George Will – The Conservative Sensibility
This book displaces 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft as George Will’s grand statement. Early on Will explicitly disavows much of his earlier book’s thesis, having learned since then that government is neither capable nor interested in improving a nation’s character. One reason for this is that nations do not have character, individuals do. The sentiments of even the most stirring campaign speeches do not apply to everyday life.
I have never entirely shared Will’s worldview or his policy positions, yet I have long enjoyed reading and learning from him. For some reason I will always remember his infamous column inveighing against blue jeans as an ur-text for old fuddy-duddies everywhere. Like Will, I do not own a pair. At the same time, I do not share his animus for the casual, easygoing philosophy they apparently represent.
Unlike many political pundits, Will has also evolved over time—though likely not sartorially. Always a staunch conservative, he was one of the few prominent Republicans to criticize George W. Bush’s post-9/11 overreactions, from the PATRIOT Act to the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also looked askance at Bush’s runaway spending, deficits, and his enactment of the largest new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, four decades prior.
After eight years of President Obama normalizing the dangerous new trajectory Bush established, Will was deeply disappointed when Republicans chose Donald Trump as their 2016 nominee. The GOP had a chance to stop 16 years of Bush-Obama excesses, and return to what Will saw as the party’s traditional emphasis on limited, responsible government—though this reviewer disagrees that this tradition existed anywhere in policies the GOP has actually enacted when in power.
Instead of a return to Reagan or Goldwater, Republicans nominated a populist who has neither knowledge of nor interest in conservative policies or principle. In line with its nominee’s personality, the GOP has doubled down on its mistake rather than owned up to it. Shortly before this book came out, a disappointed Will left the GOP and became an independent.
Unusually for a book released in 2019, Will does not mention Donald Trump once in its more than 600 pages. Not only will this decision help the book age better—presidents come and go every few years, while ideas are timeless—it also helps to keep Will’s spleen in check. And in true George Will fashion, ignoring Trump is also a deliberate insult that is both understated and effective. It’s not about him.
Despite the title, The Conservative Sensibility plainly shows that Will’s sensibilities have become more liberal, in the correct sense of the word. I still part company with him on many areas, from his over-emphasis on cultural and political tradition to a borderline Manichean view of family structure—one model is almost purely good, while all other models are almost purely bad.
But he does do nuance in other areas, and I find agreement with many of them. The grandest of all traditions is organized religion, and Will uses this book to come out of the closet as an “amiable, low-wattage atheist.” This is an especially brave move since many conservatives are arguably more prejudiced against atheists than they are even against gay people and immigrants.
Will, fortunately, has an open mind on these issues as well, and he also shows good sense throughout on international trade, which has become another flashpoint in recent years. Increasingly, as historian Stephen Davies has argued, the relevant political divide is no longer progressive-conservative or capitalist-socialist. It is nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism. As the GOP takes a nationalist turn, Will has turned in a more cosmopolitan direction, hence his break.
While, again, I do not agree with all of Will’s views, this is a fascinating document. It comes out during a major political realignment. Will has clearly taken one side, and his longtime party is increasingly choosing the opposite side, leading to a well-publicized break. It also shows the evolution of a careful thinker. Most people become reflexively more conservative and even crochety as they age; Thomas Sowell comes to mind. Will has become more liberal, without turning to the left. Even as Will reflects inward more than he used to, he has adopted a more outward-looking, liberal worldview. He admires the American founders not because they were the founders, but because he genuinely admires their Enlightenment values.
And as always, Will is a fine prose stylist. While he has an impressive vocabulary, he is less interested in showing it off than he is in picking the right word to convey his meaning, Better, he puts those incisive words into compact, crisp sentences. He writes to say something, not to ornament the page. While The Conservative Sensibility is easily twice as long as it needs to be, George Will’s late-career magnum opus deserves the label. Both left and right could use more calm and principled voices like Will’s, for whom party identity is not everything.