THE CONSERVATIVE SENSIBILITY
By George F. Will
There are two words utterly absent from this defense of conservatism in 2019 in America: Donald Trump. In this dense volume, dedicated in many ways to the virtue of restraint, George F. Will does to the president what the president most fears: He ignores him. This is at once the strength of “The Conservative Sensibility” — it is an argument about human history, epistemology, culture, religion, politics and constitutionalism, and not another vehicle for soon-dated Trump hagiography or hatred. But it is also its weakness. For this account of conservatism fails to address why it has collapsed as a political force in America in the 21st century, or how the political party that Will has supported for most of his adult life has rejected it decisively in favor of strongman rule.
But perhaps the answer is implicit in the book. Conservatism for Will is the defense of an a priori truth asserted as “self-evident” by the founding fathers: that all men are created equal, and each has a “natural right” to do as he pleases with himself and his own property, and any government is tasked purely for the maintenance of such freedom. It is rooted in an 18th-century idea (overwhelmingly Locke’s) that Will takes to be an eternal truth about humankind, a truth that was, for a while at least, the basis of a novus ordo seclorum that gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. This self-evident truth was made manifest in a completely new world, where a dream took hold: “of a fresh start of a sort hitherto unimaginable — of an uncircumscribed future that Americans would be uniquely free to shape by choices not constrained by the viscosity of history. So the last and greatest dream was nothing less than perfect freedom, a state of nature on a continent that seemed to be a blank canvas on which to work.”
I have to say I find this vision of a blank-slate country free from the viscosity of history dedicated to a self-evident truth to be one of the least conservative ideas I’ve ever come across. That it is the fons et origo of American conservatism, as Will sees it, renders the tradition effectively oxymoronic. It is, after all, a little odd for conservatives, of all people, to celebrate a revolution, let alone see it as a fresh start for humanity. And yet in America, with respect to the founding (and refounding by Lincoln), they do. Stranger still that American conservatives, including Will, have long been arguing not for incremental change, as you might expect, but for a radical restructuring of the American state to return it, and the politics that sustain it, to the premise of the 18th century. Only in America would these revolutionary absolutists be called “conservative.” Which is why, perhaps, they remain so interesting.
And Will is a reliable guide to this nontraditional tradition’s internal arguments and acute insights. Its conservatism stems in part, as all conservatism does, from a profound sense of loss: in Will’s case, of the founders’ revolutionary vision of limited government, separation of powers, maximal federalism and inviolable individual freedom. This book, at its best, is a celebration of that vision, and of its counterintuitive impulses — to keep politics in its place, to silo religion outside of government, to resist centralized plans for the imposition of justice and to let a society breathe, live and innovate on its own. There’s a temptation when thinking of Will — with his clipped indifference to modernity’s fads, his bow-tied Tory affect, his gruff curmudgeonliness — to see him as an heir to some old-school Church of England British squire, who has come over time to oppose virtually everything. But this book reminds us that he is much more complicated than that.
He is, for example, a lover of change, of restlessness and of innovation — when it comes spontaneously from below, rather than clumsily from above. He claims a “conservative sensibility that finds flux exhilarating, that is delighted rather than depressed by the idea that there is no beyond and that everything is contingent.” He believes in no God, describing himself, with acuity, as “an amiable, low-voltage atheist” and, in an absorbing chapter on religion, makes the case that “not only can conservatives be thoroughly secular, but that a secular understanding of cosmology and of humanity’s place in the cosmos accords with a distinctively conservative sensibility.” By that cosmology he means the spontaneous order of an evolving earth in an expanding universe. Darwin’s breakthrough in human consciousness was the idea that change is always and everywhere and has no ultimate direction, and that no single mind, even the mind of God, can direct or even control any of this, and shouldn’t even try. The political lesson Will draws from this is telling. Letting things be is far saner than attempting to wrestle everything into a single theory, let alone marshal it all toward a specific end.
Will is not against religion, mind you. He suspects it’s an important, even vital, tool for sustaining some of the virtues necessary for self-control, which alone makes self-government durable. But his favorite Christian is surely along the lines of Washington himself: a man who refused to kneel to pray, who left services before Communion and at whose deathbed, “no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered.” More’s the pity then that Will decides not to name and blame the members of the fundamentalist right for the damage they have done to a sensibility that is so alien to them, or to those so-called conservatives who saw evangelical certitude as an ally.
