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Yuval Levin joins us to talk about political nostalgia and American individualism.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a senior editor of The New Atlantis, and a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard. He has been a member of the White House domestic policy staff (under President George W. Bush), executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and a congressional staffer. His essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and others, and he is the author, most recently, of The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. He holds a BA from American University and a PhD from the University of Chicago.

Yuval Levin joins us to talk about political nostalgia and American individualism. Why do the political right and left both seem to be stuck yearning for the 1950s and early 60s?

Why do baby boomers have such an outsized influence on American culture and politics? Did government work better in the 1950s and 60s? How has the country changed in the last half‐​century?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Levin’s most recent book is The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (2016).



Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs. He is the author of four books, his latest is Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, welcome to Free Thoughts, Yuval.
Yuval Levin: Thanks very much for having me.
Trevor Burrus: You say that America is stuck in nostalgia of baby boomers. That’s one of our problems or maybe the source of it. What do you mean by that?
Yuval Levin: Well, [00:00:30] I think having just come through an election where two 70 year olds were fighting to lead the country, I think we all have a little bit of a sense of what I might mean by that. It’s really when you step back a little bit from our politics and think about how we understand our situation. How we talk about our problems, which really is it’s so much of what we have to say now is about how America has changed from a certain kind of golden moment in the 1950 and early ‘60s that seems to a lot of our leaders like the norm and what we ought to strive for.
A moment that left [00:01:00] misses because it involved a much more regulated economy, but also one that offered a lot more opportunities to all kinds of workers that the right tends to miss because it offered cohesive families and stronger communities. That in any case, everybody treats like what America ought to be.
The challenge we have now, is how to make America great again that way to coin a phrase. We talk about bringing back coal and steel and we talk about bringing back unions and this and that. We [00:01:30] talk about these as though they are solutions to 21st century challenges.
Of course in some ways, the things they offered are things that we need at any time. They are also as ways of thinking about our economy and our society not all that well suited to 21st century realities. I think for both left and right that nostalgia is really a way to avoid thinking about those problems, rather than a way to come to terms with them.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that they did this, the people who lived in 1917, I was thinking about this the other day, how much we talk [00:02:00] about Reagan. When I think about 1917, I don’t really think they spent so much time hung up on the 1880s, talking about oh the Arthur administration was really the best time in America.
I mean in my perception it wasn’t, it didn’t define. I might be wrong, but did you do any research into how much nostalgia ran previous American political conversations.
Yuval Levin: You know in a sense of course nostalgia is always part of the life of any society. It’s especially always important to a certain kind of conservative in politics. Not [00:02:30] all nostalgia is bad and you can’t get rid of nostalgia entirely. But the intensely dominant nostalgia of the boomers in our time is I think quite unusual. It defines the way we understand ourselves. I say we … That is not only those who are themselves baby boomers.
You know college students today, when they find that they have something to protest, they almost subconsciously emulate a model that they did not witness, a model of college protest in the 1960s. When we think about what our society is, [00:03:00] we think of it as getting older with the baby boomers. We think of it as having been young when they were young, and as having gotten older as they’ve gotten older.
That’s really a little crazy; it stands in the way of us seeing what opportunities we have now, what’s fresh now and new, not just what’s old, and ending. Not to simply talk down the baby boomers, but the intense dominance they’ve had over our culture and our self‐​understanding has really done a huge amount to shape our politics throughout their [00:03:30] lives.
Aaron Powell: As a member of generation X the greatest generation.
Yuval Levin: Yes exactly.
Aaron Powell: The influence of boomers can be frustrating but why do they have this outsized influence, what’s special about that particular age cohort?
Yuval Levin: Well I think that, first of all they are a massive generation and they grew up just as a certain kind of consumer oriented economics and a certain kind of modern democratic politics was taking shape. [00:04:00] Throughout that time, they’ve just been intensely dominant. Really when we think about ourselves as a country, I’ll give you an example that I use in the book.
1950 was the peak years of baby boom the year when the birth rate was highest. A person born in 1950 would think now about the 1950s as a child and would have a kind of child’s view of that time, simple, families were strong, everything worked. That person would have teenager in the 60s and so remembers the 60 [00:04:30] through that lens as an exciting time, the music was great, everything was possible, we were all idealistic.
By the 70s that person was entering his or her 20s becoming an adult, a little bit disillusioned, not quite so confident. By the 80s they were starting a family and maybe thinking more about the mortgage than about changing the world. By the 90s it was really their time and things seemed like they might work out. They entered this century still very confident but starting to see a little bit over the hill.
By now, they are feeling like this isn’t their world anymore and it’s not the country [00:05:00] they recognize and maybe the America they knew is the America they ought to make available to their grandkids but they can’t. That’s how somebody born in 1950 would see the last the seven decades. I would argue that it’s also how our entire society sees the last seven decades, including a lot of people who were not born in 1950.
