The Good Fight
Yuval Levin on the Coming Realignment

Yuval Levin on the Coming Realignment

Yascha Mounk and Yuval Levin discuss why neither Democrats nor Republicans have built a durable post-Cold War coalition—and how American politics could be transformed in 2028.

Yuval Levin is an academic and the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Levin is the author of A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream and, most recently, American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation—and Could Again.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Yuval Levin discuss the different strands of post-Cold War American conservatism from the George W. Bush administration to the Tea Party and the “Reformicon” movements; why both Democrats and Republicans have failed to “make new friends while keeping the old”; and what conservative post-liberals miss about the value of American institutions.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You've been an active observer and often a participant in politics for nearly 30 years at this point, despite still being quite young. What has changed over that time? The scope for rational policy discussion has seemingly narrowed a lot. But the extent of anger in our political system and the appeal of people who therefore promise to do away with institutions, to simply shortcut the process in order to put what their base wants into practice, why is it that that feels so much more alluring in 2024 than it did in the year 2000?

Yuval Levin: I think we've lived through a quarter century full of great frustration. We can look at some basic economic figures and tell ourselves that actually things are going fine and we're just frustrated for no reason. But I think we've gone through a period where it feels like a lot of our institutions and the people who run them are not doing their proper work, where we're not confronting the real challenges people face, and where there's a tremendous divide between the elite and the public in America; and, oftentimes, eras of political crisis in the United States (and this is a global phenomenon, too) really feel like that in democratic societies—a division between elites and the public so that the people who are supposed to be representing us are actually doing their own thing that seems disconnected from where the public is. I think the 21st century is felt that way in the United States and in much of the democratic world. And I would say part of the reason for that is actually that we have had great trouble figuring out the political order of the post-Cold War West. The Cold War ended a long time ago. It's been 30 years and more. But on both the left and the right, certainly in the United States, we have been through a period of trying to figure out what a post-Cold War politics should be and failing over and over in different ways. 

I've experienced this on the right. I'm a conservative. I've worked in Republican politics and have been on the right side of the conservative think tank world for a long time. And I would say that during this period, the era of my adult life—I came to Washington as a college student in the mid-1990s and I have been here for most of this period that we're talking about—the right has been trying on different clothes over and over, trying to figure out what's going to fit; when during the Cold War there was a sense that the right, the weird coalition of the right was unified by opposition to an adversary that in fact opposed all of its parts—traditionalism and internationalism and capitalism.

And since the end of the Cold War, the right has tried to figure out what we are about now. What are we for? I think there have been waves of this attempt to figure it out. And oddly, all these waves have actually looked like a kind of a set of conservatives arising to say, we're not libertarians, we're conservatives in different ways. George W. Bush embodied the first of these. And it's hard to fathom now, but he really ran as an anti-libertarian conservative, accusing Washington Republicans of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and putting social issues first.

Mounk: Tell us a little bit more about the nature of the appeal. I mean, the slogan, as I recall (I was living in the United States at the time) was that he was a compassionate conservative. And presumably that was in contrast to the less compassionate libertarian conservatives. So it's interesting because George W. Bush is now seen as somebody who embodies the old establishment of the Republican party with its tripartite kind of deal between different elements of the movement. Why should we see him as the first point of departure from that?

Levin: There's a tremendous disparity between how he is viewed in retrospect and how he was understood at the time and presented himself. Bush ran after a period in which there was a sense on the right that the Republican Party had become too libertarian, too focused on economic issues, and social conservatives rose up to say, this is our moment. And Bush really stood for that in a very powerful way.

And yeah, he argued for downplaying economic issues and especially downplaying fiscal issues, not worrying so much about the budget, and he put social issues and and Christian conservatism front and center. His presidency began that way but then in the course of trying to facilitate the response to September 11th, he also decided to downplay the challenge he was presenting to the Reagan-era right. And I worked for him at that time. I worked for George W. Bush for most of his administration, at first in the Department of Health and Human Services, but in his second term, I worked at the White House. And got a real inside look at how the thinking was. And I'll tell you frankly that when I started, right after the ‘04 election, I had a conversation with our chief of staff Andy Card where he said, look, you're going to work on health care and budget issues and veterans and welfare, and your job is to keep these things out of the president's hair. If you're in a meeting in the Oval Office, something's gone wrong.

