The Sense and Sensibility of George Will

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In our time and place it has become customary for political discourse to take on the strident and bitter tones of fear and loathing. Whether or not this has always been so, we might wish there were a better way. And there is. Rather than articulate one’s sentiments in terms of the evil and stupidity of the “other side,” a better approach is to express one’s views positively, to state in clear terms what is being affirmed. To this end, principles must be articulated upon which arguments can be built. Such an approach would elevate everyone involved and lead us to speak in a manner that might actually persuade. 

George Will’s latest book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” provides a crucial service to those who long for such discourse. Will offers an account of the principles that properly inform one of the competitors in the great struggle for influence over the American political landscape -- conservatism. But he doesn’t stop there. Will’s account uncovers and explains the philosophical foundations of the prominent debates in American political history in a manner that should be useful to everyone involved in the struggle.

He begins with a straightforward question: What is American conservatism? Will answers it right off the bat. “American conservatives are the custodians of the classical liberal tradition.” The core of conservatism is a commitment to the constitutional arrangements of the American founding, particularly the separation of powers, the preeminence of the legislative branch, and the independence of the judiciary. Further, classical liberalism acknowledges and protects a sacred space for the individual, who by nature possesses fundamental rights -- rights not up for barter. Will quotes Justice Robert Jackson’s opinion that the purpose of the Bill of Rights is “to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.” Conservatism is not a populist enterprise.

Will tracks down the sources of these political commitments and the arguments supporting them, which he finds in the writings of the American founders, most significantly James Madison, who grappled with what can be known about human nature by means of reason alone, how this nature gives rise to ruling power, and how this power can be divided and coordinated to establish liberal self-rule. Madison wrote within a context of fierce debates about how best to achieve this separation and coordination of power, and Will lays out the lines of the debates Madison led and correlates them with the major touchstones of political philosophy, ancient and modern.

He argues that the Madisonian constitutional arrangements, including the barriers to populist fervor, are grounded in the writings of the English philosopher John Locke. The American founding, rightly understood, is essentially Lockean. It is not Aristotelian, Hobbesian, Burkean, Kantian, Hegelian, or Christian, nor is it a historically accidental hodgepodge of disparate visions and aims. The carefully delineated powers of each of the three branches of government, with firewalls separating their functions, is the core of the American founding, and this includes carefully formulated checks each of the branches has on the power of the other two. (Will argues that the erosion of these barriers and counterbalances in recent decades, during which the legislative branch has relinquished a significant portion of its powers to the executive, should be alarming for conservatives.)

For Will, American conservatism properly understood is chiefly concerned with the conservation of this Madisonian-Lockean ordering of power. Recognizing the theoretical foundation of Madisonian government in Lockean political philosophy establishes the deepest and most transcendent arguments for the American experiment and for the propositions framed in the Declaration of Independence.  

It is only at this level that the proposition of American Exceptionalism can be rightly understood, because it is here that we come to see that Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that this nation represents “the last best hope of Earth” was more than pretty prose. Such a proposition cannot be adequately supported by appealing to policy, economic systems, cultural or ethnic heritage, military might, or religious piety. Rather, it relies on transcendent principles, which must be seen and articulated, and this is the work of political philosophy.  

Disputes of ideology and policy can be settled either through force or persuasion. Assuming the latter is preferable, our strongest and most enduring appeal will always be to rational account and reasoned argument. This requires at least some measure of civic and liberal education. As Will puts it: “It is reassuring as well as clarifying to trace the pedigree of today’s arguments to long-standing American disagreements between large figures of impressive learning. We can dignify our present disputes among small persons of little learning by connecting them with the great debates about fundamental things.”

Though long (640 pages) and vast in scope, Will’s tome is not exactly a work of scholarship, nor is it presented as such. His insights are sound and his thinking rich, but his basic claims will be familiar to students of political theory. What makes the book so important is its arrangement of these well-established ideas into a compelling intellectual narrative with theoretical integrity that is accessible to a general readership. It also stands in vivid contrast to the prevailing standard of discourse that appears rooted in team spirit, tribalism, and ad hominem rhetoric, oriented unreflectively toward vague (and often incoherent) lists of broad-stroke policy notions.

Will offers readers the needed foundation for authentic, philosophically grounded political reasoning, while making the case for the superiority of the conservative position. The foil in this story is Woodrow Wilson, whom George Will characterizes as the great usurper of Madisonian constitutionalism, re-imagining government as an instrument of progressive transformation, aimed at re-forming society and spreading the gospel of liberal democracy around the globe. Will firmly rejects this view and adopts Friedrich Hayek’s judgment that government should instead defer to the spontaneous formations within free association and free commerce, provided they are consistent with the common good. Although people with a progressive sensibility will no doubt disagree with this position, they might be more persuasive if they followed Will’s example and appealed to thoughtfully articulated principle. Debates in this spirit become interesting and even elevating.

Will is one of the most revered intellectual conservatives in journalism and popular media, and he has offered a magnum opus on the essence of the conservative movement. In our current era many who identify as conservative will not find their concerns represented here. Perhaps they too would benefit from finding a voice to articulate their principles and fundamental aspirations in the language of political philosophy. We should all be striving for higher ground, especially if we wish to persuade others to our cause.

Jonathan Badger teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md.



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