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Q&A: Acclaimed journalist George Will talks ‘The Conservative Sensibility’ and America’s governing crisis (+podcast)

SHARE Q&A: Acclaimed journalist George Will talks ‘The Conservative Sensibility’ and America’s governing crisis (+podcast)

via The Washington Post

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: Troubling trends are eroding the strength of the American family, trust in the institutions of government and confidence in America's future. George Will takes a look back while providing a critical look ahead in his new book, "The Conservative Sensibility." This is a clarion call for substantive thinking, at a time when Americans are hungry for strong leadership and a renewed debate for the soul of our country.

George Will writes a twice-weekly syndicated column on politics as well as domestic and foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, a media contributor and baseball aficionado, which may be most important. But above all, he is one of the great observers and thinkers of our time.


Hachette Book Group

Mr. Will, thanks so much for joining us today. Well, this is not a small effort, this book. Our good friend Sen. Ben Sasse declared it a great capstone of half a century of your experience. But give us just a little backstory. You haven't written a book in a number of years. Why "The Conservative Sensibility," and why now?

George Will: Well, it seems to me conservatives are asked, sensibly, what is it you want to conserve? But the answer is the American founding, the tradition of natural rights, and the Madisonian constitutional architecture, all of which are under attack today, and have been really, since the progressive repudiation of the founders began early in the 20th century. So this is not a Washington book. This is not about the 45th president. This is a book about the intellectual tendencies that have brought us to this, as I say, beginning with the progressives' remarkably forthright and remarkably successful repudiation of the founders, at the beginning of the 20th century.

BM: Yeah. You mentioned that this doesn't contain anything about the current occupant of the White House. And really in many aspects, as I went through and read over a very long flight to Japan and back, it actually made the best flight I've had in a long time. But you really made the case that it's civil society, it's community and culture, not politics, that we should really be looking to for answers.

GW: That is true. And we must be alert to the possibilities, and they're numerous, that politics and politics expressing itself through government can injure the culture. Can injure all the vital institutions of civil society, all the intermediary institutions that mediate between the individual and the state.

BM: Yeah. So you begin by going really back first. And I love the fact that you kind of focused on this need for statesmanship, about the founders in particular, and what the real intent was in terms of making sure this was not just majority rule, but something a little more than that.

GW: Precisely. The question that recurs in American history from the founding on, most particularly with Abraham Lincoln, which I'll talk about in a minute, is a question of whether the United States is about a condition, which is liberty, or about a process, which is majority rule. The process can be a threat to liberty. Indeed, I grew up in central Illinois, in Lincoln country, marinated in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. I was in Champaign County, my father taught at Champaign Urbana at the University of Illinois as a philosopher. And according to local lore, it was in the Champaign County Courthouse that Lincoln, a prosperous traveling railroad lawyer, learned about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1850. The Kansas-Nebraska Act said we're going to solve the problem of the extension of slavery into the territories by voting on it. Majority rule. Vote it up, vote it down. It's a matter of moral indifference so long as we have majorities prevailing. Lincoln's assent to greatness to, in my judgment, the greatest career in the history of world politics, began by his implacable, canny, unrelenting recoil against the idea that majority rule should settle these questions. He said rights are not subject to overthrow by majorities.

BM: You quoted Stephen Hayward early in the book, talking about the prudence of "the statesman may be described as the combination of attachment to principle, along with a profound understanding of the circumstances." So play that out for us just a little bit, both from the founding and what we're looking at today, in terms of how to do we get to that sensibility of the principle, while still understanding what are the dynamics of the world that we live in?

GW: Well, the principles are that some truths are sort of self-evident, what Jefferson on the founders meant by self-evident truth was truths that are apparent to a reasonably educated mind unclouded by superstition. And we believe that there are certain ideas of natural rights, which is that rights proceed government, they are not given to us by government and government is instituted to, to use the word in the Declaration, to secure our rights. What we then have to do is understand how far we have strayed from this. What the founders thought they were creating was a government of limited, delegated and enumerated powers. Today there's almost nothing, in fact I can't think of anything, that the federal government does not think it has a right to regulate and to legislate about. So we can't evidently count on the courts to put the government back on a leash, although the courts can be enormously helpful. So therefore, we must shift the sand of public opinion. Public opinion, as Lincoln said, is going to prevail sooner or later, but opinion is shiftable sand and we must shift it by arguments. And I hope books will help a bit.

