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George Will and ‘The Disease of Politics’ — 36 Years Later

On ABC’s “This Week,” George Will predicted a 321-217 Electoral College landslide for Mitt Romney. He added, “I guess the wild card” — what, only one? — “in what I’ve projected is, I’m projecting Minnesota to go for Romney.”

I’m not making an official prediction, but let’s just say I think Will will be embarrassed come Wednesday morning. More than that, I find Will’s boosterish contrarianism unbecoming of the man who wrote the below excerpted column, on November 1, 1976, on the eve of Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency, when I was but a wee three-month-old baby. In Will’s first anthology, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts, sadly out of print, the column is entitled “The Disease of Politics,” and it goes like this:

The Thirty Years War began and ended at Prague, the English civil war at Powick Bridge, World War I at Mons. The presidential campaign is ending where it began, in the Slough of Despond. Many people, including many who will vote for him, feel about Jimmy Carter the way a Roman patrician is said to have felt when he first heard Brutus speak: “I know not what this young man intends, but whatever he intends, he intends vehemently.” And many people who will vote for Gerald Ford will do so as a “damage limitation”: at least he can’t run again in 1980. …

What is said and done during these interminable campaigns [if only Will knew then how interminable they would become!] has little to do with what happens in the subsequent four years. This disjunction between campaigning and governing has occurred because candidates have abandoned the idea that campaigns can be exercises in public pedagogy. Candidates move heaven and earth to get forty seconds of television film of themselves among Pittsburgh Poles or Iowa cornstalks [or New Jersey hurricane victims], and they do not do this because it is fun. They do it to satisfy the public’s sad superstition that the conduct of public affairs can be televised and thereby made somehow accessible to all.

Listen to what Will says about how both liberals and conservatives had found themselves in “intellectual culs de sac” — and marvel at how easily the words may be applied to Obama and Romney/Ryan:

If nature is not as bountiful, or men’s capacities as equal, as once was assumed, then equality must be forced on men. That is a paralyzing thought for liberals, whose philosophy derives its name from the word liberty.

Conservatives are comparably disarrayed. True conservatives distrust and try to modulate social forces that work against the conservation of traditional values. But for a century, the dominant conservatism has uncritically worshiped the most transforming force, the dynamism of the American economy. No coherent conservatism can be based solely on commercialism, but this conservatism has been consistently ardent only about economic growth, and hence about economies of scale, and social mobility. These take a severe toll against small towns, small enterprises, family farms, local governments, craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and other aspects of humane living.

Conservatism often has been inarticulate about what to conserve, other than “free enterprise,” which is institutionalized restlessness, an engine of perpetual change. But to govern is to choose one social outcome over others; to impose a collective will on processes of change. Conservatism that does not extend beyond reverence for enterprise is unphilosophic, has little to do with government and conserves little.

And the kicker:

There is little evidence that Americans want a more elevating politics. It is as though they have taken too much to heart the moral of the story about Charles Parnell, the adored Irish leader. When Parnell met an old man who was working on a road, the old man exploded with enthusiasm. “Calm down,” said Parnell. “Whether I win or lose, you will still be breaking rocks.”

Two observations: we sure could use the young Tory-minded George Will around here these days. And no matter who wins tomorrow, you will still be breaking rocks.

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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