President Bush never said that to me, but that was clearly the sense of the White House in those years when Iraq was going poorly and there was an intense need to focus on those issues. And for that reason, I think Bush became a much more generic kind of conservative on domestic issues. And of course, his presidency ended with the financial crisis and is understood as having kind of embodied neoliberalism in a way that was certainly not his original presentation to the country and I think probably not his original intention. That first wave of trying to define a post-Cold War right became instead focused on foreign policy and on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mounk: And so in a way, 9/11 and the Bush administration's response to that, including the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, then derailed, in a way, the—I'm not usually Hegelian, but—the spirit sought for at the time. So tell us what happened after that interruption, when Bush was out of office and Iraq didn't play the central role in American politics anymore. How did those sort of instincts then come roaring back into the debate on conservative policy in the Republican Party?

Levin: In the Obama years, there was a kind of revival of the animal spirits. The right became very intensely anti-left again (Bush, in some ways, tried to be less so). And there was again a sense that what's needed, what would work, is a conservatism led by cultural conservatives. And in that case that was focused on the needs of middle class and working class families, I was really part of this effort. There was a little group, really in the think tank world in a lot of ways, that came to be called the reform conservatives, that tried to speak to Republican politicians about what it would take to build a winning coalition again. And the argument we made to them was that what it would take is speaking to working class and middle class families. 

We didn't emphasize exactly the issues that Trumpism did later. We didn't focus on immigration, for example, or on trade, but on cost-of-living challenges. And so that meant healthcare and housing and higher education, some very kind of technocratic policy wonkish things. But the core of it was to let social conservatism define the ends and let a kind of economic conservatism, market orientation, define the means. And I think there was an effort. There were some politicians involved in that effort (Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan) who tried really to advance that kind of response to the moment. I think that during that time there was also the rise of another kind of conservative response to Obama—the Tea Party response that seemed at first to be very libertarian, constitutionalist and pro-market, but turned out really to be fundamentally just anti-Obama. And the energy of that movement, I think, ultimately came to be a third conservative attempt to shape the right after the Cold War that took the shape of Trumpism, which took some elements of the prior few. It was focused on working class voters. It was, in some respects, focused on a kind of new set of social issues. But above all, it was angry at the left and focused on a concern about the collapse of the American order. To me, the strangest thing about 2015 was that it was the Tea Party voters who became the first Trump voters. And if you listen to the words Trump said and the words the Tea Party had said, you would think they would be enemies. The Tea Party was very libertarian. Trump was dismissive of all of that. But if you listen to the tone of the Tea Party and Trump, you would see that these are very much akin to each other. And it turned out, I think, that the tone was much more important than the substance, and that what the right was looking for was a populist vehicle to register intense dissatisfaction with American elites.

And that is the turn the right has taken. I think of it as still trying on clothes. It is still an attempt to see what the post-Cold War right could be. I think it will also be a failed attempt. It is not building a large coalition. But it certainly has taught a lot of Republican politicians something about what their voters actually want.

Mounk: We easily forget that the Tea Party started with a rant on CNBC by a trader at, I believe, the Chicago stock market, right? So it has a very high social origin, and this is simply somebody who made good money and really was focused on the rescue of the banks and other kinds of financial institutions. It was economically focused. The thing in my mind that the Tea Party and the Trump movement had in common is a—I mean, one term for it is the paranoid style in American politics; perhaps you could call it the histrionic style in American politics, right? You know, claiming that the country is about to be lost forever. 

Levin: And, in particular, lost to elite forces. There is a long tradition of this in American politics. It's Jacksonian, it's Jeffersonian, and it is ultimately a sense that the people in power are not on our side, an anti-elitism that does pop up quite a bit in our history, and it's very powerful in the 21st century.

