George Will: What is conservatism?

American “conservatism” has become a perverted travesty of its former self. Writer George Will, in his book, The Conservative Sensibility, offers a bracing corrective. Discussed in a terrific interview with the New York State Writers Institute’s Mark Koplik.

Both Will and I came to conservatism in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. And left with Trump. Mainline “conservatism” is no longer a philosophy, it’s a tribal cult.

Will begins by differentiating between two kinds of sociopolitical divisions. One — the healthy sort — involves ideas. Differing interpretations of history and understandings of the world, leading to differing policy perspectives. Those can be argued, and having such arguments is a very positive American thing. If you don’t like arguments, you’re in the wrong country. And you shouldn’t see a disagreement over ideas as an attack on your personhood.

One thing I’ve noticed is that blog comments by Trump supporters almost never actually advance arguments. Rarely grapple substantively with opposing points or facts. Instead they’re mainly bald (and usually irrelevant) assertions and ad hominem disparagement.

This introduces the second, unhealthy kind of division, tribalism. Where it’s all us-against-them, the individual subsumed into a tribal identity. We are all embedded in social, cultural settings, but a person is much more than that, Will said. He does recognize that attachments to subgroups are a normal part of life. But it’s another thing when that becomes the basis of your personal identity, your tribe. Especially pernicious when it incorporates a set of political stances. Will spoke of “furnishing” one’s mind by swallowing such precepts whole, so you never have to think about things for the rest of your life. American “conservatism” has become that kind of tribal cult (in thrall to a very bad guru).

Yet, says Will, the whole point of modernity is the contrary, to rescue individuality from being a passive plaything of circumstances. That is, to rescue human agency. We have the free will to change our destiny. Will called the opposite view “historicism.” That’s a nod to Karl Popper, whose 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies similarly argued that we are not prisoners of some historical inevitability.

So what are the positive ideas constituting George Will’s conservatism (and my own)?

He saw them as actually America’s foundational ideas, the nation “conceived in liberty” as Lincoln put it. Democracy, Will said, is a process; liberty a condition, which comes first. Government does not give us rights, but is our creation as their guardian. Thus it should be inherently limited — strong enough to protect our rights but not so strong as to threaten them. The Bill of Rights was enacted to put certain things beyond the reach of majorities.

Will strongly distinguished American conservatism from its European antecedents, rooted in Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution and defense of hierarchies, in opposition to egalitarianism and the dynamics of change. Thus “conserving” the status quo. This has always been a misnomer as concerns the American version, at least since the 1950s, opposing much of the prevailing dispensation. Will says that what it wants to “conserve” is America’s founding principles, while not otherwise being hostile to change. It celebrates the free market precisely because of the spontaneous “churning” it produces, making for progress and upward mobility. Unlike the stagnation when government controls everything (the extreme example being the old Soviet Union).

Thus Will correctly traces American conservatism not to Burke but rather to the classical European liberalism of thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill.* The aim is to promote individualism while also having a commodious civic life. The drama of modern politics is people disagreeing about “the good;” the challenge is to accommodate such diversity, so we can pursue differing visions but still coexist.

Asked whether his stance is “libertarian,” Will said he’s “libertarian-ish” (the pure doctrine having untenable implications). Will characterized his moderated libertarianism as a common sense approach that practically everyone actually embraces. The key idea being that if government tells us what to do, it ought to have a strong reason (consistent with its remit of protecting us from each other while maximizing freedom).

But none of this has much to do with what calls itself “conservative” in today’s America: an incoherent conceptual mess. Nor of course does it resonate on the big-government censorious left. The sound structure of classically liberal ideas that Will lays out is a homeless vagabond in the nation’s current political landscape.

