The Future of Conservatism in an Age of Alienation: A Long-Read Q&A with Yuval Levin

Published May 10, 2017

AEI Ideas

Below is the introductory text by AEI’s James Pethokoukis regarding his conversation with EPPC Hertog Fellow Yuval Levin:

After 100 some days of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party and the conservative coalition, broadly understood, are still in flux. Was this election a Pyrrhic victory? Is that even the right question to ask?

Yuval Levin writes in a new essay, “Conservatism in an Age of Alienation”, that “… the problems exposed by this election year call out for a modernized, self-critical, twenty-first-century conservatism—a conservatism that is uncertain if this election has marked a victory or a defeat, and is therefore both aggressive in pursuit of opportunities and alert to dangers.” We discussed this, the future of the movement, and much more. Check out the podcast episode over on Ricochet, the lightly edited transcript below, and the short-read version here.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs magazine. He’s the recipient of the 2013 Bradley prize for intellectual achievement, and he’s most recently the author of “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.”

PETHOKOUKIS:  One thing I wanted to talk about today is a hot-off-the-presses essay you wrote called “Conservatism in the Age of Alienation.” If you define conservatism by some sort of agenda, then maybe this election was a good one for conservatives because it seems like we’re going to get some sort of tax cut, deregulation, repealing Obamacare. Yet, in this essay, you write that while the Republican party may be up, conservatism may be down. I think the phrase is: “This doesn’t feel like winning.” Why doesn’t it feel like winning?

Well, I think that the past year and 2016 election year was a time that would have to force conservatives to search our souls some. The Republican party ended up doing well in the election at all levels, and, of course, winning the presidential election. But it did so in the course of also opening up some distance between the Republican party and conservatism that I think is greater than the distance we’ve seen any time since the 1970s. And Donald Trump simply didn’t run as a conservative, didn’t really pretend to, and in many ways ran over a lot of conservative sacred cows on the way to the presidency.

Conservatives need to think about the fact that even though Republicans won this election, the past year’s revealed there’s some serious weaknesses in what conservatives are offering the country—especially at the level of agenda, of policy, where it seemed like the 15 conservatives that ran against Trump for the Republican nomination couldn’t get the attention of Republican voters in making the case for a conservative policy agenda. Instead, Trump got their attention largely by attacking that case and that agenda and by making a very different case, by making an appeal to a very different set of concerns and a different set of issues than conservatives have tended to argue for. So the guy saying that we need lower taxes just isn’t enough. I think that should lead conservatives to think about what it is we need to be for today, what it means to be a conservative in contemporary American politics which can’t start in policy; it has to end in policy. It has to start in the sense of how we understand the country’s problems, how we think about the role of the government in politics and solving problems, and then what that should mean for public policy.

Has conservatism really been defined less by a belief of how the world works, how society should work more so than what marginal tax rates should be, how we should confront the Soviet Union? Was it ever not thus?

Well, I think that the face that political ideologies and parties put to the public is often a policy face—rarely what they really are ultimately. I do think that there is an identifiable conservatism that begins really from almost anthropology, from the sense of what the human person is, what it takes to thrive. There is an identifiable progressivism that begins from a different one. The debate between them is a coherent debate in our politics. But I also think that we are now at a point—we have been for at least ten years—where the policy argument between left and right has become exhausted. Both the left and right in our politics are repeating old mantras and finishing old to-do lists. And they’ve lost sight of how they got there. That means that they’re not in touch with contemporary problems. I think the challenge for conservatives and Republicans now is a separate challenge in a sense—the challenge of diagnosis. They’re not well connected to the challenges that America has now and the strengths that America now has to deal with those challenges.

Instead, they’re just running through what’s left of the to-do list of Reaganism. And frankly, what’s left isn’t particularly attractive, and that’s why it hasn’t been achieved in a lot of ways. And so Republicans are just left with tax cuts for the rich and with a general sense that what they want is less government. That’s how some of Ronald Reagan’s sentences ended, but that’s not how they started. They started with the sense of what the country needed, they started with the sense of the role of government that is much more robust than what a lot of conservatives now present to the public.

I think conservatives need to come back to their roots in a sense, and think, ‘What does 21st century America need? What do conservatives believe about what government should and shouldn’t be doing?” I think if you did that, you’d actually find room for much more to offer the country than the policy agenda that today’s Republicans sometimes offer.

