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Q&A with George Will: Yes, it’s time to worry for American democracy

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Long respected as the intellectual voice of American conservatism even after the Age of Trump transformed conservatism’s principles into something that would be unrecognizable to its most ardent champions of yesteryear, George F. Will turned 80 in May but shows no sign of losing steam. He continues to produce two erudite columns a week for the Washington Post — work distinguished by not only his strong grasp of history but his high regard for nuance and wit. He has edited a new collection of columns, “American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent — 2008-2020,” released last month by Hachette Books. Retired Waco Tribune-Herald opinion editor Bill Whitaker interviewed Will last week amidst the backdrop of another pandemic surge (including a recent period when the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients in Waco eclipsed the rest of the state); continuing cries of election fraud (including former President Trump’s suggestion that he might be “reinstated”); conservative Supreme Court justices insisting they’re above politics (including Amy Coney Barrett’s insistence they’re “not a bunch of partisan hacks”); and growing concern about a populist movement masquerading as principled conservatism but actually unprincipled, autocratic and dangerous.

Question: Congratulations on putting together a book of columns, “American Happiness and Discontents,” so soon after producing that 640-page doorstop of a manifesto, “The Conservative Sensibility,” all while continuing to produce newspaper columns during a time of great tumult. You’re setting an example for those of us who hope to be as productive at 80.

Will: (Laughter.) Well, I hope to continue setting an example to those who are 90.

Q: And now I must break your heart: In this stretch of Central Texas, once prideful of being “Bush Country” owing to the president’s ranch in nearby Crawford, now definitely Trump Country, you have been deemed “liberal” by some of our newspaper’s readers when I’ve published your latter-day columns, especially when you’re critical of you-know-who. Surprised?

Will: No, I’m not surprised. First of all, some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent acolytes believe that whatever he says — however contradictory it is with whatever he’s previously said or what they’ve previously believed — now constitutes conservatism. I’m simply not pliable enough in my political philosophy to fit into this swirl that he sits at the epicenter of. When some of your readers and friends call me a liberal, they’re right but don’t know it in one particular. As I said in “The Conservative Sensibility,” we conservatives in America have traditionally been inheritors of the great classical liberal tradition taken from John Locke and all the rest. John Stuart Mill believed that free markets, trade, limited government, individuals as rights-bearing creatures, etcetera, etcetera — all these things we got from the great liberal tradition. That’s not what your folks mean in their complaint, however. They mean I’ve gone over to the dark side. We’re just going to have to parse this out over the years.

Q: I grew up reading conservative icon William F. Buckley. I remember his saying that his chief goal was keeping all the extremists, kooks, bigots and racists out of the conservative movement. You may well recall this, given your own association with him years ago. When you reflect on the broad arc of history, and your new book scans that arc, when did intellectual conservatism — the conservatism of ideas — begin to morph into present-day know-nothing populism? When did the cracks develop? I mean, I was at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston when Pat Buchanan and his pitchfork brigade eclipsed Bush and Reagan.

Will: You’re quite right to focus on the ’92 convention, but there’ve been others. Let me take a running jump into that excellent question. Conservatism began to grow after the Second World War as a philosophical and ideological movement rather than a civic businessman’s impulse. It was a remarkably bookish movement, early conservatism after the war — Bill Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” and “Up From Liberalism,” Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” — but even before these, there was Richard Weaver of the University of Chicago who published a book called “Ideas Have Consequences.” And that was canonical text for conservatives because conservatives believe rightly that only ideas have large and lasting consequences. To follow Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, “First you win the argument, then you win the election,” and they first wanted to win the argument. It grew to the point of the late 1970s when Pat Moynihan, who would eventually become one of my closest friends — and, yes, he’s a good New Deal liberal Democrat from New York — but he said, “Something momentous has happened: The Republican Party has become the party of ideas in America!”

So fast-forward to Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party. Donald Trump is conspicuously, obviously, proudly indifferent to ideas. He’s had one idea, really, for 40 years, and it’s that Japan — oops [facetiously], I mean China — is going to eat our lunch. And from that flows his impulse for protectionism and other departures from the classic understanding of conservatism. People sometimes ask about the essence of conservatism. Well, whatever populism is, conservatism isn’t. Populism believes the public passions should be translated as much as possible into policy, and this requires a strong president uninhibited by such constitutional niceties as the separation of powers. So along comes Donald Trump who says, “I have Article II and I can do whatever I want.” Well, that’s not really an effective gloss on James Madison. Sorry. It’s more complicated than that.

H.L. Mencken famously said, “Democracy is the belief that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” Madison said public opinion majorities should rule, but majority opinion should be filtered and refined and slowed by being passed through representative institutions, rivalrous institutions — the House, the Senate, with different electoral rhythms and constituencies. Populism wants nothing to do with refinement and filtering and slowing down and cooling. And I don’t know at what point a lot of would-be and former conservatives lost interest in patience. Conservatism is above all a doctrine of prudence and patience, and they became impatient and not least impatient with the very principles of conservatism.

Q: There’s a studied optimism in your writing some people fail to discern. I gather from your columns that you’re not as nervous about American democracy’s survival as some of us are. How then do you interpret the insurrection of January 6 — or do you even consider it an insurrection? Some Republicans in Congress say it wasn’t an insurrection. Is this not a seminal American event? Let me put it this way: When do you think we’re justified in getting really worried?

