Today’s crisis of conservatism has produced surprisingly few books that try to understand what exactly has happened to the venerable creed. For decades, conservatism was a dominant ideology in the Western world, championed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. Now it has quietly collapsed. President Donald Trump’s populism has taken over the Republican Party, and Brexit fever has consumed Britain’s Conservative leaders.
Into this muddle comes George F. Will’s “The Conservative Sensibility.” I have long admired Will, who embodies the ideal of thoughtful, learned conservatism. When I was in college, he was already a fixture of American political and intellectual life. — a columnist for The Washington Post, a regular commentator on Sunday morning television and the author of several books. As the editor of an undergraduate publication, I summoned the courage to write to Will asking for an interview, to which he agreed. That was 35 years ago, and since then my admiration and respect have remained undimmed. Thus, I picked up his book with great anticipation.
As one might expect, it is deeply erudite, filled with examples from history and illuminating quotations from politicians and poets. Will has attempted to outline the basic features of his creed. American conservatism, Will announces, has almost nothing to do with European conservatism, “which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.” He paraphrases Margaret Thatcher in observing that “European nations were made by history, the United States was made by philosophy.” American conservatism, then, is a project that seeks to defend the original philosophy of America’s Founding Fathers: classical liberalism, which promotes limited government and the veneration of individual liberty.
The counterpoint to this tradition, Will argues, is progressivism, the philosophy articulated by President Woodrow Wilson and most capably enacted by President Franklin Roosevelt. Born during the industrialization of the country after the Civil War, progressivism sees society as requiring collective action, undertaken by government, which can best enable individuals to flourish economically, politically and morally. This tradition, for Will, has eroded the ideals of the American founding, enervated the spirit of America and created a country that is less free, less self-reliant, and poised for economic stagnation.
But the problem for Will and for modern conservatism is that as progressivism rose in the 20th century, the United States became the most powerful, productive and dynamic nation in the world. Indeed, after the New Deal came the astonishing American boom of the 1950s and 1960s. After the Great Society came the information revolution, which America has dominated more than any other nation. The fact remains that in 2019, the U.S. is one of the most free, dynamic and innovative countries on the planet. If that is the result of a century of progressive policies, maybe we need more?
The fundamental flaw of modern conservatism is that it is unsure whether America today is a fallen republic or an astonishing success story. This confusion has produced a political crisis among conservatives, which might help explain the rise of Trump.
Ever since the 1930s, conservatives have been promising their flock the rollback of the progressive agenda. They have warned about the dangers of leaving the welfare state intact and pilloried conservative leaders for failing in this crucial task. Yet, despite the Reagan revolution, the Gingrich revolution and the tea party revolution, the welfare state is still standing as strong as ever. Republicans dominate almost every arena of American politics — and the state is bigger than ever. Should we chalk this up to incompetence? More likely, conservatives know that the public actually wants the welfare state and that a modern country could not function today under some libertarian fantasy experiment. Of course, they will never admit this.
In any case, the result is that conservative leaders left their base permanently aggrieved, feeling betrayed, and distrustful of any new campaign promises made. In recent years, as the fever grew, conservative voters became desperate for someone who had not played this game of bait-and-switch with them. And into this rage walked Trump, who easily toppled the old conservative establishment and rode the frustration with elites all the way to the White House.
George F. Will has written a fascinating book. But at its heart is the same saga of a lost utopia that has crippled modern conservatism and damaged American politics. Will describes himself as “an amiable, low-voltage atheist.” Well, then he surely knows that there never really was a Garden of Eden.