Saturday, March 01, 2008

Buckley and New York, 1965

Continuing our remembrance of William F. Buckley, I wanted to write more on his 1965 mayor's race. As this masterful portrait of the race in the New York Times Magazine recalls, Buckley entered the race almost on a whim. Running on the recently established line of the Conservative Party, Buckley didn't so much "campaign" in the traditional sense as use the race as an opportunity to give voice to the maturing conservative ideology that he had spent years developing. He knew he had no chance of winning and joked about the realities of the race. In retrospect, one sees that the race was rather an opening shot in the ascendancy of modern conservatism. In order for this new order to rise, the old order had to be vanquished.

This old order was, of course, a technocratic and bureaucratic liberalism that had become universally accepted by the political, academic, and journalistic classes. Social problems could be solved, society could be perfected, and government was the instrument. For Buckley, it was John Lindsay, the Republican congressman and mayoral candidate who embodied all that was wrong with this regime and who drew most of his fire. As Walter Lippmann commented at the time, Buckley was "determined to wreck the party in order to rule the wreckage."

While I haven't been able to find precinct level returns yet, the borough by borough numbers are available. Lindsay, of course, won followed closely by Democrat Abe Beam. Buckley received 13% city wide. Breaking down the numbers further, Buckley's totals were:

New York (Manhattan)--7.2%

So who were Buckley's voters and why are they important? In his portrait of the race, Sam Tanenhaus argues: "Though he failed to capture any single district, he finished second in parts of Queens and fared especially well among Irish and German Catholics. Once again, ethnic group interests and values--'who hates who,'--in the shorthand used by Kevin Phillips, author of 'The Emerging Republican Majority'--held true. The difference was that those aggrieved white ethnic voters now appeared to be Republicans..." In his biography of Lindsay, Vincent Cannato comes to a similar conclusion: "The twelve strong Buckley districts were in the white Catholic outer boroughs." Thus, Buckley expanded on the project begun earlier, as so ably described by Phillips, of giving voters a reason to use fear as the basis for their vote. Even though Buckley claimed to not want to divide the electorate into groups and pander to each in order to build a coalition, the result of his campaign was that just such a strategy would be viable in the future.

The importance of the race, I believe, was not so much felt in New York--although there were certainly repurcussions as Lindsay found it virtually impossible to govern a disintegrating city. What is of greater import is what this race said about the future of American politics. These Buckley voters were in fact all across the country. They lived in big cities that were in decay. They felt they were being left behind and that other groups were being given privileges--affirmative action, busing, etc. While they had at one time been the backbone of the New Deal Coalition, they would soon begin casting votes for George Wallace and comprise part of Nixon's "Silent Majority." Finally, they would provide the margin for Reagan's ascendancy. In metropolitan areas like Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, they were on a path toward realignment. There can be no doubt that this process was, in many ways, an ugly one. Race was used as a cleavage and latent fears and prejudices were exploited. Crime, welfare dependancy, and illegitmacy were used as metaphors for liberalism's failure. In retrospect, the tactics and language these candidates (including Buckley) often used were deplorable. However, if we want to be honest about our political history, we must reckon with them. As someone interested in why people vote the way that they do, I have to acknowledge that these reasons are not always admirable. But they must be studied.

In earlier posts on this blog, I have shown a number of examples of this, focusing on George Wallace. I wondered how a small state governor from the deep south, despite never winning the presidency, could change American politics so much. The answer, I believe, is that he gave voice to the rage and alienation of millions of Americans. At certain times in history, individuals are a perfect reflection of their times. They are the vessel in which others' aspirations, and sometimes fears, are placed. Here we have a Yale educated, patrician, son of an oil magnate drawing large numbers of votes from blue collar, lunch bucket carrying voters in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Tempermentally and intellectually, Buckley was the polar opposite of Wallace. Reflecting on his death this week, I have to conclude that Buckley, like Wallace, was a crucial actor in this play. His influence on our politics over the past half century is incalculable.

Update: Here is a column by Buckley that I just found, written just prior to the 1968 election, on the subject of Wallace. The crux: votes for Wallace are votes that would otherwise go to Nixon. Thus, Buckley seems to agree that these were voters on the path to becoming Republicans, away from the Democrats. Here is a longer column from the same year, laying out his objections to Wallace at greater length.

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