From Buckley Conservative to the Democrats

Conservative writer, publisher, New York City 1965 mayoral candidate, et bon vivant — William F. Buckley, jr.

If one were to sum up the over-arching philosophy of William F. Buckley, jr. in his own words, one could do no better than the following:

I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and Liberals at bay. And the nation free.

Indeed, as seen in that quote, what is generally thought of as conservatism during the 1960s and up into the Reagan presidency was a simple proposition of anti-communism, small government, and fealty to Christianity — or in less Anglo-Saxon country clubs, Judeao-Christian principles. Anti-communism was usually manifested in a support for a strong, and continuously growing military, proxy-wars against the Soviet Union across the world, and a deep suspicion domestically of anyone or any organization that voiced vaguely collectivist tendencies such as a redistribution of income from those with money to those without money (i.e. Social Security, from those working to the elderly and disabled). An almost absolutist vision of freedom, very Ayn Randian in its ideal, was held to be the cherished prize to be guarded through a vigilant anti-communist posture.

As for small government, aside from a large military industrial complex, the core belief for Mr. Buckley and his fellow conservatives was that the best government was one that was done at the local level. It was here at the township and municipality that elected officials were at their most accountable, living and walking the streets with their fellow citizens. As one became more removed from immediate constituencies — at the state and federal levels — bureaucracies grew and waste profligerated. Therefore, keep federal spending at a bare minimum, and have the states and local governments be responsible for education and social welfare. The desire to interpret the constitution in a strict manner, especially the Article X injunction against any further power for the Federal government, would animate the conservatives’ vehement rejection of not only the New Deal, but any Federal interference in the civil rights fight that followed.

Mr. Buckley’s Catholic faith was never far removed from his worldview, and influenced not only his thinking on such issues as abortion and civil rights (anti the former, and a qualified pro the latter, if one is charitable; he had repeatedly declared how God had created all mankind equal, and yet during the 1950s and into the 1960s through his magazine, the National Review, he stubbornly opposed most racial integration efforts), but also the importance of moral character and civility in modern society. He felt that the individual was much more likely to succeed in life if positively influenced by one’s church, and he stressed the importance of religious life in the public sphere through such issues as school prayer and sex education (pro, and anti).

It was the issue of civil rights during the 1960’s where Mr. Buckley’s philosophy of small government and civil rights breaks apart. A supporter of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign — who infamously invoked states’ rights in his opposition to the Federal government’s 1964 civil rights legislation — Buckley, too, argued that having the Federal government mandate and enforce the rights of “the Negro” (to use the 1960s term) was an intrusion into the private sphere, between individuals, and that it was best to have individuals regulate with whom they would do business. The argument rings false, if only because even after over 50 years since enactment of the civil rights era legislation, there is still racism and discrimination present in the private sphere despite the best efforts of the Federal government to eradicate it. Without said governmental interference at the state level, one wonders how even more pernicious and pervasive discrimination would be throughout not only the Deep South, but across the country.

As the vicious racism and bigotry continued to be projected on the evening television news, the defense he made of the white conservatives became harder to justify, and seemed less robust by the time he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1965. The Republican establishment, personified by the millionaire and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, was a strong advocate of civil rights and Federal intervention. But the conservative Goldwater/Buckley wing, which morphed into the Nixon/Reagan wing in the late 1960s and 1970s, ended up prevailing and wrestled control of the party. The stain of states’ rights clung to the conservative right, as they continued to advocate for the rights of states to restrict voting rights — using literacy tests or other disqualifying factors, if done on a non-racial basis.

Eventually even Mr. Buckley admitted his wrong-headedness in advocating a slow-motion, Burkean “organic” means of achieving racial equality, when in 2004 he was asked whether he had any regrets related to his stances in the past, saying “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

When Mr. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, he was motivated primarily because the Republican party candidate, Congressman John V. Lindsay, was so liberal that his policies were indistinguishable from the Democrats. In fact, Mr. Lindsay ran with the endorsement of the small Liberal party. Mr. Buckley provided a clear alternative for conservatives who had come out for the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, the year before, and offered his ideas on policing and combatting crime, education, rent control, and even urban planning (echoing a lot of Jane Jacobs writing on the subject). During his announcement of his candidacy, he famously declared that he would not pander to ethnic bloc “identity” politics, which ran counter to the way politics were usually conducted in New York City’s rough and tumble neighborhoods (with a Catholic Irishman / Italian, Jew, and a Protestant typically running together at the top of each party ticket).