Mounk: I do want to go back for a moment to the Reformicons of which you, along with people like Ross Douthat and others, were a leading exponent. What do you think is worth rescuing in the Reformicon movement? And why do you think it did not manage to capture the conservative movement? Was it simply a question of not having the troops? Was it simply a question of not having the popular appeal or perhaps the attention of the right media outlets? Or was there a deeper set of shortcomings, intellectual failings in the basic approach?

Levin: I think that there was ultimately a failure to connect with the real deepest concerns or most intense concerns of the Republican electorate. In a way, the case that we made to Republican politicians was that you're never gonna win unless you build a broad coalition. And a broad coalition now looks like working and middle class families who are concerned about the prospects of their children. Now, this was a socially conservative movement. All of us in one way or another are social conservatives or religious conservatives, but its focus was on how to bring to bear the capacities of markets, of consumer choice, as a means to address problems that ultimately are fundamental to 21st century America. And so we focused really on a set of issues that were premised on the sense that what most worried Americans was that their children weren't going to have the kind of opportunities they wanted. Obviously that does worry Americans, it always does. But the arguments that we made—and in some ways just the tone of all of us as individuals—were not angry, were not panicked, were not dispirited, and a lot of Republican voters were. In the Obama era, particularly in President Obama's second term, there was just a sense on the right that this was a cataclysm, that we were in a moment of utter crisis, that things were coming to an end.

That was not our view. It is not my view now. And I think for that reason, that approach was in retrospect always going to have trouble connecting with Republican voters in a big way. We also avoided some of the issues that were most significant to those voters, like immigration and trade, which frankly, there were some internal divisions among even the little Reformicon circle about those questions, and they were never the priority. There was a lot of willingness, even from FOX and certainly from The National Review and The Weekly Standard at the time and all that, to listen to what we were saying and to give us platforms to say it. There was interest from politicians, younger Republican politicians in particular. It appealed to them as a way to talk to voters.

But it actually didn't speak to voters, and I think we have to acknowledge that. That's ultimately where it failed to connect. I think there's a lot from it, though, to bring forward, because, ultimately, some combination like that of a way of speaking to the concerns of working families that is oriented toward the future and that does build on the strengths of the American economy really is going to be the way to build a broader coalition. And I think Republicans and Democrats have to see that they are failing to do that. They're both losing every election. One of the things that really stands out about the 21st century in the span of American history is that this has been now a 30-year period without a majority party. I don't think we've ever really lived through a time like that. There was a shorter period like that at the end of the 19th century, which was also very ugly and dysfunctional. But neither party wins elections now. Every election is very, very close. And since the end of the Cold War, neither party has figured out how to talk to the American people in a persuasive way.

Mounk: And that seems to me like a very important fact about the nature of the polarization in the United States. I published an article about that in Persuasion. When we say that America is deeply polarized—and when we observe that the last three presidential elections, at least, were very, very closely run—it becomes tempting to picture two stable teams, the way in which polarization works in many ethnically divided nations.

That is not what's happened in the United States, because who votes for which party has actually kept shifting. It is very different today in opinion polls than it was in 2012 or 2016 and so, clearly, there is movement between the two blocs. These are not two implacable teams opposing each other, and that means that there is, at least in theory, an opening for genuine realignment in which one party manages to capture at least the fifty-five or the sixty percent, let's say at the presidential level.

Levin: Absolutely. I think that's very important to see. When my oldest daughter was young, there used to be a song she would sing coming home from preschool that said, make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other is gold. And I always thought this is actually a description of the problem that American politics is going through now. Both parties have found ways to make new friends. They cannot keep the old. And the secret to a political coalition is to make new friends and keep the old. Republicans have to find a way to appeal to working-class voters and to keep college-educated voters. Democrats have to find a way to appeal to college-educated voters and keep some of the working-class coalitions. I think it's entirely possible for either party to do that and by doing that to win a decisive election victory that would be a kind of realignment. Maybe sixty percent is very hard in America but even a fifty- five percent victory would actually be a very significant victory in 21st century America. Reagan won fifty 58% of the vote in 1984. He had forty nine states in the electoral college. Our system does tend to magnify coalitions but we have managed to live through a period of tremendous transformation that has felt like it was stuck because every election is 50-50.

