Yuval Levin’s masterful new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, almost reads like a manifesto for everything Cardus cares about: solidarity, subsidiarity, the public contribution of religious communities, and much more. Editor Jamie Smith recently had the opportunity to sit down with Levin in his office at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.
JAMES K.A. SMITH: At the heart of your diagnosis is that we’ve got this contemporary penchant for nostalgia, which is a desire to return to some part of the twentieth century. Whether it’s ’63 or ’83 or something like that, people have some golden age in mind. But what you point out is that these periods of prosperity were shaped by pretty unique conditions and factors that are no longer in place. So you can’t just turn back the clock. There’s no going back. This nostalgia just results in us spinning our wheels. Does that sound like the first half of the diagnosis?
YUVAL LEVIN: Yes. I’d say in particular that what’s appealing to people about the times they miss is that they provided a stable backdrop for liberalization. I think that’s incredibly important. They offer you a way to make positive change without destroying the infrastructure. That’s the core of what we now don’t have. We have liberalized. In a sense, we need to regain that stability, but it’s just not what we’re looking for. We’re very inarticulate about that.
I think a lot of what people on the right miss is the stable family, the stable community that allowed us to believe in free markets and pursue them. A lot of what people on the left miss is the really stable society that allowed us to open it up, to say, “This is great and strong, but we need to be more inclusive and let people of different races in, let women work” and all that stuff that we should be proud of having done. But that was done against a very cohesive backdrop, and our doing it has made it less cohesive. We just live in a different situation.
JS: Were both of those liberalizing moves then also dependent on a kind of borrowed capital that we don’t recognize or own?
YL: Exactly. It spent that capital without restoring it.
JS: Is it too strong to describe it as parasitic?
YL: Well, yes and no. It’s parasitic in a sense. I think progress in any civilization always has to involve burning some kind of fuel. The trick is to be replenishing it. Especially to be replenishing that cultural capital you have to work with in order to make any effective change. We’ve not done nearly enough of that. We just assume it will always be there, and it isn’t.
JS: That’s a great metaphor. Progress requires burning fuel, but you need to be collecting or replenishing that in some ways.
Let me pivot then. The theme that we’re thinking through in this issue of Comment is what seems to be a contemporary penchant for revolutionary agendas of various sorts. So I’d like to try out a hypothesis: If there is this widespread nostalgia on both left and right, could you have written the first chapter also providing evidence of a kind of revolutionary fervour in our current moment? By “revolutionary” here I mean something like the way Burke meant it. This idealist “apriorism” that then turns into this blank-slate-ism, where we’re just going to re-create this rationally. Is there a similar dynamic at work in both nostalgia and revolution?
History can only move slowly. It doesn’t move in any one direction. It doesn’t move toward any one goal in advance. It can really only be progress to the extent that it builds on the best of itself.
YL: It’s interesting. I think what they have in common—this nostalgic framework and the revolutionary mindset—is that they’re both at their core escapist. They both want to solve the problems we have by essentially just burning down the environment in which they exist. I think they’re a little different in terms of what that escape would mean. There is a sense in which the nostalgic mindset is less ambitious, less radical exactly because it thinks of the ideal as something that’s remembered, so it could actually exist in the real world.
I think a revolutionary fervour, in a funny way—and Burke really saw this very clearly—it’s still about going back. It’s about going back all the way. I like to contrast Burke with Thomas Paine because Paine was incredibly explicit about this point. What revolution meant to him was to overthrow all of the artificial social constructions and return to a natural state—that it’s still there waiting for us to start over from.
JS: That’s Rousseau.
YL: Yeah, it’s Rousseau. I think our kind of nostalgia now also imagines there is a better state just waiting there for us that could be recaptured, but it requires a kind of rolling back in the world that makes it a little different in tone. I definitely do think that the nostalgic fervour, especially on the right in America, has a lot to do with a kind of revolutionary intensity that is unbecoming of conservatives. It assumes the possibility that burning everything down will turn out well. I just find that totally implausible.
JS: There’s no conservation going on. The view of history at work there just seems decidedly not conservative.