We understand ourselves as having gone through that process because they went through it. The cultural dominance is just so intense that it does stand in the way of some important self‐​diagnosis and prescription.
Trevor Burrus: Well it seems like a lot of people, Aaron and [00:05:30] I have talked about this before in other cultural context that however old you’re if you say when were things best, and it’s like well like 12 to 20, I’m like oh what a shock.
Yuval Levin: Right.
Trevor Burrus: You probably didn’t have a job, you got to hang out all day and people will say oh well video games were clearly the best when I was 12, which is like categorically not true, comic books were the best, no that is not true either.
Yuval Levin: It’s especially hard for us who kind of grew up in the 90s. The 90s objectively kind of sucked.
Trevor Burrus: Yes they did.
Yuval Levin: I still think [00:06:00] they were the best times.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly, so is there a rolling nostalgia too, because someone like President Obama –
Yuval Levin: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: Who is not a baby boomer, I think I don’t know what the technical kind of [inaudible 00:06:09] is.
Yuval Levin: He probably is a baby boomer technically but just barely.
Trevor Burrus: Just barely.
Yuval Levin: He was born in 64.
Trevor Burrus: All this discussion of when Washington worked and it’s … Was there a time when Washington worked and should we be trying to go back to that?
Yuval Levin: It looks so, there certainly is a rolling nostalgia, people do miss their youth, where they now make transformers movies, I mean that’s. There is not an excuse [00:06:30] for that.
Trevor Burrus: That cartoon is just not that good by the way.
Yuval Levin: Yes, no kidding.
Trevor Burrus: Aaron looked at me like I’m wrong.
Aaron Powell: No because I’ve re‐​watched Transformers the movie the original cartoon like a year ago and it’s pretty bad.
Yuval Levin: I was totally obsessed with Transformers and I now look down on my old self and wonder what was going on there. That happens that’s unavoidable, but I do think that the dominance of the boomers in our politics and in our institutions generally is different than that. It has persisted in a different way and it’s shaped [00:07:00] these institutions in a somewhat different way.
Yeah there is talk of when government worked is always about that period in really the late 50s through the mid‐​60s when on some issues certainly not all and people, often sort of put aside, say civil rights or assassinations and the burning of a third of Washington DC in the period. If that’s when government worked I’m not so sure that that’s what you want to go back to.
This elite consensus that was so dominant for that period [00:07:30] that allowed the great society to happen in a kind of bipartisan way, obviously a lot of people who work in these institutions’ kind of miss that. Or hear about it from people who were present for it and think that’s a time when we could do big things.
The way nostalgia works is you remember the good and you ignore the bad. American life has changed dramatically since that time. In some ways that are bad we’re a much more fragmented society, much less unified society in a sense. There are fewer opportunities [00:08:00] for lower skilled workers for examples. But it’s also changed in some ways that are dramatically for the good, we’re a much more open society, a much more diverse society a much more dynamic society.
Trevor Burrus: Women are in the workplace [inaudible 00:08:10] about that.
Yuval Levin: Right if you didn’t happen to be white and a man at that time this might seem like a better time than that. I think we have a tendency to only see what we want to see, that’s the nature of nostalgia, but again it’s been so dominant now, makes it hard to understand quite what our problems are and also hard to see what strengths [00:08:30] we have dealing with them.
Trevor Burrus: Were there specific reasons why, that time was abhorrent on I mean just in American historical. Post war we had certain things happening. I mean are there also specific reason that we should not treat that as the norm because of some sort of abhorrent conditions that we can’t?
Yuval Levin: Yeah absolutely, so the kind of first third of my last book Fractured Republic is really about this question. I do think there is a way in which the United States of that time was a very unusually [00:09:00] unified and cohesive where the first half of the 20s century very broadly speaking obviously very generally. In cultural terms and economic terms and in political terms was a time of coming together of cohesion.
Industrialization and progressive politics, which grew the government to match the economy, truly mass media, really much more so than now where everyone had just a narrow set of mass experiences together through media, really created a very [00:09:30] cohesive society. Then that society went through the depression and two world wars. The American of the 1950s was a very unusually cohesive version of our country. It had enormous faith in large institutions, very unusual faith.
When you look at the public attitudes as measured at that time, the University of Michigan at every presidential year does this big survey of public attitudes and they ask people what they think about institutions. They ask people how often does the federal government do the right thing. In 1964, [00:10:00] 72% of the public said either all the time or most of the time.
Trevor Burrus: 72%, that’s a culture that would never make the show leap. Or the House of Cards.
Yuval Levin: in 2016 that number was 13 %
Trevor Burrus: 13%
Yuval Levin: Combined total. This country has changed a lot in that sense in its attitude not only about government but about institutions generally. I would say that that was the aberration that America in the 19th century also had no faith in institutions. The approval rating of congress at any point in the 19th century would have been in the [00:10:30] single digits. The country was struggling with diversity and mass immigration pretty much all the time.
