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Conservative intellectual Yuval Levin on how the Republican Party lost its way

Republican National Convention: Day Two Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Yuval Levin has been called "the most influential conservative intellectual of the Obama era," and the moniker fits. As editor of National Affairs — in my opinion, the best policy journal going on the right — he's been at the head of the "reformicon" movement, and his work has had a heavy influence on top Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio. If you had asked me a year ago to name the conservatives likely to set the agenda for the Republican Party in 2016 and beyond, Levin would've been atop my list.

And then, of course, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination.

In this atmosphere, Levin's new book, The Fractured Republic, reads like a warning. Written before "Make America Great Again" became the rallying cry of the Republican Party, it argues that both Democrats and Republicans were trapped inside a dangerous nostalgia, and tried to propose a way out. I interviewed Levin for my podcast this week (subscribe here!).

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation about the Republican Party — the full podcast covers much more ground, including Levin’s time working for George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich, the lessons he learned in the White House, his favorite policy books, and much more.

Ezra Klein: So I want to start with an odd question: What is the Republican Party?

Yuval Levin: It’s an odd question that has to be asked now, of course. Any political party is an institution that exists to advance some vision of good and that exists to allow a coalition to cohere. A party is always both of those things.

I think the Republican Party has thought of itself more in recent decades as the first, as a vehicle for a vision of the world, a vehicle for conservatism. In reality, of course, it’s been at least as much of the latter. I think some of the problems it’s had is that its own leaders have not seen that as clearly as they might and have assumed that the Republican electorate is more of a conservative electorate than it’s been.

EK: What do you think happened inside the party this year? It feels like the institution has changed, but how do you locate where that change happened?

YL: For a long time now, the political class of the Republican Party has had a view of its own voters that has been an error. It's looked at the base as a conservative voting base. That view of the electorate has meant that a lot of Republican politicians think they can approach the Republican Party as an essentially conservative institution. The conservative movement, which is different from the Republican Party, has thought this way too, and has had a possessive approach rather than a persuasive approach to Republican voters.

There have been people, and I’ve been one of them for about 10 years now, arguing that this is false. That especially the evidence of presidential elections should let us see that that’s false. The party that has nominated Bob Dole and George W. Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney is not in fact an intensely conservative party but is in fact a coalition in which conservatives are one very important group that has to persuade the rest by showing them why what it offers should be of interest to them.

But the party hasn’t done nearly enough of that, and instead has let itself become a vehicle for a very specific, and I think in some important respects, anachronistic agenda. And what’s happened is the agenda’s grown further and further from the actual problems people face.

And so there really has been a growing distance between the Republican political class and the Republican electorate, and Trump in a lot of ways has showed that. He paid no attention to all of those litmus tests that all the politicians thought they had to meet. I think he literally wasn’t even aware of them. He instead made a case that at least articulated some of the anxieties people had.

And the response of a lot of the political class, best embodied by Ted Cruz, was basically to go around saying, "He’s not a conservative. He’s not your guy." And voters in state after state responded saying, "Yeah, he’s not a conservative. What else do you have?"

EK: Trump says people are worried about immigrants, about Muslims, about disorder. But one thing I hear often in response to Trump is an effort to take his message and make it about economic anxiety. More than I think Trump had an agenda that spoke to people, I think he’s emphasized issues that both conservative and liberal elites prefer to avoid, and they keep trying to reply with another conversation about tax policy.

YL: I agree with that in part. I think that to look at Trump as fundamentally expressing economic anxieties surely is a mistake. In fact, I think that Trump himself views these things as more economic than the voters who support him do. Trump talks a lot about trade. His voters don’t seem to care a lot about trade. They’re much more impressed with the Muslim ban; they’re much more impressed with the concern about immigration.

But it does seem to me that some of the anxieties we see channeled in the Trump phenomenon are things could be addressed by a different approach to public policy. Trying to understand the concerns voters are raising as a question to which there could be an answer within our system of government is kind of what politicians do.

