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Conservative Icon? - William F. Buckley's Opposition to Civil Rights, Immigration and Multiculturalism

On October 6, 2005, President George W. Bush hosted an event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Review magazine as well as the 80th birthday of its founder, William F. Buckley Jr.  

Buckley - who has often been called a conservative "icon" - was lavishly praised by the President in his remarks.

"Bill Buckley did have an influence on me when I followed him at Yale," Bush said. "The interesting thing about Bill Buckley's career is he's ... obviously, not idle ... He decided to do something, and he formed a magazine that helped move conservatism from the margins of American society into the Oval Office. That's a significant contribution ... I'm sure it's hard for some of the youngsters ... to imagine the day when the only conservative game in Washington, DC, was Bill Buckley and the National Review. And today, we've got, of course, an abundance of conservative columnists and radio hosts and television shows and think tanks and all kinds of organizations. I guess in an intellectual sense, you could say these are all Bill's children ... 

"It's hard to believe that in 1955, the Soviet Union was in full power, that Ronald Reagan was a Democrat ... But a lot has changed in a brief period of time, when you think about it. Many of the more important changes of the 20th century happened because the National Review stood strong, and that's a fact—that's a fact of history."

It's interesting how Bush mentioned the 1950s, yet avoided explaining what Buckley was saying and writing at that time. Well, what was Buckley doing in the 50s? 

"William F. Buckley Jr. 1980" by MarkGregory007 is
licensed under 
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In the 50s, the conservative "icon" was busy defending US Senator Joseph McCarthy, and writing books against democracy, the welfare state and civil rights for African Americans.

Warning - the following passages contain racist language. The quoted statements are for educational purposes

In his book "Up From Liberalism", published in 1959, Buckley set forth his vision of "conservatism": an oligarchical, white supremacist, economically unequal society founded on a mystical notion of racial and religious identity. 

Of course, he did not use those terms. But let's see how he articulated his ideology in his own words. In the following passages, he attacked democracy and voting rights, and claimed that democracy could only thrive in a "homogeneous community": 

"In the South, the white community is entitled to put forward a claim to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white as one would certainly expect given their preternatural advantages, of tradition, training, and economic status ...

"The premise of those who argue for implacable legislation to grant every dispossessed Negro the vote is the absolute right of universal suffrage. On this absolute, a towering ideology has been built. But the premise is shaky. Does the vote really make one free? I do not believe it necessarily does, as I have said. Being able to vote is no more to have realized freedom than being able to read is to have realized wisdom. Reasonable limitations upon the vote are not recommended exclusively by tyrants or oligarchs (was Jefferson either?) ...

"A conservative feels a sympathy for the Southern position [i.e., the segregationist position] which the Liberal, applying his ideological abstractions ruthlessly, cannot feel. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be the indicated, though concededly the undemocratic, course. It is more important for a community, wherever situated geographically, to affirm and live by civilized standards than to labor at the job of swelling the voting lists.

"The question the white community faces, then, is whether the claims of civilization (and of culture, community, regime) supersede those of universal suffrage. The British clearly believed they did when they acted to suppress the irruption in Kenya in 1952 ... The white South perceives, for the time being at least, qualitative differences between the level of its culture and the Negroes', and intends to live by its own ...

"In the debates that have raged for years and will go on and on, over the civil rights of Negroes in the South, the issue is most concretely joined in the question whether it is the duty of the federal government to guarantee the Negro's access to the ballot. It is well-known that in certain quarters in the South where Negroes heavily preponderate, the marginal Negro voter is, by one evasion or another, deprived of the vote ... To deprive him of his vote it becomes necessary, for mechanical reasons, to deprive others like him of their vote, hence what amounts to the virtual disfranchisement of the race in Southern communities that fear rule by a Negro majority.

"Democracy's finest bloom is seen only in its natural habitat, the culturally homogeneous community. There, democracy induces harmony. Harmony (not freedom) is democracy's finest flower. Even a politically unstable society of limited personal freedom can be harmonious if governed democratically, if only because the majority understand themselves to be living in the house that they themselves built" (Buckley, W. F. (1959), chapter 1, my emphasis). 

