The Coming Conservative Dark Age – Commentary
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.
Why the transformation? Part of the reason is that Buckley and his editors spent an enormous amount of time and energy during the early years of the magazine disassociating their conservatism from its atavistic and gnostic forebears. National Review is a great example of media gatekeeping theory: By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers, and anti-American reactionaries from its pages, the magazine and its editor determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not. By denying a platform to quacks and haters, they broadened their potential audience.
And Buckley did more than exorcise demons. He welcomed converts. When a group of anti-Communist liberals began to drift from the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Buckley and company lowered the drawbridge and welcomed the neoconservatives to the castle. “Come on in,” National Review editorialized, “the water’s fine.” The editors of the American Mercury never would have published writers with the surnames Podhoretz and Kristol. The editors of National Review did. The result was a conservatism infused with empiricism, with the densely reasoned argumentative style of the New York intellectuals. The Reagan administration would reap the benefits.