William F. Buckley Jr. could have made Donald Trump quiver with impotent rage. This is a guy who sent Ayn Rand postcards in liturgical Latin just to make her mad, and then bragged about it in her obituary. In part because of his trollish panache, the founder of National Review and longtime host of the television show Firing Line was a conservative mascot in life, and he has become mythologized in death. The 2016 election has made it clear that no one quite like Buckley is working in media today: Republicans are hurting for a cocksure slayer of pseudo-conservative invaders.
No wonder two Buckley retrospectives have come out this October. Open to Debate, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media-studies professor Heather Hendershot, examines Buckley’s tenure on Firing Line and the diverse ideologies represented on the show. A Torch Kept Lit, edited by the Fox News correspondent James Rosen, chronicles notable obituaries written by WFB, as Buckley’s fans often call him. Both indulge nostalgia in their own way, but their yearning points to something real: In American politics, and specifically in political media, quality debate has seemingly withered. The presidential election has been an 18-month-long series of lows for civil discourse, culminating in the insult-laden, nearly-impossible-to-follow presidential debates.
There are many plausible explanations for how things got so bad. But one persuasive argument, which Hendershot makes in her book, is that the nature of debate itself has changed: Particularly on television-news programs, there’s little empathy on either side for opposing viewpoints, and scant willingness to engage in authentic intellectual battle. For all its flaws, Buckley’s work is a reminder that space for debate matters—true debate, between people of opposite worldviews, oriented less toward production values and sound bites than curiosity and strength of argument. In the absence of those spaces, Donald Trump’s unprecedented lies have come to count as much as putatively legitimate positions, further enabling the kind of self-satisfied complacency among Democrats that Buckley so hated about ’60s-era liberals.
The defining feature of Firing Line, Hendershot writes,was its standard of admission. Anyone, so long as they were famous or sufficiently chummy with WFB, could get on the show. This included Buckley’s ideological enemies: He delighted in debating everyone from Allen Ginsberg to the editor of The Nation; the black nationalist Milton Henry once appeared on the show flanked by bodyguards in military fatigues. No topic was out of bounds. Buckley eagerly took up controversial issues like race and civil rights, facing off with everyone from Alabama Governor George Wallace to James Baldwin.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of ideological free-for-all on today’s TV news shows, even those that rightfully prize debate like the PBS NewsHour, whose guests tend to be relatively moderate. The left has its bugaboos—a lack of willingness to engage with religious conservatives who have doubts about gay marriage, for example. But while liberal and conservative media environments are both insular, they are not equivalent. Studies have shown that people who watch Fox News are more likely to believe erroneous facts about issues like immigration, for example. Many conservative pundits have attacked the credibility of mainstream news outlets undermining trust in major information sources and empirically established facts. Arguably, this has enabled the success of Trump, a candidate who consistently spreads lies and misinformation.
Buckley’s work underscores just how far conservative media has fallen. Part of the problem, as Alan Jacobs argued in Harper’s earlier this year, could be that there are far fewer distinctively Christian (and, implicitly, conservative) intellectuals participating in mainstream media today. Buckley, a Yale man who lived on an estate in Connecticut, provided conservatives with a champion from the same class and educational background as elite liberals, for better or worse. Especially in the violent and politically divided ’60s, Buckley’s “rhetoric and self-presentation conveyed that conservatism was not the last refuge of raving lunatics,” Hendershot wrote. Above all, she argued, he showed that “conservatism could be not only upright but also stylish.”
What counted as stylishness in the 1960s and ’70s likely wouldn’t cut it in today’s media environment. Firing Line was notoriously and intentionally low on production values, and it could be dreadfully boring. Buckley, ever patrician-looking and Yankee-sounding, was featured on a simple stage; he “seemed to have been sitting next to the same table and glass of water for 30 years,” Hendershot wrote. By the time the show ended in 1999, it had extremely low ratings and a vanishing audience. “Buckley had passed from movement builder to grand old man of the right,” according to Hendershot.
