Top critical review
long but quick
Reviewed in the United States on June 17, 2019
George F. Will, or as the Simpsons had it, William F. George, when asked why Trump isn't in his new book, replied,
well, neither is Doris Day, and she has as much to do with conservatism as he does. It was a good joke, but while
the intelligentsia (Bill Kristol, David Frum) have that kind of snobby attitude, the real people out there support
him. Will should make more of an attempt to understand the rejection of elitism, even if it remains a key to
his own public persona.
I had just done a bunch of conservative classics like Bill Buckley's God and Man at Yale and Edmund Burke's
Reflections, when on Monday morning Mr. Will was interviewed on Morning Joe. In the past decades he
has been up there with Buckley, Charles Krauthammer and Pat Buchanan as a columnist. If those writers
represent fusionists, neocons, and paleos, Mr. Will is a Tory, supporting traditions and accepting the New
Deal. He was on TV with George Stephanopoulos, Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts, and is respected
in general on the left, right and center. However, he never really gained a following and there isn't a
movement that can be called "Willism".
I didn't know that he was an atheist. He notes that a conservative doesn't have to believe, but cannot be
contemptuous of religion. So his "nature's God" is not the God of revealed faith. However, he has a strong
emphasis on nature, human nature which is consistent, flawed and limited. Thus he calls for limits and
humility to the ambitions of government. American conservatism, unlike that in Europe, is most concerned
with conserving the American Founding. Will looks at the Founding Fathers with an emphasis on Madison,
and strongly reveres Lincoln and sides with the North. He then makes a contrast with the progressivism
of Woodrow Wilson, which took a different view of human nature and the origin of natural rights, and
found the vision of the Founding Fathers to be obsolete. Coolidge was smarter than people thought, and
Teddy Roosevelt was one of our most intellectual Presidents despite his exuberant personality. So Wilson
was overrated, but he was an professor and very concerned with ideas. Will's narrative contrasts those
ideas with the vision of Madison and Lincoln. FDR was the successor to Wilson, but again Will's Toryism
isn't particularly opposed to the New Deal. Regarding atheism and conservatism, Will agreed with
Buckley, and disagreed with the ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers and the traditionalist Russell
Kirk, who found belief to be necessary.
Then there's the issue of judges, which have been crucial since the Warren Court. The mainstream media
noted that Will criticized Scalia and Bork and praised Souter. That's true, but he also complimented
Clarence Thomas! They left out that part! Will puts more emphasis on the Declaration to interpret the
Constitution, and emphasizes natural rights. Scalia's approach is more positivist, although he must
believe in natural law personally. Will is atheist but emphasizes natural rights and human nature. He
criticizes Justice Holmes as well. Regarding Bork, there has been a change, because Will had the highest
praise for the Tempting of America in the early 90s.
There are discussions of markets and economics, where Will's vision would differ from that of Trump and
Buchanan. The latter is cited for noting that Jeane Kirkpatrick acknowledged the end of the Cold War
and the need to rein in the hawkish foreign policy with which she was identified. For the war in Iraq,
Will differs from George W. Bush and Condi Rice on the readiness of the Middle East for democracy.
But he keeps the general neocon vision of the American mission to promote democratic values. Here
he stakes a place more realist than Bush but more idealist than Trump, if I understand correctly.
Then there are reflections on education, with the left vs. Western Civ, and identity politics. There's a
lot of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Certainly he and George Will are both "eggheads". But it's odd in a
book about conservatism, because Moynihan was not conservative but a liberal Democrat. But he
was more Tory than Whig, valuing history and institutions over social engineering for its own sake.
He was with the original neocon clique of Irving Kristol, Nat Glazer and James Q. Wilson, but remained
left of center while keeping the affection of most of the right. Will also makes frequent reference
to Daniel Bell's Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, looking at the possible contradictions in
political coalitions. If he doesn't like Trump, who as a conservative is impressive to George Will these
days? Mike Lee, for his study of the Founders, and Ben Sasse, for his grasp of history and the complexities
of human nature.