand Russell, Ralph Nader, Richard Hofstadter, Richard Rorty, and too many more. Will conservatives continue to cherish the work of Buckley? What about Alan Dershowitz? Will anyone really remember Jonah Goldberg? Where’s the historical indication that social and political norms tend to become more conservative as time goes on?