Politico

Does ‘Conservatism’ Actually Mean Anything Anymore?


You’d be hard pressed to think of too many people more warmly ensconced in the “Washington establishment” than George Will.

Over the span of 48 years at the Washington Post, he has authored some 6,000 or so columns during 10 presidencies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and written 16 books — his latest, American Happiness and Discontents, is out this week. For at least a generation, he has been the most prominent intellectual conservative voice in mainstream media, so well-known that he was once the topic of a joke on “Seinfeld.” A week prior to President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, Will hosted the Illinois senator for dinner and had him drink from a cup that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln; dinner with Will was the ultimate outsider’s welcome to Washington — few could give a similar establishment-approved imprimatur.

And yet, in 2021, George Will is in some ways a man on the outside looking in. Yes, he still has one of the most prominent columns in one of the world’s most powerful newspapers. Yes, he is still part of the Washington scene. But politics have changed, and the intellectual conservatism he embodies is without an obvious political home.

The Trump years, Will told POLITICO in an interview this week, “made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked.” Conservatism, to Will, is a whole ethos with a proud intellectual tradition in American life. What it means to conserve, he says, is the American founding.

That’s conservatism,” said Will. “And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, ‘No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans,’ or whatever he says.”

Now, what society thinks of as “conservatism” is different. To Will, this is not unlike the trend of self-identified conservative evangelical Christians whose identity is based not in scripture but in cultural totems. In one sense, yes, they’re Christians, but in another, what does that term mean if divorced from scripture? What does “conservative” mean when politics is, as Will describes it, now “cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good”?

To Will, this is a fundamental change in what society understands politics to be. “Grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with ‘politics’ understood as ‘legislation and policy,’” Will said. “If people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. … What do you do politically? I don’t get it.”

Will is introspective about how we got here. Yes, there are some easy and obvious targets that sped up the decline of American political discourse — he cites social media that is “often high-velocity lunacy and vituperation and just plain ugliness,” and later volunteers that he doesn’t use Twitter: “if someone said, ‘Tweet, or I’ll kill you,’ I’m done” — but there’s also a not-insubstantial role that conservative intellectuals themselves played in stoking the fires of conservative populism.

“After the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow … it was an extremely bookish persuasion,” Will said, name-checking thinkers like William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk. And as the Republican Party became the “party of ideas,” that necessarily put a target on their backs: overturning “the so-called ‘Republican establishment’ meant overturning the bookish side of it, overturning the intellectual side of it,” Will said.

None of which is to say that George Will has gone moderate. He hasn’t. He thinks government does far too much, spends far too much and that politics occupies far too much of the national mental bandwidth. He’s upset about some of the same things that animate other conservatives, like the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” But he’s also critical of those conservatives who want to “airbrush the past.”

“There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education, and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots,” Will said. “There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom.”

What does American conservatism mean in 2021? How did George Will hear about the Tulsa massacre? And what is his advice for those vying to replace Donald Trump? To talk through all that and more, POLITICO Magazine talked to Will via Zoom. A transcript of that conversation follows, condensed and edited for length and readability.

I want to read to you something that you wrote in 1976: “A nation that feels a democratic imperative to celebrate the lowest common denominator sooner or later will get the lowest common denominator everywhere, including its legislatures. The empty-headed celebration of the common man will produce many leaders who are, to be polite, common.” Do you think we are seeing the lowest common denominator right now in our legislatures, in our politics?

Oh, you’re too optimistic with the word “lowest.” You’re forgetting “Will’s First Law,” which is: “There’s no such thing as rock bottom.”

What I was saying was Tocquevilleian — he worried about this — but also I was saying this at a time when Jimmy Carter was running for president and making a big deal out of the fact that he carried his own suitcase to show what a what a “regular guy” he was.

I didn’t quote it at the time, because I hadn’t yet come upon it, but someone once said to Senator Robert Taft’s wife, “Is your husband a ‘common man’?” She said, “Good God, no: first in his class at Yale; first in his class in law school. The people of Ohio don’t want a ‘common man.’” And, in fact, we don’t! (Jimmy Carter also, to his credit, said, “Why not the best??” It was one was one of his slogans because we really don’t want common people. We want the uncommon.

Over the last few years, as we saw the rise of Trumpism, is that whole strain of politics because — as you suggested — we’ve celebrated the common man too much, or because the common man feels ignored by institutions, and that makes it easier to play to the politics of grievance?