And the thing is, 50-50 elections are very bad for political parties because you don't learn any lessons from losing. You only learn lessons when you lose big. Republicans learned something when they lost massively in 1964 or when they lost in a big way to Bill Clinton in ‘92. Democrats learned a lot from losing 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984. When you lose narrowly, you just think, well, I'm just going to do the same thing next time and it'll work. And both parties have been doing this now for 30 years, and it does work. Republicans are literally now running the same person who lost the last election against the person he lost to. That is an insane decision for a political party to make, even putting aside how crazy it is to run Donald Trump in the first place. But, in a way, both parties have been doing this now since the end of the Cold War, just doing the same thing over and over, not taking account of the fact that the electorate is actually changing underneath them, that there are new things they could say to new voters. I think it's going to take some real political talent for somebody to break through and figure out how to make new friends and keep the old. It's a little easier to imagine a Republican doing that, but it could easily happen in either party.

Mounk: And clearly it's not going to happen in 2024. But there might be an opening for that in 2028 simply because both political parties are going to have to renew themselves, perhaps not ideologically and programmatically (though I hope they will) but at the very least in terms of who is at the top of the ticket and therefore what kind of message they can send. 

At the risk of trying the patience of my American listeners, I'm going to use a soccer analogy. I know that one of the things that Americans don't like about soccer is that you can sometimes have a draw, God forbid. And it does feel like we've been in a draw in American politics of occasional victories one way or the other, but nobody is able to win the decisive victory. Now, when you have an outcome that's nil-nil in a soccer match, it might be that both sides are playing at the best of their abilities. Both teams are playing incredibly well, but the defense and the goalkeepers are so good that they don't concede a single goal. More often, when it's 0-0, it's because both teams are a little bit uninspired and they're both making many mistakes. They're both screwing up on converting their chances. And I feel like that is the specific kind of draw that we are in. It's not just that the parties are evenly matched, which might be helpful if they're both actually able to mobilize broad segments of the population and enthusiasm for the program. It's that the weakness of the Republicans is allowing Democrats to be sloppy in their strategy and unimaginative in their policy. And the weakness of the Democrats is allowing Republicans to get away with things that they simply should not be able to get away with in terms of the quality of the candidates.

Levin: Yeah, there's a history here to point to also, because I think that in the course of the Cold War, we had a period where both parties had some exceptional strengths, and they were often tied too, but in a different way. The Democrats dominated Congress for 40 years, from the 1950s to the 1990s. They were clearly the majority party, if you just looked at Congress. They literally controlled the House continuously, from 1954 to 1994. And yet at the same time, Republicans were winning most presidential elections. We're always very impressed by the presidents of the 1960s, Kennedy and Johnson, but those were the only Democratic presidents in that stretch. And the other exception, Jimmy Carter, could easily have been a Republican. He was a very conservative Democrat. That's a situation where you have two strong parties, and it creates some very peculiar election outcomes. In 1972, Richard Nixon won 49 states, and the Democrats increased their congressional majorities at the same time. Those are two strong parties in different ways, but two strong parties. We're living now with two weak parties, and there's no question about it, because the only thing either party can think to say to voters is that it would be really bad if the other party won.

Mounk: So you are advising the 2028 Republican presidential candidate, or at least somebody who's running in the primaries to become the 2028 Republican presidential candidate. What are the five lines and the five policies that this candidate should embrace in order to go after this new potentially larger Republican coalition. What does that look and feel like in practice?

