Bill Buckley and the future of conservatism

The most important lesson of his career is that there are limits to accommodation. Buckley came to fame in the early 1950s after two decades of liberal Democratic dominance, the Fair Deal of Harry Truman having followed the New Deal of FDR. When Republicans finally recaptured Congress and the White House in 1952, it was a case of new men and old measures. The new president, Dwight Eisenhower, despite his conservative instincts, was unwilling to pick ideological fights. On the sidelines of politics, the poet Peter Viereck called for a New Conservatism dedicated to managing change gracefully and recognizing liberal Democrats like Adlai Stevenson as its natural leaders. Germany, Japan and (it seemed) the Depression had been beaten by great collective efforts. The world had moved into a new era, and conservatives should recognize the fact.

Buckley would have none of it. He wanted a conservatism that stood for capitalism and freedom. The Cold War required another great mobilization, which Buckley supported wholeheartedly, but he would not lose sight of his individualistic goals. In 1955, when he founded National Review as the journal of opinion for his kind of conservatism, he declared its purpose to be “to stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” He yelled because he hoped to be heard. Liberalism had been ascendant for years, but that didn’t mean it always would be.