As I was reading the essay, I also thought of the famous, infamous Life of Julia cartoon. Back during the Obama administration, there was a cartoon and it showed a daughter of a single mother. Did we ever see the mother in this?

I don’t think we ever saw any other human.

No, right. 

There was a child at some point. It’s not exactly clear how that happened.

It showed this woman’s progression of her life and government intervening and helping her along. There was a lot of mockery on the right for that — that this is progressivism and the Obama administration’s view of society. And there were conservative versions, “Life of Somebody Else,” showing more of a self-starter, entrepreneurial person. But perhaps, the right, Trump voters, have accepted the Life of Julia cartoon. Instead of a single mom, is it a coal miner? A working class person, asking somewhat different things, but again, nothing between them and government. And of course, the president summed it up during the campaign when he said—and again, I’m paraphrasing—“Only I know how to fix this. I can fix this.”

 Is this what people on the so-called right really want, the Life of Julia cartoon, but just a little different?

Well, I think a lot of the political debate we’ve had in recent years, to me, has seemed like evidence of the need for—what I at least think of as—conservatism. The debate over the Life of Julia stuff in 2012 was evidence for that too because the Republican response to that was “We don’t need help. We did build that”—that whole argument.

That happens all the time.

It was really an argument between two kinds of radical individualism, one of which suggested that all you need is government to address material problems and then you’re free. The other suggested that you don’t need anything. I think conservatism emphasizes what happens in the space between the individual and the state. What happens in the space that’s filled by families, communities, and society. Because of a certain understanding of the human person, there’s an understanding that sees the human person as dependent on other human beings. The conservative argument against dependency has always seem to me as very misguided. Everyone is dependent, that’s just a human reality. The question is: Can we address that dependency in a way that also encourages responsibility? And I think you do that by addressing it in that space in between the individual and the state rather than addressing it by a faceless provision of resources to people. And the argument for that is an argument from conservatism. It’s an argument that starts by seeing the human person as fallen—let’s say—as imperfect, as prone to vice and always in need for moral formation and correction. It’s an argument that begins from looking at an imperfect society and being impressed by the institutions that function, by the institutions that help us become better rather than only being impressed by what’s failing and standing in our way. That, in turn, leads to a kind of politics of gratitude, rather than a politics of outrage. And I think that’s a genuine conservative politics. It says that moral progress really only happens in the lives of individuals, and that means that enduring progress has to consist in sustaining institutions that help us become better people.

I think that’s conservatism. You don’t hear that much in our political debates right now because we do have a president who just isn’t a conservative in that sense and offers himself up as instead a better version of what some people on the left want government to be, maybe a more effective version. Trump originally, before he took on the language of a kind of populist nationalism, when he first got into this and people would ask him “How are you going to do that?” He’d often say, “Good management.” I think that was his first instinct of how to answer that question. And in a lot of ways it’s still how he thinks about what he brings to the table. It doesn’t really seem to be true for one thing but it isn’t the right answer. It seems to me that what conservatives can offer now precisely by returning to our roots some but also by thinking about what we have to offer in terms of public policy. It’s an understanding of society that doesn’t think that good management is the solution to public problems, but instead thinks that empowering those institutions between the individual and the state is a way to have a better shot at solving the problems we have.

Why is alienation so harmful to conservatism, or why does it undercut conservatism?

You know, there are a ways of understanding alienation that are uglier than others. It’s a term that’s come to be associated over time with Marxism among other things. The way I use the term in the essay I tie it to a definition by Robert Nisbet who was here at AEI among other things, a great sociologist in the middle 20th century. I think of alienation as a sense of detachment from one’s own society. It’s looking out at the society you live in and thinking, “That’s not mine” and feeling no connection, no links—seeing it as distant, as hostile, even seeing it as boring. We should never underestimate the power of boredom in social life. That kind of alienation was very much on display in the last election and in some people’s—especially early on in the Republican primaries, in the most devoted Trump supporters—there was a sense that “This society isn’t ours. We have got to blow this up and try again.” I think that’s dangerous in general, but it’s particularly dangerous to conservatism because conservatism in a sense is a sense of attachment and ownership and defensiveness of one’s own society. It certainly can see problems and is inclined to be rather depressed about things most of the time. But that follows from a sense of loss, not from a sense of alienation. It can lead, therefore, in its most constructive forms to a determination to revive, revitalize, recapture institutions, rather than to this sense that “it’s all over” or “the only option we have left is a Hail Mary pass.”