Levin: That's a great challenge. I think that that person would have to take a line on immigration that says broadly that it needs to be much harder to enter the United States illegally and that it needs to be, that we need an orderly modernized way to enter the United States legally and emphasize the first over the second. That's just where voters are. I think that person needs to be a moderate on trade. That is to say that open trade has done real harm to large swaths of the American working class and that American trade policy needs to be formed in the interest of American workers and voters and consumers. And that means that there needs to be some free trade, and not every free trade agreement is good for our society. More importantly though, I think that person does need to focus on core cost-of-living issues. I think the core cost-of-living issues for the American electorate in the 21st century are what I think of as the three H's: healthcare, housing, higher education. There's not much of a role for the federal government in housing. There is some, but that can't really be a priority for a presidential contender. I do think there has to be a federal approach to higher education that is focused on reducing the cost of higher education, which has never really been how we've thought about the government's role. And on the contrary, the federal government has inflated that cost. And I do think that Republicans need a health care agenda that takes seriously the extraordinarily central role that health care plays in cost-of-living concerns of American voters. Republicans have ignored that fact for forty years in one way or another and they're ignoring it now. They're pretending it's not a big issue but it's still a big issue when you ask voters what worries them and Republicans need to do much better on that front. 

So I would say that person needs to approach the American people by looking at the issues that concern them and not speaking to them about why they should fear the other party. The other party should be a relatively modest portion of what that person says to the country. 

Mounk: So in terms of electoral strategy, I completely agree with you. Tony Blair emphasized, when he was running for reelection in 2001 in Britain and some of his campaign staff wanted to emphasize over and over how much money we've spent on the NHS and we're going to spend more money on the NHS, and he responded to them saying, hang on a second, people already know that about us. We want to tell them about some of the things they don't know about us. If people want to spend more money on the NHS and care most about the NHS, they're already going to vote for us, right? We need to go after the others. So I buy that as a basic posture, but you still need to answer some of those detailed questions, right? So what it means to be on the right about those issues can mean very different kinds of things. 

When it comes, for example, to something like DEI, you can have a version of that, broadly speaking, I would agree with, which is that the DEI bureaucracy has come to have too large a role in American universities and perhaps even in American corporations, that it has taken on too restrictive a notion of what the work of what Eboo Patel would call pluralism should engage in—propagating a framework of oppressors and oppressed that effectively turns everything to zero-sum competition, and that therefore we should push back against some of those things. I formulate this view as somebody who stands on the center left, but I can see how it could also be the view of somebody who's on the center right. But there's also a version of that that goes much further, right? There's a version of that that we see propagated by governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and advocated by smart intellectual policy thinkers, I suppose, in a sense, like Chris Rufo, who say, no, we need much more energetic government action in order to stand up against those developments. Where do you fall on that line?

Levin: Yeah, I mean, let me say first, in thinking about what a presidential contender should say, I would certainly advise somebody to begin from the fact that you don't have to have an answer to every question like that as president. And to say, here's my view, but I'm only running for president, I'm not running for president of the University of Florida, I'm running for president of the United States, and I don't have to decide that for every institution in America. That's an answer that nobody gives now that I think could be very attractive to a fair number of voters.

I think that on the question of the state of the universities, there is a role for public policy and for government but that that role has to begin from a commitment to what is good about the university. I think a lot of what the right is doing now that isn't working when it comes to higher education is that it essentially is engaged in a fight against the university. I think the right should be fighting for the university. And to fight for the university has to begin by saying universities are very important institutions in a free society. They are a place where we pursue knowledge through teaching and learning. And in thinking about what should happen on campus, we should think about whether it advances the pursuit of knowledge through teaching and learning.

I think there's a lot of room for those kinds of priorities to affect how conservatives think about the politics of higher education. I think it's perfectly legitimate and appropriate, for example, for a state legislature to create a new school within a state university that will be committed to the pursuit of civic education and civic knowledge as Florida has done, as North Carolina and Texas and Ohio are doing. I think that's a very promising development. It's a pretty assertive use of public power in a university, but it's a public university and it's the use of public power that creates a new space for teaching and learning to happen.

