"The Old Conservatism" and Its Flaws: A Critique
However, I am old enough to talk about the "Old Conservatism," the kind that traces back to William F. Buckley's publication of "God and Man at Yale," his book with L. Brent Bozell (his Yale roommate), and his founding of The National Review in 1955. In a political sense, the Old Conservatism, as I define it derivies mainly from the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964 and his publication of "The Conscience of a Conservative."
I defer to no one in my overall praise for Bill Buckley and his associates. Without Buckley's example, there probably would have been no "The Alternative" (later "The American Spectator"), nor would there have been other forums used by early conservatives like John Coyne, David Brudnoy, D. Keith Mano, Richard Brookhiser (another of those conservatives from Rochester, NY, like Mary Grabar and yours truly), Ernest van den Haag, William Rusher, and many others.
At the same time, the Old Conservatism had certain flaws, some of which continue. The movement was militantly anti-Communist (all to the good), strongly Roman Catholic (a mixed blessing -- something I say even though I'm Roman Catholic), primarily male (not so good a thing), and often enamored of Ivy League schools (a very bad thing).
There's no one more anti-Communist than a disaffected former Communist. One of Buckley's early associates was Whittaker Chambers, author of "Witness," and exposer of pre-Beltway Washington favorite Alger Hiss as a Communist spy. Other former Communists who worked for National Review in the early days were Willi Schlamm, who later went back to Germany and was one of the prickliest personalities in the history of journalism, and unwavering libertarian Frank Meyer.
One striking thing about Buckley's associates was how many of them either were Roman Catholics or, especially, converted to that faith. I don't believe von den Haag (a wonderful man, by the way) ever converted, but he talked almost ceaselessly about the possibility of doing so.
However, Wilmoore Kendall, Buckley's controversial teacher of Political Science at Yale, did convert -- and managed to get TWO of his former marriages annulled. Russell Kirk converted to Catholicism late in his life. Almost incredibly, Frank Meyer, once an atheist, then an agnostic, converted on his deathbed.
Frankly, a person's religious belief is a matter that concerns him or her and God. On the other hand, Buckley -- although not Professor Kirk -- sometimes seemed to regard non-Catholic Christians as something of a lesser-breed without the Magesterium. Buckley's arrogance was part of his charm (and not really a reflection of the "inner Bill"), but when he spoke on matters religious he sometimes seemed to be making uterances ex cathedra.
He might counter that his first religion editor at NR was Will Herberg, a prominent Jewish theologian and social critic, and he'd be right. Yet NR was largely a Catholic publication. I never noticed any evangelical Protestants playing a prominent role at the magazine, although such people are a major factor in conservatism.
In America, Roman Catholics are large in number, if we're counting all those who get baptized, some of whom never spend another moment in a Catholic church. But Catholics who share Buckley's specific convictions (militantly orthodox Catholicism) are a relatvely small percentage of American voters.
For various reasons, most Catholics in America don't agree with the Vatican (or Buckley) on many Church teachings, including those related to abortion (most favor some forms of it), the death penalty (most favor it), military conflicts (most favor it, at least in the beginning stages), or a celibate clergy (most favor marriage as an option).
Rudy Giuliani is a modern -- and moderately conservative -- individual who grew up as a Catholic and went to St. John's University. He favors abortion and enhanced gay rights; he's against "gun rights." I disagree with him on all these points, but there's a decent chance I might vote for him if he's the Republican candidate for President. It's a little like Andrew Greeley's remark about finding a "perfect church." He added that, after you find it, the church almost immediately becomes "imperfect." I've never, aside from Ronald Regan and Diana Irey, found a perfect candidate.
It was fine for the editor-in-chief of NR and much of the staff to be faithful Catholics. It wasn't all right for them to not seek out other Christians (and Jews) to play a more important role on the magazine and in the movement. As a Catholic, I do not regard Protestants as my "separated brethern." I regard them as fellow Christians who are equal to me -- and to Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. -- in the eyes of Almighty God.
The "Old Conservatives," including yours truly, didn't make the case on social issues to Roman Catholics. In the Protestant communities, especially the evangelical segment, social issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research have been much-discussed. In the Catholic community, they threatened to beome almost invisible.
My liberal friend Maria M. gladly admits she's a "cafeteria Catholic." Among her co-religionists, she may now be in the majority.
