Christopher Buckley
A former associate editor of National Review magazine says Christopher Buckley’s departure from his back-page column was not a firing, and the magazine embraces diverse viewpoints within conservatism. But that’s the real problem with the contemporary right: it lacks a set of coherent principles.

Recently a well-publicized conflict at National Review magazine created a stir on the right and much schadenfreude on the left. Christopher Buckley, the son of the magazine’s late founder-editor and a highly respected writer himself, announced that he was supporting Sen. Barack Obama in the upcoming presidential election.

That prompted much discussion in the media, including columns by Kathleen Parker and Peggy Noonan claiming Buckley was "fired" from his column.

What clearly motivated the entire discussion was the sense that the political right in the United States is grossly fractured between three main groups: evangelicals, those who hate them and want them all dead, and those who hate them but hope to use them as catspaws to elect Republicans who are willing to spend lots of taxpayer money on a gargantuan national defense establishment. Viz, evangelicals, East Coasters, and neocons.

Cris Rapp, a former member of the National Review editorial staff, provides a very good perspective on what actually happened, citing NR editor in chief Rich Lowry’s explanation that Buckley offered to resign from the column and Lowry accepted. Simple as that.

In fact, Buckley remains on the magazine’s board of directors, and is welcome to write articles for it, Lowry said.

Rapp’s column usefully points out what a wide variety of perspectives to which various members of the NR staff adhere, including people on both sides of the abortion issue, drug legalization, and even the value of religious belief (and, I would add, global warming policy). In fact, it’s rather dizzying to read Rapp’s account of the mad variety of thinking going on at NatRev and then consider that the magazine is just one small slice of the miasma of vastly different points of view among the contemporary American right—everything from Reason and to The American Conservative and Chronicles.

The real difference between the left and right today is that the left has a fairly strong and coherent agenda, and the right does not. The left’s agenda is as well-defined as the right’s was during the Reagan years, and the right’s agenda is even more fractured and contradictory than the Reagan-era left’s.

That’s the real problem with the right today: its philosophy is simply incoherent. The American right is variously for much more government in some areas, much less in others, much more at some levels of society, and much less at others, with no real set of coherent and explainable principles guiding the choices

It used to be that the right was first and foremost for preserving the United States against the threat of international communism, to sustain the nation as a place of relative freedom in a world lurching into 1984. But with communism gone as a viable threat, the right simply fell apart. Without a vision, the people perish, as the prophet said.

As I noted more than two years ago at Tech Central Station, the Republicans and the right had lost their way because of this very lack of principles in the post-Cold War era, based on a capitulation to the left’s premises that was no less damaging for being incomplete and halfhearted:

Bush and the Republican Congress have had a difficult time selling themselves to the public because their policies have not been appealing. They have adhered to a philosophy, big-government conservatism, that has finally alienated nearly everyone. . . . The economic premise of big government conservatism is that the welfare state benefits from free markets and is not in dire conflict with them. Their social premise relies on the same utilitarian calculus as that of their opponents on the Left, but the big government conservatives hold that although antinomianism is not good for people, nothing can really be done about it except to try to ease government restrictions on religion. The international affairs premise is that liberal democracy is the best thing for all nations and imposition of it on other nations is the solution when they become threats to U.S. interests.

I am going to quote extensively from this article because it remains relevant two big national elections later, alas. Instead of merely complaining about the incoherence of the modern right, I offered then, and offer again today, a viable alternative that has been tried and proven to work:

Their only real answer is to embrace classical liberalism. This includes in particular embracing its crucial components of individual rights, personal responsibility, the belief that human life in general and every human life in particular has meaning, and respect for the reality of nationality.

This vision of classical liberalism derives from Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and their contemporaries, and incorporates the insights of subsequent great thinkers such as Booker T. Washington, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Thomas Sowell. It is a vision of a true opportunity society, open to all who agree to play by the rules, and one in which the rules are sovereign.

Such a vision provides a comprehensible, consistent, and sensible view of the world and the nation. In this worldview, the nation is a society of free individuals brought together by a common heritage, living under laws that free people to achieve the best that they can and that prevent them from unfairly exploiting one another, a society that respects the need for personal morality regardless of one’s religious background. Classical liberalism provides a way to find clear answers in all policy matters by asking the following question: Which policy approach will create the greatest amount of both individual liberty and social order?

Such a vision is by no means a theocracy; it is in fact based largely on utilitarian concerns. However, it also includes a respect for religion because the latter is part of mankind’s perpetual search for truth and meaning and because religious faith can encourage personal morality and social charity and give great comfort and purpose to individuals in times both good and bad. In its great and abiding respect for the good things religion brings, however, classical liberalism never allows the two kingdoms (in Martin Luther’s great distinction), the City of God and the City of Man, to be conflated or confused with each other.

Classical liberalism holds that the Christian religion is good for society because it encourages the intellectual foundations for an orderly society of free individuals. Whether a particular religion’s claims are true or not is a matter for the Church to decide, as Luther pointed out, not the state; and whether a particular policy or political philosophy is good is a matter to be decided by an empirical calculus, as Luther likewise noted, not religious laws developed for a very different group of people six thousand years ago.

About religion, classical liberalism says: Encouragement of religion, yes; imposition of religious-based laws, no.

That’s the outlines of how classical liberalism works, and how it would be applied today if we were to pursue it. As I noted at the time, this is a philosophy that the right could comfortably embrace and would have great appeal to the public at large. It could heal the great divides in the right, sending some people over to the left where they belong, while bringing in many new adherents:

This philosophy is much
more likely to appeal to disaffected Republicans and others on the Right than the watered-down postmodernism now offered by the Grand Old Party. Classical liberalism is the philosophy that Ronald Reagan eloquently represented, and the party of Reagan could rely on that history to provide quick credibility to an effort to renew a commitment to his approach to government.

As I noted at the time, however, only real actions actually implementing these concepts would suffice, but the Republicans failed to make the necessary changes and the intellectuals of the right continued bickering over who was most responsible for the failures. Republicans and their backers on the right lost control of the Congress, and now they stand to lose everything.

In a column about the mutual agreement that he should stop writing a column for National Review, Christopher Buckley came to the same conclusion I drew in my TCS column two and a half years ago:

I no longer have any clear idea what, exactly, the modern conservative movement stands for. Eight years of “conservative” government has brought us a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance. As a sideshow, it brought us a truly obscene attempt at federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo case. 

So, to paraphrase a real conservative, Ronald Reagan: I haven’t left the Republican Party. It left me.

As it happens, I have never been a member of the Republican Party (or any other), and have never called myself a conservative or accepted that description. I am a liberal, and quite satisfied to be one. The attempt to define a decent conservatism in the post-Cold War era is doomed to fail, I am convinced, because what we have in place in this nation in most areas of life is not to be conserved but instead desperately needs to be reformed.

Isn’t it time we learned our lesson, and started to coalesce around a set of principles about which we can find real agreement? Classical liberalism is the answer.