It is certainly intended to push back against DEI, against the radicalization on campus in general. It has a political purpose, but it's being pursued in a way that I think is in line with academic means. There are other kinds of uses of political power where the legislature tries to get involved directly in hiring, in setting policy within the university, where I think it's very easy to go too far even in a public university. And the way to draw that line is really to begin by asking ourselves, what is the purpose of the university? And I think it also has to be done from a place that ultimately values, even loves, the university. I love universities. I think what they do is just wonderful and absolutely essential to the freedom that we value in a free society. And so to fight for them is to fight for that. It's not to fight against higher education.

Mounk: What you're making right now, correct me if I'm wrong, is to state, in a sense, the argument you made in your last book, A Time to Build, which is starting from the recognition that institutions are currently embattled, but institutions are partially embattled because they are not performing in the way that they should, that people do actually have legitimate concerns and grievances against many of our institutions.

But you are arguing against the instinct which is strong on parts of the political right, but also on parts of the political left to therefore tear down institutions, to say that if they are not working the way they should, then we need to assail and abolish them and life is going to be better after they are gone. You are arguing, and I strongly agree with you, that those of us who are motivated by critiquing institutions are often motivated precisely by having high aspirations for them: If I get more annoyed by The New York Times getting important things wrong than by some ideological left-wing or right-wing magazine getting stuff wrong, it's because The New York Times has for a long time played a very important role in American society and continues to do so in many ways and I have higher aspirations for it. I want it to live up to the credo of being the newspaper of record. But I think, and since we have taken similar arguments in this space, we can speak to some extent from common experience.

It's hard to make that argument, right? That argument can sound like special pleading, a way to minimize the problems of those institutions. So why should we stand up to institutions rather than tear them down? And how can we make the case for that convincingly?

Levin: Yes. As you say, I come at this from the right and in a way, what I mean when I say I'm a conservative is what Edmund Burke meant when he said that he loves the establishments of society. And there's almost nothing harder now to say than to say that I love the establishments of society. I love the U.S. Congress. I really do. I think it's a wonderful institution that has a profoundly noble public purpose and that is full of public-spirited people, even though it's doing a terrible job. And I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to fix Congress, how to change Congress. I spend a lot of my time criticizing Congress. I do it because I think that it is enormously valuable. And I feel the same way about the other kinds of establishments and institutions that are so easy to criticize now in our society. It's worth our time to criticize them because they are absolutely essential. And I certainly feel that way about the university. But making that case really has to mean starting from the beginning. That book you mentioned is called A Time to Build, published in 2020. And it is really ultimately an argument for why we should value institutions. That is a hard argument to make to a democratic society at any time, and especially at this time. But ultimately, I think that the problem we face, which we describe as a social crisis that looks like loneliness and isolation and polarization and alienation, has to do with the weakening of our core institutions, those ways in which people act together. And that gives each of us a role in relation to other people in pursuit of some common good that we share. Those kinds of institutions are how human beings thrive. They're how we live. We need them from family and community and church and school on up all the way to our national politics. And the crisis we face now is a weakening of our sense of their value.

We don't value them as we should and so we're not committed to them as we should be. We don't spend the time working to strengthen them as we should. And instead we just think they're a menace. They're standing in our way of making choices as individuals or of achieving what we want as a society. And we have to be helped to see why institutions matter and what it would mean to take them seriously again. That is a very, very hard task, but I think it's the essential task now of any defender of the liberal society and I take myself to be a defender of the liberal society. I think this society is an incredible achievement. The fact that we can allow 335 million people who are divided in all kinds of ways to live together not only in peace but as one nation that sees its future as one future—that is an amazing achievement. We risk losing that achievement when we fail to see how extraordinary it is but also when we fail to see that it demands work. 

Mounk: So I think you've started to answer what was going to be my next question, but I still would love a more full answer to that question, which is that the attack on institutions is in many ways a smaller version of an attack on the principles of liberal democracy and of philosophical liberalism itself that has a left-wing form, but it also has a very strong right-wing form. 

