Selections from an interview with George Will
On the American right, from 1980 to 2016 the basic principles held: limited government, low taxation. There were departures, to be sure. “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move,” George W. Bush said in 2003, shortly before signing into law a Medicare expansion passed by a GOP Congress. But the ideal toward which conservatives were striving—that remained.
The rise of Donald Trump signaled something new. Mr. Trump himself had no interest in philosophical arguments for or against state intervention, but he won in 2016—or so a lot of Republican politicos told themselves—by promising to bring industrial production back to the American homeland. Suddenly high-level Republicans rediscovered the virtues of central planning. Sen. Marco Rubio, who in his 2015 presidential campaign announcement had bewailed “the weight of more taxes, more regulations and more government,” was soon able to proclaim the virtues of industrial policy. Several of his GOP colleagues in the Senate—Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance most vocally—are now doing the same. For the first time in many decades, Congressional Republicans don’t even claim to care about slowing the growth of mandatory social-welfare programs, which together comprise two thirds of the federal budget.
…. In “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” published 40 years ago, Mr. Will, now 81, made the case for government’s ability, and therefore duty, to encourage virtue in the citizenry. Readers of Mr. Will’s columns from the 1990s to the 2020s, however, are likelier to think of him as a proponent of the free market. His most recent book, “The Conservative Sensibility” (2019), makes a cogent case for the removal of government, to the extent possible, from social and economic life.
I came to D.C. to ask Mr. Will about the transition from ordinary American conservatism to the big-government variety, or vice versa.
…Government, he says, “shapes the characters of the citizenry by the habits, mores, and dispositions the legal regime encourages.” ..
“What I did not fully appreciate when I wrote ‘Statecraft as Soulcraft,’ ” Mr. Will says, “was that a market-based capitalist society of spontaneous order—I’m using Hayekian language—is good for the soul. …
….” But Mr. Will has a far more expansive explanation for the “vinegary” nature of our politics, too. “The other reason, the bigger reason, is that the stakes are higher than they ever have been before,” he says. “They’re not what we used to understand as political stakes—who gets what, all that distributional stuff. I think our politics today is part of the long reverberation of the most important thing that’s happened in Western politics in the last two centuries. That is that consciousness itself has become a political project.”
… “You can blame Marx, or his precursor Hegel,” he goes on. “Once you decide that human nature is a fiction, that human beings are merely the sum of impressions made on them by their surrounding culture, then politics acquires an enormous jurisdiction. Consciousness becomes a political project, and the point of politics becomes the control of culture in order to control the imposition of proper consciousnesses.”
Consciousness in the Marxian sense refers to the working class’s awareness of its revolutionary future; the proletarians’ consciousness is “false” until they understand their position as tools manipulated by the capitalists and bourgeoisie. In the American circumstance, if I understand Mr. Will, the struggle takes place between knowledge-class progressive elites and more or less everybody else.
Mr. Will thinks Vladimir Lenin, not Marx or Hegel, is the key figure here. Lenin “understood that the party is everything, and the party is everything because it’s a vanguard—it understands the ineluctable unfolding of the laws of history,” he says. “Conservatives don’t often speak of being ‘on the right side of history.’ Progressives say it all the time, because they’ve figured out that History is an autonomous proper noun, capital H, and people who don’t understand ought to get out of the way. One way to make them get out of the way is to tell them to shut up, or make them change their language.”
Progressives really do think, he says, that “consciousness is to be transmitted by the government. And they’re working on it, starting with kindergarten. The academic culture, from the Harvard graduate school of education to kindergarten in Flagstaff, Ariz., is the same now, coast to coast, as far as I can tell.” A core mission of K-12 education, in the progressive view of things, is to inculcate the values of diversity and equity. This Marxian project of consciousness-formation is “all over the country now,” he says. “Think of the DEI statements you’re supposed to make. It’s the threshold step in being considered for a faculty position. You express support for, enthusiastic support for, a political agenda. It’s quite explicit.”
… Mr. Will is fond of an old joke: The first law of economics is, scarcity is real; the first law of politics is, ignore the first law of economics. “Everyone’s agreed on that,” he says. “They say Social Security’s trust fund will be exhausted in 10 years, at which point there will be a mandatory cut of 18% for all benefits. No there won’t. We’ll use general revenues, we’ll go on borrowing.” He ends this polite tirade against the political consensus with a perfectly Willian formulation: “People always ask, ‘What’s the biggest threat to American democracy?’ The biggest threat to American democracy is American democracy. It is the fact that we have incontinent appetites and no restraint on them.” …
Mr. Swaim is a Journal editorial page writer.
Appeared in the February 4, 2023, print edition as ‘Why the Right Turned Left’.