The coming conservative dark age

It was Buckley who for decades determined the boundaries of American conservatism. When he published his first book, God and Man at Yale, in 1951, there was no conservative journal of note, no mainstream challenge to liberalism. Philosophical conservatives such as Buckley’s teacher Willmoore Kendall, Eric Voegelin, Richard Weaver, and Leo Strauss were isolated. Like conservatism, they were ignored.

The American Mercury, for which Buckley worked briefly, was a nest of anti-Semites. The libertarian Freeman was beset with infighting, more interested in criticizing the New Deal than in coalition-building. Cranky, conspiratorial, bigoted, frustrated, powerless—this was the conservatism of William F. Buckley’s young adulthood.

Buckley changed things when he founded National Review in 1955. He introduced the philosophers to the populists. He published the traditionalists, the libertarians, the Cold Warriors in the same pages. Not only did he aspire to fuse free markets with traditional values, he wanted to be taken seriously by the New York media and cultural elite. Dismissed in embarrassing fashion by Dwight Macdonald in the pages of COMMENTARY in 1956, National Review was unquestionably the tribune of an engaged, informed, and rising American conservatism by the time Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California a decade later.