What worries me, and really the essence of the book I’ve just published, is that neither the left nor the right is actually doing this very well. Both of them are trying to ignore some key realities of 21st-century life and to have an argument about whether we should go back to the high points of late-20th-century conservatism or late-20th-century liberalism, whether we should relive the late 1960s or the early 1980s. I think there’s a very plausible left/right politics of 21st-century America, but it’s not the politics we have.

The deep nostalgia of both political parties

hillary clinton (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

EK: Let’s talk a bit about that nostalgia argument. You could barely get a better object lesson for your book than a guy who runs around saying, "Make America Great Again." And the "again" in that slogan is so brilliant. "Make America Great," I think you could easily forget about.

"Make America Great Again" — the whole thing works because of that "again." But tell me why you think the two parties are so gripped by nostalgia, because, having read your argument on this, I’m conflicted on it. I’m not sure I’m persuaded — or at least I’m not sure I’m clear on what a politics that did not use the past as a framework for looking at the future would look like.

YL: Yeah, so I’m certainly not arguing for a politics that doesn’t use the past as a framework for the future. I’m a conservative, so I’m even more inclined than most to use the past as a reference. But I think looking to the past for lessons is not the same as nostalgia. And part of what we’re seeing in our politics now is a sense that we had all the answers at some point. I think Hillary Clinton, in the interview you did with her, literally said this: "We were on the right track and we lost our way."

EK: About the '90s.

YL: About the '90s, yeah. And, you know, she kind of has to say that about the '90s. A lot of liberal economic rhetoric says that now about the '70s or the pre-'70s and thinks that we lost our way with the resurgence of excessively market-oriented economics in the late '70s. Conservatives say this about everything that happened after 1989.

On the left, people tend to think about this in economic terms, so you look to the postwar decades as a time when the economy worked for workers, when people had a lot of opportunity regardless of their skill level, unions were very strong, people had a lot of faith and confidence in government. And you had this kind of corporatism where large corporations working together with a powerful labor movement and a powerful government seemed to be managing things.

On the right, people talk about the culture of that period — strong families, probably the peak in American history in church attendance, very low divorce rates, and very low immigration.

EK: I think you’re right to say that there’s nostalgia, but it’s certainly not an uncomplicated nostalgia. The Democratic Party is very aware that that period worked a lot better for straight white men than for other groups. Republicans look at a lot of the economics of that era with distaste.

YL: The nostalgia of the left and right are selective in quite different ways that prevent us from seeing what are really two sides of the same coin. Conservatives are nostalgic for the culture of midcentury America and are very happy, generally speaking, with how things have changed in economic terms. We love the dynamism of the modern economy, but we don’t love the chaos of modern culture.

Liberals are roughly the other way. They very much miss the structure and order and security of the midcentury economy, the stability for workers, the breadth of opportunity, but liberals are very happy with what’s happened to the culture over this period. It’s more diverse, it's much more open and dynamic, it’s much more accepting of traditionally mistreated groups, there’s much more immigration, we’re a much more diverse society.

The trouble is that these are two sides of the same coin. Liberalization has happened both in the culture and in the economy. In the culture it has meant that our society is more open, is more diverse. At the same time, if you want to look at the dark side of it, there is less structure, there is less social order. Families are more broken than they used to be — communities too. That can’t be separated from the greater market orientation of the economy.

I think the hardest thing about living in a basically functional, free society is always to see that our problems are the costs we pay for our strengths.

EK: But that’s partly because which parts are progress and which parts are problems is contested, right? I think when we operate at the level of abstraction, when we just say social progress comes along with cost, everybody nods their head. That’s actually an easy thing to say. It’s when you get specific that things get harder.

I think that’s partly because we tend to flatten these issues into debates over efficiency. We are very comfortable debating whether or not something works and not very comfortable debating its fundamental morality. We just saw the Supreme Court case on abortion where laws meant to curb the overall numbers of abortions in Texas were being sold as an effort to improve women’s health, and the Supreme Court ultimately just said, "That’s ridiculous."

The values argument is hard to have, it’s fuzzy to have, and there’s no real way to resolve it, so things get transmuted into these much more technical, wonkish arguments where at least we can pretend to ourselves, "Oh, if we could only convince everyone that it did help the economy or it did help this group," then it would be okay.