Many parts of this book drink from the strong draft of conservative intellectual revival in the 1970s and 1980s, rooted in a deep critique of socialism, central planning and the illusions of “political science.” This was a function of a particular place and time, and it would be interesting to read any regrets or new thoughts Will might have about that period, especially as late capitalism appears to have lost a lot of its popular legitimacy. But there are very few doubts expressed here about that transformation of Anglo-American politics. This is a book that doubles down on free trade, barely mentions immigration and remains remarkably sanguine about interventionism in defense of liberty around the world. Will is close to unique here: He was a skeptic of the Iraq war and yet remains committed to a chastened neoconservatism in foreign affairs.
Then there is Will’s loathing of the modern presidency, with its ever-increasing powers and vast administrative state, and his ornery conservative belief in judicial activism — to protect the founders’ vision. Not for him the fashionable philosophy of judicial restraint, once championed by progressives, and now celebrated by the Republican-appointed judiciary. The reason is a simple one: “If Congress is the sovereign arbiter of the parameters of its own power, then there is no institutional buttress for limited government.” Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork come in for some serious tongue-lashing for their majoritarianism. Will is an originalist insofar as he believes the founders’ vision should be sustained by the courts, but he also holds that the Constitution’s demands do require interpretation as culture and mores change. The justice he cites the most to convey this conservative judicial philosophy is David Souter — a man despised by the Republican right.
I found it just as interesting that Will now puts the “Reagan Revolution” in quotation marks. Unlike so many others, he never fell for the idea that deficits don’t matter, and correctly concludes that Reagan did not demand hard choices from self-governing citizens but instead promised them all the benefits of larger and larger government, without any of the fiscal costs. Those costs were to be sloughed off on future generations — a violation of any kind of responsible conservatism. But Will doesn’t acknowledge that this was central to the revival of “conservatism” — fiscal recklessness that has now morphed into staggering levels of public debt — or ask himself if conservatism as properly understood could honestly sell restraint and austerity to a modern citizenry. Thatcher believed so; but Reagan sure didn’t.
And there’s an unreality to some of Will’s positions. It’s all very well to lambaste the judiciary for knuckling under eventually to Franklin Roosevelt. But what option was there in such an acute crisis? He’s right to express a genuine skepticism toward overarching theories, like climate change, that require an enormous economic overhaul on inevitably speculative projections. But what if, as is sometimes the case, the theory is actually true, and the facts slowly accumulate to prove it? Denial is not the same as skepticism.
These flaws do not, however, detract from the wisdom you can glean from this volume. Its account of how the presidency has taken over the legislature in the modern era is essential to understanding the extreme danger that a figure like Trump now poses to core constitutional principles: “The modern presidency is a pernicious conflation of the function of a government executive with that of a semi-sacerdotal official catering to the spiritual care of people who seek from politics some excitements, satisfactions and consolations that politics should not try to supply.”
There are other valuable nuggets. He’s very insightful about the distinction between Hobbes and Locke in the founding of modern liberalism. He’s alert to the contradictions of capitalism: that its success at generating wealth and comfort saps the virtues required for self-control and limited government. He is incisive in distinguishing religion as a way of finding meaning in life rather than the meaning of life. And his flashes of understated Tory wit are all the more welcome for being relatively sparse: “Today’s culture is a reason for thinking that perhaps people should be a bit more circumscribed by manners and mores, and would be improved by a pinch of awe about something other than their own splendor.” You think?
Restraint; prudence; skepticism; awe; responsibility and ease in modernity. All these virtues are to be found in Will’s very American variety of conservatism. And these reflections of a conservative disposition or sensibility save Will from some of the more abstract forms of ideology that his defense of natural rights implies. They inevitably cast a shadow on what passes for conservatism in the Republican Party today. Their values are domination; gut-thinking; cultishness; recklessness; fundamentalism; and the preference for raw power over letting things be.
In fact, as Will’s argument makes cumulatively clear, the current Republican Party is as great a threat to conservatism as Will understands it as a feckless progressivism. This book is therefore not only a case for a certain kind of politics in the West. In its silence and implications, it is a damning indictment of what American “conservatives” have become. Welcome, George, to the conservative opposition to modern Republicanism. It’s a long, long road ahead.
Andrew Sullivan is a writer at large for New York magazine and the author of “The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right.”
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