YL: Yeah. To my mind—again, this certainly draws on Burke—history can only move slowly. It doesn’t move in any one direction. It doesn’t move toward any one goal in advance. It can really only be progress to the extent that it builds on the best of itself. To build on the best of yourself, to address the worst of yourself, you really have to know yourself. You can’t think that just starting over and throwing away everything you have is a way to solve problems. This, I think, is what really struck Burke as the craziest thing about the revolutionaries— the notion that the way to achieve things is just to abandon everything you’ve inherited.
There’s no getting around the fact that even on the right today there is a certain kind of fervour which feels like that sometimes. And certainly on the left too now. In a sense it is a revolutionary moment, but I think it speaks to a frustration that’s not revolutionary in the sense of the late eighteenth century. People feel they’ve hit a wall, and the only thing to do is just to start over.
JS: At the end of your book you say, “Calling for a revival of subsidiarity in our national life, which is a key theme, would surely have the character of a kind of practical revolution even if it were carried out incrementally and gradually as it must be.” I love it: the incremental revolution! Instead of “To the barricades!” it’s “Join the PTA!” or “Go to congregation” or something like that.
YL: Practical revolution is unavoidably a contradiction in terms. It’s intentional. It’s a way of trying to suggest that what this means runs to the core of things. I don’t think it could be revolutionary in the ultimate sense.
You can’t think that just starting over and throwing away everything you have is a way to solve problems.
JS: It would certainly upend our current habits, practices, assumptions.
JS: The incrementalism here is itself growing out of that Burkean sensibility that growth is slow, but also because you want, as you said earlier, to know yourself.
YL: For me, my own kind of incrementalism draws on a different attitude than a lot of what you hear on the right and the left for the past few years. I am not of the view that we are at an abyss and that if we don’t take drastic action immediately everything will fall apart. I’m of the view that we’re failing to thrive and that we’re allowing too many people to live lives that don’t enable them to flourish. That’s different. That means we could be doing a lot better. To me, the great tragedy is that we just allow this to happen. There are a lot of people on both sides of our politics who think in much more drastic, cataclysmic ways about this situation. They’ll say, “This election, if this doesn’t go our way, there’s no turning back.” It seems to me that what it means to be a Burkean conservative is just not to believe that.
JS: You marshal the evidence and data to say, “Don’t necessarily accept this story about how terrible, say, wage stagnation is. Even if it’s a problem, it’s not as bad as you might think.” You distinguish between absolute versus relative mobility, which I thought was important.
YL: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think the right way to think about things is in drastic, cataclysmic terms because that just drives you toward bad ideas and extreme kinds of solutions. It drives you away from the kind of trial-and-error mentality that I think you ultimately have to believe in if you’re going to let communities find their own ways.
JS: What then is your diagnosis of the presidential election this year?
YL: I can’t vote for either major party candidate. I think the country is going to lose either way.
JS: That we got them, is that a sign of its own kind of desperation? Do you think this is a process problem?
YL: I don’t think this is the beginning of a new phase in our politics, but I do think it’s something like the end of an old phase. This is really the cratering of baby-boomer politics in America. Just think about the debates in the fall: two seventy-year-olds yelling at each other basically about how to go backward. That is where this ends. Maybe finally after them there will be a generation of leaders whose default is a little different, a little more modern. It seems to me that this is the cratering of our nostalgic politics. This is what it looks like. And it’s very, very depressing.
JS: Don’t you think millennials are equally prone to this kind of shouting back and forth? Maybe not the going back part, but the dismissal of compromise.
Imagine we want to create a society of Burkeans—that’s too utopian, to me, a Burkean—but imagine you want to sell people on this incremental, more hopeful, less despairing, less drastic kind of strategy. Do you ever worry that our rising generation right now is used to an all-or-nothing mindset?
YL: I do, but I also think they have a strong sense that it isn’t working. I don’t know that they think their style, their culture, isn’t working. No one ever really thinks that. It does seem to me that they think our way of doing politics in America now is not working. Not for them and not in general. There is an openness to a different way. It seems to me that if someone, in an articulate way, laid out a calmer but more ambitious politics, that could be very attractive—including to a lot of millennials— because it would offer a better way to let them live their lives. I think the intensity of doing this kind of politics as we now do it in America—it just can’t hold people forever.
