Sean Speer: National Review is still yelling ‘Stop’ to left-wing politics, 65 years later

The National Review was founded to challenge liberal orthodoxy with thoughtful conservatism. Its mission is more important than ever

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This week marked a big moment in the history of modern conservatism. National Review magazine, which has been at the centre of conservative ideas and politics since its founding by long-time editor William F. Buckley Jr., celebrated its 65th anniversary.

A lot has happened since the magazine’s early days when it committed to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop” to conventional left-wing politics and set out to build a countervailing conservatism that could compete for intellectual, cultural and political power.

It was an audacious goal at the time. Liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling famously wrote in 1953 that liberalism wasn’t just the dominant but the sole intellectual tradition in America. Conservative ideas were mostly consigned to the outer edges of conventional acceptability. Its purveyors were an odd group of fringe intellectuals whose disagreements with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy were only matched by their quarrels with one another.

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It seemed implausible therefore that a journal of ideas (even a “vigorous and incorruptible” one) could reverse the intellectual and political dominance of contemporary liberalism or even get conservatives to cohere around a common vision and political agenda. National Review’s mission may have been a long shot but Buckley ultimately convinced a ragtag group of conservatives, libertarians and ex-Trotskyists to join him in the intrepid, if not doomed, endeavour.

Along the way something extraordinary happened. A serious and thoughtful conservative movement was cultivated through a process of intra-debate about the tensions between freedom and order and liberty and virtue. Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president and conservative ideas about markets, freedom and the limits of government challenged the liberal orthodoxy. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was won. National Review was integral to these world-shaping developments.

Conservative writer (and former National Review journalist) George Will famously put it this way: “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind.”

The magazine’s role was three-fold: first, it provided a much-needed platform for the different factions of the conservative movement to debate, argue and ultimately find common cause against liberalism at home and communism abroad; second, it popularized conservative ideas with new generations by being smart, fun, irreverent and even kind of rebellious; and third, it acted as a gatekeeper for a “responsible” conservatism by excommunicating kooks and radicals like the John Birch Society and Ayn Rand.

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But Will is right to single out Buckley (who would have turned 95 on Nov. 24) for his personal contribution. One cannot understand the history of the second half of the 20th century without accounting for Buckley. He’s no doubt one of the most important public intellectuals of the age. His mix of intellect, charisma, worldliness and political acumen made him an inimitable force. Buckley biographer Lee Edwards once called him “the renaissance man of modern American conservatism.”

Buckley’s successors, including National Review’s current editor Rich Lowry, have since found themselves in a much different journalistic and political landscape. A combination of media fragmentation, a post-Cold War intellectual malaise and the rise of populist politics has diluted National Review’s voice and shifted the movement that it helped to build away from the “happy warrior” ethos that marked Buckleyian conservatism.

It’s notable, for instance, that during the 2016 Republican party’s presidential primary, National Review published an entire issue dedicated to the case against Donald Trump. As the lead editorial presciently outlined: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”

That National Review and its writers were manifestly correct in their assessment about Trump and his corrosive effects on conservatism ultimately didn’t matter. Unlike in the past when the magazine could exert a formative influence over the American right, this time around its admonition went unheeded by Republican voters and Trump won the primary and the presidency. The rest of the story is well known and regrettably still playing out.

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This experience has signalled that National Review is no longer the dominant voice of American conservatism — it’s now, for better or worse, one of multiple voices in a crowded marketplace that’s been upended by the rise of online journalism and social media.

But that doesn’t mean, by any means, that National Review isn’t still a major conservative institution. Its business model has adapted to reflect the digital environment and its stable of writers has gone through a natural turnover due to generational change. Yet 65 years later, the magazine remains firmly rooted in the mission and vision set out in its inaugural issue.

That’s good news, because its work is now more important than ever. National Review’s historic role as the movement’s intellectual linchpin will not only be key to solving for post-Trump conservative factionalism, but also continuing to stand athwart history in the face of a new generation of liberal excesses.

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