Buckley's worldview is oligarchical, anti-democratic, white supremacist. The gaslighting is obvious. He uses words like "Implacable" and "ruthlessly" to characterize voting rights legislation and its supporters. As if civil rights - and not segregation itself - were implacabile and ruthless! 

And he engages in utterly nonsensical rhetorical tricks such as claiming that "Being able to vote is no more to have realized freedom than being able to read is to have realized wisdom." Obviously, reading is the premise for attaining wisdom, just as voting is the premise for attaining freedom.

Buckley goes on to condemn liberal democracy: 

"What of the presumption that the democratic society is virtuous? What are the hallmarks of the virtuous society? The people must be free, and should live together peaceably, in order, justice and harmony, guided by prescriptive and traditional norms. I see no fixed correlation between the democratic society and the just society; and certainly none between the stable society and the democratic society ...

"The democracy of universal suffrage is not a bad form of government; it is simply not necessarily nor inevitably a good form of government. Democracy must be justified by its works, not doctrinaire affirmations of an intrinsic goodness that no mere method can legitimately lay claim to ... The commitment by the Liberals to democracy has proved obsessive, even fetishistic. It is part of their larger absorption in Method ... [Democracy] cannot, alone, provide the faith, the opiate, or the stimulant" (ibid., my emphasis). 

Apart from denouncing democracy, Buckley also hates the welfare state, as well as the notion that rationality, science and progress should guide the actions of government:

"The salient economic assumptions of Liberalism are socialist ... The Liberal sees no moral problem whatever in divesting the people of that portion of their property necessary to finance the projects certified by ideology as beneficial to the Whole. Mr. J. K. Galbraith wages total war against any putative right of the individual to decide for himself how to allocate his resources. The typical Liberal will go to considerable pains to avoid having to say, in as many words, that the people don't know what's good for them ... 

"[Liberals] are men and women who tend to believe that the human being is perfectible and social progress predictable, and that the instrument for effecting the two is reason; that truths are transitory and empirically determined; that equality is desirable and attainable through the action of state power; that social and individual differences, if they are not rational, are objectionable, and should be scientifically eliminated; that all peoples and societies should strive to organize themselves upon a rationalist and scientific paradigm ..." (ibid., my emphasis). 

In chapter 2, Buckley attacks provisions of the New Deal welfare state such as social security. In the afterword of the book, he outlines his vision for a conservative political programme, which is anti-government only insofar as government is viewed as the instrument of rational policy-making aimed at achieving universal suffrage and reducing poverty. Moreover, he peddles the conspiracy theory that the US government is becoming totalitarian, an absurd false equivalence between communism on the one hand, and democratic governance providing services as well as a social safety net for the citizens on the other: 

"I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth ...

"What then is the indicated course of action? It is to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on. To deal with unemployment by eliminating monopoly unionism, featherbedding, and inflexibilities in the labor market, and be prepared, where residual unemployment persists, to cope with it locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit.

"The tendencies of Liberalism are every day more visibly coercive, as the social planners seek more and more brazenly to impose their preferences upon us ... What all conservatives in this country fear, and have plenty of reason to fear, is the loss of freedom by attrition. It is therefore for the most realistic reasons, as well as those of principle, that we must resist every single accretion of power by the state ... [O]ur society is marching toward totalitarianism ..." (ibid., Afterword, my emphasis except for words in italics). 

The contradictions in his thinking are manifest. He supports the individual, but is in favour of a racial, ethnic and religious community that crushes the individual with the power of imposed traditions, biases and constraints ("subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors", he writes). 

He is against government when government acts to defend human rights, civil rights, workers, the weak and the poor. But he's in favour of government when government acts to enforce segregation and the property rights of the wealthy and powerful. Of course, he needs to make his ideology appear rational, therefore he claims that local government should have more power over local matters and the federal government should be small; except that local government should be composed of a white elite and disenfranchise people based on race. That's the vision. Government as the tool of a caste, of a racial moneyed oligarchy. 

In 1964, Buckley endorsed for president Arizona Senator Goldwater, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act, claiming that the bill would require for its effective execution "the creation of a police state." 

Goldwater lost the 1964 election by a landslide. Confronted with electoral defeat and the fait accomplit of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Buckley and other right-wing extremists changed tune. 

Historian Alvin Felzenberg argued that Buckley "changed his mind" on civil rights, and that he became a proponent of affirmative action. 

