Yuval Levin wrote a column that has prompted some debate that is worth looking at a little more. First, Levin’s core 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.

Reihan comments:

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.

Perhaps this is what Levin means, and I don’t doubt that there is such an obligation, but I very much doubt that party loyalty is all that frequently rewarded with trust. If the experience of social conservatives and restrictionists with the GOP is any indication, loyalty is rewarded with a mixture of neglect and contempt. Touching on one issue that does seem to center on fundamental definitions of human nature, consider the politics of abortion. If pro-lifers have been voting for the GOP to “pool their voices and their votes in order to turn beliefs into action,” I submit that they have wasted their time. Indeed, as Dr. Fleming argued last week, the political strategy has not only been unsuccessful, but has been little more than a distraction:

The cumulative effect of much of the professional pro-life ideology is to distort and deflect the question, away from the really important thing, which is how to convert nonbelievers, who will then be far less likely to kill their babies, toward comparatively trivial legislative policies and judicial agendas.

For our purposes here, the point of citing this is that even in those cases where there might be political activism driven by fundamental differences over human nature that activism is often fruitless and misguided.

More to the point, Levin proposes that there are deep philosophical divides between the groups of people who make up the voting coalitions of the two parties, which then function roughly as the organizing vehicles for opposing understandings of human nature. This sounds plausible, but if we dig a little more I think we will find that this is not really true. In what way do the two coalitions of voters and their respective intellectuals and politicians disagree about human nature, how do the disagreements define the coalitions and how do these disagreements readily bear on public policy questions? It seems to me that there are many believers on the American political right in a malleable, manipulable and perfectible human nature, and arguably there are quite a few on the political left who believe that we are fallen creatures in need of God’s grace. Where the two sides broadly differ may be in how they apply these understandings to public policy debates, or it may be in how seriously people on either side take their understanding when making ethical and political decisions. Even these alternatives do not account for the diversity within coalitions and the conflicting impulses inside individual voters, and they probably credit the two parties with more philosophical coherence than they really possess.

Someone may confess a certain belief and formally belong to a church that teaches the dignity and sanctity of human life, which would presumably then have certain implications for policy and voting as these things are usually framed, but it is in the nature of coalition politics and in the habits of most voters that a person could end up endorsing a platform containing a number of other views that are arguably directly antithetical to his religious teachings, but which he chooses to minimize or ignore as a matter of expedience or self-justification. Single-issue voters may fixate on one particular question where they find a party to be in line with their religious teachings while carefully ignoring or rationalizing their support for other policies promoted by that party that are directly at odds with those teachings. To return to a more concrete example, you could have pro-lifers who reliably support a party that backs aggressive war even as these voters take pride in being opposed to the culture of death. In such cases, party loyalty and partisanship can be pernicious because they have ceased to function as channels of existing beliefs and have instead become substitute markers of identity and loyalty that detract from earlier and definitely more important loyalties.


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.

Taken in isolation, Levin’s defense of principled disagreement is correct. I would go beyond that and say that the trouble with our politics is not an excess of division and partisanship but rather that we suffer from stifling conformity on most major questions. Leaving aside whether the two parties disagree that deeply over human nature, which is not nearly so clear-cut, it is less and less the case that the two parties disagree that deeply over most major policy questions; the range of real options in policy debates is kept very limited.

The intensity of partisanship as pose and maneuver is harmful to the extent that it conceals this conformity and allows people, such as Levin, to be able to make plausible-sounding arguments that the two parties genuinely represent widely-divergent, deeply-held views that endure over time. It is especially dangerous when Levin can set up partisanship of the sort currently practiced as some kind of remedy to “elite technocratic consensus,” when the one thing that partisan debates almost never do is challenge that consensus. It is true that Obama was wrong to dismiss political disagreements of the past as petty and childish–presumably he would not have included opposition to the invasion of Iraq or opposition to the torture regime among the examples of “stale” arguments–and as I said last month his own statement on the non-negotiability of certain principles revealed that he holds some principles do not permit “pragmatic” compromise:

Contrary to the praise he heaped on pragmatism in other parts of the speech, in this section Obama was clearly making a statement of political principle and made clear that there are some political divisions (i.e., between those who want to compromise civil liberties and those who want to preserve them) that are worth maintaining. It is not actually just a matter of what “works,” because people with different principles disagree about what to do and they disagree about what being pragmatic means. Instead, the important question is one of what the government should and should not be permitted to do. In other words, Obama ended up endorsing the views of some of the very “cynics” whose “stale political arguments” he said were obsolete.