BM: They definitely should. And you point out that the public really has been conditioned to think that any significant problem and even a lot of insignificant problems can only be solved by Washington, D.C., and the federal government. And I want you to drill down just a little bit, because I think in looking to Washington and the federal government to solve everything, there's also this atrophy of the very muscle that made the country, that I think has to also be a concern.

GW: There's no question that as we offload more and more responsibilities to government, we inevitably are offloading more and more responsibilities to the executive branch and to the presidency. Congress, overwhelmed by the growth of the government, has been eager to spin off its powers. One mistake my hero Madison made, and he can't be blamed because he could not have anticipated the growth of the modern state. But he said in one of the Federalist Papers that you will see throughout popular government, the process of power being sucked into the impetuous vortex of the legislature. Actually, for 80 years now the legislature, the Congress, has been spinning off powers, delegating powers it has no right to delegate, no constitutional warrant to delegate, giving presidents the power to impose tariffs willy-nilly, to declare national emergencies willy-nilly, and avoid all restraint from the legislative branch. This has occurred under Congress controlled by both parties, and the Congress has been spinning off powers to presidents of both parties. It's not a partisan complaint. This is a bipartisan failing.

BM: Yeah, that's absolutely right. Maybe we need to come up with the Willy-Nilly Act, I think would be a good restoration of power there. Because they have, and a lot of times they are abdicating that power to the executive branch, because it makes it easier for them to get reelected, which again, is part of the problem.

GW: Of course. People say the presidents are usurping power. Would that they had to usurp it. The fact is, Congress gives it away because in doing so it can, for example, take a stance on education. We're going to pass a law that says there should be universal high quality education, the details it will be filled in by the bureaucracy and the executive branch, which must make all the trade-offs and the difficult decisions. So Congress gets to be on record as favoring a luminous goal. And all the hard work is done elsewhere. But accountability, therefore, winds up elsewhere. And American legislative elections mean less and less and less.

BM: And ultimately, that leads to an over dependence on the judicial branch and why the battle for court nominees becomes so big is because when you abdicate power from Congress to the executive branch, and the executive branch, as you said, George, gladly will wield that. But then things always end up back in the courts. And so the courts have also become the bigger battleground of who gets on, because that's ultimately where things are going to be decided in the end.

GW: And that's not ideal, in large role of the courts. But I'm for it, because if they don't step in to mediate, to umpire, to supervise the excesses of democracy, who will? So I think conservatives who for many years, understandably, in reaction against the excesses of the Warren Court, conservatives for many years said they were for judicial restraint and judicial deference. I think a more interesting conservative position has emerged that we want courts to be actively engaged in policing the boundaries between the separation of powers.

BM: Now, that's great. One of my favorite chapters in your book, "The Conservative Sensibility," is chapter 6 on culture and opportunity. And I love the fact that you start this chapter with a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I know you had a long relationship with and an interesting history. But I want to read this quote, and have you respond and kind of lead us through this chapter. He said, "the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

GW: It also can change the culture for the worse. In 1964, when I cast my first presidential vote, and did so for Barry Goldwater, to the memory of whom the book "The Conservative Sensibility" is dedicated; in 1964, 70 percent of the American people said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing all the time, or almost all the time. Today that figure is under 20 percent. What has happened in the intervening period is the pretensions of government have risen, and the prestige of government has simultaneously plummeted. Because government has lost all sense of its proper scope and actual competence. And as a result, a lot of the problems that were nascent in 1964 have become much larger, in part because of government. Just take one example, you mentioned Pat Moynihan, who was my very best friend. In 1965, as a 38-year-old social scientist in Lyndon Johnson's Labor Department, Pat published a report called "The Negro Family: the Case for National Action." Well, the problem was that 23.7 percent of African American children were then born out of wedlock. Today it's 72 percent. Forty percent of all American first births today, regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, all first births, 40 percent are out of wedlock. And here's the real dynamite. Today, a majority of mothers under 30 are not living with the fathers of their children.

