On Heroic Conservatism

Published November 15, 2007

The following is a transcript of Yuval Levin's remarks at a November 15, 2007 EPPC discussion of Michael Gerson's book, Heroic Conservatism. The event, hosted by EPPC's Peter Wehner, included comments from the Gerson himself, from New York Times columnist David Brooks, and from Levin. Complete audio of the event is available here. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Speaking after David Brooks and Michael Gerson, I suppose I'm here to represent the narrow sliver of the population that doesn't have a twice weekly newspaper column.

It's really an honor to be here and especially to be here to talk about Mike's book. Mike is one of my heroes — not just in Washington but in general. And working with him and seeing him in action was really one of the great highlights of the time I spent in the White House. He is a model of idealism in action, and one of the things he's trying to persuade us of in this book is that politics is in some respects always idealism in action. I think he is right about that, and he makes that case tremendously well in this book. It's a wonderfully interesting book that highlights a moral tradition in America that, in ebbs and flows, has always been an essential part of what American politics has been about.

There is though, I think, some serious room for debate about the particular kind of ideal that Mike lays out. And so, rather than bore you with everything that I agree with in this book, and a lot of it is what David Brooks has said tonight, let me talk a little bit about what I think is missing, and the way in which I think its missing and the reason I think its missing.

First of all, I think it has to be said that the book is terribly unfair to fiscal conservatives. It treats them as essentially devoid of principle and idealism and lacking concern for the poor. Mike calls them at one point “small minded, cold, and uninspired.” I think that's unfair. I think it's untrue.

But I think that this dismissive attitude is really a consequence of something more general that's missing in the vision that's laid out in Heroic Conservatism.

So what is that? What's missing?

For me, this was crystallized most fully in the last chapter of Mike's book which is really an extraordinary fascinating mix of politics and philosophy and history and theology. It's tremendously well done and it's the place where Mike really lays out, more than anywhere else, what he really means by “heroic conservatism.” He begins the chapter…the first sentence of the chapter is, “At various stages in my life, like many idealists of a serious turn of mind, I have dabbled in despair.” And Mike lays out the ways that he's seen the partial appeal of a kind of conservatism of deep pessimism — of beauty in the twilight. And I think we all have an idea of what he means and of the kind of appeal that it sometimes does have. But he writes that in the end, “My skepticism and pessimism have been confounded by my heroes.” And he describes the heroic deeds and the struggles against slavery and tyranny and on behalf of the weak and the needy that make up so much of the rest of this book.

But here I think is the choice that's presented to us by Mike most clearly: it's despair of nobility, it's the lowest or the highest. And this arrangement of the options lays out a profoundly tragic view of life, that even where it's hopeful, it's an other-worldly kind of hope, a hope for the suffering and wretched to be redeemed by dramatic acts of heroism. It's noble and it's very inspiring, and I think it has to have a place in our politics, but it can't be the foundation of our politics.

What's missing here is the middle. I don't mean the ideological middle, but the middle way between despair and sainthood; the middle time between disaster and triumph; and the middle class between the suffering and their saviors. Overlooking the middle creates a vocabulary of tragedy and deliverance, a politics that speaks to the lowest and the most needy and the downtrodden, but that says nothing to the democratic middle, to the democratic mass. And I think that that's a terribly large oversight.

Speaking to the middle, it seems to me, is the crucial task of any serious American political program, conservative or not. And speaking to the middle is not a necessary evil in the politics of a democracy. It's crucial not just because that's where voters are, and not just because that's where political pressure comes from, it's crucial because that's where our great strength is — in the great and stable and usually pretty sensible middle — again, not ideologically in the center, but experientially in the center. That's where the culture lives, it's where economic strength is grounded, it's where our families are, it's where idealism comes from, too, and what it depends on. It's where we're strong and why we're strong. And Conservatives know that first and foremost, our politics have to sustain the sources of our strength, and to grow from there.

This means, I think, that our politics has to be fundamentally oriented to the middle class; to its needs and to its aims and to its hopes and to its ideals — to its aspirations. That's not where the goals of politics end — they have to include the kind of goals Mike lists here — but it is where the work of politics has to start. Humanitarianism is, I think, not an adequate foundation for political life. It's a worthy and a necessary end, but it can't do in itself. And it relies on other foundations — on a society that values freedom and family, that encourages self-reliance and entrepreneurial energy and industrious virtues and civic virtues — and all of these depend on a politics that speaks to the middle class in a constructive way about their present and future concerns; that approaches the task of governing in a responsible way, including a fiscally responsible way.

