When he launched National Review 60 years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. famously declared an intention not to make history but to halt it. The magazine, he asserted, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” We conservatives know this old quip so well that we rarely stop to take it seriously. And we know, too, that simply stopping the Left was never the sum of Buckley’s ambitions, and could never be enough for us. But although it was not all that modern conservatism was born to do, defying the notion that the arc of history bends left has always been an important part of our mission on the right, and it matters today as much as ever.
In the era of NR’s birth, conservatives confronted a liberalism that was insufferably arrogant in a particular way: It took itself to be in confident possession of the only reliable vision of the future and so to be working merely to hasten its inevitable victory. In 1955, this conceit still carried the unmistakable stench of its Marxist origins, and so still hinted, if vaguely, at a belief in Historical forces (with a capital “H”) that possessed their own independent trajectory. An immense array of ponderous pseudo-philosophical paraphernalia was still employed in the effort to make the case for such forces seem profound. And serious conservatives at mid century devoted much energy to combating that lingering belief in determinism and the disdain it evinced for human liberty.
Six decades later, conservatives might be forgiven for imagining that at least that particular battle has been won. Communism is essentially extinguished, and almost no one outside the senior leadership of the British Labour party now admits to looking back upon it fondly. Precocious teenagers don’t impress one another by opining on false consciousness. Even in the most liberal precincts of the academy, earnest determinism has mostly been replaced by technocratic swagger or an easygoing decadence — serious but lesser vices. Frenchmen prophesying class conflict are still adored without being read, but surely “History” is no longer our nemesis.
And yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure. In America, where outright socialism (let alone Communism) never fully took root, the Left has long been essentially welfare-statist in practice, which means its confidence in history has not been about class struggle, exactly, but about a sense of where the relationship between the state and the people was headed. American liberals have long been guided, at least implicitly, by what we might now call the ideal of social democracy.
This ideal holds that the market economy must be meticulously managed by strict regulation and its consequences addressed by robust transfers. From birth to death, citizens should be ensconced in a series of protections and benefits: universal child care, universal health care, universal public schooling and higher education, welfare benefits for the poor, generous labor protections for workers, dexterous management of the levers of the economy to ease the cycles of boom and bust, skillful direction of public funds to spur private productivity and efficiency. Each will be overseen by a competent and rational bureaucracy, and the whole will make for a system that is not only beneficent but unifying and dignifying, and that enables the pursuit of common national goals while also liberating individuals from oppressive social strictures and from a crippling material dependence on family and community.
This vision has implicitly shaped our politics for most of the past century. Much of it has been enacted, but not all, and of course with decidedly mixed results. The Left has long acted on the premise that advocates of this view are, as liberals sometimes actually say, “on the right side of history,” and that steps along the social-democratic trajectory constitute progress while steps in any other direction amount to retrenchment.
Liberals have been in the habit of thinking this way for so long that many have come to take both the means and the ends of the social-democratic vision for granted and to defend our portly welfare state as though it were identical to the broad objectives it purports to advance. Policies that would employ any tools other than the national state are taken to be unserious about their own goals. As the health-care debate of the last few years has shown, when liberals listen to conservative proposals, they often don’t even hear an alternative — they just hear a “no” to their social-democratic vision and react accordingly.
This mode of judgment is implicit in a lot of media coverage of our policy debates, too. When liberal politicians propose to add some missing piece to the social-democratic puzzle — universal pre-school, for instance, or free college tuition — journalists tend to greet their proposals as logical next steps and the reactions of conservatives and the broader public as a test of seriousness.
But because the social-democratic vision blurs the distinction between means and ends, the Left advances an agenda that demands an extraordinary level of confidence in the competence of government yet does not defend that confidence. In fact, it generally does not advance an argument for itself at all. The American Left has long since settled into a comfortable blind faith in its agenda, and the very absence of a theory of administration underlying that agenda is sometimes offered as proof of its pragmatism.
Yet the prescriptions of our social democrats are far from pragmatic. They call for centralized regulation and administration of vast swaths of American life, require public spending at levels that are plainly unaffordable, and assume a degree of public confidence in our national institutions that we have not seen in half a century. Indeed, this is what now stands out most about the social-democratic vision that implicitly guides the American Left: Although it offers itself as a vision of the future, it is an anachronism. It is how the past used to think about the future.
The social-democratic vision was born in the age of industrialization, when, in our economy and culture, everything was becoming bigger and more consolidated. It was only natural, a century ago, to think that an America increasingly dominated by industrial giants and homogenizing mass media would require a government of large, bureaucratic institutions of administration. The economics underlying that approach was always dubious, and the approach’s implications for civil society and individual liberty were always ominous, but in that era, this program could easily have seemed like the shape of the future.
In every realm of our national life except for politics, though, we now think about the future not in terms of consolidated institutions’ expertly managing vast, uniform systems but in terms of decentralized networks’ offering customized solutions while remaining subject to individual choice. In the decades since the end of World War II, our culture and economy have fractured, liberalized, and decentralized. For good and bad, they are increasingly rooted in the ethic of expressive individualism and the epistemology of distributed knowledge.
A politics that kept up with these changes would not attempt to concentrate more power in vast administrative institutions but would seek to disperse it in ways that made for more-responsive, adaptive government. It would not build programs that required great public trust in our institutions when such trust is at historic lows. It would not assault the mediating institutions of local authority and civil society but would empower them to counteract the dangers of our diffusing economic order and dissolving social norms. We are failing to do all of this, because the Left too often clings to the notion that the future must look like it did in the past and because the Right too often abides the idea that our political life is a recurring yes-or-no question about social democracy.
To do better, conservatives will need to treat liberal claims to speak for history and progress with the contempt they deserve: to mock them, as Buckley did, and to offer America a theoretical and practical alternative, as the magazine he founded has done for threescore years. Conservatives today are uniquely well positioned to do this, since we incline to the dispersal of power, we value civil society’s mediating institutions, and we harbor great skepticism about both centralization and hyper-individualism.
We have, in other words, the disposition toward government that underlies our constitutional system. Progressivism arose in opposition to that disposition and that system, which the Left believed were hopelessly out of date. But history, it turns out, has been kinder to this constitutional vision than to the confidence of the historicists. And a Constitution-minded conservatism therefore stands once again to be a force for modernization in American life through the reinvigoration of our system of government and the recovery of the insights and instincts that undergird it.
It is a modernization that America now badly needs, and toward which conservatives should now exert ourselves. Our chief obstacle will be progressives who stand athwart our path yelling “History!”
—Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a contributing editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the November, 19, 2015, issue of National Review.