Television’s shifting business model is part of why Buckley-style debate has declined, but the norms of media and entertainment have also changed. Cable-news programs seem to have created an inescapable trap of inane, false controversy, which is then mirrored across the web; as Hendershot wrote in her book, “The problem with cable-era news is not just that it skews toward one-sided harangues but that, simultaneously, two-sided debate is built into the system in order to amp up the volume of the drama.” TV news audiences are aging, and younger generations are consuming articles and videos on their phones and computers; cable news may soon go through its own crisis. But this bias toward noise-making, along with the ideological ghettos in which it takes place, remain intact.
As much as Buckley provided a model for open discourse, he and other Buckleyites also bear some responsibility for making space in the Republican Party for bigotry, including the xenophobia and racism that has come out in full force during the 2016 election. Buckley was a committed Goldwater apologist, striving to defend the Arizona senator before and after his crushing defeat in the 1964 election.
As The Atlantic wrote in its endorsement of Lyndon B. Johnson that year—the second in the magazine’s history—Goldwater’s “preference to let states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia enforce civil rights within their own borders … attracted the allegiance of Governor George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birchers.” Although Hendershot argues that Buckley distanced himself from the Wallaces and KKKs and Birchers of the right, he shared some of their views. In fact, he provided some of the intellectual firepower for opposition to civil rights, claiming that it was primarily a question of federalism and state’s rights, rather than racism and justice.
On this count, Hendershot lets Buckley off too easily. Rosen, if anything, is worse. In A Torch Kept Lit, he writes that Buckley was thoughtful on Martin Luther King’s legacy, only mentioning in passing that Buckley was “dreadfully wrong” about civil rights, such as when he referred to Southern whites as “the advanced race” in a 1957 editorial in National Review. “The White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically,” Buckley went on to say. Rosen cites the biographer Sam Tanenhaus in excusing Buckley, pleading that the Firing Line host “‘actually inherited views on race that were fairly progressive for his time and place.’”
As wrong as Buckley was, he may have helped shift the public consensus on these issues. His open slate of guests created a remarkable historical record of the period, Hendershot argues; instead of the filtered media coverage that largely blamed black Americans for the 1965 Watts Riots, for example, “a PBS public-affairs program designed to convert Americans to conservatism shows us some of the most comprehensive representations of Black Power” and other movements of that era. More than that, Firing Line provided a forum where opposing positions could be aired—and bigots could be roundly defeated. Buckley admitted in 2004 that he was wrong about the Jim Crow South; his years of getting publicly and willingly shellacked by people like Baldwin left him a better citizen and a better thinker.
Today, some of the most intellectual and argumentative conservatives seem more interested in waving away or eulogizing their past than engaging with it—this is the major weakness of Rosen’s book. Although it’s little comfort, this terrible election will hopefully start a soul-searching process among conservatives, and perhaps that will involve a long, hard look at their mistakes. National Review dedicated an entire issue to arguing “Against Trump,” featuring writers like Glenn Beck and Bill Kristol. At least a few of those essays acknowledged issues like “racial and religious scapegoating” among the horrors of this campaign; perhaps these conservative leaders will consider the ways these kinds of attitudes have come to fester in their own party.
On both sides, there are limits to the saving grace of discourse. Late in his career, Buckley took to lambasting political correctness—he dedicated a two-hour special to the question, “Resolved: Political Correctness Is a Menace and a Bore.” He would likely scoff at new controversies over safe spaces, triggers warnings, and free-speech zones. More than anything, this kind of reaction is sad: Empathy seems to be the missing piece in many of the recent campus debates, leaving some students feeling unable to contribute their ideas or participate in academic conversations.
But at its best, debate is exactly the opposite kind of exercise. People learn the most from debate when they understand the best possible version of their opponent’s position, and further understand who their opponent is as a person. This is what the ultimate goal of debate in democracy should be: education and understanding.
Buckley may have been eminently smug and often wrong, but at least he was willing to spar. Occasionally, he even changed his mind. That’s what good discourse looks like. Maybe one day, that’s what good television can look like again.
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