THE CONSERVATIVE SENSIBILITY
By George F. Will
There are two words utterly absent from this defense of conservatism in 2019 in America: Donald Trump. In this dense volume, dedicated in many ways to the virtue of restraint, George F. Will does to the president what the president most fears: He ignores him. This is at once the strength of “The Conservative Sensibility” — it is an argument about human history, epistemology, culture, religion, politics and constitutionalism, and not another vehicle for soon-dated Trump hagiography or hatred. But it is also its weakness. For this account of conservatism fails to address why it has collapsed as a political force in America in the 21st century, or how the political party that Will has supported for most of his adult life has rejected it decisively in favor of strongman rule.
But perhaps the answer is implicit in the book. Conservatism for Will is the defense of an a priori truth asserted as “self-evident” by the founding fathers: that all men are created equal, and each has a “natural right” to do as he pleases with himself and his own property, and any government is tasked purely for the maintenance of such freedom. It is rooted in an 18th-century idea (overwhelmingly Locke’s) that Will takes to be an eternal truth about humankind, a truth that was, for a while at least, the basis of a novus ordo seclorum that gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself. This self-evident truth was made manifest in a completely new world, where a dream took hold: “of a fresh start of a sort hitherto unimaginable — of an uncircumscribed future that Americans would be uniquely free to shape by choices not constrained by the viscosity of history. So the last and greatest dream was nothing less than perfect freedom, a state of nature on a continent that seemed to be a blank canvas on which to work.”
I have to say I find this vision of a blank-slate country free from the viscosity of history dedicated to a self-evident truth to be one of the least conservative ideas I’ve ever come across. That it is the fons et origo of American conservatism, as Will sees it, renders the tradition effectively oxymoronic. It is, after all, a little odd for conservatives, of all people, to celebrate a revolution, let alone see it as a fresh start for humanity. And yet in America, with respect to the founding (and refounding by Lincoln), they do. Stranger still that American conservatives, including Will, have long been arguing not for incremental change, as you might expect, but for a radical restructuring of the American state to return it, and the politics that sustain it, to the premise of the 18th century. Only in America would these revolutionary absolutists be called “conservative.” Which is why, perhaps, they remain so interesting.
And Will is a reliable guide to this nontraditional tradition’s internal arguments and acute insights. Its conservatism stems in part, as all conservatism does, from a profound sense of loss: in Will’s case, of the founders’ revolutionary vision of limited government, separation of powers, maximal federalism and inviolable individual freedom. This book, at its best, is a celebration of that vision, and of its counterintuitive impulses — to keep politics in its place, to silo religion outside of government, to resist centralized plans for the imposition of justice and to let a society breathe, live and innovate on its own. There’s a temptation when thinking of Will — with his clipped indifference to modernity’s fads, his bow-tied Tory affect, his gruff curmudgeonliness — to see him as an heir to some old-school Church of England British squire, who has come over time to oppose virtually everything. But this book reminds us that he is much more complicated than that.