But that period after the war and immigration is another good example, where because of the immigration laws adopted in the 1920s the portion of Americans that was born abroad was probably at the lowest it’s ever been in American history in the 1960s.
In the 1970s census the percentage of Americans aboard was below 5% it was a little more than 4.5%. This year it’s about 15% and that is a big [00:11:00] change, it’s a dramatic transformation. It was also 15% in the teens in the 19 teens. That is American has been more like this for most of its history than like that period after the Second World War. That’s the period we take a norm and that’s very hard to live up to in some ways.
Aaron Powell: Well so if that’s the norm so it could be that case that it was anomalous in all of these ways, but that it was also was pretty good in a lot of ways. [00:11:30] We can talk about whether we should want to return to that world, but are there reasons why even if we did we couldn’t.
Yuval Levin: Sure, the things we miss about that time, the cohesion the sense of unity also the actual practical opportunities, that workers with different levels of education have, those are things worth missing. We’re not crazy to miss that period. What’s happened since that time is a fragmentation, a diversification of American life that cannot simply be rolled back.
If all the major [00:12:00] forces in American life were pushing every American to be more like everybody else for much of the first half of the 20th century, all those same forces were pushing Americans to be more like themselves in the second half of the 20th century and in our own time to be more of what they already are, in a sense to fragment and re‐​fragment our society in different ways.
There are a lot of very good things about that too. Our politics is not very good at seeing those good things, because we only see ways in which we’ve changed for the worse since that mid century period. [00:12:30] I think the key point is your point, which is we can’t go back anyway. The question is, how do we now, given the country we are with the particular strengths and weakness it has how do we now think about unity, how do we now think about opportunity, how do we now think about solving the problems we have.
Trevor Burrus: You talk a lot about individualism in the book, which it was hard for me to read. I think I read that you were pretty down on it, but I wasn’t exactly sure how you were defining it because at one point you write, “If the new American ethic [00:13:00] pushes every individual to become more like himself or herself, rather than more like everyone else, it will even at its best, tend to accentuate difference to increase distances and a turn a range of distinctions into a set of bifurcations.”
Now first of all that seems like you’re against the people find themselves, which seems to be really against the, post war period.
Yuval Levin: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Then second why wouldn’t everyone find themselves not go bifurcations but just individualization multiple vectors of differences as opposed to two [00:13:30] different?
Yuval Levin: Well I think if you think about the nature of social diffusion of this process of people becoming more like what they already are, that almost unavoidably becomes a kind of polarization. We think polarization as something political. As people becoming divided along the lines of left and right, but economic polarization what we described as inequality social polarization and distancing, people do clump together, but what you have is a kind of polarities. Two clumps [00:14:00] at the ends, rather than one in the middle.
I think that’s ultimately how the kind of social diffusion we’ve gone through works. You see it our society over and over that there is a distinct top and bottom now or left and right now in ways that in that period that everybody misses so much there did seem to be more of a middle. Now that’s not all bad and certainly I wouldn’t argue that individualism is all bad. I do think we have to see that there are ways in which it is bad.
That there are ways in which it becomes isolation that there are ways in which it becomes division and fracturing [00:14:30] and that people do need a kind of social experience, people do need to be part of something larger. We have to be alert to the cost, we have to alert to the downsides.
Honestly today in our politics the greater challenge is being alert to the upside is being clear that not everything is gone wrong in America. That in quite a lot of ways this is a better country than it was in that period. That our challenge now is to address the problems we have as this country, rather than to address [00:15:00] them by wishing we could become something we think we used to be.
Aaron Powell: If it’s pulling into two camps, if it’s a bifurcation then how is it … I could see it bad in the sense that it creates the two sides and you have, so you basically have enemies or in other now. The sense of like you need to be part of something, you need to have societal connections.
I mean American has an awfully large population, so half of it is still a very [00:15:30] large population. If individualism makes us look more … Becoming more like who we are makes us look more like either coastal elites or heartland working class, that still is a large community that we’re part of and share a great deal with.
Yuval Levin: Well I think the question is whether there is some kind of solidarity that holds that community together or whether people are at the top and the bottom when you step back and look at them demographically or statistically. That’s not the same as saying that they feel themselves [00:16:00] to be part of something larger than themselves.
I do think that there is a way that our culture now encourages us to think of ourselves in isolated ways. Not totally, not simply or completed, but more than we’ve been accustomed to. We have a lot of more options, we have a lot more choices, everything is much more customized.
It’s simply less the case that we’re compelled to do more together, and therefore it’s the less the case that we have a lot common experiences in the ways we might have had in the past. The idea of community [00:16:30] comes to mean something different and we’re certainly looking for ways to make that work in this world, to look for communities that are virtual or for communities that are chosen. That can work I don’t think that’s fated to fail.