Buckley in 1965’s New York City Mayor’s race — on NBC’s “Meet The Press”

He ran on his principles, and in his behind the scenes recounting of that memorable contest (The Unmaking of a Mayor) we read of his witty ripostes against the editorial boards of the local newspapers, and how his words were taken out of context by the press to create a narrative that Mr. Buckley was introducing religion into the campaign, or stoking racial animosity. Certainly there was enough uniqueness in not only his unconventional campaign manner but in the solutions he proposed to New York City’s many problems that such artificial conflict creation was unnecessary, but looking back at how the “respectable” opinion makers and press pundits reacted to Mr. Buckley we can see how far our standards have fallen in the age of Trump. Mr. Buckley was known for his quick wit and patrician airs, and when asked during that initial announcement event how many votes he thought he might garner, paused for a moment, and responded “conservatively? One.” Cut to that flash of a grin. Such remarks were indicative of the non-orthodox manner he campaigned, never pandering to his audience, and always sticking to his well thought out, scripted remarks.

But more about Trump later.

On a policy basis, the conservative Buckley-ite wing of the Republican seemed frozen in a 1957 time capsule as the country moved forward into the 1960s and 1970s. The battles against the New Deal, against de-segregation, against civil rights in the private sector, against voting rights, and against the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society almost always used the same rhetorical arguments of states’ rights (invoking Article X of the constitution, the commerce clause, and the 14th amendment), a cry against socialistic welfare-state policies that expanded the Federal government, and that private charities and religious institutions were the best option for addressing society’s ills. It was a philosophy that was rooted in a strict interpretation of a constitution which would not breathe new life into a body politic that was convulsing in crisis.

If the small government, states rights, conservative philosophy as espoused by Buckley and his purported successors failed in addressing two of the largest crises of the 20th century — the Great Depression and the Civil Rights struggle — what form of conservatism should one look to for solving problems in a modern nation state? During the debates regarding our nation’s founding following the American revolution, two distinct camps formed vis a vis the small Federal government, pro-states rights and agrarian interests led by Jefferson on the one side, and the vigorous, activist Federal government bloc led by Hamilton on the other. The Jeffersonians were primarily based in the South, and rightly viewed the Federal government as a threat to their “agrarian” (read: slave-holding) economy. It is the Hamiltonian argument that empowered the country to evolve into a modern, functioning nation through the building of a national currency backed by the credit of the Federal government, and to invest in infrastructure and a national standing army.

Constitutional scholars can continue to debate to what extent the enumerated powers of the Federal government may be limited by Article X and the 14th amendment, but the fact remains that there is nothing prohibiting private solutions nor local government from addressing and solving any of the innumerable problems facing today’s society. Indeed there are many instances where private companies are leading positive change in developing new approaches whether in energy technology, medicine, or even in public policy such as research in social sciences addressing how we treat mental illness and drug addiction. Many times the public money infuses and seeds the private sector towards a public good, resulting in not only the internet, but also vaccines and a cleaner environment amongst many other positive outcomes. Similarly, there are many examples of how cities and states are creating change and showing that solutions can happen outside of the clawing grasp of the Federal government. For example Phoenix and Salt Lake City eliminated homelessness amongst veterans, but even this success was largely due to Federal money and vision, teaming up with local religious organisations and donors to fill in some of the funding gaps.

My point is to make clear that I understand that social change can and often does happen at a local level, or with private money, but the really big problems facing us today require a big, and activist, governmental response. To not realize this, is a failure to understand history. This is the failure that the Buckleyite conservative needs to learn and to move from a Jeffersonian model to a Hamiltonian model, while still adhering to core conservative principles.

Ranked in terms of relative severity (i.e. race relations has always been a problem in the U.S. boiling just beneath the surface, whereas the growth in income and wealth disparity has become more pronounced and severe in recent years) the problems the United States are facing in 2016 include the following:

  • Poverty and income / wealth disparity (the lack of retirement savings, wage stagnation, precarity of household financial health)
  • Infrastructure (water mains, bridges, highways, airports, passenger rail, hospitals, the power grid and distribution)
  • Healthcare (the most expensive and inefficient health system in the developed world)
  • Education (continuing to fall further behind as a country in public education with growing classroom sizes, teacher salaries, education results)
  • Race relations (immigration policy, voting rights, policing)

There was a precursor for this type of Buckleyite (and neo-Hamiltonian) conservative. His name was Jack Kemp. He saw that the Federal government could play a vital and effective role in solving problems, and wanted to focus on finding common ground with Democrats and Republicans working towards solutions. He had no time for the petty personality clashes and endless “scandals du jour” served up by the likes of Fox News’ Sean Hannity (see below). What he would have thought of today’s Republican party — the party of Ted Cruz where doing nothing and shutting down the government was the goal, the party of Donald Trump which puts personality and attitudinal style over prescriptive policy substance, the party of scared Trumpkins like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan who can’t break free to denounce their party’s nominee out of fear of their own base and fear for their own craven political careers.

