Yuval Levin on Partisanship

While reading Andrew’s indispensable blog, I found his surprising take of Yuval Levin’s excellent essay in the latest Newsweek — a sure sign, by the way, that Newsweek is doing something right.

Andrew writes, in a post amusing titled “As If We Live on Mars”:

How do you write a column about the stimulus package while barely mentioning the only reason it existed at all: the sharpest depression since the 1930s? Yuval Levin managed it. How do you write it without mentioning well over $300 billion in tax cuts from a Democratic president (far more than anything the Republican actually proposed last fall)? Levin managed that too. He also managed to argue that the two parties represent deep, stable and coherent views about human nature, and the relationship of the citizen to the state. The Republicans, one infers, represent fiscal responsibility, the freedom of the individual vis-a-vis the government, the resilience of human nature, and prudent strength in foreign policy.

My sense is that Yuval saw no need to rehearse the details of the economic downturn because he does not live on Mars, and he assumes — wrongly, perhaps — that his readers are similarly Earth-bound, and are thus broadly familiar with the economic circumstances that prevail on Earth. In its ongoing quest for relevance, Newsweek is trying to find new, more affluent readers, some of whom might in fact live on Mars, or perhaps in vast space-going vessels that are skirting the edge of the Oort Cloud.

But seriously: Andrew goes on to note that the Republican party has badly misgoverned the country, and that it has failed to live up to the principles he identifies. This is an interesting and important point. I don’t, however, think that it is responsive to Yuval’s argument, which is less an apologia for the Republican party and more a case for why “factions” can be a good thing. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that Yuval would concede many of Andrew’s points — that Republicans have strayed from their core principles, etc. Now for Yuval’s argument.

Our deepest disagreements coalesce into two broad views of human nature that define the public life of every free society. In a crude and general way our political parties give expression to these views, and allow the roughly like-minded to pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action.

This suggests that individuals who identify with a party have an obligation to argue with and persuade those in their own faction about how best to realize their shared worldview. Loyalty to a party recognizes that politics is an iterative game, and that loyalty is rewarded over time with trust.

To ridicule these disagreements and assert as our new president also did in his inaugural that “the time has come to set aside childish things” is to demean as insignificant the great debates that have formed our republic over more than two centuries. These arguments—about the proper relationship between the state and the citizen, about America’s place in the world, about the regard and protection we owe to one another, about how we might best reconcile economic prosperity and cultural vitality, national security and moral authority, freedom and virtue—are divisive questions of enormous consequence, and for all the partisanship they have engendered they are neither petty nor childish.

To recognize that our two parties represent two broad worldviews isn’t to suggest that one or both have always been faithful to them. Rather, it is a way that we negotiate a landscape that in fact includes as many worldviews as there are individuals. Andrew and I both have highly idiosyncratic takes on the world, and so we both bristle at the excesses of partisanship. But in my case, I tend to think that being part of an extended conversation among like-minded people has some value. At the same time, I think it’s very valuable to also have conversations with people who don’t share the same premises, which is why I strive to be careful and fair-minded and empathetic. Having known Yuval for a while, I think he operates in much the same way, though perhaps he has a little more faith than I do in the Republican leadership.

There is also, I stress, a place for clear-eyed loners. We’d all be far worse off without Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan and other writers and thinkers who adhere closely to Orwell’s vision of the public intellectual. But there is also a place for movements, and those who seek to repair them and guide them.