The bitterness of polarized politics and the GOP’s intellectual collapse have generated a wave of nostalgia for mid-century political debate, represented by figures like William F. Buckley and supposed to have been more principled, intelligent, and civilized. Whatever the accuracy of this argument (and it’s quite vulnerable to exaggeration), there’s no doubt that Buckley’s reputation has benefited from the favorable comparison to today’s iteration of his party.
It’s fortunate, then, that no less an authority on Buckley than Garry Wills has decided to correct the most hyperbolic of recent accounts. Consider the famous Buckley-Vidal television debates, sometimes held up as the epitome of bygone erudition. Phooey, says Wills: “There is more intellectual insight and incisive commentary on a single night of Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report or Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show than in all of the mean broadcasts of Buckley and Vidal.” Consider this famous 1968 exchange, which was entertaining, but not exactly enlightening:
Wills also dismisses the centrality of Buckley and Vidal to the crucial events of the 60s:
The upsetting of the old order was accomplished mainly by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the anti-war movement. Those three things, and the vehement opposition to them, did the real churning of the waters; and Buckley and Mailer were only briefly and peripherally involved in them. […] Buckley and Mailer did not make history. They made good copy.
So Buckley turns out to be less important, and less an avatar of superior public debate, than advertised. What, then, accounts for the contemporary fascination with his life and legacy? I’d ascribe it, in part, to the same forces which cause us to bemoan the alleged decline of the “public intellectual”—which isn’t quite the right diagnosis, since to be precise, it’s not intellectuals that we’ve lost. Rather, it’s the audience they represented and the authoritativeness they enjoyed by seeming to represent an important sector of the American public. The loss of such representative figures is a symptom of social and political fracture.
By way of illustration, try imagining a contemporary, left-wing equivalent of Buckley: someone who stands in not just for the wider public, but also for major left-wing intellectuals, as the representative liberal. Is there any such person? Some might suggest President Obama, but while Obama is (for now) the leader of the Democratic Party, it’s far from clear that he’s also the chief ideological evangelist of American liberalism generally (as many liberals would be the first to insist). The problem, at least on the left, is not a decline in the number of intellectuals: there are liberal intellectuals aplenty. But their labor is increasingly specialized. There are left-wing voices on labor and economics, on race, on foreign policy, on gender and sexuality. You can probably think of at least a few leading thinkers in each of these categories—but it would be harder to name a figure who encompasses all of them.
The longing for a Buckley-esque figure, or for a revival of Buckley-Vidal debate, isn’t quite what it appears to be. There’s no need to revive Buckley; we have our own intellectuals. And the decline of Buckley-Vidal style debate doesn’t amount to the disappearance of intellectual debate in general—which may have changed (in some ways, for the worse), but hasn’t vanished. Rather, the current interest in Buckley seems more linked to the disorienting loss of representative ideological leaders and a relatively-unified culture.
Contemporary intellectual life reflects national culture, at least insofar as it has yet to regroup from what Wills calls “the upsetting of the old order”—into subgroups aligned around (among other 60s forces) feminism, civil rights, and the anti-war movement. Nostalgia for Buckley-versus-Vidal reflects not the loss of thoughtful politics, but the strains of this social fracture, and it misses the reality that fracture is, for good and ill, likely to persist into the foreseeable future. The Buckley-Vidal era was not what nostalgists imagine. That fact makes it less dispiriting to realize that we’re unlikely ever to see anything like it again.