Jack Kemp in 2008 shutting down FOX’s Sean Hannity

To be relevant in the future the Republican party, and conservatism in general, needs to awaken from its nostalgic dream of a small government, Jeffersonian nation and walk with a confidence emboldened by a full embrace of Hamiltonian vigor. All of the problems noted above are going to be incrementally addressed by future progressive leaders, but there are also incremental solutions that future conservative leaders could and should propose — which do not include tax breaks, tax credits, and less government spending (today’s conservative answer to EVERYTHING).

Recently, another writer here on Medium commented that conservatism is about trying to show understanding and compassion without requiring the Government to force us to. It is about lifting people up, not lowering the bar so that they can get over it. I’m not sure what the author means by the government forcing us to show understanding or compassion. Earlier he wrote of the need for individual empathy in understanding the black American experience, but outside of the fevered swamps of the Alt-Right and the less than mentally salubrious confines of Fox News I know of no grand governmental scheme to force individuals to be kind and tenderhearted. What I do expect my government to do, however, is to act swiftly in administering justice, ensuring that everyone has the right to vote, that they are not discriminated against, and that everyone has equal access to full citizenship. If that requires forcing individual localities to repeal race based voter restrictions, or barring private businesses from discriminating against gay customers (or black customers; or Jewish customers; or Muslims…ad infinitum), then this is a legal, constitutional response and not merely a philosophical advocacy for “political correctness.” Likewise, the expectation that a child should be given the same opportunities regardless of circumstances of birth (what I would call “lifting up” but perhaps the author meant something quite different) necessitates an activist government to provide the means to that end — and here is where a conservative can respond with solutions towards that goal of equality in opportunity, because we all know (or should know, by now) that by accident of birth some are given better education, better role models and mentors, better health care, better diets, and better intellectual stimulation.

My political migration was spurred by the recognition that there are indeed other models of conservatism in the developed world. In France, where I live today, the political right is anchored by the inheritors of the founder of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle. Today, the gaullist Les Republicains (rebranded from the former Union pour un Mouvement Populaire — UMP) is a party that is pro-business, for reduced taxes, secular but respectful of moderate religious traditions, and robust in its embrace of security controls against terrorists. But it is also unapologetic in a strong, French government (“the state”) which invests heavily in infrastructure, heavily regulates the health sector, and believes that the government has a positive role to play in society. As a result, the French enjoy world-class transportation vis a vis the TGV rail system, super-highways, airports, and city transit systems. They also benefit from arguably the best health care system in the world. All of this is not to say that there exists challenges economically for France (chronic unemployment, for example), but the French conservative party is an active player with real solutions that benefit the average citizen.

This type of a strong government with conservative instincts has its antecedents in the US as well, but has been rejected by the Republicans for at least two generations now (Nixon, arguably, was the last activist Republican president). I finally left the Republicans once Kemp shuffled off the stage in 1996, knowing that without his modern interpretation of Hamiltonian government, the party was going to be lost.

In conclusion, while today I am a Democrat as an American citizen, as a French resident I would consider myself a conservative Republicain. This apparent dichotomy is actually only an illusion, because at my core, I hold the same conservative principles regardless of geography.

France’s TGV train — an example of why we, as Americans, can’t have nice things

As an American I want to see the Federal government partner with the states and local governments and re-invest in our infrastructure. I want to be able to take a high-speed train (not a pretend one, like the Acela), to be able to drive without having my car’s axle break because of potholes, to be able to drink lead-free water, and have most of my power from renewable resources optimized across a 21st century power grid.

I want to see conservative proposals that will address the structural barriers that impede income and wealth growth amongst the lower three quartiles of Americans. The economy and social fabric of the country needs a strong, vibrant middle class, and the continuing skewing of wealth (and power) to the upper 1% is unsustainable.

If you watch no other video for the next 100 days, this is the one you should watch… and that includes the kitty and puppy videos.

Primary for a growing number of American families is the massive failure of the retirement regime created in the 1980s as a supplement to a company’s pension and Social Security. Today, 401(k) retirement savings are paltry, and are viewed as THE primary retirement fund by the Republicans, which is not at all based in reality and which is going to prove to be the next great societal crisis in the near term. Again, we need a conservative set of proposals to supplement and help Americans retire with dignity.

“401(k)s were never designed as the nation’s primary retirement system,” said Anthony Webb, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research. “They came to be that as a historical accident.”
Some 52 percent of American households were at risk of being unable to maintain their standard of living as of 2013

Today, I vote Democratic. But it is only because the Republicans have left the room, and are more interested in grand-standing and being obstinate, refusing to negotiate.

The Trump phenomenon is an opportunity to change that — to reinvent a new conservative party that is Hamiltonian in its outlook, and truly represents the interests of every American, and not just the 1%. I hope that conservatives take this chance.