In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.
To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”
Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”
But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?
Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:
The Watergate controversy and the collapse of the Nixon presidency led me to closely follow the 1976 presidential election, the first national election that I took seriously. The result of that research was a reasoned vote for Gerald Ford.
Ford, though, had not been my first choice for the Republican nomination. As it did for many others, the Reagan challenge had inspired me, and I was disappointed when Reagan fell short at the convention. By 1980, I was solidly in the Reagan camp, rejoicing in his stunning electoral victory over an incumbent president. I still remember the reaction of one of my professors the morning after the election. Clearly disturbed, he announced to the class that he could scarcely bring himself to realize that “that cowboy has been elected president.” His perspective was not unique; it was dominant on that campus—and most others.
During the Reagan presidency, I discovered that Reagan had read Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, a book many considered seminal to the conservative movement. Reagan credited the book with providing his understanding of the philosophy and workings of the communist mind, and I decided it was time to evaluate it myself.
I did not expect what I found. I expected a treatise on communism and how wrong it was. What I received was far more. Chambers had not written a political tract; instead, he wrote painfully of the weaknesses in his own life while detailing the tragic consequences of a philosophy that he believed dethroned God and the sources of the moral contents of life. It was not just a story. It was not simply an autobiography. It was a personal spiritual reflection and confession. One reading was not enough, even though it was 799 pages. I had to go through it again to see what I might have missed the first time. I believed the work to be so significant that later I developed an entire college course around the book and its author, “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers.”