Bench Memos

“What Is Constitutional Conservatism?”

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin’s cover essay in the current print issue of National Review is now available on NRO.

Tracing the “simultaneous populist and technocratic appeals” of today’s Left to their progressive predecessors, Yuval writes:

But whereas the progressives championed both technocratic government and direct democracy, the Constitution stands opposed to both. As the framers saw it, both populist and technocratic politics were expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings — be it of the experts or of the people as a whole — to make just the right governing decisions. The Constitution is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by a broad and longstanding consensus. Experts should not govern, nor should the people do so directly, but rather the people’s representatives should govern in a system filled with mediating institutions and opposing interests — a system designed to force us to see problems and proposed solutions from a variety of angles simultaneously and, as Alexander Hamilton puts it in Federalist 73, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.”


Because the Left has been so much more technocratic than populist these past few years, the Right’s response has naturally drifted into populist tones. That is appropriate, and it has been effective, but the tone must not overwhelm the substance of the Right’s critique. In this time of grave challenges, conservatives must work to protect the fundamentally constitutionalist character of the Tea Party, and of the conservative movement — avoiding the excesses of both populism and technocracy as we work to undo the damage done by both, and to recover the American project.






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