One of the clearest writers on politics and civil society today is Yuval Levin, a leading conservative thinker at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and author of the new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. In it, you will find some of the clearest contemporary writing on subsidiarity, a concept prominent in Catholic social teaching.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who is the chief audience for your book? How do you hope people make use of it?
Yuval Levin: This book is intended for Americans who want to better understand the country’s challenges. The bizarre and deeply dissatisfying course that this year’s election is taking is causing a lot of people to ask two questions: “What has happened to our country?” and “how can we turn things around?” This book basically takes up those two questions, so I hope it is by Americans who have been driven to ask them, and I hope it gives those Americans some ideas on both fronts. So while I hope it’s read by some people involved in politics, and some people whose work is social analysis or public policy, above all I hope it’s read by concerned citizens who know that America can do much better than the options that our politics is now putting before us. And I hope the book gives them some idea of what a better way would involve.
Lopez: “We have grown less conformist but more fragmented; more diverse but less unified; more dynamic but less secure.” At the same time, is there a culture of conformity — I have in mind some political and social mandates particularly stemming from the sexual revolution -- when it comes to some things?
Levin: I think it’s crucial to see that this culture of conformity on the Left, while it certainly exists and is hardening, is a minority culture, just as the culture of social conservatism is also a minority culture. My point in arguing that we have become less conformist since the middle of the last century is that fragmentation means that no one is in a position to dominate society through mainstream culture in the way that might have been possible back then.
Our elite institutions still matter a lot, the culture of our universities matters, but it matters less than it did in the past few generations because there are now more options, more channels, more grooves and subcultures. The cultural left is trying to flex its muscles, of course, and their control of some key cultural institutions and of the executive branch and increasingly also the judiciary means they do have real muscles to flex. Their ambitions have to be resisted, and it’s very important to persist in the strenuous defense of religious liberty and the freedom of association and speech and thought. But we should not overestimate the strength of the Left as we once overestimated our own. They’re not as powerful as they think for the same reason that social conservatives are not as strong as we once thought we were—because our society is more fragmented and less inclined to take marching orders from anyone. Fragmentation has huge costs, but it also has real benefits, and conservatives need to become more familiar with those.
Lopez: What do you mean when you say that “diversity has yet to be matched by subsidiarity” and what can be done about it?
Levin: I mean that as usual our politics has not kept up with our economy and culture, so while large centralized institutions have in many respects been replaced by small, decentralized networks in much of the economy and throughout our culture, our government still works on the old industrial-economy model of centralization and expert management. That vision of government, which many on the Left still take to be the wave of the future, is actually highly anachronistic and doesn’t comport with how we generally solve problems in contemporary America. Our public institutions don’t have the form that most successful institutions in 21st century America have. We are need of decentralization in public policy.
Subsidiarity, the principle that power should reside as close to the level of the people subject to it as reasonably possible, would be a useful guide for an agenda of decentralization, particularly because it’s not an administrative principle as much as an anthropological principle. It speaks to an important truth about how people thrive. So I argue in the book that we are in need of a decentralizing agenda informed by subsidiarity—and that conservatives are therefore uniquely well situated, even in this challenging time for the Right—to offer a way out of our troubles.
Lopez: What gives you the most hope?
Levin: Honestly, my children do. But you want an answer that will relate to the book, so let me point to another source of hope—maybe not “the most hope” but close. I find enormous hope in the persistent spirit of our country, which is a resolute unwillingness to wallow in misery. There are of course some people failing to live up to that spirit now, and they tend to be kind of loud and have shows on cable television, but they are very far from representative. On the whole, people in our country respond to problems by adapting and adjusting and looking for a better way. We’re living through a challenging moment. It’s not nearly the most challenging our country has faced—not by a very long shot. But it’s a challenging moment in its own way. And it seems to me increasingly apparent that many Americans are responding to this moment by creatively adjusting and adapting, and that we’re going to come out of this time stronger and more confident, and we might wonder someday just what had us so depressed and despondent in the beginning of the 21st century. We’ll look back on this period, and maybe on this election year in particular, in the way we now look at some portions of the 1970s, and just wonder what in the world was behind the temporary insanity that showed itself in America. But we’ll be looking back from a stronger and surer vantage point.
I want to be clear: I’m hopeful, not optimistic. Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen. That’s silly. It would be ridiculous to just expect good things to happen. The world doesn’t owe us anything of the sort. But hope is different. Hope is a belief in the existence of sources of improvement and revival, and a willingness to let that belief move us to act, and so to bring about improvement and revival.
My kind of conservative disposition approaches the world with a mix of high hopes and low expectations, and tries never to lose sight of the difference between hope and expectation, and so not to let hope degenerate into optimism. If you let that happen, you open yourself up to the risk of both naiveté and cynicism, which are two sides of the same coin. But if you understand hope for what it is—a motive for action, not for passivity—you stand a chance of proving that your hope is well founded. Revival takes more than hope. It takes work and commitment and time and faith and luck. But we’re Americans, so we already know we’re lucky. The rest is up to us.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of NRO. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.