Joe Bast | August 8, 2022

A review of Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party, by F.H. Buckley (Encounter Books, 2022).

F.H. “Frank” Buckley’s latest book, Progressive Conservatism: How Republicans Will Become America’s Natural Governing Party, is unfailingly original, thought-provoking, contrarian, amusing, and infuriating. I highly recommend it.

The book challenges assumptions you made many years ago and never thought to revisit. It presents the plan for what would have been, and may still be, Donald Trump’s second term.

The book is not difficult to summarize in only a few sentences because the author has been doing so in op-eds in recent weeks. “The sweet spot in American politics,” according to Buckley, is “a party that is progressive on economic issues and conservative on social ones.” It has three main planks: “a defense of the American Dream, republican virtue and a corruption-free government, and nationalism.”

Past presidents who embodied progressive conservativism include “Lincoln for making an issue of economic mobility, Theodore Roosevelt for his willingness to tackle corruption, and Eisenhower for making peace with the New Deal.” Donald Trump won in 2016 because he ran on this platform, lost in 2020 for reasons unrelated to it (“a Black Swan calamity that could not have been anticipated” and “a plague year with riots in the streets, a year not to be repeated”), and the GOP will win in the future if it adheres to this platform. The GOP will lose, according to Buckley, if it “snaps back to the free-market libertarian party it was pre-Trump.”

Buckley is a distinguished professor of law at George Mason University’s Scalia Law School and the author of many books. He was a Canadian who became a U.S. citizen and this colors his thought and writing. Canada has a smaller population than the U.S., and Buckley thinks that is one of the secrets to its success. In the past, Buckley has seriously advocated for a new secession movement to break up the U.S. into smaller countries.

Buckley has studied and often comments on Canada’s parliamentary system, long-standing K-12 school choice policies, and immigration policies. Some critics think his attention to Canada makes Buckley quirky or “eccentric,” but surely this is incorrect. Studying a country that is close-by and has a common history but made different decisions on such important matters is more promising than straining to find lessons in the experiences of only the 50 states of the United States and perhaps a few odd-ball countries in Europe and Asia.

Buckley is also sometimes accused of being nostalgic, idealizing the good old days of the post-war period (say, from 1945 to 1970) while overlooking that era’s problems. And sure enough, on the very first page of this book, Buckley refers to “John Wayne in Stagecoach and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca”as cultural touchstones and reminisces about a time when “[i]n any struggle, we’d always be on the right and winning side. That was how we used to see America.”

But Buckley is weaponizing nostalgia to make an important point. Public policies were pursued between 1945 and 1970s that shaped American culture and institutions in ways that expanded prosperity, peace, happiness, and justice. As Tucker Carlson might say, “that’s just true.” Thanks to the gift of hindsight, we can discern policies that worked and those that did not. Maybe, Buckley says later in the book, this means allowing ourselves to forget some unsavory moments in our collective past. “If the citizens of a nation have something in common, they have to have forgotten a good many things about their origins.” And still later, he brings this mere nostalgia to bear on libertarians with devastating effect.

Buckley was a speech writer for President Donald Trump and a rare pro-Trump academic. Discretion may keep us from ever knowing how many of Trump’s speeches he wrote or how closely Trump followed his script when he did, but we can rest assured that Buckley’s hand was behind some of Trump’s finest moments. This part of Buckley’s past gives him unique insights into what happened to the country, particularly to the Republican Party, from 2016 to January 2021.

But Buckley isn’t an uncritical Trump partisan. He calls Trump “prickly and surly” and he doesn’t approve of the way Trump tried, too late, to keep the 2020 election from being stolen from him. “Trump was defeated and left in disgrace,” he writes. “The Trump supporters who ignore what happened on January 6 also live in a world with little room for virtue.” He uses this book along with recent op-eds to distance himself from the former president. I think his strong words may in time be shown to be poorly chosen, but I am probably wrong about this owing to the next thing you need to know about him.

Frank Buckley is very, very smart. Yes, smarter even than you and me. Suspend your disbelief for a moment because this explains some things about this book that otherwise are puzzling. Buckley is probably the smartest man I’ve ever met, and I was privileged to have a career surrounded by the brightest of the bright including Nobel Laureates and actual rocket scientists. People much smarter than I am confided that they were no match for Buckley.

What you might think are mistakes, oversights, or overly broad generalizations in Buckley’s books aren’t.  Buckley has studied every issue (except global warming, which he admits to not having studied at all) more closely than you have and he has evidence, sometimes even entire books on the subject he has written himself, that he may or may not choose to mention in the text or a footnote. Often what appear to be mistakes are honey traps concealed in the grass of lazy conventional thinking, tempting readers to jump to a wrong conclusion or start waving a finger only to discover a few paragraphs or chapters later that they were tricked into revealing their own bias or ignorance.

The honey traps start with the title. “Progressive conservatism” sounds like an oxymoron or another doomed effort to find a “third path” between conservative and liberal ideas. But it is neither. Buckley traces a distinct and coherent set of ideas and policies professed by Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Trump, among others. He doesn’t dwell on speeches and records – the book is only 254 pages including notes and index – because he doesn’t need to. By simply reporting it matter-of-factly, Buckley first surprises and then persuades his readers that these leaders more readily fit his definition of a progressive conservative than into the conventional political boxes of left and right or even the quadripartite Nolan Chart.

