Conservatism Is Gratitude

Published November 24, 2015

Bradley Prize Remarks

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“To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it.” — Yuval Levin

There is no better time than Thanksgiving to reflect on the many blessings that Americans continue to enjoy, not least of all the founding principles that EPPC and its scholars have consistently sought to defend and promote — respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, individual freedom and responsibility, justice, the rule of law, and limited government.

When EPPC Hertog Fellow Yuval Levin received one of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation’s four Bradley Prizes in 2013, he offered the following reflection on the crucial role of gratitude as a foundation for the ongoing work of conservatism:


Yuval Levin’s Bradley Prize Remarks

Delivered June 12, 2013

Thank you very much. I’m completely overwhelmed by gratitude today—and humbled by the extraordinary company that the Bradley Foundation has put me in with this prize.

This year’s other winners, and those from previous years, include so many people I’ve looked up to, and admired, and learned from. I have no illusions of being in their league, but I’m immensely grateful to be in their company. For me, this prize is not so much a reward as an incentive to work harder and try to follow their example, and I’m very grateful for it.

I’ve had reasons to be grateful to the Bradley Foundation for a long time: I was a Bradley fellow as a graduate student back at the University of Chicago. I’ve been involved over the years in various enterprises that they’ve helped to support—including National Affairs, which could never have come into being without Bradley.

And like every American, I’ve had the privilege of living in a country made better by the causes that Bradley champions—from welfare reform to school choice to the intellectual defense of American ideas and institutions: The conservation and the strengthening of America’s promise.

I want to say a few words about that project of conservation and strengthening—about the work that so many people in this room do, and which I’ve been privileged to lend a hand in.

For some of us, it’s a project that goes by the name of conservatism and has an eye on politics and policy. For others, maybe it’s first of all a cultural project, to secure the preconditions for human flourishing and renewal. For others it might be above all a moral calling—to defend the defenseless and help those in need. For others still it’s an educational cause, instilling civic virtue and a sense of history and purpose in the next generation.

Many of you do all of that at once, because these different facets are deeply connected, and these different names for the work you’re engaged in are all ways of expressing the sentiment that drives so much of what we do but that we don’t often enough name: Gratitude.

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

That’s not to say that conservatives are never outraged, of course. We’ve had a lot of reason to be outraged lately. But it tends to be when we think the legacy and promise we cherish are threatened, rather than when some burning ambition is frustrated.

Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we could do better starting from scratch.

Liberals often begin from outrage because they have much higher expectations—maybe even utopian expectations—about the perfectibility of human things and the potential of human knowledge and power. They’re often willing to ignore tradition and to push aside institutions that channel generations of wisdom because they think we can do better on our own.

This can sometimes leave conservatives feeling like we are the brakes on American life, while people on the left hold the steering wheel. Like they push for their idea of progress and we just want to go a little more slowly. But that’s a serious mistake.

The American idea of progress is the tradition that we’re defending. It is made possible precisely by sustaining our deep ties to the ideals of liberty, and equality, and human dignity expressed in our founding and our institutions. The great moral advances in our history have involved the vindication of those principles—have involved America becoming more like itself.

And in any society, the task of sustaining those kinds of institutions for the next generation is the essential task—the irreplaceable precondition for everything else. That is the work first and foremost of families, and of communities. It can also be the work of educators, and of legislators. The work of democratic capitalism and of our constitutional order.

They are all connected by the need to sustain the great gift that is our country, and when we fail to see them as connected—when for instance we think we can advance our economic agenda at the expense of our concerns about the culture—we risk losing that gift altogether.

Of course it is sometimes essential to push the envelope of those traditions when they become stifling, and to make sure that the past is not an undue burden on the future. But that is always a reactive or oppositional effort. It is never the essence, and could never be more important than the work of making sure that the foundations of American life—our free society, economy, and government; our culture of virtue—are sustained.

Without those, there is no future. The work of preserving them is therefore not passive work, it’s not restraint; it is the active work of keeping our society alive and thriving. It’s not a brake, it’s the very engine of the American story.

That’s the work so many of you do; the work of active gratitude.

That the selection committee for this prize and the Bradley Foundation think that my own modest part in that effort is worthy of this honor means more to me than I can say.

And I know that I only have this opportunity because of so many others: Because of passionate champions of the American idea throughout this city and across this country, who form a community that I’m so proud to be a part of. Because of my colleagues and friends at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and at National Affairs, where I’ve been so fortunate to find a home.

But above all because of my family. I’ve been blessed first of all to have truly wonderful parents, and they’re here tonight. They set an example for my brother and sister and me that I spend every day trying to live up to, and I hope someday maybe to come close to.

I’ve also been lucky enough to acquire that rarest of rare gifts: wonderful in-laws, and they’re here too. The most generous, kind, decent people you’ll ever meet. They sent their daughter off into the world and, as God did to Adam in the garden, gave her only one prohibition: don’t marry a Republican.

Like Adam in the garden, their daughter disobeyed, and has been punished ever since with toil and trouble. My wife Cecelia is what I am grateful for above all.

It was almost 16 years ago, when we were barely more than children, that she first smiled my way and changed my life, and I’ve been smiling back ever since. We have two wonderful children to keep us smiling now too—and to keep us humble—and to keep us tired. And to keep us grateful.

There is no shortage of causes for feeling gratitude in this world, and there is no shortage of reasons to work toward making it better. We have to do both at once. I’m deeply thankful for the opportunities that I’ve been given to try, and deeply thankful for this great honor tonight. So all of this is really just to say one thing: Thank you very much.

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


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