Now, when he published this report, young Pat said, the lesson of history is clear from the wild Irish slums of the East Coast and the 19th century to South Los Angeles today. When you have a large cohort of adolescent males without fathers in the home, you have chaos. Unruly neighborhood schools, so busy trying to maintain discipline they can't teach. Now, the question is, is it just a coincidence that the explosive growth of the welfare state has been accompanied by family disintegration? I don't think so. And families are and must be the primary transmitters of the social capital that enable people to take advantage of the opportunities of a free society, the habits, mores, customs, dispositions of free sovereign, competent individuals.

BM: So there's a little bit of work to be done in that space, then. So how do we get back to that? How do we re-enthrone that strength and that social fabric, again, when we're looking more and more to governments to solve a lot of these problems?

GW: Well, first of all, we insist on the ethics and the reality of individualism, that individuals have responsibilities, they can make choices. They are not the passive playthings of vast impersonal forces coursing through society. Individuals can choose. And they need help with this, they need a good education. They need strengthening of the family through the intermediary institutions of churches and civic groups and all the rest. We don't know what caused this disintegration. And it's happened with a special severity in the United States, but it's happened elsewhere also. Portugal, Wales, Scotland, Finland, all over the place. But not knowing what caused it, it makes it doubly difficult to know how to solve it. But the beginning of wisdom is to note what happened simultaneously. Again, the explosive growth of government as weaving a web of dependency, and destigmatizing dependency on government has been surely a contributor cause to family disintegration.

BM: Really interesting. as I mentioned, I was in Japan over the weekend at this interfaith forum that gets together ahead of the G20 Economic Summit, which will be later in Osaka, Japan, this year. But so many of the questions there were around these areas of civil society, and whether that's churches and faith groups or businesses, or just you know, NGOs, volunteer organizations, and so on, that many of the real solutions happen outside of government. And there seems to be a little bit of a disconnect there. Again, as we look to big institutions to try to drive things through. You have a really interesting section of the book called going abroad, and talking about the fact that the United States is a creedal nation. Talk to us a little bit about that, and why that is so important with a lot of the global issues we deal with today.

GW: Well, there's a creative tension in American foreign policy, there always has been and there always will be as long as we are a creedal nation. As long as we are a nation, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, dedicated to a proposition. As long as we are a nation, as described by Margaret Thatcher, who said European nations are made by history. The United States was made by philosophy. John Locke, limited government, natural rights, all the rest. Because we believe in certain universal truths, that is self-evident truths, truths apparent to all minds not clouded by superstition. There will be an impulse in America, humane and decent impulse, to want to spread the word. To spread these truths and the rights that go with them. On the other hand, and here's where we're coming back to the question of prudence, applying clear principles to untidy reality. You cannot, willy-nilly to use my phrase again, you can cannot export all the truth all the time to all peoples. And you can't do it by force. You can't engage in nation building.

Nations are not like Tinker toys that you pull apart and reassemble, they're more like orchids, they grow, they're organic things. And the idea of nation-building makes as much sense as the idea of orchid building. So you need at once a foreign policy that is informed by and illuminated by America's special mission as the custodian of these self-evident truths, but also a foreign policy informed by the prudence that understands how very difficult it is to get reality to conform to truth.

BM: So let me ask you this. I think there is an element of — people often look to you as the great commentator on politics and civil society. But I think that all stems from the fact that you are an observer first, and are able to ask the critical questions. One of the things I picked up in Japan this weekend was a great quote from the former Emperor, who, at a time when they were really dealing with a lot of pollution and so on in downtown Tokyo, he just asked a question of the country, you know. Why are there no more butterflies in my garden? And in asking that question he literally launched a national campaign that was very organic, was not driven by some, you know, blue ribbon panel or subcommittee of a subcommittee. But in your years of observation, because I think that is the true gift, we have very few people who are quick to observe anymore. And so much of this is encapsulated in the book, but give us some of those observations. What is it that you're observing, what are the questions we should be asking individually and as a nation today?

