12/17/2013 11:56 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Yuval Levin On Obama's Claim To Be Conservative, GOP's Lack Of Governance


WASHINGTON -- The divisions between right and left that define politics today go far deeper than the talking points thrown around on television, extending even to the 18th century revolutions that changed the world, according to a new book from conservative intellectual and public policy writer Yuval Levin.

Levin's book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, centers on the great right and left thinkers on the American and French Revolutions: the Irish-born Edmund Burke, chief critic of the French Revolution, and Thomas Paine, a prolific British polemicist and champion of the French Revolution. Their thinking echoes in the debate at the heart of the obstruction in Washington today, but as Levin concludes from the discussion between the men, the right forgets that each of us is dependent on others, while the left seeks to replace community with what Levin calls a "radical form of individualism" sustained by the state.

Levin, editor of conservative quarterly National Affairs and a frequent contributor to The National Review and Weekly Standard, has been called "the preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era" (even if this honorific was partially intended by New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait to imbue his takedown of Levin's arguments with more weight.)

Levin and I spoke last week about some of the themes in his book, touching on whether President Obama's work as a community organizer in Chicago was communitarian and whether the president is a Burkean, as David Brooks has said Obama views himself, and on how Levin's own view of Paine was deeply influenced with his conversations with the late writer Christopher Hitchens. Levin -- also an informal advisor to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a chief architect of the latest budget deal -- has some tough criticism for conservatives. He suggests the tea party and the conservative right are deeply confused about their intellectual heritage, and that the GOP needs to cultivate a far greater interest in policy and the work of government, in order to be a healthy and successful party.

Talk about chapter four [the tension between "Choice and Obligation," as the chapter is titled].

This really is a question of what the purpose of politics is. For Paine the basic purpose of society is to protect people's freedom of choice, to allow them the space to make choices to shape their own destiny. I think it's incredibly central to the modern left's understanding of itself. The goal is to maximize the individual's freedom to define his own existence. Ideally, you would not be defined by anything, by any natural constraints, by anybody else's choices, by anybody else's rules. Now obviously, no one is that idealistic about it, and Paine, like everybody else, perfectly understands that there are going to be limits. But he wants to maximize that individual freedom of choice.

That point right there is really interesting because it is so opposed to the communitarian perspective that Obama has expressed.

Well, I think that's not quite right. One of the ways that looking at this debate helps us understand today's debate is that, it's easy to imagine the left's arguments being communitarian in the sense that they want the community to meet the needs of its members. But they want to meet those needs by placing a kind of faceless intermediary between the giver and the recipient of a benefit. And the purpose of that and the effect of that is not only to meet those material needs, which I think everybody agrees there is an obligation to do, but to meet them in a way that doesn't create an obligation on anybody in particular. It is a way of liberating the individual from the implications of dependence.

I think conservatives today have dependency all wrong. What the left is after is a kind of illusion of independence. It's not about dependency, because dependence on the state, and the elimination of everything that stands between the individual and the state, is not a path to communitarianism. It's a path to radical individualism. The vision it's trying to serve is a very individualist vision. … Dependence on other people is just an absolute fact of human life. It's a universal fact. The question is it dependence on people around you, who in turn depend on you and therefore drive you to be both humble and responsible? Or is it dependence on a distant outside provider that just gives you what you need and asks for nothing in return?

Policy-wise that's a strong argument. But I'm thinking in particular of some of the sentiments that Obama expressed in his first book, where he talks very explicitly about his own individual journey of coming to a place where he values rooting himself and obligating himself [to others]. So there's some discrepancy there.

There's very much a tension there. But if you look at the kind of work that he was doing in the communities that he ended up working in, it was always the work of trying to orient that community toward national politics, towards larger politics, making it fit the bigger system better, rather than orienting them inward. Community organizing, in a sense, is the organizing of communities so that they will better fit the vision in which nothing stands between the individual and the state. And so, I don't doubt the communitarian impulses, personally. I think everybody feels those. But progressivism is deeply opposed to the notion that there can be legitimate centers of power between the individual and the state, centers of power that are not democratically answerable, and that don't serve the vision of the good that the elected government has. I think that's just the essence of the Obama administration's domestic policy.