I think that the sort of alienation that was evident in some of Trump’s supporters is very dangerous for the American right because it tends to make the right less conservative. And to make the right hostile to its own society. First of all, I think America doesn’t deserve that. We have a lot of problems, our institutions are in real trouble, but things are not nearly as bad as the way in which Trump described them. Just think about the convention speech and, in some respects, even the inaugural. This describes an America that is much darker than reality and when you do that, it doesn’t leave room for thinking about solutions. It doesn’t leave room for thinking about how to come back.

Where does the alienation come from? Are there different segments of people who are alienated?

Well, you know, in a sense it’s an easy question to answer because you can say everything. It’s very hard to say whether we would’ve seen this intense alienation on the right if not for the economy of the last fifteen years, and this or that particular cultural change or mass immigration. It seems to me that at its core it’s actually deeply rooted in a real failure of our governing elites and American elites in general to come to terms with 21st century realities—those are economic and cultural. If you had looked in on American politics in 2000 and looked at that election between Bush and Gore, you would’ve thought that our two parties each had a pretty plausible understanding on how to govern in the 21st century—a left or right one, but they’re related and not too far from each other. They both were about how to distribute the benefits of the end of history, more or less. That understanding of things was mistaken, it was rooted in a very thin and careless analysis of reality. History didn’t end. The end of the cold war didn’t mean that we’d just have a peace dividend and now we could think about how we could make the most of our diversity. Rather, the end of the Cold War and the end of the really the post-World War II order has met a resurgence of things that were kept below the surface of the pressures of the Cold War and the dynamics of post-WWII America and Europe. What’s resurged in the years since are things like nationalism, things like economic tensions and cultural tensions, questions of identity and ethnicity, that really are the sources of the challenges that much of the West faces at the beginning of the 21stcentury.

Our governing elites see the frustrations that people have about their own failures to see that as part of the problem rather than as a symptom of their failure to see the problem. That means that they look at the frustration of their own people as something to get over so they can get back to governing at the end of history. We see that, for example, in our immigration debates where a left-right coalition have tried to ignore a public’s worries and treat them all as racism and just roll ahead. We see that in Brexit and a lot of what’s going on in European politics, and we’ve seen that in the 2016 election. That failure was a dramatic failure of leadership, and I think it has a lot to do with why a lot of people feel alienated by our governing institutions and by our governing elites. They have a point, but…

Another essay, “The Flight 93 election” — named for the plane that crashed into Pennsylvania in 9/11— said that things are so bad that we need to take a Hail Mary, that it can’t get any worse.  That to me seems detached from the reality. Why is there this fun-house mirror of what America actually is like in 2017?

I argue in this essay that that has a lot to do with alienation. This comes from a sense, from a view of the country that only sees the ways in which it fails to be what it used to be. And what it used to be is defined as roughly as America in the mid-century, which was in fact a very strange and unusual version of America. A very uncommon one. It’s a failure to see our strengths, and not only a failure to grapple with our weaknesses. I think that our political elite also suffer from this same failure. They’re not seeing our strengths either, but I certainly agree with you that there is despair that is evident in a lot of the rhetoric in this election, especially on the right. It’s disconnected. This despair does not describe America accurately; it doesn’t see the ways in which there are a lot of opportunities for revival and resurgence even for people like me who are very concerned about the state of our institutions, who are very concerned about the advance of progressivism in a lot of our key institutions. I think for conservatives, there is a way in which conservatism is always counter cultural in a liberal society. And that means that we have to look for ways to build spaces within those institutions to allow another generation to thrive. And then that generation will have the responsibility to do the same for the one that comes after it. Despair keeps us from doing that. Despair says there’s nothing to build on, there’s nothing here to save. I think that’s a mistake and a very dangerous mistake.

And the Trump message wasn’t so much building on anything, it was saying “there’s a much better America, and all this stuff has grown on top, suppressing the golden age. We just need to get rid of all of that and go back.” 

Ironically, the Trump message both underestimated the problems we have and underestimated how difficult it would be to solve them. In a funny way, what Trump said was, “Everything’s broken, all these people are idiots and I can easily solve all your problems.” I think that both of those are wrong and that leaves you in a place where a) we need to blow up our institutions and b) if we do that, everything will work out. That to me is roughly the opposite of conservatism.

Actually, you said that in a very Trumpian way. It’s like “the opposite of what conservatism is.”

