The Trump years, Will told POLITICO in an interview this week, “made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked.” Conservatism, for Will, is quite an ethos with a proud intellectual tradition in American life. What it means to keep, he says, is the American founder.
“It is conservatism, ”Will said. “And this is Mr. Trump, saying, ‘No, conservatism is going after Mexicans,’ or whatever he says. “
Now what society considers “conservatism” is different. For Will, this is reminiscent of the tendency of self-identified conservative evangelical Christians whose identity is not based on scriptures but on cultural totems. In one sense, yes, they are Christians, but in another, what does this term mean if they are separated from the Scriptures? What does “conservative” mean when politics is, as Will describes it, now “cut off from anything other than making its adherents feel good”?
For Will, this is a fundamental shift in what society understands by politics. “Grievances – which multiply like rabbits and make people constantly angry – are very difficult to deal with with ‘politics’ understood as ‘law and policy’,” said Will. “If people are feeling patronizing, how do you draft a bill and be patronizing?” It’s very difficult to approach, which is why politics kind of becomes cut off from the normal stuff of politics. … What are you doing politically? I do not understand.
Will is introspective on how we got here. Yes, there are some easy and obvious targets that have accelerated the decline of American political discourse – he quotes social media as “often high speed madness and vituperation and just plain ugliness”, and later volunteers he doesn’t use Twitter: “If someone says ‘Tweet or I’ll kill you’ I’m done” – but there is also a significant role that conservative intellectuals themselves have played by stoking the fires of conservative populism.
“After World War II, when conservatism started to develop… it was an extremely bookish persuasion,” said Will, checking the names of thinkers like William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk. And as the Republican Party became the ‘party of ideas’, it necessarily put a target on their backs: to overthrow “the so-called ‘Republican establishment’ meant to overthrow its bookish side, to overthrow its intellectual side,” Will said. .
None of this is to say that George Will has become moderate. He did not do it. He thinks the government is doing way too much, spending way too much, and that politics is taking up too much of the national mental bandwidth. He’s upset about some of the same things that drive other conservatives, like the New York Times’ “1619 Project”. But he also criticizes the conservatives who want to “push back the past”.
“There is something wrong: 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. I should have known. It was not just a simple erasure; it was a pogrom.
What does American conservatism mean in 2021? How did George Will hear about the Tulsa massacre? And what is his advice to those who claim to replace Donald Trump? To talk about all this and more, POLITICO magazine spoke to Will via Zoom. A transcript of this conversation follows, condensed and edited for length and readability.
I want to read to you something 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.” Celebrating the empty head of the common man will produce many leaders who are, to put it mildly, common. Do you think we currently see the lowest common denominator in our legislatures, in our politics?
Oh, you are too optimistic with the word “lowest”. You forget the “first law of the will”, which is: “There is no rock bottom. “
What I was saying was Tocqueville – he was worried about it – 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 was carrying his own suitcase to show what he was doing. is an “ordinary man” he was.
I did not quote it at the time, because I had not yet discovered it, but someone once said to Senator Robert Taft’s wife: “Is your husband an ‘ordinary man’? ? She said, “God damn it, top of her class at Yale; first in class at law school. The people of Ohio don’t want an ‘ordinary man’. And, in fact, we don’t want to! Jimmy Carter also, to his credit, said, “Why not the best?” It was one of his catchphrases because we really don’t want ordinary people. We want the unusual.
Over the past few years, as we’ve seen the rise of Trumpism, has all this tension in politics been because – as you suggested – we’ve celebrated the common man? too much, or because the common man feels ignored by the institutions, and does that make the grievance policy game easier?
Yes, that is to say both. There is no doubt that people feel ignored. And there’s no doubt we’ve said too uncritically the populist trope – which is that people know what they want and people are wise and therefore should get what they want – instead of HL Mencken’s famous belief that “democracy is the belief that people know what they want and deserve to do it right and hard.”
But there is a third factor these days, and it’s social media, which gives speed to appetites and passions that aren’t natural. It’s also true that when the mainstream media was everything, it kind of offended our democratic sensibilities, but it had the benefit of having gatekeepers. So if you were completely crazy and overflowing with conspiracy theories, it was pretty hard to get it on the air. Now it is easy. Gene Volokh, who runs the Volokh Conspiracy website and teaches law at UCLA, wrote a wonderful article on the cost of cheap speech – which is often madness and high-speed vituperation and just plain frenzy. ugliness. The “bad old days” had something to say for them.
So how do we balance this with the embrace of free speech, which is a foundational American ideal?
This was a basic American ideal. Over the past 60 years, almost all of the case law thinking about the First Amendment speech clause has been about justifying the balance between free speech and competing values - comity, community values, etc. So it’s far from a core American value now, especially on [college] campus, where you would have thought free speech was safe. In fact, what is most protected on campus today is freedom. of speech.
Let’s dig that. In your book you write that “the most disheartening intellectual phenomenon in America is the degradation of higher education.” What is behind this? There has always been a certain degree of cultural warfare against academia and its place in society, but it seems that over the past few decades it has turned into something different.
It took 800 years of the evolution of great research universities – through thickets of ecclesiastical and political interference – to get to where they have become the great adornments of Western civilization. And it can take about a generation to get rid of all of that.
Now part of the problem is that a lot of radicals in the 1960s went to work on campus, got tenure and, through the tenure system, reproduced. There are a lot of people on campus these days 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 you’re going to be teachers.
It’s not just on campuses. There is a common academic culture of Harvard Graduate School in Kindergarten in Flagstaff, Arizona. It is spread throughout the country as evenly as honey on toast. And it affects everything. Everyone is an activist these days. The the leader of the Los Angeles teachers’ union recently said that this whole “learning loss” thing during the pandemic is nonsense. So your children – “your babies,” she said – so your babies don’t know their multiplication tables; they learned the meaning of the words “insurrection” and “coup”. Oh please! That’s not what they’re supposed to learn in third grade.
There is a monochrome ideological culture on campus, often enforced by cultural cues in the name of diversity – diversity in everything but thought. Now on campuses, it’s downgraded to be conservative. You are not wrong only [in your beliefs]; you are sort of vulgar. And it is this feeling of condescension towards the vulgar that infuses some high octane bitterness into our politics these days.