William F. Buckley, who passed away today, was a major figure in the history of American conservatism. Buckley was not a great original thinker; but he was an outstanding and extraordinarily successful intellectual organizer.
Buckley's most important achievement was the role he played in making conservatism intellectually respectable again. When he founded the National Review in 1955, conservatism was almost completely marginalized in the intellectual and academic world. Buckley and the talented writers he gathered at the Review played a key role in changing that. He did so in three ways that today's conservatives and libertarians would do well to keep in mind.
First, he distanced intellectual conservatism from the conspiracy-mongering and anti-Semitism which had been an important element of the pre-Buckley American right. For example, Buckley played a crucial role in banishing the conspiracy-oriented John Birch Society from the mainstream conservative movement.
Second, Buckley tried very hard to create a genial and friendly image for conservatism as opposed to one that projected anger, intolerance, and rage. This posture was a natural extension of Buckley's friendly personality. But, more importantly, he understood that it would be impossible for conservatives to be taken seriously in the liberal-dominated intellectual world without it.
Third, like his longtime associate Frank Meyer, Buckley was a strong believer in "fusionism," the alliance between conservatives and libertarians. He himself was a fusionist in his own thinking, albeit in a less systematic way than Meyer. On some issues that divide libertarians and conservatives, Buckley actually leaned to the libertarian side - notably in his longtime advocacy of drug legalization. Although the conservative-libertarian alliance contained serious tensions, neither group would have been able to achieve as much without it. Today, both conservatives and especially libertarians are increasingly disillusioned with the fusionist project. It remains to be seen whether it can survive.
Unfortunately, Buckley's far-sighted rejection of conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism was for a long time not matched by similar enlightenment on racial issues. Not only did the early National Review claim that federal intervention to protect black civil rights violated constitutional federalism principles; it also contended that Jim Crow segregation was actually a good and justifiable policy (see, for example, this 1957 editorial defending southern states' denial of black voting rights). In fairness, several of the early National Review writers were opposed to segregation and favored efforts to change it (especially at the state level). But the magazine's editorial line - set by Buckley - was generally segregationist. Buckley and some of his NR associates were far from the only 1950s conservatives with a blind spot on black civil rights; but they were particularly important because of their status as founders of the modern conservative intellectual movement.
By the late 1960s, Buckley and NR stopped defending segregation and embraced official color-blindness. However, their failure to fully repudiate and apologize for their earlier stance made the later embrace of color-blindness seem strategic rather than principled and fed liberal suspicions that conservative color-blindess is just a pretext for promoting white privilege under another name. Eventually, Buckley did - to his credit - acknowledge that he had been wrong and that federal intervention to protect black rights against state governments had been necessary; but by that time it was very difficult to reverse the harm caused by his earlier stance. Although later generations of conservative intellectuals had no part in NR's early embrace of segregationism and many are probably unaware that it ever happened, the issue continues to stain conservatism's reputation in the intellectual world. By all accounts, Buckley was personally tolerant in his attitude toward racial minorities; but his public record on racial issues for a long time failed to reflect that.
Despite this serious blind spot, Buckley left American conservatism in far better shape than he found it. On balance, his shortcomings were definitely outweighed by his achievements.