In William F. Buckley’s mission statement for National Review, written in 1955, he did not mention winning elections. That’s not to say it is unimportant, unneeded, or unwanted. But it was not mentioned. In fact, Buckley wrote, “We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience.”
What was mentioned was standing athwart history yelling stop. Buckley sought to build a National Review that provided commentary on the landscape of American politics and culture, building an intellectual case for conservatism. Today’s National Review is willing occasionally to yell Stop. It did so notably on the proliferation of porn in culture. But on many of the day’s fights, the editorial positions read more like those of the Republican National Committee than the standard bearer of American conservatism.
In 1955, William F. Buckley wrote,
Conservatives in this country — at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is serious question whether there are others — are non-licensed nonconformists; and this is dangerous business in a Liberal world, as every editor of this magazine can readily show by pointing to his scars. Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal, moving beyond Buckley. For that matter, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and most of the defunders have largely made their peace with the New Deal. And still National Review is too timid to join the merry band of defunders themselves too timid to approach the parameters under which William F. Buckley started his charge. The editors have conformed to the politics of necessary victories instead of the policy of standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The apotheosis of slaying Buckley’s vision, many thought, was National Review’s ridiculous endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012. But, always willing to surprise their readers with just how much they’ve become the voice of the Republican Party instead of the conservative movement, their latest goes further.
Entitled “Against Despair,” the editorial spends 3,591 words despairing that conservatives are fighting and making clear that National Review, too, is not inclined to yell Stop, “or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” National Review does not like the fight because it pits conservatives against Republicans. Trying to placate its readers and supplicate its base, the editorial does an “on this hand Ted Cruz and Mike Lee are bad” and “on the other hand, the GOP failed to lead” argument heavily tilted against Cruz and Lee. The editorial clearly gives a full pass on not leading because there is no majority.
There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected.
While conservatives are right to be dissatisfied with the results that our political engagement over the decades has yielded, it has produced real achievements. Persuasion, winning elections, passing legislation the normal way: That’s the approach that helped bring the top tax rate down from 70 percent, reduce the crime rate, reform welfare, and . . . oh yes, topple the Soviet Union.
(note that Republicans fought for and successfully passed welfare reform in 1996 after the government shutdowns and they continued to fight for it even after two Clinton vetoes at a time when, according to this National Review editorial, those shutdowns had “ended conservatives’ political momentum and Republicans spent the next several years running away from the limited-government conservatism”)
For the country to be governed conservatively, however, conservatives have to win more elections. Among the most dismaying developments of the shutdown fight was the explicit assent given by a few conservative writers and politicians to the notion that it is a pipedream to seek to elect more conservatives who will then, for example, repeal Obamacare
But it is asking for the impossible to expect conservatives to realize their policy goals if that electoral record continues or gets worse. There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues.
I would note most especially this one:
Jim DeMint, the former senator who now heads the Heritage Foundation, famously said that he would “rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in the principles of freedom than 60 who don’t believe in anything.” By any reasonable standard, though, we have had at least 30 conservatives in the Senate for the entire time DeMint has been in Washington. The trouble is that, without elected allies, 30 conservative senators cannot govern the country or even block liberal initiatives.
It was during that time that the conservatives “by any reasonable standard” gave us No Child Left Behind, which DeMint voted for and lived to regret as perhaps the moment that defined his shift right, Medicare Part D, TARP, and the General Motors bailout, among others. It was this Republican majority with at least 30 conservatives “by any reasonable standard” who ballooned the national debt on domestic spending programs while blaming it on war spending.
It was also these 30 conservatives “by any reasonable standard” who used earmarks to persuade colleagues to vote for expansions of government and, when conservatives finally realized earmarks were a gateway drug to more and more government spending, it was the National Review that pooh-poohed attempts to ban earmarks. In the context of Jim DeMint’s remarks, he was not arguing for no majority. He was arguing for a better caliber of Republican, like Mike Lee and Ted Cruz.
