We are losing our sense of history. The communications revolution, with its instant messaging, snapchats and smart phones, has counterintuitively made us stupider. The information barrage is so incessant, there is no time to reflect on the past or to plot a path ahead. That is why the way forward these days usually involves a stumble.
Consider the national political scene. If the current crop of candidates makes you want to vote for “None of the Above,” bear in mind there was a time when there were candidates of substance. Indeed, we have recently passed the 50th anniversary of one of the most consequential campaigns of the last half century, that of William F. Buckley for Mayor of New York City in 1965.
Buckley ran as a fourth party candidate (the Conservatives were newly formed in New York); the City was in solidly Democratic hands, Abe Beame was the standard bearer; and the Republican candidate was John Lindsay who had won re-election to his House seat with over 70% of the vote in the Goldwater landslide defeat the preceding year. Yet Buckley amassed four times the vote totals in NYC of any previous Conservative Party candidate. Moreover, his campaign dictated the tone for the election. How so?
- In the wake of Goldwater’s massive defeat, many pundits predicted the demise of the GOP—unless it embraced liberal candidates such as Lindsay, Rockefeller, Javits, et.al. Buckley realized there was room for a conservative alternative. Indeed, his success presaged the coming conservative epoch. After all, if a rightist candidate could show success in a liberal bastion like New York City, there must be something to the message.
- Unlike Beame and Lindsay who parroted each other by promising to throw inchoate money at the City’s ills, Buckley offered specificity—and good sense. In fact in his suggested solutions Buckley was ahead of his time. You see the bike lanes in Manhattan today? The origin was Buckley’s proposal to do same along Second Avenue. Remember the near fiscal collapse of the mid-seventies? Buckley was the one who a decade earlier warned that the City was approaching the precipice unless it began to live within its means.
- Aside from an appealing theory of government and specificity of ideas, Buckley through wit, warmth and intellect turned the campaign dynamic on its head. You have to smile at a candidate who promised that if elected he would suspend a net beneath the office of the city editor of the New York Times. Indeed, Lindsay-Beame initially opted to ignore Buckley. Yet as his presence grew, both altered tactics.
Buckley did not win but he did increase the conservative vote fourfold. That relative success helped usher in the era of conservative dominance. Moreover his is a history that the current crop of “leaders” would do well to absorb. That is, if they can tear themselves away from the sycophantic advisors trying to guess what the voters want to hear. How we could use a “Buckley” to run for president!
Kenneth T. Zemsky is the author of the recently published novel The Nation’s Hope, about the 1965 NYC mayoral campaign. He is also a managing director at AndersenTax and teaches constitutional law at Rutgers. You can follow him at KennethTZemsky.com.