At a time when American conservatism is said to have lost its way as a principled force, a careful reexamination seems necessary, for those who claim this and those who disagree. Either camp would profit from taking a fresh look at the long, much-admired career of the conservative movement’s reputed founder. A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. is worth reading for anyone who wishes to become acquainted with him, or reacquainted.
Between 1975 and 1978, one of the more unusual transformations in the history of rock and roll music took place. Bruce Springsteen, a successful and hugely popular singer and guitarist, changed the way his music sounded.
The reasons why reveal a fascinating focal point where leftist politics, depression, Catholicism, and American fiction collide. Springsteen, who recently released a biography called Born to Run, is a liberal elitist and social justice warrior who is worshiped by the Left as a savior. How he got to be that, and how American literature and his battle with depression influenced him, are much more fascinating than a simplistic political reading of the man born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1949.
It has been a disorienting year for classical liberals. The presidential candidate of the more classically liberal of the two major parties took some positions wildly at odds with classical liberalism, like opposition to freer trade, enthusiasm for government intervention in corporate decision making, and hostility to some civil liberties. He won the Presidency in part because of some of those positions.
But then the same candidate announced the nomination of a substantially better cabinet from the classical liberal perspective than those Hillary Clinton would have appointed. It is through these generally decent appointees that he must largely govern, not by twitter.
He also shows every sign of following through on his commitment to appointing a justice sympathetic to enforcing the constitution as written and thus better implementing a charter broadly reflecting the classical liberalism born in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, although not of modern libertarianism. Once again the relative success of classical liberalism is made even clearer if potential nominees are not evaluated against a standard of utopian perfection, but compared to the result-oriented justices(s) that Hillary Clinton promised to appoint.
Here then are a few classical liberal resolutions for this strange era.
The classical liberal strand in Western political philosophy has historically opposed special government privileges for groups and prized equality before the law. Classical liberals favored eliminating the benefit of clergy and the privileges of the nobility. They fought against slavery. And, unlike some progressives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they opposed Jim Crow.
Whether classical liberalism should embrace laws that prevent private actors from treating people unequally on the basis of characteristics, like race and sex, is a more complicated question. But in my view, given the long history of Jim Crow in the United States, laws against discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity were justified to break ingrained habits encouraged by government discrimination against African-Americans. But here again the classical liberal view molded these laws into general prohibitions against discrimination, not special privileges for certain groups.
In the 1960s and 1970s progressives began to transform these laws into mechanisms of social engineering that took account of race in their planning. But for a brief period in Reagan administration, the classical liberal strand of universalism reasserted itself as part of the core ideology of the Republican party. The result was an effort to treat laws on discrimination as general prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, no matter which race and ethnicity was at issue. Colorblindness was banner under which the movement marched.
Sadly, this movement has dissipated.
After President-Elect Trump announced that he would separate himself from his business, the tweeter feed of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) went berserk. It praised Trump for agreeing to divest himself of the ownership of his companies, a position which he had not announced. OGE’s multiple twitter comments were often sarcastic, ending with exclamation points obviously intended to mock Trump’s own style.
To say that these comments were inappropriate is an understatement. OGE lacks jurisdiction over Trump because the President and Vice-President are not covered by the conflict of interest rules on which OGE advises. And OGE helps presidential appointees with conflicts problems confidentially, reserving twitter for announcing new rules. Unless the director of OGE can get control of his agency, he should resign.
But OGE’s actions show what may be in store for the Trump administration from the federal bureaucracy: not only hostility but contempt. There are three problems President Trump faces. One confronts any Republican President: the bureaucracy leans left. Indeed, the average bureaucrat is not only more left-wing than the median Republican but also the median Democrat.
But Trump faces two additional problems.
Donald Trump has the best opportunity of any President to create a judiciary that follows the Constitution as written.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s conquest of the Republican presidential nomination, many wise critics have concluded that the old Buckley-Reagan conservative ideology is dead. The paradoxical reply: It is not dead because the original was not an ideology.
That declaration had always annoyed me in my younger days, when William F. Buckley, Jr. would ceaselessly insist that conservatism was not ideological.
Sure it was. What did Buckley himself write in his Up from Liberalism (1959) about the essence of conservatism? Its principles were set forth therein as “freedom, individuality, the sense of community, the sanctity of the family, the supremacy of conscience, the spiritual view of life,” a strong defense—and all were meaningful “in proportion as political power is decentralized.”
Ronald Reagan is the latest entry in the American Presidents Series from Times Books, the publishing house owned by the New York Times. The original general editor of the series, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., selected authors with the appropriate ideological pedigree to chronicle the nation’s 43 chief executives. The core precept of the Schlesinger series was that successful Presidents push the boundaries of their office in pursuit of a Progressive agenda. Schlesinger, succinctly described by David Broder as “James Carville in a cap and gown,” recruited such noted presidential scholars as Gary Hart and George McGovern (the latter was assigned…
Many obituaries of Antonin Scalia were accompanied by a picture of the justice and Ronald Reagan standing together on the day of his nomination. And that photograph perfectly captures Scalia’s importance to the American polity. Scalia changed our jurisprudence as much as Reagan changed our politics.
In an essay at City Journal I explore some of the deep connections between these two iconic figures of the conservative movement:
This next edition of Liberty Law Talk features a discussion with Paul Kengor, co-editor with Jeffrey Chidester, of a new volume titled Reagan’s Legacy in a World Transformed that explores the incredible presidency and continuing impact of Ronald Reagan.