It was also National Review that dismissed conservatives in 2008 for staying on the floor of the House of Representative to continue talking energy policy after Nancy Pelosi had turned off the lights.
Now, instead of standing athwart history yelling stop, National Review spends 3,591 words to tell conservatives to stop fighting until they win. National Review has individual voices that echo the hunger of conservatives outside Washington. National Review itself does align with those conservatives on a number of issues from immigration to the export-import bank to the farm bill. But in the hard slogs against the establishment of our own side, National Review most often chooses to sit with the establishment or on the sidelines.
Like much of the Republican Leadership, National Review wants to win majorities before unleashing hell, but history shows us repeatedly that Republicans never unleash hell once they have the majority. They become well-fed denizens of power, using it to reward friends and influence people, instead of willingly surrendering it to shrink the leviathan. More often, these Republicans often have help from the very voices that should be urging restraint and accountability. Accommodation of pro-life statists among the GOP should not be the hallmark of conservatism’s standard bearer.
In William F. Buckley’s 1955 mission statement, he wrote,
The most alarming single danger to the American political system lies in the fact that an identifiable team of Fabian operators is bent on controlling both our major political parties(under the sanction of such fatuous and unreasoned slogans as “national unity,” “middle-of-the-road,” “progressivism,” and “bipartisanship.”) Clever intriguers are reshaping both parties in the image of Babbitt, gone Social-Democrat.
Babbitt is a 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis and the word, though little used now, came to mean “a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.” At this point, National Review more and more conforms unthinkingly to prevailing establishment standards in New York and Washington, D.C. and reminds me of the recent buoy at the North Pole.
Environmentalists flipped out earlier this year that the North Pole was a pool of water. It was further proof global warming is real. A buoy placed 25 miles from the North Pole rendered a dazzling picture of the North Pole ice completely melted into a lake as far as the eye could see. The buoy had actually drifted 375 miles south into warmer water. The North Pole wasn’t melting after all.
National Review’s editors maintain themselves as the standard bearer for conservatism. So many others have for so long as well. My own parents, when I was young, read to me at night from National Review. We had moved to Dubai and my children’s books did not make it there. But Mr. Buckley made to Dubai as my bed time reading material. The Help page was my comic book and Sunday strip all rolled into one.
Unfortunately, since Mr. Buckley died, the magazine has drifted. It is no longer true north for conservatism. It has drifted from its position at the pole of conservatism into the currents of a political party. It is the house publication for the Republican Party. And there is a difference — a difference this latest editorial highlights. Republicans are about the acquisition of power to advance policies and goals designed to keep the GOP in power. Conservatism is about human freedom. Conservative publications need not be stenographers of the party.
The well-fed right of the 1950’s had merged with the Republican Party of the day. Buckley’s National Review sought to brighten the lines between party and ideology. Perhaps it is time again.
In 2012, National Review gave perhaps the most embarrassing Presidential endorsement ever issued by a supposedly intellectual organization of any ideology. As my friend Ben Domenech wrote at the time,
Unfortunately, NR remains as tone deaf as it was during George W. Bush’s second term, when they drifted and meandered along uncertainly.…
It’s a real shame, when you think what might have been over the past few years, had NR recognized the rising movement outside their traditional base which aimed to change the party and the nation – if it could have seized an opportunity to become the voice of a renewed conservatism. That hypothetical publication would’ve had the heft gained not through the bellowed orders of a far-off would-be commander but the power gained through trust, through recognition that they are honest brokers and courageous advocates for the cause of human liberty. Instead, as the saying goes, they lived long enough for us to see them become the villain.
National Review once believed, “that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience.” The truth is that Obamacare is deeply destructive and an assault on individual liberty. It should be fought by all means, with or without a Senate majority or White House. The fight should not depend on electoral outcomes and should not be delayed pending reinforcements, many of whom will flee the field once elected.
I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.