It does present us with a challenge and for a lot of people it does feel like isolation like loneliness. I think that if the pressure of conformity was the great social problem in the middle of the 20th century the pressures of isolation and loneliness are the great social problem now and they are serious problems.
Trevor Burrus: Kind [00:17:00] individualism that you’re critiquing. You don’t think it’s all bad but it has certain social forces. The negative side comes from what I read and pulling away from different institutions like the family and community. Is that a product of individualism per se would you say. The church too I guess the sort of intermediary institution?
Yuval Levin: I think it’s, this is an argument that Alexis Tocqueville made about America in 1830 and it doesn’t simply apply to contemporary American. In some important ways I think it does. [00:17:30] What individualism does is pull us out of mediating layers of our life. It leads us to live in kind of narrow circle around ourselves and that means that it leaves in place only or almost only the individual and the national state.
I think radical individualism ultimately leads to statism in a dangerous way because it leads us to think that there is no way to meet our common needs except in one big whole, because it kind of blinds us to everything [00:18:00] that stands in between the individual alone and the government as a whole.
Trevor Burrus: I’m trying to picture this person.
Yuval Levin: Yeah think of the life of [Julia 00:18:10], that’s a caricature of that.
Trevor Burrus: Is that person pulled away from their social connection. I’m trying to think of the person who you think by making individualist choices of certain sort is isolated. I mean bowling alone, but is it not going to Kiwanis club and not I mean that kind of stuff.
Yuval Levin: Sure that kind of thing, you know that –
Trevor Burrus: Most people I know a lot of friend and a lot [00:18:30] of connections and all that kind of thing.
Yuval Levin: Most people we know do, and we probably live in an unusually healthy part of the society. A lot of people in American really don’t have that in their lives. They don’t have a thriving family first and foremost. They may not have truly a functional community.
They may not have a kind of workplace that lets them form friends that then turn into communal institutions on their own. They may be isolated and alienated from religious institutions’, and I do think that that is more [00:19:00] of a problem than it used to be.
Now it’s not simply a problem because a lot of it is chosen, that is not everybody is sitting in the pews in the 1940s and 50s really wanted to be there, there was a lot of pressure to do that. Not having that pressure now is certainly in part a very good thing. It also does mean that we have less connections with one another.
When we can choose to define our own experiences online in virtual ways for example, we do have less unchosen experiences with the people immediately around us. I’m not suggesting [00:19:30] that means that we should return to the age of the Kiwanis club. In fact, I’m arguing precisely that can’t be done. I do think we need to look for ways to empower those mediating institutions in our time.
To me in part that means that we need much more of a politics of decentralization, that when we think about how to solve our problems we should think much more about how to solve them near where we’re than about how to empower large institutions to solve them for us as isolated individuals.
Aaron Powell: That seems to run into [00:20:00] potential problem with the nostalgia because with the way that nostalgia seems to play out politically is if the on the left they are nostalgic for the kind of large social programs and worker protection and strong unions. On the right they are nostalgic for the strong families that came about through; there is a title like law and order.
Trevor Burrus: [00:20:30] Separating the beds where the two, the husband and wife sleep together.
Aaron Powell: Yes and it seems like the kind of anti‐​immigration plays into that, like keeping us all the same in certain ways. That all of these things rather than pointing to a devolving of the government to more local institutions the solutions that gets advanced is well we need the federal government, we need to centralize more so that the federal government can push the whole country back to the 60s or back to the 50s.
Yuval Levin: Yeah absolutely. I think that nostalgia [00:21:00] today definitely cuts against the kind of argument I’m trying to make. It’s part of why I think that nostalgia is so problematic in a sense we’re nostalgic for time when we could take for granted a certain degree of social cohesion and didn’t have to work hard at building it. We were spending it; we were spending it as a kind of fuel to enable various forms of liberalization.
Having spent it we now don’t have it and we need to replenish it. The argument for that is a very challenging argument in our society there is no question about it.
Trevor Burrus: Do you [00:21:30] see the causal chain running, as you mentioned previously in one of the quotes, administrative centralization often accompany cultural and economic individualism. Is this because they push for individualism first and then the kind of people we describe push for more government because they feel isolated. I’m trying to figure out how the casual, or is it a mixed up chain. Does Medicaid make people feel individualistic and then they won’t push for more, I’m not sure of the casual chain here.
Yuval Levin: Honestly I think it’s kind of a vicious cycle. [00:22:00] It seems to me that there’s always been an inherent individualism, a radical individualism in progressivism; it’s not a libertarian individualism. In a sense it wants to liberate people from moral obligations by binding them to economic obligations to one another. A kind of economic collectivism that enables moral individualism is basically what the left is now.
Trevor Burrus: Can you give me an example about –
Yuval Levin: Has been in a way for a long time.
Trevor Burrus: An example of one of the obligations [00:22:30] to liberate.