NR was also deficient in seeking out non-whites, especially Blacks and Hispanics. Politically, the opportunity was there, remembering that -- in the 1960 election -- Kennedy got 68% of the Black vote and Nixon got 32%. If a McCain or Guiliani could get anything like one-third of the Black vote, a Hillary or a Barack wouldn't even be forming "exploratory committees."
In Pennsylvania in 2004, George Bush lost PA to Kerry by 51% to 49%. If Bush had gotten one Black vote out of four in the Keystone State, he'd had won by roughly 60% to 40%. My right-wing nephew monitored two Black precincts in Philadelphia, and the combined vote, which he believed was accurate, was 617 for Kerry, 8 for Bush.
Another problem for contemporary conservatives is the female vote, especially that of single women, that goes decisively to (liberal) Democratic candidates. As I've suggested, the "Old Conservatism" was almost exclusively male (and white). .
When it came to women, The Old Conservatives were much better at marrying them than at nurturning them politically. As an "old reader" of NR, I remember the name of Suzanne LaFollette appearing year-after-year on the magazine's masthead. I'm not exactly sure who Ms. LaFollette was, and I she apparently never wrote anything for NR. At meetings sponsored by the Philadelphia Society or the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, it sometimes looking like a gathering of an all-male club.
Most of the people who vote in presidential elections are women -- 52% to 48% the last time I looked. Most women tend to vote Democratic. With the same being true of Blacks and Hispanics, the Republican candidate has to win a huge majority of white votes to have a chance. In states with large Black populations, including New York, California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, prospects for Republicans range between iffy and nil.
To a large degree, I blame the Old Conservatives for this situation, particulary with women. I also blame Old Conservatives who are still around, especially people like the wildly over-rated and narcissistic George Will. He's always come across as something of a garrulous version of Calvin Coolidge and, on balance, he has done nothing to advance the conservative cause.
The way to overcome liberal ideas, and this is something Bob Tryrrell of "The American Spectator" never really learned, is not to express contempt for liberals, or to invent slogans (e.g., "Boy Clinton" for President Bill). Instead, it's to come up with ideas and policies that American voters find compelling. In this regard, think Ronald Reagan.
Right now, the best conservative female writers in the U.S. are: Ann Coulter, Debra Saunders (of The San Francisco Chronicle and Townhall.com), and Mary Grabar (also of Townhall.com). Coulter is the lightning rod, much-publicized, and much-vilified. Saunders has something of a national audience, especially through her appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources."
As for Mary Grabar, most conservatives, aside from readers of her wonderful columns on Townhall.com, have never heard of her. Frankly, people like Mary are the future of conservatism in America. We need to read their articles and buy their books, or otherwise we will see fewer of them in the future.
Another things I wish "Old Conservatives" had done was to ditch their fascination with Ivy League Schools, especially Yale (Buckley's alma mater) and Harvard. I wish Buckley had strongly urged conservatives to send their children elsewhere, an approach he dipped his toe into in "God and Man at Yale."
When I taught at the University of Georgia in the 70s, I believed it had a lot more intellectual firepower than either Harvard or Yale, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It had great conservative thinkers like Calvin Smith Brown (Comp. Lit professor and Rhodes Scholar), Rodney Baine (18th Century Literature and another Rhodes Scholar), Marion Montgomery (novelist and social theorist), Albert Seay (constitutional law scholar), Ed Krickel (editor of The Georgia Review), Frederick Boney (Southern history), Bob West (Milton scholar), and many others. I'm sure in the eyes of Harvard and Yale, UGA was an intellectual backwater, the opposite of the truth.
In the 1970s, there was much more intellectual diversity at UGA, the University of Dallas (home then to Mel Bradford, Tom Landess, Caroline Gordon, and others) than at Brown or the University of Pennsylvania. Dartmouth at the time did have intellectual vibrancy, but it was being snuffed out so the university could look exactly like every other Ivy League School.
In short, I think the Old Conservatives, many of whom graduated from or taught at the Ivies, gave excessive reverence to those schools. They didn't seem to understand in any depth the vibrancy of institutions like Grove City College, Hillsdale, the University of Dallas, and other institutions that placed high value on ideas.
The Old Conservatism had its flaws. Yet it did help keep alive many ideas, especially those related to national defense and economics, that were crucial to sustaining the American republic. One hopes the emerging "New Conservatism" will retain the virtues of the older version and remove some of the deficiencies.