"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought

B.William F. Buckley Jr.- Unity Under Fear

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B.William F. Buckley Jr.- Unity Under Fear

With Kirk and Rossiter brought into the fold, the next logical target to wrap into prescriptive conservatism is William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley’s conservative biography is extensive, but his most significant accomplishment was the founding and publication of the National Review. The magazine was started in 1955 aiming to “consolidate the right,” which it did by bringing in the three major categories of post-war conservatives: New Conservatives (typified by Kirk, who contributed a weekly column to the magazine), libertarians, and anti-communists.198 George H. Nash describes Buckley’s magazine as a “coalition government,” bringing traditionalists and early right-wing radicals into the fold with the pro-American nationalists whose support of politicians like Eugene McCarty who many on the right understood as problematic.199 Buckley’s fear of defeat far outweighed his concern over an absolute right or wrong definition of conservatism.

This pragmatism and accommodationist perspective is evident from the mission statement he wrote for the first issue of National Review. He begins the magazine with an argumentation of its uniqueness, and is unafraid to use bold language to do so. Consider the following two quotations:

National Review is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.

The inroads relativism has made on the American Soul are not so easily evident. One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things.200

The fear in Buckley’s voice is readily evident, but so is the willingness to bring varied opinions together. The first quote sees Buckley create a common enemy for his magazine, appealing to isolationists (by including the United Nations), intellectual conservatives (with the mention of Henry Steel Commager, who may be described as the Russell Kirk of the left), and social conservatives (with the League of Women voters). The second quote points to the cards being stacked against those who resist “big ideas,” and that it is liberals who now run things. Later in the article, Buckley outlines the magazine’s seven official positions clearly and concisely: Libertarian on the size of government, against “Social Engineers,” to “oppose any substitute for victory” against communism, in favor of intellectual excellence and debate instead of novelty and conformity, in favor of a strong two party system, in favor of capitalism and against unions, and against world government, saying “it would make greater sense to grant independence to each of our 50 states than to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a world organization.”201 Even in Buckley’s willingness to accommodate different perspectives, we can see inklings of Burkean fear in his positions, chiefly opposition to abstraction and in favor of long standing traditions in academia and the economy.

The Burkean fear of chaos exists in Buckley, but in a more problematic location- his resistance to racial integration. In 1957, Buckley wrote an editorial in the National Review entitled “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he offered an endorsement of continuing to deprive African-Americans the right to vote. In it, he states “The White Community, is so entitled [to politically dominate blacks in the South] because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”202 Certainly Buckley was not the only conservative voice tinged with racial bias, but he was one of the strongest. He draws a parallel between the segregationist south and the British occupation of Kenya, where the choice is between “barbarism and civilization,” and argues that similar rules apply.203 The section where Buckley’s fear of what may come to pass is most clearly excerpted here:

If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community to live by civilized standards then to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it will become impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.204

The paragraph is rich with emotionally-laden language, and must be broken down piece by piece. In the first sentence, Buckley uses the word “atavistic” to describe these regressive goals of the majority group. This implies more than just a net negative move in terms of social progress- it points to a return to the primitive roots of humanity, language loaded in terms of both race and emotions. The second sentence point to this reliance on a higher power- “civilization”- as being more important than a more abstract concept- “numerical majority.” The final clause, when applied to the topic at hand, translates frankly to: “If whites cannot oppress blacks at the ballot box, they may have to use force to retain their power.” That statement underscores a deep fear about the potential consequences of racial integration, and the potential primal chaos that may ensue.

Before we move on from Buckley, it is important to point out that he provides an interesting window into how conservatives viewed themselves at this time. Buckley actually responded to the central question of this paper, this link between psychology and conservatism, although to a different question than mine. Engaging with a 1950 sociology book entitled The Authoritarian Personality that argued conservatives feel the need to dominant others, Buckley wrote that it was “’frivolous’ and ‘preposterous’.”205 While this may appear to go against applying a standard to fear to him, in fact it does the opposite- Buckley was constantly acting in defense of conservatism in general. Buckley was keenly aware of the weakness of the conservative position in politics, and actively sought in his career to remedy this deficiency. In 1954 he wrote “the few spasmodic victories conservatives are winnings are aimless, uncoordinated, and inconclusive.”206 Nash argues that this is the basis of his rationale for writing God and Man at Yale in 1951- to attack the imbalance between liberal and conservative at its locus, at the university level.207 Still, this sense of fear that conservatism was not articulating itself well enough- a fear that inspired the publication of National Review- is equally likely to be the same fear that inspired him to defend conservatism against the flimsy attacks of Eisenhower-era social scientists.

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