JS: Framing it as a moment of opportunity here . . .
YL: After this year. I mean, there’s no denying, this year is just awful. It just gets more and more awful all the time. Don’t get me wrong.
JS: Even that could be a certain winnowing experience that might give us opportunity.
YL: That’s right. A humbling experience. It does get us out of some boxes that we’ve been stuck in for too long. I do think there is some hope there.
JS: I’m not usually given to generational analysis, but if we just stick with it for a second. As somebody who’s regularly teaching twenty-year-olds, it seems clear to me that there is a trend of their being much more appreciative of small-scale community. What strikes me is actually how many students will stay in a place because they have basically forged relationships and community. Some of them are even living in intentional communities. They are willing to give up certain other goods that maybe their parents’ generation would have pursued because they’re actually committed to these other habits and practices. It seems to me they would be receptive to the subsidiarity argument.
YL: I think there’s real promise there. They’re also just used to having choices. That’s an underappreciated piece of what twentyfirst- century life is about. It’s not all good. A lot of that is not a good thing, but we have to see the good in it. I also try to remind myself there’s a generation between the boomers and the millennials. A generation that we’re in and has a very hard job of transitioning this country from the boomers to the millennials. That generation, I think, on the whole in American life, and this is of course an overgeneralization, is a little more practical than either of them and a little bit more world-weary. That can be a good thing. If you think about the political leaders you’re starting to see in that generation, there’s some promise there.
JS: Let me ask a kind of obligatory Canadian question about just how far back our problems go, and whether they might be in the DNA of the American experiment itself. In many ways, what you’re saying is, “When you look back to the middle of the twentieth century, there are these overlaps going on. There were legacies and heritages that made possible various movements in the ’60s and the ’80s that then put us on this trajectory. Now those have fallen away, or at least they’re not very operative.” So something is unleashed in the middle of the last century that then devours what it needs.
When I read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I had this same question: Could somebody basically move that back or exhume it and say, “Well, yeah, but actually, from the very founding of the Republic what happened was you started unleashing things that were made possible by prior inheritances, but those were also basically the seed of their demise.” In other words, could this problem be as old as the American experiment itself?
YL: It’s a great question. In a sense it’s an old question. I think that was the worry in Tocqueville in a very powerful way. The most basic way of saying it is that liberal society, not just America, relies on a kind of citizen that it doesn’t produce. This has always been a huge problem. To me, the solution to that riddle is in the difference between theory and practice, especially in America, where the theories we’ve had about ourselves have always been inadequate to reality. Very, very inadequate. If you think about Lockean liberalism, or the kind of caricature of Lockeanism that we resort to, as a way to actually think about a society, it’s pretty insane. There aren’t human beings in that story at all.
Those institutions where we form the citizens that a free society requires—the family, the church, the school—those are the very institutions that we increasingly think are illegitimate.
To the extent that we believe that about ourselves—that that’s what we are, that’s what our principles are, that’s what we live by—I think we do ourselves an injustice. In a sense that has always been our theory. There’s always been this enormous distance between theory and practice in American life, where our theories are very individualistic and thin and simple, and our life is very communal and thick and complicated. The challenge, the danger, is that we let our theories define us.
Tocqueville saw this very clearly. There’s a way of reading Democracy in America that says the Americans are going to end up in the state of nature because they believe that the only legitimate things are those that would have been legitimate in a kind of Lockean space. They’re just going to transform their actual society into this simpleminded, ugly state of nature, breaking up every association. Breaking up the family. Breaking up connections that aren’t chosen. Only choice is legitimate, and if you have only chosen obligations . . . there goes society. There’s a way in which that actually is happening right in front of us, everywhere.
JS: Our lives are sadly catching up to our theory.
YL: Yeah. But the reason it’s not that simple is that we are actually human beings. We don’t just live out theories. When we prioritize— what do I love in my life? what is good? what is right?—we put aside a lot of that kind of philosophy. We do look at family. We do look at church. We do look at community. The problem is that if we don’t have a theory that articulates why that’s legitimate, then we start to feel like we’re doing illegitimate things when we’re actually doing the most legitimate things of all. There’s a degree to which that’s happening in our society. Those institutions where we form the citizens that a free society requires—the family, the church, the school—those are the very institutions that we increasingly think are illegitimate.