Yes — which is to say: both. There’s no question that people feel ignored. And there’s no question that we have too uncritically said the populist trope — which is that people know what they want and the people are wise and they therefore ought to get what they want — instead of H.L. Mencken’s famous belief that “democracy is the conviction that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

But there’s a third factor nowadays, and that is social media, which gives velocity to appetites and to passions that are unnatural. It’s also the case that when the mainstream media was everything, that sort of offended our democratic sensibilities, but it had the advantage that there were gatekeepers. So if you were stark raving mad and overflowing with conspiracy theories, it was pretty hard to disseminate it. Now it’s easy. Gene Volokh, who runs the Volokh Conspiracy website and teaches law at UCLA, has written a wonderful piece on the cost of cheap speech — which is often high-velocity lunacy and vituperation and just plain ugliness. The “bad old days” had something to be said for them.

So how do we balance that against the embrace of free speech, which is a bedrock American ideal?

It was a bedrock American ideal. For the last 60 years, almost all the jurisprudential thinking about the speech clause of the First Amendment has been to justify balancing free speech against competing values — comity, communitarian values, etc. So it’s far from a bedrock American value now, particularly on [college] campuses, where you would have thought free speech was safe. In fact, what’s most protected on campuses nowadays is freedom from speech.

Let’s dig into that. In your book, you write that “America’s most dispiriting intellectual phenomenon is the degradation of higher education.” What’s behind that? There has always been some degree of culture war over academia and its place in society, but it seems like over the last few decades, it has morphed into something different.

It took 800 years of the evolution of the great research universities — through thickets of ecclesiastical and political interference — to get to where they became the great ornaments of Western civilization. And it can take about one generation to kick all that away.

Now, part of the problem is that a lot of the radicals in the 1960s went to work on campus, got tenure and through the tenure system, reproduced themselves. There are a lot of people on campus nowadays who just don’t belong there — they shouldn’t be teachers; they should be political activists. Fine! Go out and do your thing, but don’t pretend that you’re going to be teachers.

This isn’t just on campuses. There’s a common academic culture from Harvard Graduate School to kindergarten in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s spread across the country as evenly as honey on toast. And it affects everything. Everyone is an activist nowadays. The head of the Los Angeles teachers union recently said that all this business about “learning loss” during the pandemic is nonsense. So your children — “your babies,” she said — so your babies don’t know their times tables; they learned the meaning of the word “insurrection” and “coup.” Oh, please! That’s not what they’re supposed to learn in third grade.

There’s a monochrome ideological culture on campus, often enforced through cultural signals in the name of diversity — diversity in everything but thought. Now on campuses, it’s déclassé to be a conservative. You’re not just mistaken [in your beliefs]; you’re somehow vulgar. And it’s this sense of condescension to the vulgarians that infuses a certain high-octane bitterness into our politics these days.

One of the striking things to me about our politics is that the grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with “politics” understood as “legislation and policy.” I mean, if people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. Donald Trump says, “these people despise you and we should despise them.” What do you do politically? I don’t get it.

Did the success of Donald Trump make you reconsider what you thought of as “conservatism”?

No. No, no, no. It made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked. But no: Conservatism, by golly, is what I say it is. [Laughs]

In my last book before this one, “The Conservative Sensibility,” the common question — and it’s a good one — was: What do conservatives want to conserve? The answer is the American founding, which is basically three things. First, there is a constant human nature — we are not just creatures who acquire the impress of whatever culture we’re situated in. Second, there are natural rights — that is, rights that are essential to the flourishing of creatures of our constant human nature. Third, governments are, as the declaration said, instituted to “secure” — the most important word in the declaration —those rights, which preexist government. And the structure of government must be such that, in our Madisonian way, government is strong enough to protect the rights, but not too strong to threaten our rights.

That’s conservatism. And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, “No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans” or whatever he says.

This brings to mind a conversation I had earlier this year with a devout Christian who expressed alarm at the number of people who self-identified as evangelical Christians but whose idea of what that means is entirely cultural instead of being rooted in scripture. It feels like you’re describing something similar with Trump: That there are self-identified “conservatives” whose idea of what conservatism means is entirely based on cultural identity and cultural grievance instead of those tenets of conservatism as a philosophy. Do you think that that’s a fair comparison?

I think it is. Donald Trump is the purest expression of the current pandemic of performative politics — politics cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good. And people nowadays feel good by disliking the other team.

Long ago, when I was a child and the world and I were young, there was a radio program called “Fibber McGee and Molly.” And Molly would say to her husband, “Fibber, if it makes you happy to be unhappy, then be unhappy.” A lot of people are only happy when they’re unhappy now. It makes them feel alive to define themselves not in terms of positive affirmations, but of hostilities. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Personnel matters — that is, who’s up and who’s down in politics. One of the things we’ve learned from Donald Trump is the enormous capacity of one individual to alter the tone of our civic life. You can’t unring the bell and you can’t unsay the things he said — and they have consequences. However, you can get someone different to ring a different bell.

