Stephen Bainbridge and David Klinghoffer have both authored their respective pieces complaining about how the conservative has been taken over by vulgarians like Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart, and pining for the days of "smart, well-read, articulate leaders" like William F. Buckley, Jr. The problem with most people who turn once living men into stone idols and then worship them, is that they discard the reality of what those men really did, to bemoan the situation today. And when they do that, they discard useful lessons that might serve them in the present.
That Buckley had more than a little in common with Andrew Breitbart in his confrontational style, media savvy and casual arrogance. This was the William F. Buckley who ran for mayor of New York, only in order to defeat left wing Republican John Lindsay, who traded in incendiary rhetoric, while cleverly mocking both parties and the entire process while doing it. Tactics that have more than a little in common with Breitbart, Limbaugh and the Tea Party movement.
It is important to understand that Buckley did not play a vital role in the conservative movement by sitting in a drawing room and delivering the occasional bon mot. Instead he grappled with the confrontational tactics of the left, and met them on both intellectual and activism grounds. The complaints about stupid and vulgarian conservatives, is essentially a complaint about activists who are actually relevant because they viscerally confront the other side, as opposed to sitting back and moaning that the whole movement has gone to hell. It is ridiculously easy to fall backward crying, "o tempora, o mores", it is a little more difficult to actually fight the good fight and try to make a difference.
William F. Buckley has become a stand-in for a ridiculously mannered conservatism, but that was not the Buckley who became such a force, and it was not why he managed to be relevant at a time when the sun seemed to be setting on conservatism. Instead the mannered Buckley is often summoned by conservative snobs and liberals who pine for their romantic idea of an impotent drawing room conservative who never leaves his velvet chair. The real Buckley however was a fighter, he was provocative, controversial and at times outrageous. He understood the value of theatrics and putting on a good show. He knew that as the underdog you have to be confrontational, rather than defeatist.
The idea that Buckley should be the model, rather than Limbaugh or Breitbart, misses the point. All three men were effective in a particular communications medium and era. Breitbart wouldn't work on the radio, but he understands the internet. Limbaugh wouldn't make much of a difference in print, but he's spectacularly effective on the radio. The man has to be matched to the medium. So does the language, the tone and the message.
But it's not really about Buckley, it's about using him as a prop to attack populist conservatism, to lump it all under the same stereotypes as liberals do. And to do that is to kill conservatism entirely, to turn it into a faint shadow of liberalism, but without the excess, as has happened in the UK, and as can be seen in the United States Congress. It's not Buckley that they're really championing, but Lindsay, an empty suit in search of all the right words to stuff inside it.
It's usual enough for the different factions in the Republican party to grouse about each other, but the blanket condemnations of the party as a whole, by people who want to drum out all social conservatives, neo-conservatives and anyone who listens to talk radio, would leave the party with what exactly? The very outlets and outbursts that they despise, actually show the vitality of the Republican party. Not as a set of books on a shelf, but as beliefs and goals that people will actually fight for.
The Republican party can only have a future if it reflects the people. And that means the people who listen to Rush Limbaugh, who enjoy seeing Breitbart's exposes take the cultural battle to the enemy, and the people who believe in the literal truth of the bible, question the political consensus and the scientific consensus, don't just want lower taxes but smaller government, and aren't interested in being told to go home by drawing room conservatives until they're wanted at the polls. Because that's the surest way to insure that they won't show up.
A political culture cannot be purely intellectualized, it must also be vital. Ideas without bodies, are only ghosts. And bodies without ideas, are dead from the neck up. For ideas to matter they have to connect to the causes that people care about. And for the causes to endure beyond the present outrage, they must be defensible in the marketplace of ideas.
And finally, let them remember that in his day, William F. Buckley was denounced by some Republicans as a radical extremist, a bigot, affiliated with the far-right, as appealing to brutish instincts of fear and ignorance. Buckley was by no means perfect, neither is Breitbart or Limbaugh. But they are the type of men and women we need, if we are going to do more than talk to each other in a bubble, and reassure ourselves that we are always correct. In a confrontational time, conservatives must be capable, willing and eager to be confrontational, to raise up as banners those issues that matter to the people and to forcefully fight for what the country should be.