One of the first things I learned about conservatism, way back in the before times, was that William F. Buckley made conservatism respectable. In the 1980’s, Buckley became a rock star, riding the wave of enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. Like a lot of young men in that age, I was caught up in it. Being a conservative was suddenly cool and everyone credited Buckley for making it possible. It was hard to argue with the claim. Bill Buckley was a charming, intelligent and sophisticated guy. Who would not want to be like Bill?
The part that no one seemed to notice back then, at least not the people involved in the conservative movement, was that the whole point of the thing was to make the people in it respectable, as judged by their alleged opponents. Pretty much the only thing they really cared about was being seen as respectable. It’s why guys like George Will were not fans of Ronald Reagan initially. They worried that his earthy sense of humor and popularity with normal people would not go over well with their friends on the Left.
A big part of being respectable, at least in modern politics, is drawing the line between yourself and those who are not respectable. In the 80’s, when conservatism was booming, no one thought much about all the people that had been read out of the conservative movement in order for guys like Bill Buckley to be respectable. That was the thing though, by the 80’s, conservatism was nothing but drawing lines between the respectable and the unacceptable, in order to be in good standing with the Left.
That all came to mind when I read this post by the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty. It is the typical flip-flopping equivocation that is a Jonah Goldberg column. If there are two sides to an issue, he will find a way take four sides, all in the same post. Reading one of his columns is like watching a fish flop around on the deck. The basic point of the column is that he fears conservatives have not been vigilant enough in policing that line between themselves and the people the Left finds offensive. Thus the Alex Jones fiasco.
His follow up column is a call to war for his fellow conservatives. Well, it’s more like a long love letter to Bill Kristol and the other paranoids of the neoconservative cult. He provides a long bit of mythology about Buckley and his fights with the anti-Semites. The reader is obviously supposed to make the connection between those long dead bogeymen from the 1950’s and the bogeymen currently haunting conservatism. In Goldberg’s telling, his generation of conservatives are facing the same challenge as Buckley did 70 years ago.
The amusing part is how Goldberg keeps trying to connect himself to guys like James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. Maybe being the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty is going to his head. In reality, it is just another example of the intellectual hollowness of Buckley Conservatism. Chambers was a man of great courage and integrity. Burnham was a brilliant thinker whose ideas are still relevant today. Jonah Goldberg is a feckless airhead. He would have been laughed out of the room by conservatives of their day.
That aside, there’s a weird cargo cult vibe to all this. The so-called conservatives don’t even bother to think about the arguments coming from the right. They don’t even pretend to know about them. There was not a single mention of the alt-right in National Review until Hillary Clinton mentioned them. Instead, they carry on as if it is 1955 and they are fighting a heroic battle against the John Birch Society. Goldberg’s post has the feel of a man hoping he can make it all go away just by performing all the old rituals.
It really is weird reading this stuff, given where we are now. These guys could be excused for living in the past when the GOP was right there with them. Five years ago, they had no reason to listen to their critics. Times were good and the living was easy. Now, after their audience has abandoned them and Trump is in the White House, their stubborn adherence to a defunct set of arguments is weird. The National Review crowd should be writing their columns while wearing leisure suits and listening to disco.
The thing is, there are two types of conservatives. There are those who seek only to maintain the status quo, regardless the current laws, morals and behavior norms. Then there are the those who believe there is transcendent moral order that corresponds to the natural order. The Buckleyites were always of the first type. The reason they opposed the Left was they feared losing their place at the table. It’s the same reason they oppose the emerging national populists. They’re old men who fear change.