Yuval Levin: I mean look that’s what the welfare state enables, right? It argues for a certain kind of economic collectivism not communism, but you know a way of socializing our economic needs. I think in its own terms, in order to liberate us from moral obligations to provide for us without demand responsibility in return, that’s a kind of conservatives way of describing it and it’s a negative way of describing, but you can see the appeal of [00:23:00] it.
The idea is, people just in order to genuinely be free and really exercise their freedom, people need to be free of material want. We’re a very wealth society and we ought to be able to provide for that and then allow people to exercise their freedom.
Nancy Pelosi made the case for Obama Care by arguing that it would liberate people to be freelance artists. I think she really meant that. I think that that’s the [00:23:30] way that she understands her own progressivism. It isn’t crazy I just think it ultimately doesn’t work.
Trevor Burrus: Also reminds me of there was an article maybe five years ago in the Washington Post arguing that the government should guarantee a minimum income till you’re 30 so you could go backpack Europe and start a food truck. 30 is the new 20 and so pretty we’re just going to be.
Yuval Levin: In the health care debate there [inaudible 00:23:56], we now find ourselves talking about kids who are 26 needing to stay on their [00:24:00] parents insurance. Who are 26 that kind of what progressivism leads you to.
Aaron Powell: How then does the recent trends we’ve seen so you say that the progressives are kind of interested in the economic solidarity, which then freezes up to be morally individualistic, how does the recent trend of shaming and the campus free speech stuff fit into that, because seems to be the app, I mean it doesn’t have sympathy economics but it’s very much like no you don’t have any moral freedom.
Yuval Levin: Well I think that in its own term [00:24:30] it understands itself to be vindicating a kind of moral freedom that is what it doesn’t permit is limits on moral freedom. What it doesn’t permit are views that reject the legitimacy of other people’s ways of life.
I understood in the brightest light and the best light, which is not how I tend to see it honestly. I think that political correctness is a way to enable that kind of freedom because the one thing it won’t allow is the delegitimizing of anybody else’s way of life.
It’s a [00:25:00] kind of … It’s a kind of moral relativism but ultimately one that has to become oppressive in order to become effective.
Trevor Burrus: In the first half of your book as we’ve done here, you diagnosed so to speak talk about the history since the first war era, and then second half is, what we can we do about that? Is it overview what generally do we? [Crosstalk 00:25:30] nostalgia.
Yuval Levin: Of course, that the second half is much [00:25:30] less satisfying than the first, there is no way around that.
Trevor Burrus: You don’t have a magic solution for this?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I wish I had, I’d probably be somewhere else if I had it. I think … that is to say, in this kind of project, the diagnosis is always going to be more persuasive than the prescription and it has to be said that I certainly offer the prescription as a very partial remedy.
I think the importance of thinking in terms of decentralization of allowing whether it’s federalism and public policy or [00:26:00] a kind of subsidiary and how we think about our institutions is one way to answer the question is how does a diverse but divided county, use its diversity to address the problems it has.
I don’t think we can reverse the diverse, more importantly, I don’t want to. I don’t think we should want to, but we need to think about how as the country we are, which is diverse and also very dynamic but also divided, how we address the challenges we have. I think that means trying to use diversity as a means of solving [00:26:30] problems. In that sense, I find myself very drawn to the likes of Hayek, who argued that in fact diversity is actually the most effective means of solving problems.
I think often that is the case. For public policy that would mean allowing much more local experimentation, much more trial and error in our public policy, rather than assuming we have the answer and what we’re lacking is the power to enforce it. We should come to terms with the fact that we don’t have the answer and what we need is a means of discovering [00:27:00] it, in an ongoing way. That does lead me to a kind of market oriented economics and public policy thinking.
Not simply and not completely, but to a much greater degree that now tends to reign in our public policy debates.
Aaron Powell: Does that mean we should go, we can go all the way and go to like a Nozick and utopia of utopias.
Yuval Levin: Well you know I’m a conservative and my previous book was about Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and I came to think that, I one sentence summary of Burke on conservatism is to say that you should never take any idea to its logical conclusion.
[00:27:30] I do think that there are … there are grave dangers and risks when we go all the way, but I think we should go much further in the direction of enabling experimentation as the core of how we think about public policy in America and it’s just not what we do now.
Trevor Burrus: There are some things when you talk about some specific issue areas, which it seems that you think the both left and the right need to give up some maybe sacred [00:28:00] cows and move forward. One of them is inequality or the way you conceive it is inequality a problem?
Yuval Levin: Well I think that inequality is one form of the kind of polarization that we see throughout American life now. I don’t think it makes sense to define the problem as inequality because I think that poverty is certainly a grave social problem, but I don’t think that wealth is a social problem.
When you define the problem as inequality, when you define the distance [00:28:30] between the top and the bottom as the nature of the problem, you come to land on solutions that are really much more about lowering the top than lifting the bottom, because it’s just much easier to do.
