Yuval Levin on Constitutional Conservatism

by Reihan Salam

Yuval Levin’s cover story in the new National Review is an excellent distillation of the case for modern American conservatism. One of the most common tropes I encounter in conversation with left-of-center friends and colleagues is the notion that our political system is broken precisely because it is not sufficiently democratic. Indeed, I was on a panel with a member of Congress recently and he criticized, as is common on the left, the structure of the U.S. Senate for violating the principle of one man, one vote. It is hard for many left-liberals to understand why conservatives would defend an institution like the U.S. Senate, as it seems to violate their understanding of liberal democratic norms. Yuval’s article helps explain why U.S. conservatives are so invested in a constitutional system that is such an outlier among postwar parliamentary social democracies:

The difference between these two kinds of liberalism — constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations — is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment — principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.

The principles that the progressive form of liberalism thought it had discovered were much like those that more conservative liberals believed society had arrived at through long experience: principles of natural rights that define the proper ends and bounds of government. Thus for a time, progressive and conservative liberals in America — such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine on one hand and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton on the other — seemed to be advancing roughly the same general vision of government. But when those principles failed to yield the ideal society (and when industrialism seemed to put that ideal farther off than ever), the more progressive or radical liberals abandoned these principles in favor of their utopian ambitions. At that point, progressive and conservative American liberals parted ways — the former drawn to post-liberal philosophies of utopian ends (often translated from German) while the latter continued to defend the restraining mechanisms of classical-liberal institutions and the skeptical worldview that underlies them.

That division is evident in many of our most profound debates today, and especially in the debate between the Left and the Right about the Constitution. This debate, and not a choice between technocracy and populism, defines the present moment in our politics. Thus the Left’s simultaneous support for government by expert panel and for the unkempt carpers occupying Wall Street is not a contradiction — it is a coherent error. And the Right’s response should be coherent too. It should be, as for the most part it has been, an unabashed defense of our constitutional system, gridlock and all.

One of my favorite arguments from Yuval is that it’s not so much that the U.S. political system is broken; rather, we’re dealing with the legacy of the Johnson administration, which, after the crushing defeat of the Goldwater presidential campaign, briefly enjoyed an overwhelmingly large ideological majority in Congress that allowed for a profound transformation of American governance. In some regards, like the Civil Rights Act, this was a very good thing. In two other cases, the implications of sweeping legislation were far greater than was commonly understood at the time. The 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, for example, utterly transformed the demographic composition of the U.S. population. Though I tend to think the benefits outweighed the costs, the fact that the implications were not seriously discussed at the time should give us pause. And the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid, was at least as consequential, in that continues to fuel the expansion of the public sector at the federal and state level, far beyond expectations. 

So one could make the case, as Yuval does, that an unnaturally un-gridlocked moment led to an imbalanced political settlement that we’ve struggled with ever since. 

In an ideal world, I’d love to see progressive liberals read Yuval’s description of conservative liberalism, as I think it would give them a better sense of how we on the right approach the larger political questions. At its best, the right is the party of tragedy and the impossibility of creating a perfectly just human society, but also of optimism about the potential of voluntary cooperation to help us achieve (modest) moral and (immodest) material progress across generations.