First conservatives lost Ronald Reagan, then we lost Milton Friedman, and now most recently William F. Buckley, Jr. has left us as well. Each of these towering figures of conservative and libertarian thought in his own way mightily shaped American life and, perhaps most indelibly, helped bring down the Soviet Union and lay the foundation for a liberated Eastern Europe.
While mourning Buckley and remembering the recent losses of Reagan and Friedman, I was confronted with a puzzling question: What equivalent does the Left have to these towering conservative icons?
Reagan's passing in 2004 was an immense loss for conservatives and America at large. Ordinary people were shaken to the core by the Gipper's departure, so much so that many traveled to Washington, D.C. and waited in line for hours just to say their final goodbyes in the Capitol Rotunda.
Try to think of a figure of the Left who would command such a send off today. Sure, Franklin Roosevelt is a gigantic figure and John F. Kennedy was forever immortalized in American mythology by his sudden death, but these two men passed away decades ago. In recent times, there is just no figure on the Left who captures the imagination and inspires devotion like Ronald Reagan did—and, in many ways, still does.
Do you think that Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter will be mourned to the same extent that Reagan was? No offense to the former Presidents, but there just isn't a chance of it—unless one considers the outpouring of tears by two bit despots who Carter has rushed to the defense of in recent years. Ted Kennedy may be the old liberal lion of the Senate, but his stature cannot compare to that of Reagan. If Barack Obama wins the Presidency in November, he may yet rise to become such a figure on the Left, but has not yet proved himself in any real way, despite devotion in certain quarters.
Milton Friedman too caused an upwelling of emotion when he left this mortal coil in 2006. One does not usually think of economists as public figures for whom their loss would cause great public grief. But when Milton Friedman passed, there were many young conservatives and libertarians who were devastated. Of course, it was not the type of pouring out of emotion that accompanied Reagan, but again, Friedman was an economist, not a President.
What modern economist of the Left compares to Friedman in terms of public attachment? I don't remember the passing of John Kenneth Galbraith in 2006 to be as emotional for liberals as the passing of Friedman was for libertarians and conservatives. To use an imperfect modern barometer, when Friedman passed I recall students on Facebook putting up pictures of the late economist in place of their own profile picture in his honor. I don't recall people doing that for Galbraith. Unscientific as it is, a cursory search on Facebook finds over a dozen groups created to honor Friedman, while only one group exists to honor Galbraith.
Finally, we are left with Buckley, whose vociferous and competent advocation of conservative ideals helped shape the modern conservative movement, which changed America for the better. His legacy lives on not only in the magazine he established and in the dozens of books he wrote, but in the thousands upon thousands of activists and ordinary students he inspired and influenced. Who is his equivalent on the Left?
At first thought, like the other two examples, I dare say there is no Buckley of the Left. I suppose a reasonable case could be made for Noam Chomsky, but I am afraid my stomach is too weak to even entertain the comparison. Plus, Chomsky's influence has not been nearly as transformative as Buckley's was, at least in this country. Maybe Chomsky's influence is felt more than Buckley's in Venezuela and in the Palestinian territories.
Why is it, then, one only seems to find these iconic figures on the Right, at least in recent times? This is a hard question to answer and I am not sure there is a simple explanation. One theory may be because conservatism and libertarianism are ideologies founded on forceful ideas while in many ways modern liberalism today is simply an amalgamation of various interest groups. This may explain why figures with powerful ideas are able to achieve such love and admiration on the Right and not on the Left, where each special interest clan has their own clan leader.
Theories aside, what we know, and the passing of Buckley last week should have reminded us, is that a single individual can achieve things of great consequence for this country. And a combination of great individuals—like Reagan, Friedman, and Buckley—can change the world. For proof, one need not look any further than Eastern Europe.
Jamie Weinstein, a former Collegiate Network Journalism Fellow, is a freelance writer based in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. He blogs at www.JamieWeinstein.com