When Obama the community organizer walked into those meetings in Chicago, do you think he thought about it in philosophical terms, or in more practical terms of these people need resources, and this is where the resources are?

A different person with a different outlook would have thought, 'These people need resources,' and come to a different answer. I mean that's the beauty of our kind politics, is that people end up on the left and right not by thinking down to the bottom but by starting with a certain basic set of dispositions. So I'm not suggesting that he came in with a philosophy and tried to turn the country into his philosophy. I think in an ironic way it runs even deeper than that. It's your basic outlook, your basic starting disposition: Do you look at an imperfect country and say, 'I'm very impressed by what's good here and I'm going to try to build on that,' or, 'I'm just outraged by what's bad here, and I'm going to try to tear it down.'

It really is so fundamental.

Jefferson had this theory that people are just born Whigs and Tories. It's not quite Burke's view, but it's not incompatible with it either. I think it's a mix, inevitably. It's a mix of influences. But it runs very very deep.

To finish on obligation, I would say Burke's answer to Paine is that his view is that Paine's radicalism and the radicalism of the Whigs and the French makes way too much of choice, and in fact for Burke it's incredibly important that a lot of our most important relationships are unchosen obligations. And it begins in the family. There's this amazing paragraph, the most important paragraph in his writing, I think, where he basically says, 'At the core of every society are the unchosen obligations between parents and children. And those roll out into all manner of unchosen obligations, to family, to community, to country. And you have to build society around those. That's what gives it its shape. So to deny those obligations, to say they have to be optional is really to deny the basic foundation of society.’ I think that a lot of what we call the social issues in our politics are really about that difference, about whether you can be liberated from those particular unchosen obligations, and so that really reverberates.

This is a kind of rhetoric or message or kind of thinking that I think [former Republican Pennsylvania Sen.] Rick Santorum embodies but has not quite [conveyed].

Not in the most appealing way. It's probably the most challenging of the conservative insights to turn into a modern liberal argument. Because it really does say that some of the most important things in life just are what they are. And, you know, that's a problem, for a lot of people. And the attempt to escape that is at the core of a lot of the most radical elements of the left now and always. The real, the smartest revolutionaries have always understood that the family is their biggest obstacle, from Plato's Republic on. The first thing you gotta do is separate parents and children, and that's not a coincidence. Plato said children should be raised in common, and you know, the kind of society that The Republic envisions is only possible if that's what you do. In much less pernicious forms, when the kibbutz movement in Israel tried to reform society the first thing they did was take children away from their parents, and raise them in common. That's just -- if you don't break that link it's very hard to change things. And, you know, for Burke that means we should probably form society around that link, rather than try to break it.

That reminds me of the opening of Brave New World.

That's why biotechnology is such a radicalizing force. That's how Burke led me to bioethics, because it really -- if it's not true that those obligations are what they are, then a lot of things might not be true. And in a certain way, that's the essence of the most radical modern radicalism.

I listened to [writer] Matt Lewis' interview [with you] and he pointed out quite astutely that the right sounds like Paine and the left sounds Burke.

Yep, in a lot of ways, and in part, the book is designed to address the right, to suggest to them that conservatism doesn't work well as a radical ideology, that while it's very important and necessary to change our governing institutions in some profound ways, they have to be changed to become conservative institutions. That means being both deeply engaged in policy at a level of detail that a lot of people on the right are uncomfortable with, and it just means approaching society with a kind of protective disposition, which doesn't lend itself well to the level of, to the volume level of what goes on on the right.

Where does that disinterest in policy and government come from?