JS: In that sense, giving a theoretical account that affirms our natural dispositions and propensities would help us overcome any embarrassment about pursuing those goals.
YL: Yeah. I think that’s the way people who think theoretically about society could be useful to the actual society. There isn’t such a theory, and there really never has been. We’ve never had a theory of America, a theory of the liberal society that’s worthy of the reality. There’s a price to be paid for that. That really does have an effect.
You can’t have a free society without people who are responsible. How do you make people responsible?
That’s not saying this problem has always been implicit in the American project, and it’s only now coming to fruition. I think there’s always been this balance that has to be struck in every generation. I do tend to think generationally. In a sense civilization has to be re-created for every generation through education. The failure to do that leaves you open to these kinds of dangers. I don’t think that means that our society has always had a death wish. Rather, to thrive our society requires the maintenance of a very precarious balance. It’s hard to do, but if it’s done reasonably well it allows for an amazing amount of human flourishing and happiness.
JS: Fair enough. Education is a key factor here in that recivilizing process.
YL: Yeah. I think liberal education broadly understood has an incredibly important role in sustaining our society, and we just give it no credit whatsoever now. It’s like a hobby that some people take on because they can afford it. In a sense that’s true. It’s hard to justify in the terms in which we justify things. But without it, we can’t resolve this kind of tension. There’s no way.
JS: The liberal society relies on a kind of citizen it can’t produce.
YL: That’s an old idea. People have called it different things. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Dan Bell’s wonderful book, is basically just about that. It’s in Tocqueville. I think it’s an inherent problem in liberal societies.
JS: In the subsidiarity picture, devolving authority and responsibility to smallerscale communities that are closer to the problems and closer to the resources—
YL: And are where we produce those people.
JS: Which is also why religious communities are one of the kinds of communities that you talk about. Is it the irony that . . . I guess I don’t want to necessarily call religious communities inherently illiberal, but they certainly don’t fit the pattern. They are, in many ways, what a lot of liberals are allergic to. Yet they might do more work in forming the kind of citizens that we need to sustain the kind of project we’re talking about.
YL: I think that’s absolutely right. You can’t have a free society without people who are responsible. How do you make people responsible? The liberal society by itself doesn’t do that. It does it by making room for institutions to do it, and they’re not liberal. The family is not a liberal institution. The church and synagogue, I would say: they’re not liberal institutions. They’re just not. They’ve modernized in ways that make them compatible with the liberal society, but ultimately . . .
JS: I totally agree. But it might be helpful to clarify: What do we mean when we say they’re not liberal institutions?
YL: They don’t think that choice is the very essence of legitimacy. They draw their legitimacy from a prior commitment that is understood to be above choice and true whether we like it or not. That’s just not how we think about most free institutions. We obey the law because we’ve consented to the system that’s created it. At some level we have a lot of choice. I don’t think we obey God for that reason. It’s just not how we think about it.
JS: They’re not voluntary associations. In a way you’re answering a call to something that comes to you before you.
YL: They have a very important role to play in the free society. I don’t think it’s imaginable without them, but a role to play is not the same as saying that they’re part and parcel of it. I have this collection of pictures on my office wall here. Everyone who comes in recognizes Washington and Lincoln. Some people know Burke. That fourth one is Moses Mendelssohn.
JS: No kidding.
YL: He’s a great hero of mine because he thought about what Jews have to offer liberal societies as Jews. I think that’s a really hard question for us now. For religious communities, that’s the question to be asked. How can we be useful to the larger culture that on the whole is generally good to us, but offer them what we have to offer rather than make ourselves in the image of the larger community?
JS: Should religious communities also be worried about the extent to which they could be, or have been, co-opted by these other forces?
YL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in a sense they always have to be protecting their children from the very society they’re raising them to inhabit.