We don’t think enough about opportunity, and we think too much about inequality. I think it would make much more sense to think in terms of how do we enable people who aren’t rising in our society to have more of a chance to rise.
Obviously, there is no simple way to do that, but a social policy debate that’s oriented around that problem, [00:29:00] it seems to me would be focused much less on punitive policies at the people who supposedly have too much and much more at finding opportunities for people who have too little.
Aaron Powell: How much does geography play into the story? My Twitter feed the last several days had active debates about spreading the federal government out throughout the country that we need to move our institutions not just split them up and let locals start handle it, but take the top down centralized [00:29:30] institutions and move the department of agriculture to Acron.
Trevor Burrus: This might be one of the best ways to get people to just quit the department of agriculture. Just like you’re going to Bismarck sorry yeah, so the question about moving people out and getting people off the coast.
Yuval Levin: I like the idea, it’s a little too clever to really do much but, I think it’s the right way to think about what decentralization might mean. I certainly think that geographic concentration [00:30:00] is a big part of the problem, geographic concentration, leads to a situation where people who are living different lives don’t encounter each other and don’t know a lot about their country and don’t have an opportunity to really understand what people in other situations experience.
I do think that the problem of kind of bi‐​coastal elites is a genuine problem. I certainly think we could also break loose some of the holds and strongholds [00:30:30] on power that the federal government has by moving some of it out. It’s amazing that it hasn’t been tried before; it’s very rarely been tried before. When the social security administration was moved out to Baltimore that was treated as if it were a kind of breaking of some religious code.
The people who work for social security would rather be in Washington than Baltimore and that’s really too bad. But, I think there is a lot to be said for that kind of decentralization, but much more important is [00:31:00] genuine distribution of power. Not only in geographical sense but in a truly political sense, allowing institutions that are really closer to the ground to exercise real authority and have real choice in how we solve our problems.
Trevor Burrus: Is upper mobility a problem? We’ve been hearing a lot of complaints about this and some people assign Trump, or Trump’s presidency are we having an issue with upper mobility?
Yuval Levin: I think we are, it’s a difficult problem [00:31:30] to diagnose because mobility at the very least you have to think of mobility in two ways. One is absolute mobility. That is, are you making more if you have a higher standard of living than your father did at your age or than you did 15, 20 years ago? The other is relative mobility. Are you high or lower down the social ladder? Relative mobility has been pretty poor in the United States for a long time.
Including in that golden age that people look back to [00:32:00] really, at any time since the middle of the 1950s if you were born in the lowest quintile, the lowest 20% of incomes in America, your chances of getting to the middle class, let alone to the top are extremely low, abysmally and depressingly low. They are not much lower now than they were in the 60s but they are quite low, it is a real problem.
What has changed is absolute mobility, which used to be much greater in the American life even among the poor [00:32:30] in some respects, especially among the poor. Basically, improvements and standard living would mean fairly dramatic improvements over the course of a generation for Americans and every part of our society.
That has not been the case over the past generation. They have been improvements near the top; there have been fewer less of an upward movement in the middle and the bottom. I do think that’s part of the frustration people feel the sense of running in place. It’s hard to tell how much of that is driven by these statistics, [00:33:00] but it is one way in which American life is somewhat different now, than it was two or three generations ago.
Aaron Powell: Which of the big programs, the federal government engages in now, do you think are doing the most harm in maintaining this divide or preventing us from moving in a better direction?
Yuval Levin: Well I think that there are ways in which some of the bigger problems we have administrative, and public policy problems we have genuine policy problems are being [00:33:30] exacerbated constantly by public policy. This is certain true in health care and I just don’t mean Obama Care but the Governments role in the health system in Medicare above all Medicaid to a lesser degree, encouraging third party payment through the employer exclusion.
These are huge problems that are being made worse by very bad public policy that we just seem to be incapable of changing. I also think that the role the federal government plays in higher education, which isn’t spoken about enough. [00:34:00] Higher education is obviously essential to upward mobility; it is a way into the middle class. The role the federal government plays is basically as a gate keeper. The nature of the student loan system and its connection to the accreditation system means that higher education can’t modernize and can’t change.
Obviously modern information technology should totally transform higher education. That is not happening because we are stuck in a model that looks like a four‐​year college. It’s a model that not [00:34:30] everybody can get into and make it through. It’s a model that obviously ought to be diversified and altered and really what’s stands in the way of that is bad public policy. I think it’s one of the clearest instances of that happening.
Trevor Burrus: You’ve written that in order to solve some of these things. Especially these things that I think there is a broad agreement that it’s just horrible. I mean maybe not for the same ways but then we just can’t have this anymore. You’ve said that the left and the right both need to give up some [00:35:00] of what they are clinging to, what do they need to give up?
