On January 13, 1978, notable Conservative intellectual and founder of the National Review William F. Buckley Jr. took on then Gov. Ronald Reagan about the pair of treaties that would divorce the United States from her control over the Panama Canal Zone. I have always been a fan of both Buckley and President Reagan (despite their faults), but I had never seen this particular debate until last night. Anyone familiar with either of them will no doubt be aware of how charming, amiable, and smart the two of them are, but Buckley stood out during the debate as the more erudite and the more intellectually rigorous.
This got me thinking about who among modern conservatives inherited Buckley’s mantle after his death in 2008. George Will is the obvious candidate. He is smart, largely impartial, and has a jovial style that reminds conservatives that it’s okay to take themselves less seriously. I also get the impression that Will see’s himself in this same light. But Will lacks the polysyllabic, ten-dollar-words Buckley is famous (or infamous) for. This is not a trite distinction.
But who else on the Right can claim Buckley’s intellectual inheritance? I don’t think anyone can. This has left the Right in a state of intellectual absence. There are few Republicans who can articulate positions and think through problems as clearly as Buckley, or even the much maligned Barry Goldwater. Rush Limbaugh is no Ayn Rand.
The left doesn’t seem to have this problem. They have Gore Vidal, the late Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. Despite the many sins of the intellectual left, the fact remains that even the most capable of Right-wing thinkers, including my love Rand Paul, can’t stand up to the rhetorical challenge alone posed by people like Chomsky and Vidal. Perhaps this situation can be best explained by the fact that the left seems to have conquered the Académie, but I think the bigger issue is that conservatives no longer want intellectualism- and, without demand, the supply has simply dried up.
Look at Ted Cruz. Many on the right call Sen. Cruz an conservative intellectual heavy-weight, but I often find myself wishing he would make more thorough arguments rather than spending time trying to make himself seem like an “every-man”. Trying to appeal to the audience’s emotional senses is not the mark of true intellectualism. When a conservative does try to elevate the conversation, they are often maligned. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was often the target of anti-intellectualism when he ran for Senate in 1976 (Moynihan’s Republican opponent, William F. Buckley’s older brother James, often derisively referred to Moynihan as “Prof. Moynihan”). During the Republican primary race in 2007, Ron Paul was mocked for talking about the books he likes to read.
If sensible conservatives really want their party back from Trump’s vulgar populism, they have to start emulating Buckley and Will, not Bannon and Rush.