Will’s conservatism entails an ethos of carefulness, with respect for facts and reality, also obviously gone out the window under Trump. In favor of “alternative facts” one prefers to believe. Of course that’s not exclusive to the right; Will speaks of a left-wing academic culture with a “high ratio of certainty to information.” But a salient example on the right is the trope of America founded as a “Christian nation.” That’s not just historically false, here again it’s today’s conservatives turning upside down what our founding principles actually were.*

Will in contrast forthrightly calls himself an atheist. And morality, he says, comes from philosophy, not religion. I would add that it’s actually encoded in our biology; and philosophy explicates moral principles we already feel in our bones. We don’t, says Will, need anything from the supernatural (which doesn’t exist anyway).

Indeed, that can only be a source of moral confusion. American conservatives are steeped in religion, and religion’s divorcement from rationality and reality set the stage for their going off the rails morally with Trumpism. That’s how we got children ripped from mothers’ arms and put in cages. 

* “Liberalism” still has that meaning in Europe, different from what Americans call “liberal” politics. In fact, the U.S. left opposes that kind of classical liberalism, labeling it “neo-liberal” as a pejorative.

** I’ve discussed the history here:

7 Responses to “George Will: What is conservatism?”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    Sadly, we depart. Libet/Koch: there is no neural basis for any theory of volition…No free market has existed since coinage c. 625-585 BPE…The Kosmos is endogenous–thus w/o beginning or end. Quant tells us Reality is an illusion. Only the Reaper is certain: non multo graviora tulisti.

  2. Lee Says:

    Conservatives like George Will, Ronald Reagan, their predecessors, and their successors, are notable for being only a few decades behind when it comes to recognizing the appropriateness of:

    ending slavery, Jim Crow, and the mass incarceration machine;
    income tax and other progressive taxation;
    the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, and other victories of unions;
    interracial marriage;
    Social Security;
    freedom to choose birth control, abortion;
    Equal Rights Amendment for women;
    marriage equality;
    significantly higher levels of legal immigration;
    a functional financial safety net for both urban and rural communities;
    transgender and queer rights;
    universal healthcare;
    huge steps for dealing with climate change;
    reducing the bloated military budget

    “Conserving America’s founding principles” sounds good on paper. However, if it is interpreted to be contrary to these very reasonable goals then it has lost its way.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    None of the things listed is necessarily inconsistent with America’s founding principles.

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    These antinomies will be logarithmic in a time of intellitots, hyperveillance, smarterials, prophylactic geogineering, planetary blockchains & Colonia Martialis. Kardashoff I-II-III await. Information is Reality: the rest is smoke & mirrors.

  5. Lee Says:

    > None of the things listed is necessarily inconsistent with America’s founding principles.

    That is good. However, why are “conservatives” decades behind the progressives when it comes to these issues?

    The “Trump conservatives” are also usually decades behind, except that they are actually not quite as far behind as the more traditional conservatives when it comes to the $2,000 payment for COVID-19 relief. That’s actually a plus for Trump!

  6. Don Bronkema Says:

    Need UBI of $17 KPA to compensate assets purloined by tax billionaires & von Mises/Rand//Friedman ideologues since noon, 20 Jan 1981 CE.

  7. revconeuropean Says:

    This is a thoughtful post but ultimately I disagree with your conception of conservatism. The universalism of liberalism resulted from the hyper-abstraction of early modern political theorists like Hobbes and Locke who sought to replicate the success of the emerging new science by providing a rationale for uniquely European if not specifically English political institutions that in fact resulted from historical trial and error — not from intellectualism. The American Founders, most influentially Jefferson, drew on this universalist language to justify their secession from the Crown. But America is not an idea. It is (or was) a distinct people, namely, uprooted Europeans living in the New World, and its animating principles and values cannot be severed from its traditions and institutions, which in turn cannot be severed from the people who produced them. The way forward for conservatives in America is not to bash Middle Americans who supported Trump for being stupid, but to provide intellectual leadership that seeks to preserve the status, heritage, and values of European Americans. Most people are not intellectuals sitting around reading the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. When they fight back against a dominant culture that marginalizes and seeks to eliminate them and their heritage, why would you expect them to advance philosophically sophisticated arguments?

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