My view is, and part of the reason for writing a book like this, I think the right doesn't have a good intellectual history of itself. And intellectual history is very important to conservatives. So, in practice, the right is quite conservative. But when it turns philosophical, about America, about itself, it reaches for radicalism, it reaches for [Thomas] Jefferson, it reaches for a very stark notion of what the American Revolution was about and how radical it was, and that's not a good fit for actual conservatism in the real world. And so obviously American conservatives have always had the challenge of what it means to be a conservative in a society founded by revolution, but we have a lot more resources to work with than we think, because there's always been this conservative strand in our politics. I think Burke helps [us] understand what it is. I wouldn't say he's the source of it. It existed at the same time in America. He's just clearer about it than a lot of other people have been.

So who are some other names you could throw out that could be standard-bearers [for Burkean conservatism among the founders]? [Alexander] Hamilton would be one I guess?

Hamilton is one, in many ways. I think [James] Wilson is another. I think [John] Dickenson among the founders. These were real conservatives and they understood themselves to be working to conserve a kind of social and cultural achievement. Their understanding of what the revolution was about was a lot like Burke's, which was that they were being denied a kind of continuity in their way of governing themselves. The British had forced a radical break on them, and it's their way of thinking that was powerful when the Constitution was written. In that sense, I think we're just very fortunate. There was a very odd conservative moment in our politics, a kind of reaction against radicalism, because of what was starting to happen in France, because of, I think, some of the excesses of the American Revolution itself. The Constitution was written in a very conservative mood. And in that sense it reads very differently from how a lot of people want to read the Declaration of Independence. I think the Declaration actually contains this, too. It starts with these statements of principle and then lays out a set of complaints that are basically all about being denied the rights of basic Englishmen, that we've always had.

But there is that language that is very universal.

No question about it. And you know, there are places where Burke uses language like that too. It's just for him, it's very important that politics, most of the time, is an arena for the use of prudence and judgment. There are fundamental questions that arise now and then, but he thought it was very important not to think of everything as a fundamental question, not to think of everything as requiring a resort to principles of justice that are all the way above politics. He did it when it came to India, when it came to Ireland, and Ireland's Catholics, because he thought that those – what was happening there was outside the realm of the given history of the English system. It was a radical break with the traditions of the system itself, and to point that out you had to go outside the system and say, 'This is wrong, period.' In those instances, especially in Ireland, he talked a little bit like Tom Paine. He said the purposes of government at the end of the day is to protect the fundamental rights of human beings. But he thought that the only way for us to know what that looked like was to learn from the context and the history of our own society, and that most of the time, the purpose of government is to create and sustain a space where we can differ without disagreeing radically and fundamentally.

[Your] "rhetoric of conservatism" idea could use a little more articulation. What does that mean?

I think one of the problems that the right has now is that we don't have a theory that is adequate to our practice. There is real world conservatism. It's very recognizably conservative. But when it tries to root itself in a philosophy, it reaches for the most radical version of Thomas Jefferson. And that philosophy doesn't really allow for conservative governance, and makes conservatives not particularly interested in governing. And I think right now conservatives are not interested enough in governing, in the particulars of public policy, in the notion of the kind of obligations of governing. And I think that's not unrelated to the problem of our own political theory. To me, that's why I try to do both of these things at the same time, that's why National Affairs and this book take up my time, because I think the problem of not having a governing vision, and not having an adequate political theory are very very closely connected, especially on the right, because the right really relies on intellectual history for self-understanding.

And so what we've missed is the sort of argument that Burke can make for a liberal society, for seeing that society as the achievement of Western Civilization and so rooted in the kinds of traditions that we want to protect, and seeing it as always improving itself through gradual reform. And so, understanding the Constitutional order as, again, creating a space for incremental improvement. That kind of improvement on the one hand requires a real direct engagement with governing, and also protecting that space from much more radical incursions requires an involvement in the details of governing. I think at both levels it calls for conservative reformism. That's what Burke himself embodied. I think that's not enough the attitude and the view of today's American conservatism. And so, in part, I think we need a less radical history and theory of American life that we have.

