Conservatives, being conservatives, have a soft spot for the good old days, but this is getting ridiculous. It seems every day another colleague on the right wants to click his ruby red slippers — or Topsiders — and proclaim, “There’s no place like home” — “home” being the days when conservatism was top-heavy with generals but short on troops.
The latest example comes from my old National Review colleague David Klinghoffer in this paper. “Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions — like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now,” Klinghoffer lamented. “Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart.”
As someone who knew Buckley and Kristol (and was a brief acquaintance of Neuhaus), I think David’s got it wrong. For starters, no one confuses Breitbart for Buckley — first and foremost, Breitbart himself — and the only people making that comparison are those wishing to indict contemporary conservatism for one reason or another.
Let’s start with the left, which certainly has different motives than Klinghoffer’s. The urge to lament how far today’s conservatives have fallen from the “golden age” of Buckley & Co. is a now-familiar gambit. You see, this is what critics on the left always say: “If only today’s conservatives were as decent or intellectual or patriotic as those of yesteryear.”
The best conservatives are always dead; the worst are always alive and influential. When Buckley and Kristol, not to mention Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, were alive, they were hated and vilified by the same sorts of people who now claim to miss the old gang. The gold standard of the dead is always a cudgel, used to beat back the living.
As for the right, there are many competing agendas among those lamenting the populist enthusiasms of the right today. Some seem to want to displace and replace today’s leaders; others are simply beautiful losers in forgotten struggles eager to tear down the winners.
But what undergirds a lot of this is simply nostalgia. A conservative populism is sweeping the land, and although I think it is for the most part justified and beneficial, you cannot expect millions of people to get very angry — deservedly angry — and expect everyone to behave as if it’s an Oxford seminar.
Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus (and Reagan and Goldwater) understood and appreciated the hurly-burly of American democracy. Buckley famously insisted he’d rather be governed by 2,000 random names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. He passionately defended Joseph McCarthy, and he admired J. Bracken Lee, the 1950s Utah governor who makes Sarah Palin look like Sandra Day O’Connor on Ambien. Oh, and he was a Rush Limbaugh dittohead. Kristol was an admirer of the Christian right and a supporter of the populist tax revolts of the 1970s. Neuhaus was a leading champion of the religious revival on the right.
Nostalgia, wrote the great sociologist Robert Nisbet, “is even at best a rust of memory, often a disease.” Nostalgia causes us to exaggerate what we liked about the past while editing out what we didn’t. Indeed, Klinghoffer is doing precisely that when he says that Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus were “iconic.” Buckley, sure; he was a true media celebrity. But Kristol and Neuhaus? Kristol famously thought that having anything more than a few thousand subscribers to his magazine, the Public Interest, was a sign of failure. Both could walk through most airports unrecognized.
These men are my heroes too, and their influence was staggering. But those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the “institution builders” was a low-water mark for conservatism’s political success (that’s why they built institutions!). Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren’t the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined. And now is not the time to wax nostalgic for the planning sessions.