There is a busman’s holiday quality in George F. Will’s scholarly new reflection on American conservatism. Perhaps the most distinguished political commentator of his generation, Will seems to be taking a break from his everyday task of pondering what he calls “the dark and bloody ground” of today’s politics by, well, pondering politics, but from such an altitude that he need hardly mention such names as Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Beto O’Rourke or the rest. Especially not Trump.
Indeed, Will writes that his hope in “The Conservative Sensibility” is to offer reassurance and clarity by connecting “our present disputes among small persons of little learning” to “longstanding American disagreements between large figures of impressive learning.”
Readers may find more clarity than reassurance — which is not to deny the familiar pleasure of sharing Will’s infectious delight in ideas (“exhilarating” is one of his hardest-working adjectives).
The longstanding disagreement Will describes churns over the American Framers’ core belief that government exists for a limited but all-important purpose — to “secure” emphatically “individual” human rights, meaning “natural rights” that arise from a permanent, unchanging human nature.
For well over a century, in Will’s telling, this conservative (or “classical liberal”) American “creed” has been repudiated by a “progressive” vision of government’s purpose. This aims at the far more ambitious (and reckless) project of transforming human nature, in accord with “History” and the evolution of a more enlightened social consciousness.
The large and learned figures who square off in Will’s debate include, on the conservative side, the lead author of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, and the savior of the union, Abraham Lincoln. The 20th century’s transformative presidents — Woodrow Wilson and both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt — are his Progressive paladins.
Will focuses on Madison and Wilson. And while he suggests that the nation’s capital should by rights be named “Madison, D.C.,” he daydreams about no additional honors for Wilson.
It is the “Madisonian balance,” Will says, embodied in the U.S. Constitution’s system of checks and balances that Wilson, as a political “scientist,” denigrated as a “mischievous” obstacle to government’s more forcefully working the will of the majority — or at least what experts like himself would discern as the true majority will.
The significant successes of the progressive offensive over the past century-plus have led to what Will calls a “civic sourness” — in which respect for government has shrunk as the “pretensions” of government have grown — in response to “a trifecta of failure” in American government.
Will’s first two “failures” are familiar conservative indictments that he ably prosecutes. America has acquired an overgrown presidency and suffers the soft tyranny of an unaccountable administrative state. And in response, a “supine” Congress has delegated away its separate powers and no longer so much makes laws as it expresses sweeping sentiments for rulemaking agencies to codify.
It is Will’s third lament, concerning the third branch of government, and the remedy he recommends, that will give some conservatives (like me) pause.
In a chapter titled “The Judicial Supervision of Democracy,” Will endorses “natural law” doctrine and says that to counter “majoritarianism,” the Supreme Court should abandon “judicial restraint” (a traditional conservative ideal) and embrace what he calls “judicial engagement.”
To be sure, when “restraint” is taken to mean sheepish deference to the policy choices of Congress and the president, it is too meek a mission for the courts. A truer conservative ideal is that judges should enforce all of the Constitution’s commands fiercely, while restraining the gnawing appetite to read one’s personal preferences into the document.
But Will’s “engagement” seems to mean more — that the court should strike down democratically made laws that violate “natural rights” even though the rights in question are nowhere mentioned or logically implied in the Constitution. Additional limits on majorities are to be found, rather, among the “unalienable rights” (e.g., “the pursuit of happiness”) proclaimed “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence — the “conscience of the Constitution.”
As Will makes clear, such formidable conservative thinkers on these matters as the late Justice Antonin Scalia (plagued, Will says, with majoritarianism) vigorously disagreed with this idolatry of the Declaration, this turning of judges into moral monarchs empowered to substitute their understanding of “natural law” for the legislated compromises of elected bodies based on nothing more than freestyle philosophizing.
How can judges know, asks the Scalian, any better than anyone else where the lines are to be drawn — once such overgrown lawyers are searching beyond the Constitution, beyond the law? How are magic conservative words like “natural rights” really any different from the talk of a “living Constitution” embracing society’s “evolving standards of decency” that generations of liberal judges have used to justify not just unwritten rights (to abortion, say) but also vast new government powers that conservatives regret?
Will resorts, as natural-law adherents generally do, to a mystical faith in the “self-evident” nature of the truths the Declaration makes absolute. Natural rights are, he says, “obvious to any mind not clouded by ignorance or superstition.”
But really, if it were so easy and “obvious” as that, political life and political debate would not be so challenging as it is, let alone so “exhilarating.”
That said, what makes this book on the whole so rewarding, like all Will’s work, is precisely his appreciation for the complexities of social and political problems. One almost wishes he would dilute his natural-law dogma with a more candidly transcendent doctrine. But he is, as he thoughtfully explains, an “amiable, low-voltage atheist.” Yet he writes that “libertarian conservatives need social conservatives,” because so many of America’s most vexing problems today involve the nation’s “moral ecology.”
The disintegration of family, the destigmatization of dependency, the retreat (mainly of men) from work, the shamelessness with which today’s Americans borrow from the future, the regression of our progressive age from a social “ethic of self-control to an ethic self-absorption” — these are maladies Will diagnoses arrestingly while adding that they are either infirmities modern government helped create or ones it hasn’t a clue how to cure.
Conservatism, Will argues, can at least contribute the wisdom of humility about government’s capacities, and with it a focus on getting “back to basics” and doing less harm.
Unfortunately, he also says, “conservatism rightly understood” is today “a persuasion without a party.”
Ah, but that brings us careening back from political philosophy to the dark, bloody battlefield of politics itself. Will’s many admirers will enjoy, and benefit from, sharing this holiday from all that with him.