Do you see [Kentucky Republican Sen.] Rand Paul taking up a Burkean view? He went to Detroit last week, and talked about some innovative ideas, and sold them in language that was very populist.

I think in part that's right. I think his libertarianism is not in every respect conservative or Burkean. The libertarian strand of the American right is just more radical and more individualist and in that sense a little less conservative than the rest of the right. But it's still, in a lot of key ways, a conservative force in society. I think what [Utah Republican Sen.] Mike Lee is doing now is a great example of what an American form of conservatism looks like. It's deeply communitarian, and yet at the same time, very much rooted in the sort of principles of our constitutional order as we understand them. It's all about making space for society, making space for the family. And it's policy-oriented. It's about specific reforms that move in that direction gradually. I think a lot of what [Wisconsin Republican Rep.] Paul Ryan does, similarly, is moved by that kind of vision. And for both of them, I think social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are naturally connected in a way that only makes sense if you sort of step back and see the whole. That whole makes them want to be involved in policy. To me that's the kind of conservatism that makes sense.

How would a book like yours help a 2016 candidate? I'm thinking specifically of somebody like [New Jersey Republican Gov.] Chris Christie, who is a manager and an executive, but doesn't seem all that interested in policy at this point.

I think first of all the book would help any reader by just getting them better acquainted with the intellectual history of our society and our way of life. It doesn't offer advice to politicians in any direct way but I think it paints a picture of how people inclined to try to govern can look at society and I think it can also help a person like that think through what the left/right debate is about, and what to emphasize and what to talk about and think about and what can be most appealing about that kind of vision, because I think the notion of building on our strengths is a very powerful way for conservatives to explain what they're trying to do. Building on the best of what we have. Making our country more like its best self. That seems to me to be a kind of case for conservatism in practice. And it's an argument against a conservatism that says, 'We just want less of the same. We just want smaller.' I think a government that answers to this kind of conservative vision would be smaller, but it wouldn't be less of the same. It would be a different way of thinking about what the purpose of government is in a free society.

And a lifelong manager should think about these kinds of questions before he tries to become a president, which is more than a manager … The president is a leader. He is a manager of the federal government. And that's a very important function, and if you don't do that well, you're not going to be a good president. But a president also has to have a sense of what government is for, and of what his place in our constitutional system is. These things aren't just about management. They're about putting forward a vision of how to solve certain problems, and trying to inspire people to see them as solvable. I don't know a lot of managers who are capable of that. That's more than management. That's leadership.

You mentioned in the afterword that Christopher Hitchens had a big impact on your understanding of Paine.

Yeah, you know, much more than I expected … [Hitchens] wrote this great little book about Paine, about Paine's Rights of Man. And he said some things that I was interested in, that I hadn't really seen elsewhere. But in talking to him it struck me that he -- I'm sure unconsciously -- sort of modeled himself on Paine, was a lot like Paine. There are ways in which Paine doesn't sound like today's kind of leftist radicals, right? Paine is a great believer in freedom, in human potential. He had a lot of doubts about government, government power, and what I realized in talking to Hitchens was that's the kind of liberalism that moved Hitchens. It was radically individualist, a very deep faith in the power of reason and freedom, in the value of equality. And it moved him through all the stages that Paine moved through, so that by the end of his career, by the end of his life, when I was privileged enough to talk to him, he was involved in basically a fight against Christianity. And he'd gotten there exactly the way Paine did. Step by step. And he knew that. He saw that. He didn't do it on purpose that way, but I think looking at it you could see it.

