“Everything old shall now become new; The leaves’ll be green, bearing the fruit.” — Ye
Kanye West positioned himself front and center of entertainment news when he released his latest album, Jesus is King. West seemed to offer his audience something entirely new. Yet, in reality, what he gave listeners wasn’t really new at all; it was a message more than 2,000 years old.
In a recent article at the American Mind, editor David Bahr casts shade at the notion that old things hold relevance for today, namely when it comes to yesterday’s conservative forebears, who he refers to as the “Minor Prophets” of American conservatism. He suggests they are “past their sell-by date.” After all, they’re old, dated, and perhaps a little overrated, right? What relevance do they hold for today? He claims that conservatives who still honor such figures as William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Friedrich Hayek have a nostalgia problem and are out of touch with today’s conservatism and the challenges that it faces.
Bahr assumes that these conservatives, some of them alive as recently as 11 years ago, viewed political leadership in a way that is inapplicable to the dilemmas we face today. Setting aside the fact that “there is nothing new under the sun” and today’s challenges are really repackaged obstacles men and women have faced throughout history, let’s consider the merits of this argument.
What’s so great about Buckley?
Not until over halfway into Bahr’s jeremiad do we get to the crux of his argument: “What skills, if any, did Buckley have that are relevant today?”
Buckley was a master of the media. From the 33 year run of Firing Line, a public affairs show that introduced intellectual conservatism to the masses, to his 35 years as National Review’s editor-in-chief, a publication he founded in 1955, or the 40 books he penned, it would be difficult to understate Buckley’s contribution to modern conservatism. Much credit goes to him for bringing seemingly disparate groups together–libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists–and creating what historian George H. Nash described as a “coherent modern right.”
This new, fusioned coalition ultimately led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That was nearly four decades ago. Those who agree with Bahr’s suggestion that perhaps the Reagan’s and Buckley’s of the world have passed their expiration date rely on this chronological distance to carry their argument. But as we’ve written elsewhere, “Conservatives of the Reaganite variety must be prepared to play the long game again…” The ideas of ordered liberty, rule of law, courage to choose the right, free enterprise, and civil society are just as essential today as they were then and if it weren’t for brave men like Buckley, they likely wouldn’t have animated the American political space for so many years.
So what skills does a minor prophet like Buckley offer a practicing conservative today? For starters, an ability to build broad coalitions around the tenets of conservatism, a willingness to evangelize the message to the masses, and a commitment to classical liberal orthodoxy that doesn’t bend or break when facing political headwinds.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
To simply cast aside the work of individuals that have left us with a deep well of liberty to draw from is to disregard the value of transmitting ideas and the foundational principles they espoused. We treasure classic books, rewatch The Princess Bride, and regularly revisit revered family recipes. And if we think about it, we do these things not solely for the feels, although that might be the initial motivation. But at their root, we do them because they are a reaffirmation of norms, a recentering of ourselves to mores and values that existed before we entered this world and will continue long after we’ve left (okay, maybe not The Princess Bride, but we stand by the other examples).
When remembering these minor prophets of conservatism, there’s another point that deserves consideration. By incorporating the lessons passed down to us from our intellectual ancestors, we’re giving ourselves a leg up. We’re not wasting time rewriting a manual. Instead we’re building on the body of work that has already been tried and proven. We’ve been given the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants. Where would Kanye be without the influences of RZA from Wu-Tang Clan or LL Cool J? We rest our case.
But in all seriousness, there would be no Ronald Reagan presidency if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by Barry Goldwater’s presidential run or the work of Buckley and National Review. There would be no Buckley if there were no Chodorov, no Hazlitt if there were no Hayek, no Hayek if there were no Mises, no Mises if there were no Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Edumund Burke, and on and on.
When considering the importance of remembering the people that labored before us, it would be wise to regard British writer G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
The wisdom in Chesterton’s glib statement is that we have so much to learn and be grateful for from those who came before us. No, the dead do not deserve an actual vote (although we hear-tell that it is common in certain Chicago precincts). Rather, in the words of another great philosopher, Bob Marley, “In this bright future, you must not forget your past.” There is wisdom in learning from both the successes and struggles of previous generations.
A Buckley for today
This does not mean that the ideas or policy positions of men like Buckley are above reproach or don’t need updating for our [post]modern context. Each generation can hope for a Buckley, Hayek, or Reagan in their time. But we should bear in mind that the minor prophets of old held consistently to unchanging principles, even if their messaging changed to suit their time and place. Here are a few tenets that true conservatism will always promote:
- the inherent dignity of individuals
- a belief in ordered liberty
- a celebration of the freedom to choose the good
Sadly, much of today’s political parley devolves faster than Elizabeth Warren can come up with another unfunded plan for interfering into your life. We have no confidence that the current climate, teeming with trolling, otherizing, and doxing will produce many virtues to be preserved and replicated. It will likely be viewed as a puzzling moment worthy of ridicule.
But here’s the thing: today’s Buckley can offer this generation an authentic conservatism that leverages the lessons of the past to help them make sense of the present, casting a hopeful vision for the future. This will require a return to first principles, which demands a rejection of the Jacksonian populism that has been making its rounds. We need courageous women and men that hold the same commitment to first things and robust intellectual inquiry as Buckley did.
The application of these principles will look differently than it did 40 years ago, but the fundamentals of freedom, ordered liberty, free enterprise, and the preeminent role of civil society are just as essential today as they were 40 or even 400 years ago.
A conservative continuum?
It remains to be seen what conservatism will look like in a post-Trump world. Will Buckley’s fusionism or the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher still be welcome? However the chips may fall, we would argue that a return to conservative and classical liberal principles are imperatives. A conservatism that is consumed with short-sighted electoral gains or owning the libs is ephemeral and cheap. A conservatism that doesn’t include a respect for natural rights like private property and freedom of religion, a spirited defense of the Constitution, and a dogged dedication to free-market principles (looking at you, Tucker Carlson) and the rule of law isn’t conservatism at all.
So, what good are the Minor Prophets today? If we want to revitalize, perhaps even mainstream, proven conservative and classical liberal ideas, we’ll do well to look at the examples of people who successfully built movements and implemented policies that actually reflected these principles. If we allow history to instruct us, we’ll see that, “freedom is no more than one generation away from extinction,” at least according to one of those brilliant minds that Bahr suggests has passed his expiration date.
Or take Margaret Thatcher. She would remind us that it is sometimes necessary to fight a battle more than once to win it. Speaking in New York in 2003, she told the crowd:
My friends, every generation has to fight anew the battle for liberty. In my generation, Nazism and then Communism were the enemy, and they very nearly prevailed. Then, as now, strong arms and stout hearts were called upon to sustain the struggle for truth and right.
When Bahr asks about the relevant skills of the “Minor Prophets,” he asks a small, parochial question. Sure, Buckley, Reagan, and Thatcher were deft communicators and had impressive resumes. But their greatest legacy is what they taught us about the enduring struggle for “truth and right;” how to fight until the enemy retreats. And that is a skill set that will never expire.
Disclosure: Doug McCullough is a National Review Institute regional fellow. So, Buckley is Doug’s lemonade. However, NRI was not consulted prior to publication of this essay.