April 20, 2015


The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism (Yuval Levin, April 20, 2015, Modern Age)

[C]onservatives who want to succeed electorally need to offer voters something more than opposition to someone else's ideas. It is also dangerous because it contributes to an impression (too often held by some conservatives themselves) that the Right is merely a brake on American life, while the Left holds the steering wheel--or that conservatives just want the liberal welfare state at a slightly lower cost than the Left has in mind.

But our oppositional mind-set is dangerous above all for a deeper reason: it threatens to make us forget what we seek to defend and advance, and so to reduce American conservatism to an outlet for nostalgia or outrage. Nostalgia and outrage are both inherently confused and unfocused forces in political life. They have their uses, but they could never do as organizing principles. The organizing principles of a political movement must involve some vision of the good of the whole--that is, some idea of how our society ought to approach its common life and why, which can help persuade the broader public and unify copartisans in the service of shared loves and hopes, not just shared frustrations or resentments.

Today's conservatism sometimes gives the impression that until fairly recently the organizing principles of American life were obvious to everyone and embodied in the nation's political practice. If this were true, then conservatives would be defenders of a threatened status quo and so would not have to work very hard to show Americans what we stand for. But it is not true. In fact, the organizing principles of our national life have always been hotly contested. American politics has involved a Left and a Right at each other's throats almost from the first. And the Left has, in some important respects, been the dominant force in these arguments for at least the last third of the nation's life. Progressivism has largely defined the status quo, in the process perverting the constitutional system to which conservatives point as the proper ideal.

To advance our cause, then, American conservatives need to offer our vision as a genuine alternative to the status quo. Doing so requires us to make an appeal to the broader public grounded in both a practical and a theoretical case, and therefore to engage simultaneously with the mundane realities of American government and the principles and philosophy that underlie our idea of the proper character of society and politics. It requires, in other words, a political program that draws on a conservative anthropology, sociology, and epistemology, and expresses itself in terms of both political philosophy and public administration.

This means that today's Right needs both a firmer grounding in the foundations of the conservative tradition in American politics and more practical policy proposals that can speak to the public's needs and wants.

The promise of the Third Way is, indeed, not simply that it will be cheaper (in the long run), but that it will be more generous. By defining the contribution, instead of the benefit, but then making sure that the contribution is universal and begins at birth, the promise can be realized.  But this a pro-active program, not a reactionary one.

Posted by at April 20, 2015 1:52 PM

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