Yuval Levin: Well I think for the left, there is this sense that social democracy is the future. That anything that is not social democracy is not the future. It’s an incredibly powerful idea on the left and it means that anytime we move in the direction of more universal government programs that provide more uniform benefits that feels like progress. Anytime we move away from that, that feels like we’re [00:35:30] moving backwards and into the dark ages.
That’s just cannot be the way the left continues to think. I think that in order to achieve the ends that the liberals and progressives have in mind, they have to be much friendlier to market means. Because those really are the best ways available to us now, to achieve the kinds of things they want to achieve. It’s amazing how difficult it is for that idea to sink in. it’s not so far, I think part of the way they left things about public policy.
It really does [00:36:00] have to change. I think for the right … The right for a long time now. By the right, I really mean Republicans in the American politics have been stuck in the Reagan years and on repeat for an awfully long time. That means especially that the diagnosis that conservative brings to public policy are out of date. The idea is we still have the problems we had in 1978, we should be very careful about sparking inflation, the tax code stands in the way of growth [00:36:30] and deregulation will make everything work out.
These things aren’t exactly false; I do think lower taxes would help growth. I do think we need less regulation but to argue that these are the problems is really not to think about a lot of America’s biggest 21st century challenges. Not to think about mobility, not to think about social isolation, not to think about ways in which certain kinds of market solutions can help in the welfare system and then the education system.
Conservatives do offer ideas on these fronts but they are not central [00:37:00] to how we tend to think about politics on the right. It seems to me that, it would have been bizarre for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 to say that America’s challenges weren’t what they were in 1950. We need to understand that it is equally bizarre for Republicans today to speak that way about 80s.
Trevor Burrus: What about the cultural wars, it seems like something we’ve left off in this conversation and you discussed in the book, but these create problems that might be different. [00:37:30] Some of them come from Supreme Court rulings for examples, which apply to the whole county in a different way, so the gay marriage decision and then maybe for the left the Heller decision. To maybe de‐​consolidating our social issues too?
Yuval Levin: Well, look I think that is a place where the right does have to change its basic mindset. I think social conservative and I consider myself a social conservative. I’ve tended to think about our situation in the country as a kind of rightfully [00:38:00] majority being denied its rightful place. To describe the place of social conservative as the moral majority, to argue that, there is this tiny slither of liberal minority that is radicalizing our institutions and how dare they. Maybe that used to be the case.
I’m actually not quite sure really did use to be the case. It’s certainly is not the case now. Social conservatives have to think more like minorities and in good [00:38:30] ways. This isn’t a bad time to be a minority in American life in fact. It’s not the worst time anyway for sure. I think there is a lot of ways in which social conservatives would be much effective, if we try to be more persuasive, rather than possessive about the public’s fear.
If rather than saying, this is ours how you dare you? We said, we have a better way, think about this and it is constantly astonishing to me how rarely we really do that. How rarely we approach the country that way. I [00:39:00] think a lot of the frustration and some of the kind of apocalyptic mindset of some social conservatives today, has to do with the sense that, we used to be the majority and now we are not and that means we are losing.
In some ways of course that is true, but it also means we have all kinds of opportunities to try to be a persuasive minority. There are a lot of means and levers now for persuasive minorities to make their cases [00:39:30] that are just not being used by social conservatives. I think if we thought more in 21st century terms and in terms of devolution and decentralization, in communal terms, we would stand a better chance of being persuasive.
Aaron Powell: If progressives over simply, progressives want, economic solidarity and moral individualism and conservatives want more economic individual and services like the Reagan sort but more moral [00:40:00] solidarity. How does the Trump movement and that populism fit in, because that seems to be one where they want solidarity in both perhaps?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think that’s right, it’s solidarity persuade by means that it seems to me are likely to be ultimately destructive of solidarity, but I do think that there is a deep desire for solidarity at the core of something about the Trump movement. One of the things that Trump was able to channel and tap into, [00:40:30] we’ve had a kind of politics of liberty for some time in America, I mean I’d always feel that way but all of our powerful political parties have tried to present themselves as making a case for liberty in its own way.
I think we are now entering a period where there is going to be a much more kind of open on the surface desire for solidarity in the American life. The left and right in different ways are trying to appeal to those. The trouble is that at this point, they are both making those appeals in ways that are [00:41:00] crude and destructive of liberty and ultimately, I think also of solidarity. The left is trying to argue for solidarity through a kind of imposed universalism, through a kind of coercive moral relativism.
Coercive relativism just isn’t coherent and it ultimately going to be unsatisfying. The right sometimes argues for solidarity through a kind of purification, that is we’ll be stronger [00:41:30] together if we’re less diverse, if we have a clearer sense of who is inside and who is outside. I would say the best way to translate Trumps message on this front is to say that he thinks, that if we build walls around our county we’ll be able to lift up some of the walls within our country.
