National Review magazine’s mission statement is “Standing Athwart History, Yelling, ‘Stop!’” At the time of its founding in the mid-1950s, there was a belief that history was a natural progression toward a more collectivist society. NR, then a new conservative periodical, wanted to literally stop history in that sense.
Insofar as this was a conservative movement goal, it would seem that the mission is not on good footing.
While American politics certainly has an ebb and flow, with cyclical gyrations to the left and right, the overall trajectory seems to disobey the “stop” command. Considering major policy enactments and the permanence of new programs, the right appears to be losing. And each swerve back to the right never seems come back as far as that initial jolt to the left.
Taken this way, one can begin at NR’s founding, smack dab in the middle of the Eisenhower presidency. Ike was not terribly conservative, but was seen as a good president and generally popular. The nation was still emerging from World War II and the pre-war New Deal society. This was in the early years of the Cold War, so much of the nation was on board in opposing communism. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president. Today, we might well consider him a moderate, if not somewhat conservative.
After Kennedy’s assassination, the country ran the stop sign for the first time with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society. This series of laws dramatically expanded the size and scope of the federal government, and to this day, conservatives point to many of laws as key contributors to any number of current ills.
Johnson’s successor—the Republican Richard Nixon—committed his own sins by enacting things like price controls and the Environmental Protection Agency. A bounce back (nay, revolution) transpired in the Reagan-Bush years, which saw taxes and regulations lowered and the Soviet Union collapse. But even then, Reagan was unable to actually shrink government to a considerable degree: he took Democratic deficit spending as an acceptable trade off to achieve his other goals, namely robust economic growth and a military build-up.
The Clinton years may not generally be viewed as a setback for conservatism, but perhaps a continuation of Reagan-Bush momentum. In 1994, the GOP took the House and eventually passed welfare reform and reduced the federal budget deficit. They even stopped a Clinton attempt at national health care.
Then came Bush 43 and 9/11: hardly a time rugged conservatism. In fact, the Bush administration adhered to what they called “compassionate conservatism.” National Review had, after all, warned its readers in the run-up to the 2000 election that Mr. Bush, while conservative on a great many things, was not a conservative.
During this time, deficit spending was common, again, and President Bush signed into law a new Medicare expansion. Later, the housing bubble—the seeds of which were planted over time but given mega doses of Miracle Grow in the 1990s—burst, leading Bush to sign a pair of massive bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit, both in seeming defiance of conservatism. So even the Republican president didn’t seem to obey the stop sign.
After eight years, Bush fatigue set in, and a charismatic, moderate-sounding fellow became president. Immediately, President Barack Obama set forth an ambitiously liberal program. He signed another $700 billion stimulus bill and passed a massive health care overhaul that is just now starting to affect the nation. Many would claim that he undid the 1996 welfare reform. He presided over four consecutive trillion-dollar-plus deficits and eventually ushered in the end of the Bush-era tax rates.
Now, as the nation rushes toward each impending crisis, Obama seems in control, likely to get concessions out of the GOP. Meanwhile, the magazine whose mission was to yell, “Stop!” can only watch the tide race by at a record pace. After all, they’re not elected and cannot directly put up a road block.
One can read the magazine’s flagship convictions, A. to G., and see how they largely still apply to the modern day. Even in 1955, the magazine knew they seemed “out of place because…literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” If only the editors in 1955 could foresee 2013. But for now, it appears that, at best, the mission is not yet accomplished.