But I am skeptical of such interpretation. In the post-Civil Rights Act era, many supporters of segregation altered their rhetoric. The question is whether they did so because they had to catch up with historical developments that they had failed to prevent in spite of trying, or whether they actively embraced further progress. I think the latter is not the case.

In the book "Flying High", published in 2008, Buckley continued to idolize Goldwater. In his writings, one doesn't find a mea culpa for his previous struggle for white supremacy. Throughout his career, he promoted reactionary positions and opposed progress wherever it appeared. Here are a few examples. 

In 1993, he made Islamophobic statements and denounced multiculturalism: 

"[W]e are dealing now with that creature, the Muslim fundamentalist ...We are ... face to face with something very different from the religion that has dominated our own culture ... And we are all going to have to take explicit notice of the incompatibility of our own culture and that of the fundamentalist Muslim, and we need to organize our immigration laws with some reference to this problem. The word 'islam' means 'submission.' [Muslim] governments are to irradiate Islam not merely by the example of their rulers, but by the institution of jihad [which] is most notoriously used to describe the holy war that Islam is engaged in to expand its reach over the whole world ... From all appearances, the only time men and women get together socially in Muslim countries is when they copulate. Somewhere along the line, the feminist movement in America is going to have to give up either feminism or multiculturalist egalitarianism" (Is Multiculturalism the Answer?, 1993, in: Buckley, W. (2010) Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, my emphasis except for words in italics). 

In this passage we see once again how Buckley conflates different phenomena to craft a narrative that always boils down to the same few points: white Christian male oligarchy. He falsely equates Muslim fundamentalists with Muslims. He creates a conspiracy theory where all Muslims are engaged in a plot for world domination. And for some reason, he uses those false premises to denounce multiculturalism. In the same piece, he also depicts the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and Christian extremism as exceptions, as aberrations within an otherwise inherently good white Christian civilization. 

Buckley ceaselessly pursued his crusade against the welfare state. In 1996, he stated, in opposing Bill Clinton's re-election: 

"Clinton's programmers do not mention, nor will they, that at the rate at which entitlements are increasing, everybody will be broke sometime soon after the turn of the century. Nor would they bring up such a datum alongside Clinton's ringing declaration in his State of the Union address that the age of big government is over ... [T]he re-election of Bill Clinton would ... damage the pretensions of enlightened democracy" (Who Loses if Clinton Wins, 1996, in: ibid.). 

In 2004, he wrote with regards to immigration: "The new intelligence law, courtesy of 9/11, is mystifying because it does not face directly what is the most prominent threat to homeland security. And that is: inimical action by non-Americans. All the people who participated in 9/11 were foreigners, here under various auspices ... The immigration problem is the primary unmet challenge of modern times. It is so because the whole of our political establishment cringes at any suggestion that the United States is inhospitable to immigration. We do have laws on the books, but they are apparently made for the sole purpose of allowing people to flout them ... We have the piquant problem of what to do with illegals ... The result of ... the need for cheap labor and the passion to avoid any appearance of ethnic or religious discrimination ... is an open frontier" (Illegalizing Illegals, in: ibid., my emphasis). 

We see here all the ingredients of the far-right anti-immigration narrative that is being propagated to this day. Terrorism and immigration are conflated. The existence of an "establishment" that is afraid of being perceived as racist is postulated. Then cheap labour is added to this conspiracy theory. Although Buckley is, as most right-wing extremists, allegedly pro-free market (if cheap labour is needed, isn't there demand for it?), yet at the same time against labour unions and government intervention that could bring about higher wages. Lots and lots of words that actually mean only one thing: white nationalist moneyed oligarchy. 

Wherever you look in Buckley's career, he endorsed some of the most extreme white supremacist and oligarchical ideas he could get away with at any given time. 

We do not know if he would have supported Donald Trump and the present-day Republican Party. I don't like to speculate, and it would be pointless to do so. But he always moved in the same ideological milieu. His works read like a far-right political manifesto. 

I am always surprised when conservatives to this day cite Buckley as an example of a good conservative leader who expunged extremist elements from the right-wing movement. He was himself an extremist, albeit, as Stuart Stevens put it, more articulate than his Trumpian successors (see Stevens, S. (2021). It was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump, p. 113). 


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