These are the foundations of a successful democratic politics, the only way to also build room for humanitarianism and for idealism. To disparage the people most concerned for these foundations, I think, is to disparage the need to focus on these foundations, and to focus on the middle.

Mike offers reasons for this, he offers a couple of pretty strong reasons for focusing on what I would describe as the extremes of life, or the extremes or the margins of society and not just to care about them and address them (as we should) but to orient our politics by them. He argues, first of all, in several places, and quite powerfully, that he is oriented by the basic democratic fact and human fact, that all men are created equal — an American fact, too. And I think that's a good place to start, but I think that it leads to much more than what Mike suggests. Jefferson's assertion of equality has its most challenging and most demanding implications at the edges of life and at the edges of society; with regard to the youngest and the oldest, and the neediest and the weakest, and that's where Mike wants to orient us most fundamentally, where he says we're most lacking. But Jefferson's assertion of equality has I think, its politically most powerful and transformative implications in the middle, by empowering the great democratic core of the country – and elevating it to a position of power. That's how equality creates democracy. And I think that that's actually what Jefferson, though probably not Lincoln, had in mind by
saying that all men are created equal.

It's an important source of America's unique strengths and advantages and it's one important reason why our politics have to be grounded in the middle if they're going to be capable of caring for those at the edges.

Mike then also argues that we should orient ourselves by the most challenging examples because our ideals and principles are most clear and most stark in times of crisis, and those are times we can learn from. I think that's right, too. And we can learn a lot from calamity and crisis, but we have to learn also – and this is actually harder to do — from the everyday, from slow progress, from what works and what almost works. Not every challenge is going to be analogous to the Civil War. And I think that a politics of Civil War analogies is going to be not only incomplete, but also terribly exhausting. And this is actually an important point, it has a lot to do with our political predicament at the moment: to ignore the middle class of our society in our political rhetoric, to suggest that all there is is the very high and the very low, that every challenge is an historical calling, and that our options are despair of heroism, is to risk not only losing the trust of the middle class, but exhausting its political will, which is essential for any real exertion.

I think it's hard to deny that to some extent conservatives have done this, and the administration has done this. The American public today is exhausted. It's tired and cranky and in no mood for any great exertions. Obviously a lot of this has to do with the terribly eventful past decade we've had, which has not been entirely the fault of our politicians. But I think that it's hard to deny that the basic failure to speak to the concerns and interests of the middle class has had to do with this, too.

The rhetoric of compassionate conservatism has offered the middle class, and the aspiring, upwardly mobile poor, I think too little. Now, that doesn't mean that the Bush administration policies have not done a lot for the middle class. I think they have. But rhetoric matters. And we've failed somewhat to tend rhetorically to the needs of the middle class. We've walked the walk more than we've talked the talk, and that comes with costs.

So I think conservatives should seek to build space for American idealism, for Mike's kind of idealism exactly. But the task of building has to be itself oriented to the whole which means, in a democracy, oriented to the middle. It has to speak to a society of equals. It has to strengthen it, to keep its spirits up, and it has to offer something to middle class families and to the upwardly mobile who know that they're only temporarily poor.

I think finally that it also has to find ways to interest social conservatives — the moral core of America — in these more mundane tasks of governing: in politics, and not just in heroism; in healthcare and entitlement reform, as well as in humanitarian ventures. In a way, it's not hard to be moved by the work of caring for the sick and the suffering. It's a lot harder to be moved by the need to care about a more boring, more everyday politics. If we're going to be strong enough to carry off heroic conservatism, I think we have to be firm and prudent enough to carry off an everyday conservatism, of which limited government and freedom and even fiscal discipline are absolutely crucial parts.

What I take to be the great conservative wisdom is that we have to use what we have that works, to build up what we lack and what doesn't work. We have to begin from our strengths and build on them. Idealism is surely one of America's great strengths. Our great and grounded middle, though, is another. And Mike calls upon the former in a book that I think is a powerfully compelling call to heroism. But he doesn't call so much on the latter, which I think is an essential prerequisite for America's greatness and for American idealism. So I certainly don't think the book is wrong, but I do think it's incomplete.

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