YL: I think that’s right, and it runs very deep in classical liberal politics. We want to say that what it means to be a free society is that people can believe what they want to about moral issues, but we can have a debate about how to create the right environment for people who have the freedom to do what they choose. That means that a lot of our governing equations only make sense to us, only seem legitimate to us, when they are questions about utilitarian matters, when they’re questions about what works and what’s efficient.

But of course we can’t actually have a society that doesn’t argue with itself about moral questions — and we shouldn’t.

EK: Let’s say that in this election, Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton. Say he loses by 6 points — a reasonably significant but normal margin. What do you think happens in the Republican Party after that?

YL: The only honest answer is I have no idea. If you talk to members of Congress, most of them would say that what happens is a return to what they consider normal, pre-Trump politics. The Republican Party, below the level of the presidency, is the governing party of the country. It’s very dominant in governorships and state legislature seats and in Congress. That Republican Party has 10,000 elected officials, none of them is Donald Trump, and none of them is much like Donald Trump. They think that party is still there. If this stops at the presidential level, that’s the party that comes back.

I think more would change than that. I think the lessons of this campaign season will sink in over time. I will not pretend to know what they’re all going to be. An optimistic take on that, from my point of view, would be that there is a modernization of the party’s understanding of the country’s challenges. That there would be a generational change. There’s a huge difference between older Republicans and younger Republicans among the elected officials and among voters. I think that kind of generational change could be a good thing.

EK: What is the difference, in your experience, between older elected Republicans and younger elected Republicans?

YL: Well, I think the core difference has to do with whether your political consciousness was formed in the Reagan era or after. Many Republican politicians, those over 55, 60, really live with a Reagan-era sense of who the voters are, what the country’s like, what the party’s for.

Younger Republican politicians are much more at home in 21st-century America. They don’t look at the country and say, "I don’t recognize my country." This is their country. I think they’re less inclined to just repeat the policy agenda of the 1980s; they’re looking for ways of applying conservative ideas to 21st-century problems.

[Utah Sen.] Mike Lee is a great example of that. Mike Lee, in some ways, is the most conservative member of Congress, but in other ways is the most impressive policy entrepreneur among the Republicans. I think those two things are connected. It’s not that being younger means you’re less conservative; it means you have a different attitude about what the purpose of politics is and what conservatives might have to offer.

The difference is enormous, and it’s not just about the politicians. People my age — I’m 39 — people my age and younger don’t watch Fox News at all. We haven’t in years. They don’t live in quite the political culture that seems to be defining this presidential race. And on the whole, they are mystified and horrified by what’s going on in this presidential race.

EK: What is the most interesting policy idea on the right and on the left in the past couple of years?

YL: I think the most interesting thing going on in the left is the debate about the guaranteed minimum income. It’s not a new idea, and in fact there’ve been debates about it several times in our history. If you look at the fall 1969 issue of the Public Interest [journal], it was devoted to a debate about a guaranteed minimum income.

But circumstances have changed, and I think that argument on the left now is a very, very interesting argument. On the whole, the left has tended to want to double down on a kind of Great Society vision of how public programs work. I think the [universal basic income] is quite different from that and suggests something interesting about what might be coming. I think there are also ideas about offering public programs as options in private markets. That’s a very interesting debate on the left, and in some ways very promising.

On the right, I think a lot of what’s going on is about making public policy, including at the national level, to enable experimentation at the local level. Now, in the abstract, conservatives have talked about that forever, but I think we have seen more work being done in recent years — both at the local level, especially in education, and somewhat at the national level — that tries to make that a little more real.

The promising thing for me is that these two actually fit together pretty well. They suggest a kind of 21st-century policy debate that’s about how to enable more private sector options from the right, more public sector options from the left. These two could actually work together pretty well and in some respects could even improve one another somewhat.

So there’s a promise thereof a potentially constructive 21st-century policy debate, in a country where everyone expects to have a lot of choices in every realm of life. That makes sense to me to have as a debate. But that’s an optimistic way of thinking about where our policy debates are going.


How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump

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