Does 'Conservatism' Actually Mean Anything Anymore?
6 min read
George Will on the hijacking of conservatism, how politics became obsessed with things that politics cannot fix, and why he didn't hear about the Tulsa massacre until 2020.
The Trump years, Will told POLITICO in an interview this week, "made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked." Conservatism, to Will, is a whole ethos with a proud intellectual tradition in American life. What it means to conserve, he says, is the American founding. "That's conservatism," said Will. "And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, 'No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans,' or whatever he says." Now, what society thinks of as "conservatism" is different. To Will, this is not unlike the trend of self-identified conservative evangelical Christians whose identity is based not in scripture but in cultural totems. In one sense, yes, they're Christians, but in another, what does that term mean if divorced from scripture? What does "conservative" mean when politics is, as Will describes it, now "cut off from anything other than making one's adherents feel good"? To Will, this is a fundamental change in what society understands politics to be. "Grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with 'politics' understood as 'legislation and policy,'" Will said. "If people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It's very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. … What do you do politically? I don't get it." Will is introspective about how we got here. Yes, there are some easy and obvious targets that sped up the decline of American political discourse — he cites social media that is "often high-velocity lunacy and vituperation and just plain ugliness," and later volunteers that he doesn't use Twitter: "if someone said, 'Tweet, or I'll kill you,' I'm done" — but there's also a not-insubstantial role that conservative intellectuals themselves played in stoking the fires of conservative populism. "After the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow … it was an extremely…