Commentary

Bill Buckley Is Dead. Has Conservatism Died with Him?

William F. Buckley Jr., the father of the modern conservative movement, has died at 82. The bigger question is, has conservatism died, too?

Buckley emerged as a public intellectual in 1951, shortly after graduating from Yale University, with his book God and Man at Yale, the first conservative complaint against the dominance of liberals at leading universities. Four years later, he started National Review, the magazine that really launched modern conservatism.

Buckley skillfully brought together libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists, including ex-communists who’d seen the light. While they had many philosophical differences that were often thrashed out in the pages of National Review, they agreed on a few large principles, notably opposition to communism internationally and to moves toward socialism at home.

Buckley’s home in Sharon, Conn., also served as the birthplace of Young Americans for Freedom, which became the nation’s largest conservative youth group. The group’s Sharon Statement outlined the principles of modern conservatism: individual liberty, limited government, the U.S. Constitution, federalism, the free-market economy and a strong national defense.

Those were the principles that Buckley and the conservatives in his orbit advanced from National Review’s founding in 1955, through the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964 and on to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and even the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Conservatives who had been inspired by Buckley and Goldwater believed in 1980 and 1994 that their movement had finally achieved success.

In the 1994 Contract with America, conservatives declared that they would deliver “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” Then in 2000, for the first time Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the White House. At last, conservatives believed, they would be able to deliver on the agenda they had been advancing for decades.

What happened? Republicans increased federal spending by a trillion dollars in six years. They passed the biggest expansion of entitlements since the LBJ years. They federalized education. They gave unprecedented power to the executive. They launched a massive nation-building project thousands of miles from home, to do in Iraq what conservatives would never expect government to do in the United States.

Even worse, the conservative intellectual movement abandoned its limited-government roots. The neoconservatives, who drifted over from the radical left, brought their commitment to an expansive government intimately involved in shaping the social and economic life of the nation. They transformed conservatism from rugged individualism to “national greatness.” The religious right demanded that government impose their social values on the whole country. Conservatives who had once rallied to a famous Reagan declaration — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” — became loyal supporters of George W. Bush, who said, rather differently, “When somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

Buckley’s conservatives decried the shift of power from the states to the federal government and from Congress to the imperial presidency. Russell Kirk, a founding editor of National Review, wrote that conservatives seek to “limit and balance political power.” But in the Bush years, conservatives have sought to nationalize education, marriage law, family medical decisions and gun crimes.

Buckley skillfully brought together libertarians, traditionalists, and anti-communists, including ex-communists who’d seen the light.”

Conservatives also became cheerleaders for a presidency untrammeled by courts or Congress, especially in matters of foreign affairs. Kirk once wrote that war must be a last resort, lest it “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, (and) break in upon private and public morality.” But now conservatives insist that Congress stay out of Bush’s way as he prosecutes an endless war.

As Gene Healy writes in The Cult of the Presidency, conservatives who spent the 1990s warning that a venal and unscrupulous man had assumed the presidency have “spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power.”

Bill Buckley had come to recognize the degraded state of American conservatism. In 2006, he deplored Bush’s “absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending.” And he noted the failure of Bush’s expansive, interventionist foreign policy.

“If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we’ve experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign,” Buckley told CBS News. No “successor would reenunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious.”

R.I.P. American conservatism.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of The Politics of Freedom.