By: Sophie Dillon
The following essay was the third-place winner of the Buckley Program’s spring semester essay contest. The topic was “What can we learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. today?”.
Last November, America experienced one of its most surprising elections to date, when Donald Trump edged out a win in a presidential race so close they couldn’t call a winner until three in the morning. Clinton supporters watched in astonished agony as the votes were tallied—what about the polls that had been promising a Hillary presidency for months? What about the reputable news sources who had denounced Trump’s comments as racist and sexist? The morning after the election, many Americans found themselves wondering—How could this have happened?
While I do not mean to reduce the myriad factors that led Trump to win the 45th Presidential election without a sizeable portion of the American population realizing this was the case until the morning after, I think one reason is wholly clear: America suffers from a lack of meaningful intellectual discourse, or, in William F. Buckley, Jr.’s terms: “honest intellectual combat.” When William F. Buckley, Jr. founded National Review magazine in 1955, he wrote in its mission statement: “The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques” which can only be countered, according to Buckley, by “honest intellectual combat.” For William F. Buckley, Jr., the real danger to American politics was its peoples’ intellectual complacency—men hopping on others’ bandwagons without first thinking for themselves.
What the United States needs to learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. is the value of intellectual individualism—the idea that each man, through discourse with one another (whether that discourse is face-to-face in person or mind-to-mind via text), must discover his own beliefs, then test the mettle of these beliefs, over and over and over again. Man must think for himself, then actively and honestly articulate his beliefs to others with a mind toward perfecting his own (for our ideas are rocks, which grow more polished as they crash through the tumbler of discourse). With social media algorithms controlling more and more of young peoples’ access to news, tailoring content to individual interest, America suffers a crisis of conformity. This has proved particularly difficult with the proliferation of online news sources who court niches of the political spectrum by skewing left or right, providing more possibilities for consumers to reinforce their beliefs with news accreditation—even when these news sources abandon fact. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to show their users what they want to see; unfortunately, this has significant political ramifications. As a result, many young people (and older people who rely on social media for news) are not forced to honestly articulate and test their beliefs—their news (via social media, the digital commons) reinforces their ideas rather than tests their ideas.
This is not only true of social media—this is also true of Congress, which is greatly in need of honest intellectual combat. William F. Buckley, Jr. did not only believe in actively articulating and evaluating one’s beliefs, he believed that this articulation and evaluation was meaningful. The stakes of intellectual combat were one’s beliefs—not a headline. In this respect, it has been tiresome to watch President Trump go back on his word, over and over and over again. It has been frustrating to watch Americans grow complacent with Trump’s predilection for saying things he does not mean, when honesty is a crucial element in intellectual and political growth. Without honesty, there are no stakes. There is no backbone of belief in the idea; it is just a wisp, susceptible to the slightest change of wind.
While there is no way to know precisely what William F. Buckley, Jr. would have said of our current political moment, he did comment on the possibility of Donald Trump’s election in a 2000 essay he wrote for Cigar Aficionado: “So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents—midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War—had little to do with the bottom line.” For Buckley, running a country was not about a bottom line (such as making the most people happy or saving the most money), for Buckley, running a country was about striving for a goal—striving to articulate and evaluate the best plan of action through open, honest discourse.
As President Trump continues to contradict himself and journalists, intellectual individualism is more important than ever. Americans need to go beyond our curated news feeds and honestly weigh our beliefs against others’. To truly think for ourselves, we need to challenge our minds to different perspectives. To truly think for ourselves, we must be honest in our pursuit of truth, we must speak with conviction, we must mean what we say. William F. Buckley, Jr. understood that American politics fed off of honest intellectual combat: men coming together to polish their individual ideas, feeding off of each other in the process. When we lose honest intellectual combat, we lose our freedom to loose our mind upon the world and find out how we are truly shaped. American politics requires a constant process of refinement that only works when its people are willing to challenge themselves. In 2017, we must rise to this challenge.
Sophie Dillon is a senior in Davenport College.