Campus News

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist Speaks at Bowdoin

Story posted February 16, 2001

George Will, conservative curmudgeon and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist raised the ire of not a few Bowdoin students today when he gave a Common Hour address on conservatism and politics in America.

Angry rumblings over Will’s ideas alternated with bursts of laughter at his quick wit. He addressed many challenges from students at the completion of his formal address, but his position as guest speaker gave him the last word. An informal discussion Friday afternoon gave members of the Bowdoin community another chance to debate the merits of Will’s observations.

At this stage in our history, financial markets are an important part of our national psyche. Seventy percent of those who voted in the last election are participants in the stock market, according to Will.

“Talk about markets is as ubiquitous as talk about sports,” he said. All the same, he asserted, the catch phrase “It’s the economy stupid,” could not be rightly applied to this election. Voters in this past election didn’t vote based on their pocketbooks (and they seldom do, according to Will.)

“It wasn’t about economics; it was about national character,” he said.

The election demonstrated statistically how our country is changing. Voters in this election seemed to fall into categories based on characteristics of marital or church-going status, rather than based on their gender or financial situation, Will said.

The election also demonstrated the population’s movement to the West and the South. Six of the last 10 presidential elections have been won by Southerners, and the other four by Californians (Southern Californians, Will pointed out).

The population also has shifted, by and large, away from cities to the suburbs; 43% of this years votes were cast in suburbs, Will said, and that’s where the past several elections have been won. New York, previously a heavy hitter in politics, has lost five congressional seats as a result of the past two censuses. This movement away from the northeast and large cities as power centers has contributed to the rise of Republican power.

“The demographic shift of the country is profoundly favoring the republicans over the long term,” Will said. In 1992, there were 102 more democrats than republicans in the House, Will said; today there are 10 fewer.

“You have to listen in politics with a third ear to hear what is not said,” Will said. One of the things that George W. Bush did in this election was bring conservative rhetoric more in line with conservative action. No one argued for Reagan-level tax cuts, and no one argued changes to the welfare reform of the 1990s. Since the New Deal, conservatives have engaged in a scholarly argument against many “liberal” programs, yet in this election, Bush and Al Gore agreed from the beginning that two priorities were preserving and improving both social security and Medicare.

When the “Republican Revolution” occurred in 1994, legislators were vowing to abolish public television and the department of education, yet in the past few years, the legislators have appropriated great sums of money to the department of education. And as for public television:

“Public television is a complete redundancy and an ideological enemy of these revolutionaries, and yet it thrives,” Will said.

According to will, there were two main tenants of post-war liberalism: the idea that the government should play a central role in providing for people in their old age and in their illness, and the idea that there is a single best method for doing this.

Conservatives have now agreed that the government has a pivotal role to play in these issues, and Will contends conservative ideals will prevail in the way in which this role is enacted. Rather than one method of providing for its citizenry, the future will see the proliferation of choice. Parents will be able to choose the type of school their children attend, individuals will be able to choose the way in which their social security dollars are invested.

“The Republican Party, will be the pro-choice party,” Will said. Democrats are only pro-choice when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to smoking, or a school system, or wearing fur or making political contributions, he said.

Despite his obvious preference for the Republican Party, Will’s overall message was one of faith in the American system of government. Our government may not be efficient as some might hope, (“It’s not pretty; government is not an aesthetic enterprise.”)
but is working very well, he said.

“It is the only model left,” Will said. The presence of dissenting views is proof of this. “There are today more Marxists on the Harvard faculty than there are in Eastern Europe
The system is working, even when it’s not lovely.”

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