Witness to George Will’s Flight from Politics

In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.

To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”

Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”

But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?

Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:

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George Will’s Constitution

Constitution word written wood block. Wooden ABC

George Will has enjoyed a long career as a public intellectual, an especially illustrious one for a Right-of-center figure. For over four decades, Will’s commentary has appeared in intellectual magazines and newspapers including National Review, the Washington Post, and Newsweek. He has many books to his name as well as a widely syndicated newspaper column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. A Ph.D. from Princeton, he’s also a familiar talking head on television, often sporting a bow tie and playing the role of the sober, erudite Washington insider.

Those four decades have been a tumultuous period in our political culture; it would not be surprising if Will’s political views had evolved over that time, and indeed they have. His 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, was a full-throated paean to strong-government Tory conservatism, in the Burkean tradition. He has lately been tacking in the libertarian direction.

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George Will, Burkean

george will

The forgotten etymology of “conservatism” lies in its hardly hidden first two syllables—to “conserve”—so when the Republican Party underwent its lurching metamorphosis from its commitments to constitutionalism, free trade, and chivalry to royalism, protectionism, and vulgarity, the news was not that George F. Will, conservative, stood still. It was that, in the terms of conservatism’s father Edmund Burke, the Republican Party may no longer constitute, properly speaking, a party at all. It is at risk of reverting to the primordial state of “faction” from which Burke rescued what he called the practice of political “connection.”

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It Could Have Worked

The Brookings Institution’s Elaine C. Kamarck and Sheila P. Burke have published a research paper on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. It’s classic Brookings: judicious, competent, useful. The piece contains an overview of which states are where in terms of expanding Medicaid and establishing health care exchanges. As a rule, Republican-led states are nowhere.

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Lessons from the WW II Japanese Relocation

Whenever terrorism strikes America, earnest admonitions about avoiding the Japanese relocation of WW II arise. After all, the thrusting of 110,000 ethnic Japanese, two-thirds of whom were citizens, from their west coast homes into hastily constructed inland relocation centers is unparalleled. Yet, our revulsion at this policy and the Supreme Court’s refusal to condemn it may lead us to the wrong conclusions for our anti-terrorism and immigration policies today.

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Will on DeMuth

The one and only George Will has a Washington Post column today on the one and only Chris DeMuth’s speech on “Executive Government and Bankrupt Government,” delivered at GMU’s Transatlantic Law Forum this past February. I’ve blogged and linked to the talk here. Go read if you haven’t already. You now have it on Mr. Will’s authority that this is big—the deepest, most sober reflection on the state of our politics you’ll find. In the printed Post, George Will’s column appears underneath a rare E.J. Dionne column that’s not only not inane or infuriating but right on, and moving. The Boston…

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George Will’s Washington University Address on Religion and Politics in America

At her WSJ blog Peggy Noonan wonders if this recent speech by George Will at Washington University in St. Louis entitled "Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation" is the most significant of the century. That might be overstating things, but I think it is definitely one of the better statements on this important subject that I have heard in a while.

Bullet Train Wrecks

The irreplaceable George Will has a hilarious column in today’s Washington Post, describing California’s high-speed train foibles. A “bullet train” route is eventually supposed to run from Los Angeles north through the Central Valley and then Bay Area places like Atherton all the way to San Francisco, at a price that’s been estimated as high as $100 billion. For now, they’re trying to build a first segment to connect places like Fresno and Bakersfield, with the help of a $3.3 billion federal grant.

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Tributes to James Q. Wilson

Numerous fond, appreciative tributes to the late James Q. Wilson over the past days include fine reflections by Michael Barone (link no longer available), Heather Higgins, Yuval Levin (linking to Wilson’s collected articles for The Public Interest and National Affairs (link no longer available)), Harvey Mansfield, John Podhoretz (linking to Wilson’s fifty-plus pieces for Commentary), Steven Teles, and George Will.  R. Shep Melnick’s splendid review of the great man’s later essays, published awhile ago in the Claremont Review of Books, appears here.