It seems to me that Andrew’s problem with the GOP leadership, and also with Levin’s implicit defense of their conduct, is that the party leadership has been exceedingly, er, pragmatic in their adaptation to the new political era and have “rediscovered” principles that were not much in evidence when they possessed power and had the ability to adhere to those principles when it mattered. In other words, having failed the test, they and their defenders would like some credit for knowing the answers when it is of no use, and then, as if this were not enough, acting as if they have the monopoly on knowledge and wisdom.

Obviously, it is easier to remain principled in opposition, which is why the GOP leadership in Congress deserves so little credit and some criticism for suddenly becoming “principled” at the moment when it makes absolutely no difference either politically or substantively. Having practically burned down the house, the top GOP leaders now strut and pose as fire-fighting experts when scarcely a year or two ago they denied that the house was even flammable. For the rest of us on the right who were opposed to the Bush administration early and often, it is more than a little annoying to see the sudden discovery of fiscal responsibility and austerity measures at a time when they have the least political traction and their messengers have the least possible political relevance.

Levin elaborates on his theory more elsewhere in the essay, and makes a number of debatable claims:

It is not a coincidence that people who believe in traditional values also tend to believe in a strong military: both views express an underlying premise about the intractability of human nature.

Actually, it is something of a coincidence and to some extent it is an accident and legacy of Cold War-era partisanship. This is made even more clear by the acquiescence of the voters who “believe in traditional values” (and perhaps even those who live according to them, but let’s not get carried away) in grand projects to reorganize settled societies on the other side of the planet according to foreign blueprints. Indeed, conservatives generally believe, or at least most would claim to believe, that human nature is not something that can be changed, but to be consistent such people would not support a militarized social engineering program. In fact, most of these same people did and continue to support such a program. In practice, “support for a strong military” means support for projecting power and using force. Thank goodness that Levin at least spared us the usual euphemism of “strong defense“!

There is an at least equally plausible argument that traditional conservatives would not tend to support a strong military, and definitely not one that facilitates global hegemony, because they above all others understand the dangers of putting so much power in the hands of fallible men and the temptation to use overwhelming power arbitrarily to the detriment of customary rights at home and the lives of those in other countries. Of course, that would then create problems for understanding partisan loyalties as a function of one’s views about human nature.

The next claim is even less credible:

It is not a coincidence that people who favor a large welfare state also tend to believe that diplomacy can resolve most global conflicts: both views express an underlying sense that most human problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources.

Confidence in diplomacy has little or nothing to do with a belief that “most human problems are functions of an imperfect distribution of resources.” Confidence in diplomacy stems from a belief that state actors have relatively rational and limited objectives that can be successfully negotiated. Confidence in diplomacy relies on the belief that pretty much all human beings respond to well-crafted incentives and that they will act in their perceived self-interest given the chance, which it seems to me is a view much closer to the critics of the welfare state than it is to the views of its strongest supporters.

It is almost entirely an accident of post-1968 domestic politics that the greatest advocates of the welfare state have ceased to be equally strong advocates for the warfare state, just as it was fairly accidental that critics of the welfare state became the most ardent advocates for expanding the warfare state. Except perhaps for a contest over revenues, there is no underlying or coherent logic for why someone should have seemingly boundless confidence in the state to raise up foreign populations (sometimes against their will) while denying that it has any ability to do so at home. There is at most a temperamental or psychological predisposition to prefer “soft” rather than “hard” means, but the two are not mutually exclusive. What is no coincidence is that those on the right who would like to preserve the welfare state in some form are also not much troubled by the continuation of the warfare state.

Perhaps you will say that Levin chose poor examples, and that there is some deeper philosophical coherence that explains partisan loyalties that he has not effectively demonstrated, but I am doubtful. What makes the entire argument so frustrating and what makes it seem less than credible is that it was precisely partisanship and partisan loyalty that tended to blunt or mute what few mainstream conservative critiques of the Bush administraton there were when they did not positively contribute to the administration’s monstrous and revolutionary policies.

Someone might say, “Well, okay, but that’s all in the past.” The point, however, is that neither the GOP nor most mainstream conservatives have reckoned with the meaning of these things. Now that the other party is in power, everyone is supposed to return to their previously-assigned roles c.2000, as if the last eight years never happened, and we are all supposed to return to pretending that the GOP’s deep disagreements really derive from a profound set of beliefs that drive their political leaders to do the things that they do. It’s a bit like Romney’s act during the primaries. It might not be so bad that the politicians are engaged in rank opportunism to the extent that this shows that the pols are listening to their constituents and representing their views, but could we at least be spared the pretense that the pols are merely bearing witness to their strongly-held convictions? For that matter, can we agree that the GOP, even when it happens to get this or that policy right, should not be allowed to forget its role in creating or acquiescing in the creation of the current predicament? Could we also agree that permitting the GOP to evade responsibility for its failures would be an example of the pernicious sort of partisanship and partisan loyalty that deserves no defense?