O centro viciado

Advocating radical change is often the only way to be realistic, since many central aspects of the modern world cannot, in the long run, survive—from segregation in the 1950s to the entitlement state today. Eisenhower, Burnham’s perfect example of the “most conservative electable candidate,” was sure that no party would ever speak of ending Social Security and live; thanks to ideological groundwork laid by “off-the-reservation” radical libertarians for decades, the idea is now a real part of the policy debate. Hart himself writes that a respectable right nowadays can’t discuss banning abortion; surely, and regardless of the propriety of abortion laws, a sober reporter would have said the same about legalizing it completely in 1960.

If, as Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible, then what is possible can and will shift. To be an intellectual force in creating that shift you have to be willing to step boldly outside the existing consensus. National Review has remained respectable and, as such, has been a great success in terms of circulation and shaping an active political movement. But the modern state and the modern-liberal values of regulation, taxing, spending, and loosening of certain social restrictions (while creating new ones) have continued their march to dominance, even if the National Review team had the victories of Ronald Reagan becoming president and Buckley being published in The New Yorker.


Back in 1965, James Burnham wrote in NR that it was absurd for the right to try to fight Medicare. Forty budget-busting years later, NR’s man Bush has expanded the program to impossible proportions. While NR’s editors complain about that on occasion, it won’t lead them to abandon their “most conservative electable candidate.” What seems more realistic not in short-term political terms but in recognition of mathematical and economic facts: Burnham’s respectable centrism or the radical libertarianism that says such programs were illegitimate and disastrous?

Lasting political change of any sort, whether good or bad—from emancipation to woman’s suffrage to Social Security to the inevitable end of Social Security—starts on the radical fringe before it rules the center. A healthy intellectual discussion should not be restrained by toeing a middle line. As Eric Lott’s bizarre views prove, being radical isn’t the same as being right. But NR’s history suggests that being a politically realistic centrist doesn’t simply mean compromising on little things. Ultimately it makes you incapable of offering a true alternative to a status quo that can range from unmanageable to evil.