Parts of the Republican Party, people like Donald Trump, attacking particular institutions is one version of that. But there's a more intellectual movement among so-called post-liberals to attack the very foundations of our political order that is often motivated by some of the same complaints and grievances, not all of which, as I emphasized earlier, are completely illegitimate. Why is it that that instinct to blame liberal principles for everything that has gone wrong in our society, or at least for many things that have gone wrong in our society, and hope for deliverance from those problems by rejecting them and embracing post-liberal, non-liberal solutions is wrong? Why are you one of the most active voices on the right that is fighting against that post-liberal instinct?

Levin: I think that contemporary post-liberalism is a way of seeing the downsides of the liberal society and missing or ignoring or dismissing the upsides. It's a way of fundamentally engaging in active despair, and saying this society stands in the way or contradicts the pursuit of a flourishing life. It undermines commitment to religion and to community. It encourages a dangerous kind of individualism and turns us into radicals. Now, it may be strange for a defender of liberalism to say this, but I begin by agreeing with that. This society does have those tendencies, but this society also allows us to pursue the good life to a degree and in a way that no prior form of human society has ever allowed people to do. It is made for the greatest social and moral achievements of humanity, alongside, by the way, the greatest prosperity that the human race has ever achieved, lifting people out of poverty, as we've never done before. And we have to see that liberalism makes that possible, provided that we are also willing to grasp and understand its weaknesses, push back against those, create spaces for people to live even in some pre-liberal ways within the liberal society. And I listen to post-liberal critics and think: what you're arguing for is a way for your community to live within a liberal society. And the extraordinary thing about a liberal society is it allows you to do that. You can live that way, provided you don't insist that everybody lives that way.

The strange thing about contemporary post-liberals is that they come from very small minorities within our society and they are arguing for the elimination of the protection of minorities in our society. They're saying, the fact that we don't all have one integrated view of the common good is why we can't succeed. But the fact is, if we decided to live by a single integrated view of the common good, I guarantee you that it would not be traditionalist Catholicism. There's no way that that's what it would be.

Mounk: This is the thing that I keep wanting to shout and scream at the post-liberals. Where are your troops, right? I mean, you think that we should have a post-liberal order devoted to pursuing the higher and the highest good in accordance with a certain kind of form of very traditionalist Catholic theology in a country in which not only most people are not Catholic, but most Catholics do not agree with that form of Catholic theology.

Levin: And this is a society that lets you persuade people of your way of life and then lets them live that way of life. Now look, part of this is because I come from a Jewish community that has never been under the impression that it could become the majority and values tremendously the freedom that we have in this society to live the way we choose. If we want to close our store on Saturday, we can. And no one will say anything about it. and we even have the right to educate our children within a Jewish framework and this society lets us do that. There's never been anything like it.

Mounk: And New York City, which I'm very grateful for in the week that we're recording, will even suspend its silly street cleaning rules for the Jewish holiday and the Muslim holiday and the Christian holiday and the Buddhist holiday to accommodate people from these different religious traditions.

Levin: Right, and the alternative to that is force. The alternative to that is coercion. And I think that's a lot of what is left unsaid in the post-liberal argument. That ultimately, there are certainly downsides to a society that doesn't say with one voice what it takes the good to be. But the alternative to that society is oppression. And we have to see that sometimes in life, it is really a matter of balancing out alternatives. And if we want our family and our community to live a better life, we have to work within this society because we really don't have the alternative of overthrowing this society. And one other thing I'd say is a lot of the arguments that you find among post-liberals on the right are framed as we used to be able to live in this way. Here's the community that I grew up in, and now that's impossible. And they never stop to think, where did that community come from? How did that happen in the 1960s or ‘70s? How could you have grown up in that world? That community was the product of the liberal society, the product of a lot of dynamism, a lot of choices made by a lot of people in a lot of ways, and to channel our nostalgia for our own childhood through an argument that says the West took a wrong turn in the 17th century is a very strange way to think about what we're trying to protect for our own children. And so I think the liberal society just has much greater moral potential than they tend to give it credit for. And we have to begin by seeing that and working to realize it.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.