It’s not easy for people who are not demagogues to have the kind of dramatic effect a demagogue can have. But I do think someone with Eisenhower’s smile or Reagan’s chuckle would make a big difference. If someone came along and said, “Really, now. Calm down. Deep breaths.” I think the country would be so ready for that.

Let me ask about something else you wrote in 1976: “The best history is distinguished by an awareness that there is much more to the lives of nations than the free decisions of politicians and electorates.” What do you think that we’re missing or ignoring right now as we survey the life of our nation and focus on Trump or the ups and downs of the day?

We’ll go from the small to the more particular: The small is the swollen presidency. Presidents [were] magnified first by radio, which I think probably had a bigger effect on politics — particularly in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s — than television has had because it gave an immediacy to strong figures. But because of modern technologies — radio, television, now the Internet and all that — the presidents are ubiquitous. They’re in our living rooms at all times. Michael Jackson dies, and the president is supposed to say something. How did that happen? The president is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. He is definitely secondary to those who make the laws that he has to see are faithfully executed.

The swollen presidency is part of this. It permeates us. That’s partly because, famously, the United States doesn’t distinguish head of government from head of state the way the British did. The British could push all that ceremonial stuff off on the House of Windsor, let them do it, and let [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson embody the national spirit. That’s at the pinnacle of it: the conspicuousness of the head of the executive branch.

Flowing from that is an excessive belief that politics determines happiness. Whereas in fact, what makes America so interesting and so creative — what explains the fecundity of American freedom — is the spontaneous order, to use a good Hayekian concept that is so creative and rich. It’s a version of what Tocqueville marveled at: an amazing American genius for creating intermediary institutions. You know, the wagon trains would head out from St. Joseph, Missouri, and about the first night, they’d circle the wagons and start electing officers. That’s just the way we are. And it’s the bottom-up richness of American life that gets eclipsed when we focus instead on senators.

Is it that we think of senators and presidents almost more as cultural figures than political ones?

When [Franklin] Roosevelt sat down to deliver his first fireside chat, the first words he spoke —which are not on the text up at Hyde Park — were: “My friends…” Now imagine George Washington saying, “my friends.” It’s inconceivable. Calvin Coolidge? Never: “No, no. I’m not your friend; I’m your employee, frankly.” But people loved it — this is my friend — and we’ve been intimate with these guys ever since.

So, to be glib about it, there’s a direct line one can draw from FDR to Trump?

Uh, no. [Laughs] Roosevelt understood that the nation was demoralized. And he understood the people had this staticky, crackling, large gadget called a radio in their living rooms, and it changed everything. He understood that. It’s part of his genius. No one said FDR was a common man. He was a genuine American aristocrat. But he had the common touch.

When you look back how the conservative elite has talked about populism in the past — William F. Buckley famously said that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the first 2,000 names on the Harvard faculty — it had at the very least tinges of anti-intellectualism. And it shares that trait with what happened on the right during the rise of Trump — with the notable change being that the intellectual conservative elite was overthrown by the very anti-intellectual populists they glorified. Do you think that that’s an accurate way to think of it?

I do. You know, after the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow — and began to refute Lionel Trilling’s famous statement in “The Liberal Imagination” that there is no conservative thought in America, only “irritable gestures which seek to resemble ideas” — it was an extremely bookish persuasion: Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences”; Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”; Bill Buckley’s “Up From Liberalism”; Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” Bookish people! It was to the point that the man who became my very best friend — the best thing that I’ve had in 50 years in Washington was getting to know Pat Moynihan — said in the 1970s that “something momentous” has happened: the Republican Party has become the party of ideas.

So to overturn the so-called “Republican establishment” meant overturning the bookish side of it, overturning the intellectual side of it. It’s natural, if disreputable, that populism would say, “Enough of these ideas. We want passions.”

Do you think of yourself as part of the “establishment”?

[Pause] Let me give you two answers.

People are always talking about the “Republican establishment.” I tend to think the Republican establishment died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in the summer of 1964, when they decided to stop [Barry] Goldwater, and they said, “Bill Scranton, come on down.” There was an establishment up to that point. They had a newspaper: the New York Herald Tribune. They had a bank: Chase. They had the Rockefeller brothers. They had Bill Scranton. It was an establishment — and Goldwater beat them. The Herald Tribune died, as I recall, in April ‘66, and it hasn’t been quite the same since.

That said, the phrase “Republican establishment” is a little bit like Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about the “international community” — as though that phrase actually denoted something. Rwanda and Denmark? I mean, what are we talking about?