And so Paine ends his career with this book, The Age of Reason, that's basically just this crazy savage attack on Christianity, as just unreasonable. It's a case for Deism, but it's really kind of a case for atheism, for science as a religion. You know, it's completely consistent with everything else he'd always said. It's the natural conclusion of his way of thinking about reason, of his way of thinking about society, about tradition, and I think in some ways, I wouldn't over -stress or exaggerate this, but in some ways I think Hitchens followed a very similar path: kind of rationalist liberalism, outraged at injustice always. Moved by that above all, without regard for almost anything else in the world. And it got him to the same place.

That sounds more like an insight about Hitchens.

It's true, but what he helped me see about Paine was that … he was always moved by outrage and injustice. Everything he says is most easily understood as the product of just sheer outrage at the fact of the strong stepping on the weak. And that helps you respect Paine a lot. Because there are ways in which his utopianism is easy to disparage, and a lot of the things he wanted to do seem like very bad ideas to me. But I think it's true, that he was always moved by outrage at just seeing the strong step on the weak. And, you know, that's righteous outrage.

You talk about how a sort of revolutionary mindset, and that way of running the government, basically unravels itself [quoting Burke]:

'A cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty, appear flat and vapid to their taste. There must be a great change of scene; there must be a magnificent stage effect; there must be a grand spectacle to rouse the imagination.'

And that grand spectacle, that just made me think of our own age of showbiz, where going back to [Neil] Postman again, like, he wrote very insightfully about how television and show business have really conditioned us to, as mass culture, to want spectacle. Do you think that's a concern?

I think that's a concern. I think that's a kind of threat to daily life, to the integrity of daily life. And that's in part how he was describing it, too. Burke, from very early on, he wrote this strange and interesting book about aesthetics, as a very young man -- he was 27 years old -- in which he basically argues about the danger of unmooring people from their restraints. And especially through public spectacles that kind of speak to our secret horror and power. It's an interesting book. But that idea was always in his politics.

And I think when he saw the French Revolution, when he got a sense of what it was like, that's the worry that it sparked in him, was that it would leave people permanently dissatisfied with everyday life, especially everyday politics. The way in which the French had done what they did, this notion of political change through parades through the streets with the head of your enemy on a pike; after that to say, 'We need to talk about, you know the education budget,' it just doesn't seem like it's worth your time. And his concern was that it would leave people always desiring the politics of grand spectacles, and that that kind of politics is just inevitably going to point in the wrong direction, because if what you want is equilibrium, grand spectacle is not going to serve your ends. So yeah, I think he would see that as a problem. Burke doesn't say much about general culture and popular culture, and maybe there wasn't much material for him to work with to say much about it, but I think there's a natural thread that leads from his political thinking to the kind of cultural thinking that a lot of conservatives are moved by, the ways that the tendency of culture to stabilize life as being undone by a culture that thrives on not just novelty but disturbance and spectacle.

One of the key precepts for Burke is taking what's given and building on it and being grateful for what's good. And it just struck me, because we just came through the Thanksgiving holiday, that that is pretty unique to America.

I sort of put [Thanksgiving] behind Passover, which is all about gratitude, but also involves my mother's cooking. I think the disposition behind Washington's Thanksgiving proclamation and Lincoln's, is a deeply conservative, and in a lot of ways a Burkean disposition, which says, 'Even in times of trouble, we should be grateful for what we have.' You know, that's not unique to them. That's not unique to politics. It's deeply rooted in every great religion, too. But I think it's not natural to the kind of progressive inclination in our culture, to be grateful for what we have.

I think it has to do with low expectations, right. And in that sense it's also rooted in Jewish and Christian traditions, which is, conservatives have low expectations of the human being. That means we are grateful for anything that's not pandemonium. That's not a very appealing political argument. Because in politics you want to do better always. I don't know that that naturally translates, because it's a function of us being impressed that we're not going to hell right now … The motto of the Jewish optimist is, 'It could be worse.' I wouldn't suggest that as a motto for a presidential campaign, though that was more or less what Obama ran on last time.

This post has been updated to include additional portions of Levin's response.



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