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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Going Political Widdershins

All winter long, I kept an astonished eye on the gaggle of Republicans  contending against each other in their primary, wondering where on earth they were coming from. Rick Santorum declared the abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests the result of “academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America.” Rick Paul called for the abolition of one government department  after another, including the Federal Reserve; Mick Romney,  his campaign coffers full of money from corporations, insisted that corporations were people; and Newt Gingrich announced his plan to found a colony on the moon. 

I knew where Newt was coming from, having encountered him as a graduate student who considered himself endowed with such a magnificent destiny that the normal rules of academic procedure didn’t apply to him.  Not all the candidates were suffering from megalomaniacal grandiosity; the rest seemed to be arguing from principles with which a significant number of Americans agreed.

Since the “anyone but Romney” candidates insisted that they were more conservative than he, while he insisted he was every bit as conservative as they, I decided that I needed a refresher course in conservatism.  My friends were appalled.  Why waste time examining irrational delusions entertained by proto-fascists?  The academics were especially dismissive. When I asked them where they thought Santorum, or Paul, or Romney was coming from they didn’t think at all—they just threw their heads back and shouted “Rick Paul!” or “Santorum!” or “Romney!” with expletive force  accompanied by spatters of contemptuous spit.

This did not seem a particularly rational response.  How can we argue from our own principles without a firm grasp of the opposition’s?  True, when I was young and callow I didn’t study the first principles of Barry Goldwater and John Birch. When the sneering mien of William F. Buckley Jr., that pioneer of nasty-mouthed right-wingery, appeared on my television set I changed channels with self-righteous contempt.   But now that I am (so very much) older and wiser, isn’t it useful to go widdershins for a spell, starting with my old sworn enemy?

  A new biography by  Carl T. Bogus,  William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism,   seemed a useful place to start.  Although he was a libertarian every bit as vituperative as our present day Tea Party, Buckley opened the pages of his National Review to a variety of conservatives, including Russell Kirk and Gary Wills, who were much more traditional than he.   

Conservatism, I learned, derives from the philosophy of the 18th century thinker Edmund Burke, who fostered

·       honor for traditions of culture and nation

·       accumulated wisdom and experience of our ancestors

·       reform of old institutions while relying on the wisdom embedded in institutions and law, understood as valued history and tradition to be passed on in an intergenerational covenant.

This feeling for community values is different from libertarianism, which, taking individual freedom as the primary good, opposes any tradition or institution that interferes with individual liberty.  Albert Jay Nock, an early libertarian influence on Buckley when he was still in school,  argued in  Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,  “against statism and collectivism in all forms” insisting that “governmental power will inevitably be turned against the individual” (68). Buckley was also taken with F.A. Hayek’s  The Road to Serfdom (1944), which opposes all forms of economic planning which “would require an economic dictator to make fundamental choices for the society.” 135

Do you recognize Ron Paul here?  These are the basic tenets he enunciated with admirable consistency to large audience of cheering twenty-somethings during the primary,  hailing Hayek as one of his most important sources.

Traditional conservatism is not so dismissive of the community and economic regulation. Even Adam Smith wrote that the free market was not free to damage civil society, and should be regulated accordingly.  In the early years of editing the National Review Buckley encouraged a broad spectrum of conservatives like Russell Kirk and Gary Wills, both of whom were eventually alienated by his libertarianism.

Kirk called himself a “New conservative,” fostering authority and order, including that of states and governments.   The conservative, “ he insisted in In The Conservative Mind , always stood for true community, the union of men, through love and common interest, for the common welfare…Individualism is social atomism, conservatism is community of spirit” (111). In  Confessions of a Conservative  Gary Wills wrote that “no society can ever be formed on the basis of  individualism …conservatives value continuity and tradition.”  Wills was troubled by the way Buckley  “placed the free market at the center of its philosophy.   Since “capitalism was all about risk taking and seeking new markets… it is ”therefore not a force for continuity and stability.”  He was dismayed that business had become the principal source of power in modern America. “We rather simple-mindedly kept the nexus power=conservative, even when the power involved was a revolutionary and unstable one”  (332).