That’s not quite crazy but I think that it doesn’t take nearly seriously enough the real challenges of solidarity of 21st century American. It also downplays [00:42:00] the advantages of our diversity, which are just not part of Trumps rhetoric at all.
Trevor Burrus: As you were writing the book and I know at the end you say, this is sort of something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, it’s a collection of ideas that didn’t just pop into your head one day. It seems like based on the publication that the Trump thing probably started coming up as you were writing the book, did that make you and has made you just say there are things I need to maybe tweak [00:42:30] a little bit or reevaluate?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, the paperback edition of the book will be out in May and has a kind of, what do we make of Trump epilogue at the end of it. I finished the book … I turned the book into the publisher in Halloween of 2015, so October 31st. Trump was running and was strong but I certainly would not have guessed that he would be the Republican nominee or the president at that time. The book doesn’t really talk about Trump.
There is certainly a way [00:43:00] in which well it does talk about presage some of Trump and can be understood as explaining some of what was behind Trump but obviously, there are also a lot of ways in which like everybody else I just learned a huge amount in the past years that I surely didn’t know before.
I would say, I’m much more struck now by what we’re just speaking about, that strong desire for solidarity in our politics, which I think contributed both to Sandra’s and to Trump’s strength.
I would say [00:43:30] the simple fact that people would be unsatisfied with fragmentation and fracturing is something I didn’t quite account for enough. I also think the power of alienation, as on organizing principle for an electoral coalition in this fractured society, is something that I didn’t take seriously enough.
I think that’s part of what Trump really showed, his coalition was a kind of alienated coalition. That turned out to be an extremely powerful [00:44:00] way to patch together a political coalition.
Trevor Burrus: Well you can read the book now; It’s hindsight 2020 but said oh! This is … here is what, Yuval says we’re a fractured republic, we’ve lost some sort of cohesiveness and then wham 2016, Bernie and Trump I’m offering you cohesiveness so maybe that’s not what you expected?
Yuval Levin: No I encourage you to read the book as having predicted perfectively, exactly what would happen, I certainly encourage that. I would say [00:44:30] that, I didn’t predict it; I don’t know anyone who did. But I do think that some of the forces that I tried to point to were elements of what we ended up seeing in 2016 in ways that remain relevant. That haven’t been transformed by Trump but maybe are highlighted or brought out in different ways by the experience of the past year.
Aaron Powell: Do you think as the baby boomers age and retire and drop out of like our political classes, that this nostalgia will change, [00:45:00] that these stories of these decades will change and if so, what impact will that have on this broader theory?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, it’s a great question. I do think that, one of the things that an election between two 70- year olds has to mean is that we are probably more at the end of a chapter than at the beginning of a chapter in American national life.
Trevor Burrus: Well I think you can maybe say that Trump is the first president of the 21st century in some way like that.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think you can, but Trump is also a deeply nostalgic figure himself. [00:45:30] He is 70 years old and his supporters also are older than most people involved in our politics. The question is what becomes of younger voters in this environment and under these pressures?
It’s a very hard question to answer, but I do think that a generation of political leaders who are more at home, in the 21st century, whose instinct is not say this is not the country I recognize, even if their instinct is to find trouble [00:46:00] and problems with it, could offer us a better way to deal with some of these problems.
I think you see that somewhat among Republicans, a lot of the people rising to prominence now are kind of generational X‐​ers and their first instinct is not to say, I don’t recognize this country. Some of them are trying to be nostalgic, they kind of pretend to be nostalgic, Ted Cruz does this, he always kind of speaks as though he is speaking to a retirement home audience. But I think we also see just greater comfort with this American as it is.
[00:46:30] That alone helps you see some of the problems a little bit. The Democrats don’t have that middle generation very much. I think you’ll see it rise now that they are not in power, a lot of those people will start I think to enter politics. But they do have a problem of, their leaders really are elderly and their activists are too young to really be national leaders and that certainly hurts them at the moment.
Trevor Burrus: Does that … this is a question we ask a lot on this show, I was thinking means that we just have a lot of pessimistic people [00:47:00] on but the question is, are you optimistic then?
Yuval Levin: Well, I’m hopeful. I think optimism is silly, optimism is just expecting good things to happen, that’s just dumb. Optimism also encourages passivity, just says sit back it’ll be fine. Hopefulness it seems to me is something like the belief that the resources are there for things to turn in the right direction. That invites activity not passivity. I am hopeful, I think America has a lot to offer, I think [00:47:30] looking at the 21st century, there is nowhere you’d rather be than American.
Now a lot of that is because other developed countries have much bigger problems than we have. Really terrible problems, well we have just terrible problems. But I also think that America has a way of self‐​correcting, of recovering, has a kind of culture of liberty and creativity that frankly other developed countries often haven’t had. That in a moment that calls for creativity that calls for experimentation [00:48:00] we are lucky to be here.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks, to learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.