The book’s subtitle is full of honey traps. It reads: “How Republicans will become America’s natural governing party.” He doesn’t promise to tell how Republicans could or can become a winning party by following his advice, a shtick perfected by countless political pundits through the ages. No, he makes a prediction that they will win, as if such a victory were inevitable. What a crazy thing to predict! Worse than that, he uses the radioactive word “natural” to describe the Republican Party’s apparent destiny to rule over the rest of us. Is he implying that that reign will be good because it is natural? Argh! The naturalistic fallacy! And how can a political party, a creation of human action, be natural? Argh again! Aristotle settled this! Is Buckley a monarchist or worse, a eugenicist? What the hell does he mean?

Buckley is glad you asked. The title and subtitle worked as he intended. Now you have to read the book to see what he means.

You will read things that turn your ears red. FDR “presided over an astonishing economic recovery. Then, in the greatest act of American presidential statesmanship, he brought his country out of its deep isolationism and provided the leadership that saved democracy” (p. 44). Former House Speaker Paul Ryan was a libertarian (p. 54). “Aristocracy is nature’s default position” (p. 67).

Somewhat oddly, criticism of libertarianism runs through the book. It starts on page 7 when he writes, “Libertarian principles had left millions of people behind…” Buckley then inveighs against this competing ideology, often unnamed, calling it “a thin ideology that ignores our need to bond with others, our family, neighbors, and nation,” “arid eighteenth-century rationalism,” “bloodless and technocratic,” “a callous lack of empathy to the poor,” and “the vulgar economism that assumes that material welfare is an all-encompassing proxy for personal well-being and that free market price theories provide the touchstone of all political and social issues.” “An organic society,” he lectures us, “is more than an agglomeration of competing and self-interested individuals.” Americans, he says, “never asked the economist to solve all our social problems.”

As a libertarian myself, I found all this to be anodyne crap. Libertarians are not all economists, some are even bleeding hearts; they don’t imagine that economics explains everything about what is good and necessary in human society; they are not anti-poor or against religion, indeed library shelves groan under the weight of the books they have written on these very topics; and… well, so on and so forth. I filled the book’s margins with my objections and planned a fierce rebuttal, but I saw, too late, that this was another honey trap. Buckley created a literal trail of libels and slander, knowing any libertarian worth his salt would spot them and become more and more defensive until, near the end of the book – spoiler alert – Buckley would spring the trap.

Libertarianism, like other variants of conservative thinking, isn’t necessarily wrong in its particulars, Buckley writes (on p. 169), it just “will not suffice without something more, a sense of duties that are greater than one’s rights, a recognition that we’re all a little self-deceived, and a feeling of gratitude for the enormous luck we had in being born in America.” We used to have these attitudes during the post-war period but lost them during the polarizing debates of the 1970s and since. Sure, libertarians like Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick won most of the debates. But in the course of learning and repeating their winning arguments we overlooked some things that were just as important and maybe more important.

It occurred to me only when reading that line that this critique would still stand after all my clever ripostes. In fact, the more heated and detailed my rebuttal, the more the truth of Buckley’s insight would weigh on me. A few pages later, Buckley says that what distinguishes progressive conservatism “from rival conservatisms is sometimes little more than the theorist’s narcissism of petty differences. Give up those differences, says the progressive conservative, and you’ll simply discard policies that make you unelectable and that you could never enact.” Well, touché.

What distinguishes libertarians from conservatives these days is almost entirely their stands on policies that make them unelectable and will never be enacted. In politics, says Buckley, “when something can’t be changed, it’s no longer a problem.” I hadn’t thought about it that way before. “Progressive conservatives and libertarians are often on the same side,” Buckley writes. “They are both willing to learn from economists about the difference between policies that work and ones that don’t.” Oh, I thought, now you have something good to say about libertarians and economists.

Despite all the teasing and head-fakes, Buckley wasn’t proposing a competing theory of how to promote the common good. “I don’t have a theory,” he writes. “I think they’re baloney.” Progressive conservatism is a set of policies that won the public’s support in the past, most recently as the Trump campaign’s platform, and will win it in the future, assuming the Republican Party continues to embrace it. Buckley’s heroes and exemplars aren’t philosophers but people who actually got elected by embracing his platform. The Republican Party is the “natural governing party” because it is the only party that can embrace these policies and win elections. All that progressive conservatives ask of other conservatives, says Buckley, is “to abandon that which they know repels or confuses voters and could never be enacted.” He makes that sound so easy, but in truth, holding onto those views is the raison d’etre of the Libertarian Party and other factions of the conservative movement.

The book ends with a new “Contract with America,” a pretty good translation of the progressive conservative agenda into discrete public policies. There are loose threads aplenty in that lengthy chapter, too, probably put there to distract the reader from the fact that Buckley has taken the Republican Party away from libertarians and old-school conservatives and all that’s left to argue over are details such as how (not whether) to regulate Big Tech and whether or not to create a new “National Endowment of the American Idea.” Indeed, on three of the biggest topics of the day – trade, energy, and foreign affairs – Buckley says a progressive conservative administration will simply “reinstate the successful policies of the Trump administration.”

After reading this book I remain a libertarian, but I will vote Republican so long as the GOP nominates “progressive conservative” candidates. Mission accomplished, Frank.

Reading Frank Buckley