Wills distrusted market fundamentalism, which Buckley took as a given. Carl Bogus, by no means a conservative himself, provides an interesting analysis of where Buckley’s emotion-laden belief system came from.  “William F. Buckley Jr.’s ideology was not the product of study and reflection,” he asserts, but mirrored the libertarianism, neo-conservatism, and religiosity of his domineering, homeschooling father, who instilled his moods as well as his values in his  ten children.  William F. Buckley Sr.’s tenets derived from keeping his oil business profitable during the Mexican revolution, which left him a life-long proponent of stability, government by an educated class, and protection of private property, including that belonging to the church and to foreign nationals like himself.”  The intensity he brought to his conservatism, and his diatribes against liberalism, came from closer to home in Connecticut , where the family was never accepted by the liberal protestant elite.

In his writings and television punditry Buckley Jr. took his father’s beliefs and distastes as givens. Profoundly racist, Buckley Sr. felt that American Negroes were intrinsically inferior. In  the National Review,   Buckley Jr. responded to the Civil Rights Movement by insisting that the white community in the south is “the advanced race” with a claim to civilization, even to the extent that “the great majority of the Negores in the south who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could”  (157-158).  Anyone who ever watched Buckley’s television program witnessed his self-righteous fury against his enemies, chief among whom were the “liberal elite.”  This enmity, channeled from his father, became gallingly personal during his senior year at Yale. He had been invited to give a graduation speech to the alumni but, having read it, the university retracted the invitation.  Enraged, he published the speech as God and Man at Yale, where he argued that the university had failed in its duty to “Christianize Yale” because of its erroneous belief in “academic freedom” which he sees as a “myth.”  Yale should have indoctrinated students in religion, free enterprise, and limited government.  

Does anyone recognize Rick Santorum here, drifting into use of the “N” word, warning against government moving into every corner of American lives, exhibiting  contempt for “the east coast liberal elite” and its mouthpiece, “the liberal media, and vomiting about the separation of church and state?

“This is not your father’s Republican Party,” remarked Joe Biden the other day, and it is far from the moderately conservative Republicanism of  Governor Bill Millken of Michigan, Senator Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush Sr. or even  Governor Mitt Romney  of Massachusetts.  What we witnessed in the primaries was closer to the Republicanism of Ronald Reagan, who was converted to William Buckley’s neo-conservatism when he read the National Review during his travels as a salesman for General Electric or to George Bush Jr. channeling the neo-conservatism of  Cheney and Rumsfeld.
     As spring arrived and the Republican field narrowed, I realized that I was as appalled by the emotionalism of neo-conservatism as by its principles. Giving one’s intellect over to anger, always disturbing in an individual, becomes terrifying when taken up by the mob. Several years ago, a friend and I waded into a crowd of 70,000 Tea Party marchers on the Washington Mall because we wanted to reason with them about  the Affordable Health Care act. Their pickets with “Don’t Kill my Grandmother”  and “Bury ObamaCare with Edward Kennedy ” that they were waving were less frightening than the expressions on their faces. 

“But we are grandmothers,” we reasoned, “and we love what the Act is going to do for us.” Their eyes glazed over; they didn’t hear a word we said, the reasoning function of their brains having been entirely overwhelmed by their emotions. 

It seems to me that the response to rampant conservative emotionalism on the part of liberal intellectuals shouldn’t be rampant liberal emotionalism.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a conservative and have a good long conversation about traditions and values, starting with what we have in common, then reasoning together about the practical application of our different positions?  If the Republican Party had continued in the conservative tradition of Kirk and Wills, we might be able to look at President Obama's list of values:
  • Hard work
  • Lookin out for one another
  • the idea that we're all in this together, and that I am my brother's and my sister's keeper
and see where we might find a common ground to bring our common values into realization.

            So let’s keep our minds open, but use them.  Let’s see, what shall I read next?  How about the two volumes that a brilliant intellectual who was a member of the Bush Jr. Administration, has written
                                   ~ Condoleeza Rice!