Interview: Signs of Hope for the Renewal of America

Published May 24, 2016

National Review Online

The following text is a conversation between EPPC Hertog Fellow Yuval Levin and Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online. The introductory text is Ms. Lopez’s.

Yuval Levin looks at our fractured republic and sees signs of hope.

In his new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, Levin writes with deep regard for subsidiarity and civil society and urges conservatives and all people of good will to seek renewal. We talk about it here. – KJL

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So just who fractured the republic?

YUVAL LEVIN: We all did, really, for some good reasons and some bad ones. The book traces a set of trends that have transformed our society since the middle of the 20th century — trends propelled by a spirit of individualism, that have meant that what was an intensely, unusually consolidated society in the wake of the Second World War has become a much more fragmented, decentralized society. It’s a process that has taken the form of economic liberalization in some respects, of cultural liberalization in some respects, of a kind of loosening of the tight reins of conformity and cohesion that characterized our country in the first half of the 20th century. Its results have been mixed: It has brought us greater dynamism but also less stability, more personal freedom but also more moral chaos and social disorder, more prosperity but less security, more diversity but less cohesion. So a lot of what we dislike most about our contemporary circumstances is really the flip-side of the coin of what we like best. That’s why the challenge of addressing America’s 21st-century social and economic problems is so difficult, and why it demands a degree of serious engagement with contemporary realities that our politics has just failed to achieve — that the Left and the Right have both failed to achieve.

The book suggests some ways we might do better, and argues that for all our troubles it might actually be conservatives who are best suited to helping the country do better, if only we can see our way past the frustrations of the moment.

LOPEZ: The first sentence of your book declares, “Life in America is always getting better and worse at the same time.” Is anything getting better these days?

LEVIN: Oh sure. This is not the easiest time to find rays of hope, needless to say. Our politics is cratering, and our culture seems to have lost its mind a bit. Everyone is angry. But in a free society, in which people can adapt to difficulties and adjust in light of failures and try their hands at all kinds of responses, seasons of calamity are often followed by seasons of renewal. I think a lot of the good that’s happening right now is taking the form of those kinds of adaptive responses — of people looking at the options they’re being given by our politics, or our culture, or our education system, or our economy and saying, “This isn’t good enough so let’s try for something better.”

I can see, for instance, a real flowering of bold ideas among cultural conservatives looking for ways to strengthen their communities, and a revitalizing generational transition in those communities that looks like it will do us all a lot of good. I see a rising generation of political leaders, at least on the right (which I know better), who are at home in the 21st century, and can see how to apply enduring American principles to our challenging circumstances to help the country recover. We won’t have one of them as a Republican presidential candidate this time, unfortunately, but you can increasingly see them in Congress and in the states. So some of the good things happening in our country are happening right where we are used to bad news. And there are more examples of that — from sharply declining teen-pregnancy rates to reduced abortion rates to more mundane but important improvements in our standards of living — from cleaner water and air to low gas prices.

Other good things are less surprising. We are on the whole, as a nation, healthier and wealthier than ever. We live at the cutting edge of technological progress in a variety of ways.

So don’t get me wrong, things are also getting worse in other important ways. Those are often front and center. But in a society this complex and free, the good and the bad are always coming at us, and I do think we now tend to blind ourselves to the good too much, and that leaves us too gloomy and makes it more difficult than it has to be to find ways to address our problems.

LOPEZ: You write,

Each side wants desperately to recover its lost ideal, believes the bulk of the country does, too, and is endlessly frustrated by the political resistance that holds it back. The broader public, meanwhile, finds in the resulting political debates little evidence of real engagement with contemporary problems and few attractive solutions. In the absence of real relief from their resulting frustration, a growing number of voters opt for leaders who simply embody or articulation that frustration.

Is that the explanation for Donald Trump? Does electing him make things better or worse? Is there any way to tell?

