Ethics & Public Policy Center

George Will Changes His Mind—But Stays True to His Convictions

Published in The Atlantic on July 28, 2019


When I arrived in Washington, D.C., as an intern in the 1980s, there were two columnists I read with intentionality, with the goal of becoming a better and more thoughtful writer. One was Charles Krauthammer; the other was George Will.

Will—who began his twice-weekly column for The Washington Post in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977—has just published The Conservative Sensibility, a thoughtful, elegant reflection on American conservatism and the Founders’ political thought. By “sensibility,” Will has in mind less than an agenda but more than an attitude. A sensibility is, he argues, a way of seeing. His aim is less to tell people what to think rather than how to think through complex social problems.

Will’s 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, had a significant intellectual impact on me. He questioned the Founders’ faith that moral balance and national cohesiveness will be supplied by the government’s doing little more than encouraging the free operation of “opposite and rival interests.” America was “ill-founded,” he wrote, because there was not enough attention to what he termed “the sociology of virtue.” Government needed to take a greater role in shaping the moral character of its citizens.

The Conservative Sensibility suggests something else: that we should be attending more to the machinery of government and that government should be far less concerned about inculcating virtue in the citizenry. George Will circa 2019 seems a good deal less enamored with soulcraft as a goal of statecraft. I’ve admired and closely followed Will’s work over the years, and so I wanted to ask him why his thinking had evolved.

For one thing, Will told me, he has a more jaundiced view of government now than he did in the early 1980s. But he added, laughing, “It turns out that Madison was smarter than I am.” When he argued that America was ill-founded because insufficient attention was given to soulcraft, he explained, he hadn’t fully appreciated that the Founders were indeed arguing about statecraft as soulcraft—that a government really can inculcate virtue.

“They understood that when a political regime establishes, through laws and courts and customs and other matters, a particular political economy, it is establishing, it is choosing the kind of people that would live under that regime,” Will said. He argues in The Conservative Sensibility that capitalism doesn’t just make us better off; it makes us better by enforcing such virtues as thrift, industriousness, and the deferral of gratification.

“There’s a wonderful passage that I quote from Tocqueville, in the 1830s, floating down the Ohio River. On his left is slaveholding Kentucky. On his right is free soil of Ohio. And the difference, Tocqueville says, is one is crackling with energy and high-spiritedness and optimism, and the other is torpid and frozen, like a fly in amber. And there’s the difference,” Will told me. “So, long story short: I did not appreciate the extent to which Madisonian liberty with Hamiltonian energy is soulcraft.”

When I probed Will on what has gone wrong with the American right, he mentioned the anti-intellectualism that inevitably comes with populism, which he called “the obverse of conservatism.”

“Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders,” Will points out. “Populism is a direct translation of popular passions into governments through a strong executive. Someone who might say something like, ‘Only I can fix it.’ Which, of course, is what the current president said to the convention that nominated him in 2016.” Will argued that James Madison understood the need to “filter and refine and deflect and slow public opinion through institutions. To make it more refined, to produce what Madison called, in one of his phrases that I’m particularly fond of, ‘mitigated democracy.’”

“The principle of representative government, which is at the heart of conservatism, is that the people do not decide, the people choose who will decide. And that’s why populism inevitably becomes anti-intellectual.” I asked Will what would most concern the Founders about contemporary politics. “Political leaders today seem to feel that their vocation is to arouse passions,” he told me, “not to temper and deflect and moderate them.”

Our conversation moved from James Madison to Donald Trump, who, Will says, is not mentioned in his book for the same reason Doris Day isn’t: Neither has made a contribution to our understanding of conservatism.

Of course, President Trump matters in a way that Doris Day does not, since it is Trump, by his takeover of the Republican Party, who has fundamentally redefined the GOP, and in so doing, left conservatism politically homeless. As someone who raised alarms about Trump as far back as 2011, I wish he were not relevant too. But I’m not sure that the leader of the Republican Party, the president of the United States, and the most popular figure among self-avowed conservatives can be so easily removed from the picture. Trump knows almost nothing about conservatism, yet because of his political success, his fate is now intertwined with those of conservatism and of America’s civic and political culture.

Will has claimed that Trump has done more lasting damage than Richard Nixon did during the Watergate scandal because, in Will’s words, “you can’t un-ring the bell. You can’t unsay what he has now said is acceptable discourse in the United States.”

Trump supporters argue, I told Will, that the president may be a little rough around the edges, that his tweets might be over the top now and then, but those things are mostly inconsequential and ephemeral. What matters, they say, is what Trump does, not what he says, and what he has done is advance conservative policies and appoint conservative judges.

Will replied that he hoped Trump supporters are right—but he’s pretty sure they are wrong when they say that what Trump is doing to our culture, our politics, and our civic discourse is ephemeral.

Trump’s supporters on the right “misunderstand the importance of culture, the viscosity of culture, and I think they are not conservatives, because they don’t understand this,” Will said. “Nixon’s surreptitious burglaries were surreptitious; that is, they were done in secret because they were unacceptable to the country, and once exposed, they were punished and the country moved on. What Mr. Trump has done is make acceptable, make normal, a form of behavior that would get a third grader sent to the principal’s office or to bed without dessert.” Will argues that Trump’s agenda, to the degree it pleases conservatives, is what any Republican president would have done. “So the question is, What does Trump bring that’s distinctive?” Will said. “And it’s all vulgarity, coarsening, semi-criminality.”

I pressed the point, asking about the concrete, tangible harm of Trump’s conduct.

“The answer is in the terms themselves,” Will replied. “The norms, that is, what are normal and what are normative, cease to be normal. And cease to be normative.” His point is that Nixon, for all his crimes, evaded norms; he didn’t challenge them. He didn’t dispute them. He didn’t degrade them. In fact, he was ultimately done in by them. Donald Trump promised when he ran for president that he would overturn our norms, Will has said, and that’s one promise he’s kept.

