Question: I grew up reading conservative icon William F. Buckley. I remember he said his main goal was to keep all the extremists, lunatics, fanatics and racists out of the conservative movement. You may remember this, given your own association with him years ago. As you reflect on the broad arc of history and your new book traverses that arc, when did intellectual conservatism – the conservatism of ideas – begin to transform into the current populism of ignorance? When did the cracks develop? I mean, I was at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston when Pat Buchanan and his pitchforks brigade eclipsed Bush and Reagan.
Will: You are absolutely right to focus on the 1992 convention, but there have been others. Let me quickly jump into this excellent question. Conservatism began to develop after World War II as a philosophical and ideological movement rather than the impetus of a civic businessman. It was a remarkably bookish movement, an early postwar conservatism – “God and Man at Yale” by Bill Buckley and “Up From Liberalism”, “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk – but even before that there was Richard Weaver of the University of Chicago who published a book called “Ideas Have Consequences.” And that was canon text for conservatives because conservatives rightly believe that only ideas have significant and lasting consequences. To follow Margaret Thatcher’s saying, “First you win the argument, then you win the election,” and they wanted to win the argument first. It grew until the late 1970s when Pat Moynihan, who would become one of my closest friends – and, yes, he’s a good New York New Deal Liberal Democrat – but he said : “Something Important Has Happened: The Republican Party Has Become The Party Of Ideas In America!”