LEVIN: I think that’s part of what is behind the frustration and dissatisfaction that have driven some Republicans to Trump this year. That frustration and dissatisfaction is justified, but the turn to Trump is not. A plurality of the Republican primary electorate made a horrendous error in judgment this year, and I don’t think it does any good to pretend otherwise or to make excuses for it. They have opted for a candidate who is — as a matter of character, temperament, experience, and worldview — patently unfit for the job he is seeking, and who would exacerbate the very problems that have driven people to him. The Democrats are also picking an unacceptable nominee, as is their wont, and so this election looks to be a disaster. I take that, and I take Trump, to be in part a symptom of the trends and patterns I describe in the book. A symptom, not a cure. I think this election is marking the end of a phase of American politics, not the beginning of a new one — the end of the baby boomer arc in our politics. I’m relatively hopeful about what will follow it. But I’m not hopeful about this election.

LOPEZ: How do conservatives exaggerate the Left’s dominance?

LEVIN: When it comes to cultural issues in particular, I think conservatives sometimes incline too much to despair and to panic, and in the process we tend to exaggerate the importance of the institutions dominated by the Left. I don’t mean to say they’re not important, and I don’t mean to downplay the dangers posed by an aggressive social liberalism that has given up on pluralism and works to root out religious and moral traditionalists from our society. Such people exist. But they are a small minority of activists on the left, and the institutions they operate in are weaker than they used to be. The appropriate response to them would involve recognizing that social conservatives are a minority too, and that this is an unusually good time to be a minority in America. So organize in and around these institutions, build up lively and attractive subcultures both within them and in place of them. Use the resources that 21st-century America gives us to build alternative channels of persuasion and appeal — to appeal both to the next generation within our communities and to our neighbors.

Where we really need to fervently resist is where the Left is trying to close off the space for that kind of subcultural conservatism: The struggles for religious liberty and for freedom of association and expression — these are fights for our lives. But they are winnable fights, and if we persist and make our case and help our fellow citizens see the ugly bullying of the Left, we can ultimately prevail. There are other fights — fights for dominance of mainstream institutions — which we are not going to be able to win in the foreseeable future. We have to distinguish among these, to understand ourselves as a minority and therefore to approach society persuasively rather than possessively, and to be much clearer and more creative about how we help people understand what we have to offer and why they should find it appealing.

But most fundamentally of all, I think we exaggerate the Left’s dominance because we forget that its vision of the good life is deeply inadequate, and its failings will drive people to seek out a deeper truth. The permanence of the human longings for transcendence and for truth means that the endless parade of temptations and distractions modern life throws up to flatten our souls will make room for an endless series of opportunities for the truth to recapture our imagination and prove itself indispensable. Traditionalists should work to build room for their ways of living in the modern world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better, and that people will be drawn to the spark. Don’t despair.

LOPEZ: For those who have no particular interest in religion, what’s your pitch for why “our free society requires a flourishing private culture of moral formation for liberty, which in turn requires that we prize and defend the institutions that engage in such formation at a personal level”?

LEVIN: In laying out why I think a certain kind of conservative disposition is what 21st-century America requires, I suggest that part of what this would mean would be a recovery of a fuller case for freedom than the one we normally hear in our politics today. This would be a more classical idea of freedom — freedom not just from coercion, but also from our own unbounded passions and failings and vices. Using our freedom well requires that we be formed, morally formed by a culture, for that kind of ordered freedom. And that formation, in a free society, can only really happen in the institutions that occupy the middle space between the individual and the state: families, communities, churches and synagogues, schools, and more. That’s a key reason why conservatives so emphasize that middle space, and it’s a key reason why protecting that space is so essential to a society like ours.

It’s true of course that our religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, define freedom in this fuller way. But the Western tradition of philosophy does too. Socrates himself explicitly does that in Plato’s Republic, and that understanding of freedom is implicit in the long tradition that follows him. So I don’t think seeing freedom in this fuller way requires religion — though I’m quite sure it doesn’t hurt.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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