Will: I think you are justified in being worried. January 6 was of course a seminal event. It was one of the most shocking days of my life, and other constitutionalists and institutionalists view it that way. Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House, told me that when he watched this on January 6 he wept. It was the impulse of a great many of us. And, yes, it was an insurrection because it was an attempt to stop a constitutional process, the certification of electoral votes. We’ve never had anything like this. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this was a small number of people. There are 330 million people in this country and a few thousand of them showed up to disrupt that.

Now, there are an awful lot of people out there who have swallowed hook, line and sinker the [former] president’s preposterous claim that he won the 2020 election in a landslide. This is a reminder, a timely reminder, of a belief which conservatives should not have to be reminded of, and that is that passions are problems, that politics exist to tame passions, and that conservatives stand against demagoguery and strong, would-be autocrats like Mr. Trump who exist to inflame passions.

Q: As you’ve noted in your many writings, one of the most thought-provoking reads is Alexis de Tocqueville’s sprawling but engaging book “Democracy in America” (1835), assembled during the Age of Jackson, another period driven by a sense of the common man and populism. There’s a passage somewhere in that book about the intrepid pioneer braving the frontier with no more than an axe, a Bible and a newspaper, the latter possibly days, weeks or months out of date but evidence of his studied engagement with the changing world around him. In recent days I’ve been interviewing people about vaccination hesitance. I find, yes, it’s attributable to confusion over conflicting sources on social media but also an unwillingness or inability to sort out reputable sources from rumor-mongering sources. How did this happen? How do we reverse things when so much of today’s populism is built on anti-intellectualism that dismisses anyone even remotely informed or educated as “elitist”?

Will: There’s been a rebellion against the very concept of expertise — not just against this or that expert but the concept of expertise, which in the populist mind seems vaguely undemocratic. Well, I’m sorry. The question in society is never whether elites shall rule but which elites are going to rule, and the test in a democracy is to get popular consent to worthy elites. I understand there have been many government failures from Vietnam to Watergate to the Great Society programs and all the rest, so many government failures — weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist and on and on. I’ve got that. But this has fed a generalized mistrust of government. The problem is that when you withdraw trust, society becomes unlivable. You have to trust your neighbors, you have to trust the merchant down the street, you have to trust your banks. Otherwise things simply fall apart, and we’re witnessing this in regard to the vaccine situation of which you’re rightly writing. It’s a matter of life and death, and the deaths are attributable to the lack of trust.

Q: Many of the vaccination volunteers I’ve interviewed in recent days agree with you that we need to be careful how much we mandate in battling the pandemic, deadly though it is. In a recent column, you highlighted the unconstitutionality of travel bans for U.S. citizens. Many in Texas would agree government-imposed vaccination mandates may also be a bridge too far. What then is reasonable for government, state or federal, in a situation that will strangle our economy and claim more lives if we don’t check it? I ask because a week or so ago Waco had the highest hospitalization rate of COVID cases in all Texas.

Will: I work from the outer fringes of this question in: The outer fringe is: Does the federal government have a general police power that enables the president to mandate that everyone get vaccinated? The answer is no. The Framers clearly gave the general police powers to the states. When I grew up in Illinois, I was required before I could go to school to get — I think they were chicken-pox and measles vaccinations. We were all eager to get the polio vaccine when it came out. So first of all, the business (of this) is at the state level. Clearly, people who will not be vaccinated are endangering themselves and making it more difficult for us to reach herd immunity. On the other hand, the president has made an awful mess of his messaging on all this, particularly in his speech the other day when he said (A) everyone should get vaccinated since it’s cheap and safe and effective and (B) those who are not vaccinated are threatening the vaccinated, which made no sense because if people are vaccinated they are not threatened by the unvaccinated. So (A) it’s not federal business, (B) the states should do all they can and the private sector should do all it is empowered to do, which is a lot — requiring employees to be vaccinated. A good policy is to get the states and the localities and the private sector to make this an ethical norm. A pandemic doesn’t concern just one individual, it concerns a community.

Q: You’ve mentioned the Mississippi abortion law regarding that state’s banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Dec. 1. But in Texas we’ve done Mississippi one better. We’ve struck new ground in the abortion war, not just with a fetal heartbeat bill that would preclude abortions after about six weeks but would do so through an interesting legal theory by Federalist Society member and former Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell. He wrote in the 2018 Virginia Law Review that laws are never struck down by the courts, only enforcement of those laws by the state. In short, the laws remain on the books. Thus the state of Texas is justified in allowing citizens to sue one another over suspected abortions since the state itself is forbidden from enforcing the law on certain occasions. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Will: I know exactly what you’re talking about. These are called “private attorney-general bills” that turn everybody into an attorney general. Conservatives who happen to be pro-life, as I am, are dangerously mistaken when they applaud this because wait till California decides to write a similar law about hate speech, that anyone can take a private action against hate speech or the ownership of certain kinds of guns. This is a path to anarchy.

Q: You mention in your writings how you love living in Washington, D.C., amid all the history and national monuments. What’s your favorite national monument?

Will: You’re talking to a kid from Central Illinois. My favorite spot is the Lincoln Memorial. It’s got two of his greatest speeches — the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, short and carved in marble — and one of the great sculptures of all time, Lincoln sitting in that chair. I think Lincoln is the greatest American ever, closely followed by George Washington, closely followed by John Marshall. Those are my top three.

Q: Every morning I walk with some of the other old men and discuss issues ranging from sports to politics to the weather. A friend of mine, knowing that I left the Republican Party much as you famously did, regularly says to me, “You know, we’ve got to find a way to get you back in the party.” Under what circumstances would George Will ever consider going back to the Republican Party?

Will: When it becomes a political party again, not a cult of personality.

This interview was condensed and edited for space and clarity.

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