Ethics & Public Policy Center

Back to Basics, Ahead to Particulars

Published in National Review, Vol LX, No. 22 on December 1, 2008


Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.


American elections tend to give voters mere approximations of what they want. When the public chooses between two candidates, one will win, but generally by being slightly better than the other rather than embodying the will of the people. And one will lose, but usually by being slightly less appealing than the other rather than completely failing to engage voters’ interests and imaginations. The general mood of the electorate, the peculiar features of the candidates, and the vicissitudes of the moment all play their parts in shaping voters’ choices.

Elections therefore offer politicians and activists some crucial information, but not precise data for future use. The exit polls of the last election, with their detailed demographic breakdowns, might help us design the perfect candidate, platform, and message for winning the last election, but not the next one.

Winning the next election requires something much less clever than that: It requires us to ask what we believe about government, about man, and about our country; to ask what problems concern the public today that might be addressed by changing something about government; and to ask how our beliefs might be applied to those problems in practice. This is the threefold task that now (as always) confronts conservatives.

The first challenge, to rediscover the essential views that bind us, has always been crucial for conservatives. We are not fundamentally a coalition of interest groups clamoring for material support, but a coalition of adherents to a set of views we think should guide our country as it governs itself.

The common core of beliefs that unites conservatives lies deep, providing a foundation but not a whole political edifice. Just about everyone who calls himself a conservative, for instance, is more grateful for what works in our world than angry about what doesn’t. And just about everyone who calls himself a conservative believes that the most significant human problems result from human failings, rather than from imperfect distributions of material resources — and so are permanent rather than transitory.

Because we are grateful and impressed that anything works at all, we value the social and political arrangements that make things work, and we seek to build on what is best about them rather than start over. Different institutions have evolved this way over time to address permanent human problems.

The family is our way of contending with permanent moral imperfection and the permanent challenge of rearing the young. The next generation begins where every human generation has always begun, not where the latest liberal education fad left off. It must be raised more or less as good men and women through the ages have always been raised, and must be offered an example of time-tested moral living. Future moral progress has to be continuous with past moral progress.

The market is our way of contending with permanent intellectual imperfection, and of channeling individual avarice toward common prosperity in a free society. Alternative ways of pursuing prosperity tend to fail because they fall back on two delusions: that we can know enough to govern the economy in every detail, and that a reallocation of resources can eradicate poverty.

A strong military and an attitude of watchful caution are our ways of contending with the permanent belligerence of mankind and the permanent danger of hostile nations with an interest in weakening or harming us. We do not think that the absence of perfect peace is the result of temporary misunderstandings, and we have learned from history that peace is best achieved through confidence, strength, and interest-driven alliances abroad — and through economic prosperity and moral constancy at home.

In the light of these general views, drawn from even more general premises, the conservative coalition does not seem incoherent. Social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national-security conservatives generally stick together because their roots are intertwined. These different elements — for all their disputes and occasional serious contradictions — are mixed together, if prioritized differently, not only in large coalitions, but in particular individuals, and indeed in most American conservatives.

Conservative beliefs are not particular policies or particular attitudes about this tax or that program, but they do tend to yield some general attitudes about government and politics. Conservatives usually believe, for instance, that government power corrodes the roots of self-reliance, and therefore of both family and freedom, and so should be used only where necessary. From this belief, we tend to reason that the liberal welfare state undermines what works best about our society without addressing what fails to work.

In various ways, however, conservatives also tend to believe there is a role for government in helping people ease the tension that modern capitalism creates between families and markets. Fiscal conservatives are not opposed to government regulation of the financial markets, provided the goal is to help the market work and not to replace it. Social conservatives are not opposed to public assistance to the poor, provided its aims are to strengthen and grow families and not to replace them. These general views inform conservative policy judgments, but specific judgments must always respond to particular problems.

This forces conservatives to confront their second challenge: understanding the problems of the day. We have fared more poorly on this front than on the first, and have been tempted too often to define the problems we face by the solutions we already have. We must acknowledge that liberals have diagnosed some American worries correctly. Working parents find themselves anxious. Uncertain health coverage, wage stagnation, and the rising costs of raising families are not figments of their imagination. The stresses of globalization are also very real, and pose a complicated mix of problems and opportunities for workers, parents, companies, and America’s future strength. We cannot ignore these problems simply because our past policy prescriptions won’t solve them. We have to see why they are genuine public worries, and apply our principles and ingenuity to addressing them.

But doing so does not require us to understand these issues as the Left has. Much as conservatives do, liberals often confuse diagnosis with prescription; they have decided the country is desperately crying out for enervating, expensive, European-style social democracy. It is not. Conservatives should see public concerns as symptoms not of desperation but of aspiration, which we should support and encourage by removing barriers to success and sources of anxiety — many of them, but not all, caused by ill-designed government policies.

Figuring out just how to do that is the third challenge we face, and addressing it well will help us better deal with the first two. Conservatives need to call upon their inner wonks (and upon their army of real-life academic and think-tank wonks) and become a party of reform again, as we were in the 1980s and ’90s. Reform means translating our ideals into specific legislative goals. What these will consist of is not settled by the term “reform.” In itself, the word does not imply an ideological disposition, but a desire to turn to particulars.

There will not always be unanimity among conservatives about exactly what reforms to pursue and how. But internal disputes should revolve around specific proposals. In practice, the differences among conservatives will be both smaller and clearer than they are in theory and abstraction. Competing efforts to use conservative principles to address governing challenges will make for more constructive debates. The debates will also get us thinking about how to explain our principles in terms of the challenges voters face.

The fact that the Democrats won
this election does not mean we have to become Democrats. And the fact that Republicans have won in the past does not mean we have to do exactly what they did. Rather, what we believe and what troubles Americans ought to guide our efforts. We have an opportunity to present Americans with an attractive vision of themselves and their future — a vision that could appeal to a broad swath of voters, rather than to just the right combination of micro-categories.

Conservatives know that Americans don’t vote their material interests so much as their vision of the country. It is our version of that vision — addressed to particular concerns and embodied in specific proposals — that will make us worthy of governing again, and so will make us again the least-bad option in the eyes of the larger public. That is, alas, the highest honor a political movement can hope for in a healthy democracy. Liberals should not delude themselves into imagining they have achieved more than that this year, and conservatives should not despair of achieving as much again, and soon.

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