July 18, 2019

First Thoughts on Yuval Levin’s Address to the Conference on National Conservatism



Much has been said about the recent conference on National Conservatism. Sadly, I missed the conference but a number of my Niskanen colleagues made it, and sent me careful notes on the presentations. Charitably, my second-hand impression is that it was characterized by hits and misses. My friends at Niskanen will, no doubt, be focusing on the misses. But I was able to get a copy of one of the addresses at the conference, given by my friend and editor at National Affairs, Yuval Levin. It was, as one would expect from Levin, careful and measured at an event that does not seem to have gone out of its way to encourage such virtues in all of its presenters. And while I did not agree with all of it—for Levin is a conservative and I am a liberal—there is much in it worth chewing over, and I look forward to seeing it in print. 

I hope to come back to other parts of Levin’s important address, but let me start here at the end, in a passage worth quoting in full. 

Those with whom we disagree in our society are not our enemies; they are our neighbors. They are not out to do harm to our country; they differ with us about what would be good for it. To love our country is to love them too—even when they do not show us the same regard, even when they are illiberal and we have to quarrel with them in the public square. 

We should not allow ourselves to fall into hysterical fear of the supposed advances and victories of these ideological adversaries. They are a minority as we are. They are mostly failing too. And their task, no less than ours, is to persuade a larger society that is not so sure that either side of our politics has got its head on straight. 

This passage seems quite artfully written to row against the general tide of the audience, and of the movement of which Levin is a part. But this was something quite a bit more than bi-partisan virtue signaling. In fact, it represents a theoretical point quite directly related to the “national” modifier in the conference title, which bore the brunt of most of its attention.  

That point, quite simply, is that one cannot be an American nationalist while engaging in the rhetorical equivalent of civil war. You cannot be a nationalist and view our society in fundamentally friend-enemy terms. The true nationalist sees that kind of politics as tearing at the sinews of our nation. Instead of taking up sides in that civil war, a true American nationalist will always make an effort–while vigorously defending their own particular political philosophy–to find some of themselves in at least a good chunk of those on the other side. 

I am perhaps more sympathetic to nationalism than some of my Niskanen colleagues, primarily because, properly understood, it is a fundamentally moderating force. A true nationalist fears civil war more than anything, and realizes that especially in a country of continental scale with a huge, polyglot population, we have to make a home with those who disagree with us, that they cannot simply be driven under the wheels. Nationalism reminds us that there is something even more important than the particular interpretation of our national project that informs our ideology, and our party. That something is the continuity and unity of the nation, which will at times require a kind of forebearance, an unwillingness to push political advantage to its maximum point, built on a recognition that all of our ideological tribes must somehow be able to make this country their home.   

But there’s more to the instinct that Levin identifies here than that. True nationalism recognizes that that the best version of conservatism is a corrective to liberalism, and vice versa. Each of those ideological poles have blind spots and tendencies to overreach, which the other can correct. While we may be partisans of liberalism and conservatism, in the sense of believing that one or the other possesses more of the truth, a nationalist also recognizes that they need one another. That we need one another. That is the truest aspect of national spirit, and yet also the one that asks the most of us in polarized times. 

That said, there are certainly those who do not believe that we need one another, who wish that we could solve our conflicts by being rid of the other, or by subjecting the other to permanent subjugation. This is an essentially annihilationist, as opposed to a pluralistic, instinct. We can see that in the “coming Democratic majority” language of my liberal tribe, which looks forward to a time in which demographics will produce an unstoppable, permanent Democratic ruling coalition. But to be honest, that is a pale and slow-motion version of the instinct one sees in the “send her back” chants at Wednesday night’s Trump speech, which were activated by the president’s direct wish that the “Squad” go back “where they came from.” Once unleashed, the wish to solve our political conflict by being free of the other side leads nowhere good, even if it does not end up at its logical end point. But whatever that instinct is, it is manifestly not national, because it wishes not to act on behalf of the people as they are, but to be free of conflict by composing some other people. 

This is not to say we should be rid of conservatives. And it appears Levin was signaling that he does not wish to be rid of center-left liberalism either. Nationalism as I define it, and as Yuval was signaling he defines it, is animated by the spirit of anti-annihilationism. We have had a politics over the last few decades in which the spirit has been alive in our parties that we could have a resolution in which one side could be durably free of the burden of ruling with the other. That does not strike me as a nationalist spirit, but it is the spirit that animates one particularly vivid strand of recent national conservative discourse. 

I hope to return to other insights in Levin’s stimulating, and in some ways brave, address, very soon.