Temperament or Ideology: Clinton Rossiter & William F. Buckley

Sixty years ago, a Professor of American Government at Cornell University published a book called Conservatism in America; The Thankless Persuasion. Later editions of the book dropped the subtitle but Clinton Rossiter, a distinguished scholar who wrote many good books on political ideas and constitutional government; was himself to suffer a sad and thankless life.

In 1969, when armed black student radicals seized the Student Union building, Cornell faced one of the most notorious crises of the 1960s. Rossiter tried to act as a moderating intermediary between his faculty colleagues and the young black radicals. He gained lasting enmity from some of his colleagues. Allan Bloom declared he would never speak to him again. His three young sons, all ardent activist radicals opposing the Vietnam War, had already become alienated from him. 

He committed suicide a year later, only 52, although one of his sons much later learned and revealed that his father, still recalled by him with love, had suffered for years from severe depression, uncontrollable rages, and alcoholism, long before hit by the 1960’s combination of campus politics and private family storms.

New Conservatism and William F. Buckley
Even had he lived and continued to teach and publish, he probably would not have liked the way conservatism, at both the intellectual and popular level, mainly developed in the United States in the years after his death. Rossiter, like Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck, and Robert Nisbet, was associated with a moderate, humane, culturally polished, but politically ineffectual movement once called ‘the New Conservatism’, but it was the quite different ‘New Conservatism’ of William F. Buckley and his successful National Review periodical that brought about a whole new level of influence and power in at least nominally ‘conservative’ American politics.

Buckley himself was rich, witty, English private school and Ivy League polished. But while he could scarcely be called a ‘populist’, he knew how to tap into and co-ordinate popular feelings, especially bellicose American nationalism and anti-Communism. He had, and still has, tremendous practical influence, including as a major aid to the rise of Ronald Reagan. He purged his following from residual upper-class antisemitism, and more gradually got clear from Southern segregationism and black subordination. Individualist and in many ways well-disposed to economic libertarianism, he nonetheless expelled Ayn Rand from his magazine and movement for her dogmatic atheism and didactic preachiness. From the outset of NR, he depended heavily on the logical clarity and moral intensity of disillusioned ex-Marxists, like James Burnham and Frank Meyer. He shared their fierce anti-Communism, but also rejected the conspiratorial nuttiness of Robert Welch and his once-popular John Birch Society.

Cold Warriors
Buckley was thus above all a Cold Warrior (only in recent years was it revealed that he was a youthful recruit to the CIA); in fact, one of the main reasons he could not find limited common cause with men like Rossiter and Kirk was that, while they were anti-Communists as well, they were more hesitant about supporting ‘muscular’ American foreign policy, and the supposedly purely benevolent aspects of pure capitalist enterprise everywhere. They might be a shade different from ‘Adlai Stevenson liberal Democrats’, maybe Republican voters, but without a sufficiently sharp edge to suit him and his NR colleagues.

For anyone who lived any adult years through the most intense period of the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1970, Buckley’s particular ‘conservative’ package was easy to understand and sympathize with. People growing up in later decades, conservatives included, may now underestimate just how big a factor that was in explaining Buckley’s steady rise, as editor, columnist, and eventual highly popular TV pundit. But by now, it can be seen that ‘Buckleyism’ has gradually had some long-term consequences, including in Britain and Canada, which need to be re-examined today. Canadians, especially, ought to take another look a Rossiter’s essay. While intended to map out a basis for a specifically American conservatism, what he has to say makes a more ‘universal’ kind of sense, and is far less dated than, say, George Grant’s 1964 Lament for a Nation.

English traditionalism and our Liberal majority
Rossiter’s emphasis was not exactly on ‘anti-liberalism’, ‘anti-Marxism’, ‘free markets’ or ‘populism.’ It was more in line with the traditionalism of English political thought. He declared that a conservative, unlike a liberal, believes less in innate human goodness and more in human potential for evil; recognizes inequality as a natural human condition, save in political life; sees vox populi more as a potential tyrant than as the voice of God; regards civil rights as the reward of virtue rather than as automatic entitlements; regards private property as a major basis of other rights, rather than as a threat to them; is likely to possess intuitive and immediate religious and patriotic feeling. The conservative on occasion distrusts ‘reason’ enough to let it be overruled by the mandate of a higher law; and believes in the ‘civilizing, disciplinary, conserving mission of education’.

That last one may produce a wince in this era of frequently corrupted mass college education, but by and large, I think these are touchstones that can just as well be kept in mind by serious conservatives in all times, and most especially when there has been the kind of spectacular change in leaders and political parties that happened in the Canadian federal election just concluded. Whatever the Justin Trudeau government tries to be like, or turns out to be like in practice, it can safely be assumed that it will be largely in opposition to most of the values listed above, blandly indifferent to Original Sin. Furthermore, even its supporters cannot really claim that the Liberal Party majority was forged out of a demand from the majority of Canadians to reject such values. Stephen Harper’s undeniably abrasive personality, with all his faults lovingly magnified by the media, had a lot to do with it; so did a vaguer ‘desire for change’; so did what must be granted was surprisingly skillful campaigning by the previously unimpressive Justin. And to repeat a favourite maxim of mine from Samuel Johnson, experience sets a dear school, but there are some who will learn in no other.

“A Thankless Persuasion”
Conservatives, especially if they have heavily committed themselves to active partisan struggle in democratic elections, never stop being pained at rediscovering they must indeed live with a thankless persuasion. Buckley, whose own sunny optimism came partly from his birthright American nationalism and his unwillingness to see that the uncritical pro-capitalist tradition he helped build could launch its own profoundly un-conservative effects, liked to repeatedly assert, that ‘conservatism is the politics of reality’. But there was at least one Anglo-American poet and philosopher who said something deeper:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

[T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets ]

(Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. This essay first appeared in the Montreal-based online journal, The Prince Arthur Herald.)