GW: We should be asking why it is now that the casualties of globalization and economic dynamism, globalization is a good thing. Economic dynamism is a good thing. But they do have costs and they do have casualties. And why is it that some of the people who have been left behind feel not just left behind but despised, they feel condescended to, they feel as though their dignity itself as human beings has been called into question by their experience of the vicissitudes of economic life? Something has happened that has poisoned the neighborliness of Americans. You know, in Steinbeck's great book, "The Grapes of Wrath," and then the movie Henry Fonda made about it, the Joad family is struck by the twin blows of the Dust Bowl and the depression. What the job family did was moved, they got up, piled all their belongings on their old jalopy and went to Southern California, right? A lot of people don't move now in response to economic hardship, in part because they are so entangled in a web of government services and benefits they're afraid to leave. America has always prospered from the mobility of its labor force. When the automobile industry went bad in Michigan a lot of auto workers went to Texas and participated in the boom down there. It still happens, but not enough. So we need to see that Americans understand that mobility and fluidity are important to enjoying the blessing to this country.

BM: That's fantastic. So I can't let you get away without at least one baseball question. So as an observer, there's obviously always rich history and great lessons in the great sport of baseball. But what are some of the butterfly kind of questions that you see coming out of years of watching America's pastime that might be important in terms not of just our past, but of our future?

GW: Well, first of all, baseball is a good sport for a democracy because it's the sport of the half loaf. No one gets everything they want, because there's so much failure in it. Highest career batting average in history was Ty Cobb, .367, I believe it was, that means more than 60 percent of the time he failed. Every team goes to spring training knowing they're going to win 60 games and lose 60 games. We play the whole season to sort out the middle 42. And, you know, if you win 10 out of 20 games you are definitionally mediocre. If you win 11 out of 20 games, you're going to win 87 games, and you're knocking on the door to the postseason. So in that sense, baseball, because there's a lot of failure and a lot of compromise, if you will, with reality, it conditions the mind of a democracy.

Baseball today has some problems that it better address. In 2018, for the first time in history, there were more strikeouts than hits. There was a game last night in which there were 13 home runs hit, which is making the home run boring. It's now about four minutes elapsed before the ball is put in play in Major League Baseball. Some adjustments are going to have to be made. It's an old conservative insight that if you're going to conserve something you have to be ready to change it a bit. Baseball is going to have to make some changes.

BM: All right, looking to your book. You said that conservatism's greatest gift is preservation of the social space for the precious pursuit of higher aspirations. If people fail to use this space, well, that's their failure, not conservatism. So conservatism obviously has its detractors. The political debates are going to be hot and heavy between now and November of 2020. What is your message in terms of the role of conservatism in where we are and where we head as a country?

GW: Put not your faith in princes. That's the lesson. Do not derive meaning from politics. Politics is important. Politics is fun. Politics can be noble, but do not derive your sense of yourself, your identity, and as I say, the meaning of life, from politics. We had in the 20th century all too much of that, the idea that politics would create a new Soviet man, a new German man, that politics would save us from the human condition. Politics doesn't have that big a jurisdiction.

BM: All right, and the final question is, you know, the show is Therefore, What?" and so as people go through and read "The Conservative Sensibility," what is the ultimate "Therefore, What?" What do you hope people walk away with, what do you hope they do different? What do you hope they think different as a result of reading "The Conservative Sensibility"?

GW: I think in a sense, the basic conservative message is slightly pessimistic, it is that nothing lasts. But pessimism is not fatalism, it's just an alertness to the many ways things can go wrong. And that if precautions are taken, and if we look back to the sturdy foundation of the country and the founders themselves, perhaps we shall not pass away, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, we shall last.

BM: That's right. And the new birth of freedom always begins with those principles. The book is "The Conservative Sensibility," that is worth a deep dive, a long read and really good for everyone's summer. George, as always, we appreciate your insight. We appreciate your observations and your great wisdom that has blessed the nation and many around the world. Thanks for joining us today.

Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and the debate has been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseret news.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for joining us on "Therefore, What?"

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