So when I first began moving toward a more traditionalist conservatism in 2008, several conservatives eager to give me something good to read suggested I read George Will. I read a few pieces and, while I could appreciate his gifts as a writer, couldn’t comprehend what all the fuss was about. Put it this way: The reason I used to identify as far more liberal as a high school kid and in my first two years of college is because the “conservatives” I knew were all from the Rush Limbaugh School of Conservatism, which is to say they were obnoxious wingnut jerks. I hadn’t known the more careful, reflective, well-read conservatives that I’ve since discovered at Front Porch Republic, First Things, and The American Conservative. And while they may have been a time where Will was closer to the reflective conservatives, I fear these days he’s much more in line with the extreme right wing paranoia of Limbaugh and co.
Consider this 2012 column in which he argued that climate change science is part of a collectivist conspiracy. It’s a different kind of crazy than Limbaugh because Will at least can string together an artful sentence and make an argument without making you wonder if he’s considered taking an anger management course. So there’s that. But the paranoia, extremist views, and the sense that this guy’s ties to reality are somewhat tenuous are all there in Will as much as in any other movement conservative from Fox News.
Even so, many of my more conservative friends swore by him and one friend whose opinion I hold in especially high regard went so far as to say Will was one of the reasons he happily identified as conservative. Well, if Scott Galupo and co. are right, my friend’s admiration and my utterly baffled response to their admiration makes sense: The old Will ain’t the same as the new Will.
Peter Wehner (who, perhaps because he remembers the old Will, is far more sympathetic to him than I am) :
What I do hope is that before too long, Mr. Will does what I don’t think he has done, which is to help us understand his journey from what he called “strong government conservatism” to a much more libertarian view of things.
I will admit that my own intellectual sympathies are more with the early Will than the current one. Over the years our laws–on civil rights, drug use, smoking, crime and incarceration, welfare, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, genocide, apartheid, the size of government, and much else–have helped shape the dispositions and habits of the polity. “Much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres in life,” Will wrote 30 years ago. He argued that desegregation explicitly and successfully changed individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. “The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.” Perhaps a new book or speech by Will, on why statecraft should not be soulcraft, will cause me to reexamine things.
But whether it would or not, I hope Will–one of modern conservatism’s most significant and exceptional conservative writers and thinkers–directly addresses his intellectual evolution. I for one would be fascinated to know why Will today holds views philosophically at odds with Will circa 1983. And I imagine others would as well.