Many people over the years have turned to Washington Post political columnist George Will for guidance on political debates. They include Mackinac Center Vice President of Communications Jarrett Skorup, who interviews Will for this week’s Overton Window podcast about his half-century career as a columnist and public thinker.
This year marked Will’s golden anniversary in journalism. “The Washington Post says I started in ’74 because that’s when I started with the Post. For a year before that I was a National Review columnist,” Will says.
“It’s enormous fun. To me that’s a necessary and almost sufficient reason for doing it,” Will says. “A function of public commentary is not to tell people what to think but to show them how one person thinks.”
He had some training in political philosophy before getting into the column-writing business. “I intended to teach and briefly did at Michigan State and at the University of Toronto,” Will says. This helped him apply basic principles to messy political realities, which is one of the things he tries to do with his writing.
“I am trying to persuade my audience,” Will says. “But before I do that I’m trying to clarify my own thinking. Someone once asked me what I thought about a particular issue and I said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t written about it yet.’”
He reads more than he writes and he tries to let his arguments come out of the information he cites. “I like to think [my columns] are 80-90% information and that the opinion flows out of the information,” Will says.
“I write more than I used to about the court and court cases because the Supreme Court is so interesting. It’s so interesting because it’s the one place in government where people actually have to reason in public and do it carefully. There are no dummies on the Supreme Court,” he says.
Will declares himself an American conservative writer, a concept for which he provides a definition.
“The American conservative wants to conserve the American founding, and to conserve classical liberalism, natural rights, limited government, individualism,” Will says, “I know that the terms liberal and conservative are hopelessly confused in the United States and it’s too late to rescue them from this confusion, and I am perfectly glad to be called a conservative on that understanding.”
Another feature of his conservatism is to avoid the latest trends among national commenters. “Opinion journalism has partaken of the general decay of journalism in the last ten years, in particularly the last six or so years,” Will says. Too many writers got caught up in the idea that Donald Trump created an existential crisis for the nation, and they needed to respond with hysteria and partisanship in order to save American democracy.
“The temptation for opinion journalists is to give in to confirmation bias and reinforce the confirmation bias of our readers,” Will says. “Part of the trouble of the United States today is that everyone has hunkered down in their own intellectual silos with no communication with people who’ve chosen different silos.”
He knows he has to make the principles he espouses appealing to people who don’t already agree with him. “You’re not going to dazzle the unconverted simply by announcing a principle. Not all principles are, to use Jefferson’s language, self-evident.”
One of the president’s most important powers, Will says, is the power to make his case to the public. Borrowing from historian Richard Neustadt, he notes that the official powers of the president granted by the constitution are sparse. But the president has the attention of the people.
“What the president has is the power to persuade. That power has grown enormously in our time because of modern means of communication. It’s a pretty awesome power, but it still comes down to reasoning and respecting your listeners,” Will says.
“The curious osmosis by which a continental nation of 332 million people makes up its mind is a mystery to me. The one thing I know about it is that it’s slow and it’s a meandering, winding path,” Will says, “I try to be one of the gusts of wind that blows things about.”
He admits that it’s difficult to tell how much effect he’s had, and it’s tough to tell by the feedback he gets. “I’ve written now approaching 6,000 columns in the last half-century. The one that caused the most uproar was when I denounced people for wearing denim too much,” Will says.
“The good news is that I’m writing to a self-selected, intellectually upscale audience, to be blunt about it. These are people who choose to seek out people like me,” Will says. He knows that they come equipped with some understanding of American government already so he doesn’t have to explain everything.
Will also talked about how the Overton Window has shifted when it comes to the rules in baseball. It’s a traditional sport and people resist change. But declining public interest has prompted the league to reevaluate itself. Attendance had been falling, down seven million on an annual basis.
“And it was clear why. The games were taking longer and the action in the games was getting more rare,” Will says.
The league banned the shift and put in a pitch clock to speed up the game. He supports these changes.
“What baseball demonstrated is that something in America can be fixed,” Will says. “This is an example of how you change society. Define the problem accurately and then, like good Madisonians, change the incentives.”
He hopes that he meets the needs of the people who are curious about government but aren’t experts. “They want efficient ways to be brought up to speed and I like to think on occasion that my columns do that,” Will says.
“If I’ve accomplished anything at all, it is to help a number of people have a kind of informed skepticism.”
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