By: Calla Bai
The following essay was the second-place winner of the Buckley Program’s spring semester high school essay contest. The topic was “What can we learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. today?”.
Champion of conservatism and celebrated founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr. was one of the most influential figures in American politics who is remembered today. He had studied at Yale; written over 50 books on topics more imaginative than imaginable; hosted the popular television show, “The Firing Line”; and most importantly, in the predominantly liberal landscape after the World War II, he managed to make conservatism respectable and mainstream. Even apart from politics, there is a clear lesson that can be learned from Buckley’s life: to conform is to sacrifice risks, yet also greatness.
In the United States during the 1960s post-war liberalism flourished. After combatting the horrors of fascism, political ideologies were bound to lean leftwards. President Lyndon Johnson implemented ideals like “sharing the wealth” and achieving “The Great Society” through a vast number of welfare programs ranging from Medicare and Medicaid, which provided healthcare for the poor and elderly, government-funded higher education, and family allowances. This sort of attitude was similarly adopted globally as influence from both the United States and the Soviet Union was strong at the time (due to their overwhelming victory). Many countries were shifting leftwards ideologically and systematically; many transformed into parliamentary democracies, and others were ruled under socialist or communist dictatorships. In 1950, one of America’s leading scholars, Lionel Trilling, wrote, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”
Facing this political climate, Buckley surely must have anticipated the public to be unreceptive to his conservative ideas, yet he delivered his new ideas, and it has both saved the United States in the forthcoming years and diversified the political agenda. President George W. Bush wrote that Buckley “brought conservative thought into the political mainstream, and helped lay the intellectual foundation for America’s victory in the Cold War.” The indirectly fought against the suppressive Communist regimes that were spreading rampantly across Asia and Eastern Europe. Simply from expressing his own idea without fear of hurting his reputation he became one of the most influential figures in American history and a champion of democratization.
On another note, it has been noted that Buckley even risked relations with his revered alma mater. He wrote his first book in 1951, titled God and Man at Yale in which he condemned Yale’s professors for moving towards secularism, collectivism, and Keynesianism, all predominantly leftist ideas. He thought, rather, they should not stray from Christianity, free market capitalism, and individualism. His choice to put his reputation at stake and deliver his message with conviction demonstrates the sort of confidence he had in his ideas and the lack of fear for society’s expectations one should live with.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism, wrote, “Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.” This classic ideal that embodies the greatness that can stem from individualism truly held true in the work and life of William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley gave himself clear platforms to do such, and with conviction he was able to shape the ideals of the masses.
Calla Bai is a junior at Greenwich High School.