JS: You put an emphasis on what you call “subcultural” communities as good for the national welfare or our common good. But that actually only works if the subcultural communities are countercultural in some way. In my experience, Protestant evangelicalism—to take just one example— has to an incredible extent been pliable and susceptible to co-option or assimilation. It ends up being subcultural, but in the worst possible way, which is you just get a Jesus-ified version of greater American corporate consumerist culture.
It seems to me if you understand yourself as a thriving subculture, it’s important not to imagine that you own the larger culture. Then the influence really does go both ways.
YL: The funny thing is, I think that in a way as religious people come to think of themselves more as minorities in America they’ll be better able to resist that kind of pressure. In the Jewish world, which has never had the luxury of imagining that it might be the majority, this idea that part of what we have to do is resist has always been very clear. It’s not hostile to America by any means, to the country that’s really been better to us than any in human history. There’s just a clear sense that we don’t expect everybody else to keep kosher, but we’re going to. That’s harder to do when you think you are the majority. When you think you own the larger society. That comes with burdens and with blessings.
It seems to me if you understand yourself as a thriving subculture, it’s important not to imagine that you own the larger culture. Then the influence really does go both ways. One of the advantages of no longer being able to imagine that there’s just a moral majority, some of which just happens to be silent, is that you just know explicitly that there are certain places where you have to say no. This is us and this is not us.
JS: So religious communities, by being the kinds of communities they’re called to be, can nonetheless be a public good. These illiberal communities can foster and form people who actually know how to live then in liberal society. I think you said that a liberal society needs them necessarily.
YL: I think it does. I think it needs some source of free men and women. It just doesn’t have a way of explicitly acknowledging the need.
JS: Then what are the prospects for a society to actually cultivate the kinds of citizens it needs if it’s actually just a widespread secularized, areligious culture?
YL: To me, that’s part of the reason to argue for subsidiarity and localism. Our society is that in general, but there are crucial pockets of it, large ones where the assumptions really are different. If they have the room to be what they are and to cultivate the kinds of men and women they would build, I think they can do the essential work of sustaining freedom without being eaten alive.
In a funny way we have this kind of compromise in American life where we refer to the rules which make that possible in very liberal terms like “freedom of association” or “freedom or religion.” Really, these are there to make it possible for the institutions of character formation to exist. We don’t force our society to consciously say that, but we force it to make room on the assumption that people will use that room to do what human beings do, which is to form morally meaningful communities that are built around some shared ideals. But that’s never guaranteed.
JS: Can you think of any examples of those kinds of communities that aren’t religious communities? I’m not trying to say that they’re not there.
YL: I think ultimately it’s very hard. There are small examples like universities, which I think are actually communities. There are certainly pockets of liberal learning in American life that are at least not self-consciously religious, but they’re parasitic on religion. They celebrate a civilization that’s unimaginable without Christianity. I would say the answer really is no, but in practice, in small ways, it’s possible for people to pretend that they’re not religious but still to cultivate these kinds of riches.
JS: Heirs of a legacy that they might themselves refuse, but are still dependent on.
What you’re saying, I think, totally reframes in some ways what’s at stake in religious congregations and families. It might also, by the way, point out why they need to grow. It also probably points out why they need to renew themselves in more intentional ways.
YL: I agree with that. They need to be in touch with the present, with reality, wherever they are. I don’t think they can be escapists. That’s just not a healthy way to be. It’s not sustainable. It’s also not a way to do good for your neighbours, which we rightly want to do.
JS: On the flip side, I wonder if there’s an uncomfortable paradox here in which widespread unbelief or widespread nonreligiosity actually threatens the liberal project.
YL: I think that’s absolutely true. People point to all those lines from the founders. John Adams says democracy is unsustainable without religion. I think that’s just obviously true. Democracy would never have come to be and couldn’t possibly expect to survive without something like our Western religions. It’s Christianity. People want to be nice to us, so they say “Judeo- Christian,” and I appreciate it, but it’s a Christian civilization. It’s Judeo-Christian to the extent that Christianity is Judeo- Christian. It’s not a coincidence that liberalism arose in this kind of civilization. I don’t think it can be sustained without character-forming institutions that almost have to be religious ultimately.