That’s fair.

Incidentally I’m sure. So, Trump is not particularly aspirational. Why couldn’t someone else identify the alienation and join that with an aspirational solution-oriented message that was forward looking?

I think that’s a function of the exhaustion of our political order. A function of the exhaustion of both parties where they’re reciting old to-do lists. So they’re not really in a place where they’re engaging with the problems people face. Exhaustion is a way to describe what a lot of people who ran for president sounded like. It’s not that much of a mystery why Trump’s sheer energy and the fact that he was saying something different than what people had been hearing. Again, never underestimate sheer boredom as a moving force in politics. Trump was not boring, and in some ways, Trump really did speak to the problems that the others were failing to speak to in both parties. He acknowledged those problems. I don’t think he offered plausible solutions, but if no one else is even acknowledging them, that’s something.

Later on in the essay, you become a little more solution-oriented: “We need to fight alienation by putting power a little closer to the interpersonal level and making the social order seem a little less distant. What we need, in other words, is precisely what conservatism at its best might stand to offer.”

Now that seems very modest. How significant can that be?

Well, look, I think change has to be incremental. That’s not exactly the same thing as modest. I think incremental change can be pretty dramatic.

That assumes it’s leading, that it’s one step that leads to another step.

But you know, it begins from a different understanding of how to solve problems. And to me, the understanding that we’re missing now is fundamentally experimental. It has to start from the premise that we don’t already know how to solve the problems we have. I think a lot of what we do now starts from the premise that we do and that all we need is to impose the solution we have on a system that resists it—on the left and on the right.

An approach to 21st century problems that says we don’t have the answers yet; let’s empower people to try different ways of finding it; let’s empower people who suffer from this problem to tell us what’s working for them and what’s not; let’s have a system where that answer matters so that things that are failing go away, things that succeed are retained. Our politics right now is nothing like any of that—nothing happens in that way. But the institutions that are working, especially in our economy, are very much like that. I think we can learn from them. We need to have some kind of sociology of success. Some kind of looking at problems. And, you know, when you say 80% of children born in poverty will remain in poverty, what’s going on with the other 20%? Where’s that difference? We don’t do nearly enough of that now. I think an approach to public policy that would work that and understand itself to be experimental, not only as pilots to figure out what we should impose nationally, but experimental in an ongoing way would be a very, very different way—much more different than what Trump is offering or what Bernie Sanders offered. Different in a really fundamental way—I think that opens the path to a much more functional politics. So it’s incremental, but I wouldn’t say it’s modest exactly.

Is it something beyond pushing Medicaid back to the states? Medicare vouchers? Or pushing some other governmental functions back to the state and local levels? 

From where we are now, I think that’s more or less where it would have to start. Again, because it has to be incremental, I think it does need to begin from the reality where we are, which by the way, conservatives haven’t been great at either. We can’t begin by imagining a blank slate and thinking about what we would do. We have to start by seeing where we are and thinking about what a plausible step in the right direction looks like. That means a lot of the beginnings of this kind of approach would have to look like devolution, would have to look like decentralization. I do think that, ultimately, this gets you to a place where there are a lot of different kinds of solutions to public problems that coexist at the same time. We’re very uncomfortable with that in our politics. We always think of these things as trying out ways which ultimately will become universal solutions. But I think much more of a role for civil society, a role for local government—it’s not just private. There are also layers of government that are closer to the people. By the way, they tend to be a little more functional and they tend to be a little bit less disabled by partisanship—a little. A little is something you always have to say, it seems to me, in talking about politics and policy. Those kinds of incremental moves from where we are would open the paths for more and more like them. We just have to accept the fact that we don’t know what the outcome looks like. That’s very, very hard in Washington, but, you know, too bad.

Is it fundamentally that there isn’t a natural conservative element to American society, and rather that we have two different versions of liberalism? We have the old liberalism—free markets, free trade, individual rights. And we have the more modern version which is the more progressive version. 

Well, I really don’t think so. First of all, I certainly think that liberalism broadly understood—and classical liberalism, but not simply classical—is America’s native way of understanding and governing itself. But conservativism in America has always been a conservative Liberalism and progressivism is a progressive liberalism. They’re different ways of thinking about how the free society works and what it’s for. I think the conservative version is very much native to America and the political debate we’ve had in this country has really always been a coherent debate between left and right forms of liberalism. The right wing form of liberalism is in a sense what I’m talking about. It’s an understanding of society as something thick that exists between the individual and the state. It’s essential to solving problems; it empowers civil society; it empowers local institution. That’s not foreign to America. I think it’s more native to America really than any other society in the world.

