By: Zach Young
The following essay was the winner of the Buckley Program’s spring semester essay contest. The topic was “What can we learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. today?”.
“The best defense against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.”
– William F. Buckley, Jr.
Upon exiting the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin purportedly encountered an excited group of citizens, who asked him which form of government the delegates had chosen. “A republic,” Franklin replied curtly, “if you can keep it.” Franklin’s answer inverted an age-old power structure. Rule by elites, he suggested, was to be supplanted with government of, by, and for the people. 230 years later, this experiment has proven successful in the United States and influential abroad. Yet there remains no guarantee that American citizens will continue to “keep” their republic. Today, with the advent of social media and proliferation of online news, America faces a crisis of public discourse. To resolve it, the public would be well served by consulting the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. His 57-year career provides a compelling illustration of the potential of vibrant, productive debate.
Contemporary public discourse has fallen into dire straits. While giving people more choice over their news intake, the Internet has also facilitated “echo chambers” and “bubbles” where citizens only encounter beliefs that reinforce their own. According to a 2016 Pew report, 39 percent of conservative Republicans and 44 percent of liberal Democrats receive one-sided news online. Moreover, the fragmentation of the media landscape online has allowed more Americans to insulate themselves from opposing views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 58 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats now hold “very unfavorable” views of the other party, according to Pew, versus only 21 and 17 percent, respectively, in 1994. Meanwhile, political debate has become increasingly mean-spirited and uncivil. Another 2016 Pew report found that significant majorities of Americans view political discourse on social media as disrespectful, uninformative, and angry. 59 percent called political debate online “stressful and frustrating,” while 64 percent expressed their unwillingness to voice beliefs online due to the toxicity of responses.
In this depressing state of public discourse, Buckley offers a much-needed model. During his 33 years as the host of Firing Line, Buckley committed himself to stepping outside his “echo chamber” and engaging the brightest thinkers who disagreed with him. Buckley invited leading progressives, Beatniks, socialists, black nationalists, and others to participate in hour-long, televised debates. His most frequent guests included the Democratic politician Mark Green and liberal pundit Jeff Greenfield. With sparring partners from across the political spectrum, Buckley made a point of exposing his conservative outlook to scrutiny.
Aside from showing whom to engage, Buckley also taught how to do so. In his columns, books, and debates, Buckley avoided ad hominem arguments and instead gave his opponents a presumption of good faith. He did so even with the likes of Noam Chomsky and James Baldwin, who reciprocated by engaging Buckley’s ideas. In a similar fashion, Buckley addressed arguments with charity on Firing Line, typically asking his guests to better define their ideas before eventually countering with his own. In addition, Buckley made use of a rich, expansive vocabulary to add precision and nuance to his stances on policy. “The fastidious eye encounters happily the word that says exactly what the writer wished not only said but conveyed,” Buckley explained in his aptly titled column, “I Am Lapidary But Not Eristic When I Use Big Words” (1986). Rather than resort to reductionism, Buckley pushed himself—and his audience—to articulate ideas with exactitude.
Beyond his practices of good debate, Buckley espoused the spirit of free inquiry. Throughout his career, he encouraged everyday people to develop their own ideas: fielding audience questions in Firing Line, visiting dozens of colleges in a year, and empowering New Yorkers with a meaningful vote during his 1965 mayoral run—a self- described “campaign of ideas.” Buckley voiced optimism about the capacity of the American people to govern itself, including in his well-known quip that he would entrust the United States “to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory rather than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Underlying this view was Buckley’s respect for honest disagreement and intellectual diversity. Unlike Socrates, who sought consensus, or Kant, who anticipated universal reason, Buckley recognized that public disagreement could be genuine. Differences in values and faith, he reasoned, should be reflected in differences of opinion in a free society.
In the Internet age, Americans ought to look to Buckley for a model of elevating public discourse. In his television series and syndicated columns, Buckley exemplified going beyond intellectual comfort zones and listening carefully to opposing arguments. He also saw a key role for everyday people to play in their country’s politics. Today’s Americans should follow Buckley’s lead and practice his techniques of constructive debate, rhetorical exactness, and intellectual honesty. Rather than intimidate opponents into silence, Buckley showed how to prevail by expressing ideas more persuasively. By reading Buckley’s books, watching his debates, and mirroring his example, the American people will be prepared for the next 230 years of their experiment in self-government.
Zach Young is a senior in Silliman College.