“It’s amazing to me how fast, and we saw this in the 20th century in a number of ways, how fast something could go from unthinkable to thinkable to action,” Will recently told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. “And it doesn’t seem to me it’s going to be easy to just snap back as if this didn’t happen. It happened. And he got away with it. And he became president. And there will be emulators.”

All of us, including Will, have to deal with the fact that we are now confronted with a head of government who is systematically assaulting our ideals and virtues. Those who may have forgotten are now being reminded that government has a vital role in the cultivation and sustenance—or in the degradation and destruction—of political cultures. Which brings us back to Statecraft as Soulcraft.

“The American nation’s finest political career derived from Lincoln’s refusal to allow his country to be seduced into thinking of itself in an unworthy way,” Will wrote 35 years ago. He added that the civic virtues that Madison and the other Founders believed were essential for a free republic to survive “must be willed. It is folly to will an end but neglect to will the means to the end. The presuppositions of our polity must be supplied, politically.”

He added, “To revitalize politics and strengthen government, we need to talk about talk. We need a new, respectful rhetoric—respectful, that is, of the better angels of mankind’s nature.” The reason, he said, is that “mankind is not just matter, not just a machine with an appetitive ghost in it. We are not what we eat. We are, to some extent, what we and our leaders—the emblematic figures of our polity—say we are.”

Today, the most emblematic figure of our polity is Donald J. Trump. Which is a problem.

In some sense, Will’s broader project over the course of his career is the restoration of norms, the bolstering of public confidence in government, and the recovery of the nation’s founding virtues. “What I’d like progressives to take away from the book is a reconsideration of their dilemma,” he recently told me. “And their dilemma is this: In 1964, when I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Goldwater, to whose memory the book is dedicated, 77 percent of the American people said they trusted the government to do the right thing all the time or almost all the time. Today, it’s 17 percent—and that 60-point evaporation of government prestige has accompanied a 60-fold increase in government pretensions. I would think my progressive friends would be alarmed by this, because their entire agenda depends on strong government, and strong government depends on public confidence in the government.”

“What I’d like conservatives to take away from this book,” Will added, “is the sense of the enormous intellectual pedigree behind conservatism from Madison to Lincoln to [the economist Friedrich] Hayek and the rest.” Will said conservatives need to answer the question, What does conservatism want to conserve?

For Will, the answer is the American founding, by which he has in mind three things: the doctrine of natural rights, understood as rights essential to the flourishing of creatures with our natures; a belief in human nature, meaning we are more than creatures who absorb whatever culture we’re situated in; and a government architecture, principally the separation of powers, that is essential to making good on what he refers to as the most crucial verb in the Declaration of Independence. “In the second paragraph, it says that governments are instituted to secure our rights,” he said. “And they are secured by the separation of powers.”

The most important of all revolutions, Edmund Burke said, is a “revolution in sentiment, manners and moral opinion.” What conservatives like Will and me believe, and what we think Trump supporters either don’t understand or deny, is the destructive revolution in manners and mores that Donald Trump is ushering in, the enormous cultural and social blast radius of his presidency. Through his promiscuous lying and assault on demonstrable truths, his cruelty and crudity, his coarseness, bullying ,and dehumanization of his opponents, and his lawlessness and conspiracy-mongering—the whole corrupt, packaged deal—he has brought us into dark new realms.

There was a time when Republicans and conservatives more generally insisted that culture was upstream of politics and in many respects more important than politics; that leaders needed to take great care in cultivating and validating standards of decency, honor, and integrity; and that a president who destroyed rather than defended cultural norms and high standards would do grave injury to America. But now Republicans are willing to sacrifice soul and culture for the sake of promised policy victories.

Will took as his own intellectual model a figure very different from Trump. He dedicated Statecraft as Soulcraft to his father—Frederick L. Will, a professor of philosophy—and he refers to him briefly in The Conservative Sensibility. “I had breakfast and dinner with my father for 18 years,” Will told me. “And he was not didactic; he was not a moralist. I can remember very few times when he made a point of telling me things.” (In a provocative chapter on religion, Will says that like his father, he is an “amiable, low-voltage atheist.”)

Will, who earned his Ph.D. in politics at Princeton and later taught political philosophy, added this: “I remember it used to be a big deal when the new automobiles came out. The model year. And we went down to look at the Ford dealership, and it was the first year they had a Crown Victoria. And the Crown Victoria had a big swoop of chrome right over the roof. And my father looked at this thing and said they ought to have called it the Mozart Wagon. And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because Mozart proved that you could be a genius without being ostentatious.’ And that always struck me. Not that my father had any illusions that his son was a genius, but it was just a way of looking at the world. I mean, my father obviously was crucial. He was articulate, we had a house full of books, and he was a measured philosopher. So he made distinctions, which is what philosophers do.” It’s what some of our best columnists do too.

Near the end of our interview, I reminded Will that it was said that Clare Boothe Luce told President John F. Kennedy that a great man gets a single sentence in the history books: Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves. Franklin Roosevelt lifted us out of the Great Depression and helped us win a world war.

“If the great columnists got a single sentence in the history books,” I asked Will, “what would you want to say about your contribution?”

“It would be to convince people that politics is both fun and dignifies—that it has a great and stately jurisdiction, because and to the extent that it is a politics of ideas. Period.”

Few columnists in American history have understood politics as well or taken serious ideas as seriously as Will. As the past few years have shattered the intellectual integrity and reputations of the many conservatives who jettisoned their principles in order to curry favor with Donald Trump, George Will has stayed true to his convictions. I wish more had followed his lead.

Peter Wehner is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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