The world you’ve been describing, fundamentally do you think Americans really want that? Or have they moved from the classically liberal to the progressive and now you are just trying to take off the rough edges? 

I think that gives the left much too much credit. More generally than that, I don’t really believe in final victories. I don’t think that’s how our kind of politics works. But it seems to me that a lot of the failure of both conservatism and progressivism is a failure of diagnosis. It’s been a failure to explain to people the nature of the problems as we see them in a way that actually seems to them like the realities they’re confronting. A lot of Trump’s power was the power of diagnosis. Trump spoke about problems in ways that did seem to people like something they were confronting. I don’t think he offered viable solutions, but there’s a lot to learn about the power of diagnosis.

I think a conservatism that begins by understanding 21st century problems in their own terms would not only be appealing to the public but would also find that it has more solutions that it now thinks. It has a lot more to say than limited government and less spending. That exactly because of the way it thinks about human beings and human institutions, it’s actually pretty well suited to thinking about 21st century America and the problems that it has. I think conservatives have a lot more to offer than we’ve been offering lately. The question of whether the public is open to it is a question that just hasn’t been tested because what we’ve been offering the public isn’t attractive. The fact that the public isn’t attracted to it isn’t surprising.

Now as we get to the end here, I go on Twitter and say “What would you like to ask a guest?” I have a couple Twitter questions. Here’s the question from Nick: “If the new GOP health care bill fails to pass, does he see the U.S. eventually moving to a single payer system?”

Honestly, I don’t. I don’t think single payer has enough of a constituency in American politics. Look when the Democrats had the presidency and both houses, they had a 60 vote majority in the Senate, they couldn’t get single payer. I don’t think that’s where we’re headed, but I think Republicans will do something about health care. The political pressures there are enormous. I think it’s unlikely that nothing happens, whether something happens that is worthwhile, a good idea, and an improvement is still an open question. I think they’ve moved some in that direction, but it’s not where they began this year and it’s hard to see where they’re headed. So, it’s too soon to say. I don’t think single payer is in our future. I really don’t.

Another question, and this could be a very long answer, but you cannot give a long answer. You must give a very brief answer. First, have you read Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class and do you view any parallels between that and your book Fractured Republic?

In some ways…

This is from Michael Hendrix, by the way.

Well that makes sense. Yeah, in some ways, I do. Tyler gets to—the book in a sense argues that our problem is stagnation and that stagnation is caused by an excess of satisfaction. We’re too complacent, we’re too happy with the status quo.

The opposite of Toqueville’s Democracy in America, the restlessness…

In a sense. Tyler has a chapter on Toqueville, the eighth chapter I think in the book. It’s very good.

By the way, the tweet mentions chapter 8.

Of course it does. 140 characters, you better mention chapter 8.

I think that Tyler is right that stagnation is a big part of our problem. I think that a lot of that is driven by insecurity—at least as much of that is driven by insecurity as by stagnation. Those are two causes of stagnation. In a lot of ways, people are quite unhappy with the status quo but are so insecure as a result that they’re not ready and willing to take risks to change things. That’s a different kind of problem than the one Tyler diagnoses. I think the book is brilliant, there’s a lot of great insight in there. I think there’s more to be said about stagnation driven by insecurity than by complacence.

This one, you may end up revealing more than you care to with this question: “Why doesn’t he tweet?”

I’m not on Twitter, basically for sanity’s sake. I think Twitter encourages the worst of our instincts and habits in modern America, especially in our political culture. My inclination to respond to the speeding up of everything by slowing down. I’m looking around in 2009 at how everything is becoming short and quick, and I started a quarterly journal that publishes long essays. I often tell writers that their pieces need to be longer. I think this just a response to this day that I’m better suited to. I’m sure it’s a failing on my part not on Twitter’s part, I just don’t have value to add at 140 characters. Other people do.

I have a theory that you in fact have a secret Twitter account that you only use for observing. Maybe observing some other writers that perhaps you’re interested in? Do you, in fact, have a secret Twitter account?

I don’t. It’s easy to look at Twitter without an account, so I do that. Not all that much. I don’t have an account, though that’s an idea. I probably should.

All right. On that note, my guest today, Yuval Levin. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Thanks very much.

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