But on the other hand, yeah! Look: I’ve been in Washington for 50-some years. I love Washington. It’s my home now; I’m a Washingtonian. I love the monuments. I love driving around the city and seeing them. And I suppose in some sense, someone who appears regularly in the hometown newspaper — and in a few hundred others — is part of the establishment. Guilty.

You’ve alluded to these fights that happen at universities over history. There was the 1619 Project, which you write about in the book, and then the 1776 Commission that that Trump convened. Are these fights really just about competing visions of patriotism and history? Conservative patriotism often has this sense of a great, noble national history and belief that we need to live up to the glories of the past, while liberal patriotism, to some degree, is about overcoming the inequities of the past, about a history of America getting better and breaking free of the past through struggle and activism.

Yeah. Professor Steven Smith of Yale published a book recently on patriotism. He’s not a conservative, but he says that there’s a kind of aspirational patriotism by progressives — they say, “We love America because we think someday, it’s going to be worth our love.”

That won’t do. Just as it won’t do for conservative patriotism to airbrush the past.

There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education, and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots. There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom. That’s what we called that when it happened in Cologne.

How did you learn about Tulsa?

Around the anniversary, the centennial of it, some of the papers were doing what journalism should do — which is write not just about the future but about the past. And it was healthy. I’d vaguely heard about it, but I had no idea. And it should have come to my attention.

Orwell said in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that he who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past. When we argue about history, we’re arguing about the future.

When we argue against the 1619 Project, we’re arguing against it because it is fundamentally preposterous. The essence of it, as expressed by [Nikole Hannah-Jones,] who won a Pulitzer Prize for it, is not just that America was really founded in 1619 with the arrival of slaves, but that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery because Lord Dunmore had promised that slaves who escaped and joined the British side would be emancipated. Well, by the time Dunmore talked, Lexington and Concord had already occurred; the Stamp Act, the Boston massacre, the Boston Tea Party had occurred; George Washington had been appointed commander of the Army. All of this before that. There’s a deep, almost cynical, illiteracy about the 1619 Project. The revolution was about big stuff. Read Bernard Bailyn. Read Gordon Wood. People took their ideas seriously. We had a rich newspaper culture, and a rich pamphlet culture. How many things published in America have sold, comparable to the proportion of the population, anything like “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine?

I take it you don’t look at Twitter and see a lot of Common Sense-type pamphlets being circulated?

I never look at Twitter. I don’t tweet. I don’t know how to tweet. If someone said, “Tweet, or I’ll kill you,” I’m done.

Someone on my staff tweets from my columns twice a week. That’s it. I’m told I have a Facebook Page; I’ve never seen it.

You don’t feel like you’re missing out?

I know exactly what I’m missing, and I’m delighted to miss it.

You’ve been writing for the Washington Post since 1973 — more than 48 years, 6,000 or so columns. What do you get out of writing, and is it different at this point in your life than it was when you started?

First, I get intense, almost tactile pleasure out of putting sentences together. I have a metabolic urge to write. I think a lot of writers hate to write; they like hanging out in the journalistic subculture and they like seeing their name in print at the end, but the actual writing is painful. Red Smith, the great sportswriter, said: there’s nothing to writing, you just open a vein and bleed. I think that’s nuts. I can think of nothing more fun than writing.

And is that true even when the subject matter itself isn’t necessarily fun?

Yes, it is true. I think the columns I write today are generally more complicated than they used to be. I write a lot more about legal briefs and Supreme Court issues and all. So it’s a little bit more demanding, but that’s part of the fun. I’ve got 750 words to make clear to people why they ought to be concerned about this — not just as the news of the day, but because in that news there is a nugget of principle that that is larger and timeless.

The majority of Americans don’t read newspapers, and a majority of the minority who do read newspapers probably don’t read the op-ed pages and columns. A lot of people say, “that’s kind of depressing.” No! It’s liberating. We have a small but selective audience, a self-selected audience. And it is demonstrably — it seems to me — intellectually upscale. And because they are interested, they have acquired knowledge, so you don’t need to use many of your 750 words to reinvent the wheel every day saying, “there of three branches of government,” etc. They’ve got that. You can write obliquely and with intimation, and make the most of your 750 words.

What, in your mind are, the most meaningful differences in our politics now compared to when you started writing for the Post?

Absence of friendships, I guess I’d say. It’s a good question. People were friendlier. They didn’t get so lathered up.

One of the nice things about turning 80 — I’m looking for the other ones — is you say, “What was it that had me so lathered up during the Carter administration? Can I remember? No.” A sense of perspective descends on you, and you take a deep breath.

So when I’m 80 and looking back at my Twitter feed, I’ll be wondering what I was so worked up about all those years ago?

Exactly.

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