By Ezra Klein
I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society,” Yuval Levin told me. “I think it can only function in defense of them.”
Levin is the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, as well as the author of a number of great books, most recently, “A Time to Build.” I wanted to talk to him about a very specific question, though: What will the Republican Party become? Levin is one of its most thoughtful and sober analysts — a temperament that may, I realize, make him unsuited to interpreting its current incarnation, in which a majority of House Republicans voted to reject the results of the 2020 presidential election and one of them is, well, Marjorie Taylor Greene.
But Levin’s diagnosis is interesting. Histories of the modern Republican Party often place Ronald Reagan at their center. That is, in Levin’s view, a mistake, and one that obscures the true nature of the coalition’s tensions. “I think Reagan is better understood as a detour from a history that is otherwise a story of a constant struggle between populism and conservatism,” he said. Donald Trump was an inheritor of a tradition that stretches long before him — Pat Buchanan’s tradition, and Strom Thurmond’s tradition. He didn’t form a new Republican Party; he allowed a long-existing part to express itself.
Behind that lie institutional changes both in the Republican Party and in the broader structure of American politics. That’s why I wanted to talk to Levin for this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show”: He, like me, thinks in terms of institutions.
(The following excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity).
Ezra Klein: There used to be this idea that it was the Democratic Party that was chaotic and unpredictable in who it would nominate, in whether or not it would listen to its own governing or organizing institutions.
And now it’s Republicans where this anti-institutional force has overwhelmed the institutions. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why is it that Republican institutions are proving weaker?
Yuval Levin: I do think that’s true. I would say one important force that’s played a role here is the increasing capture of our core mainstream institutions by the left. The core institutions of American media, the academy, culture are abjectly left-leaning institutions. That has meant that to resist the left is to resist these core institutions.
And that, I think, has encouraged the kind of anti-institutional mind-set that, in some ways, is always there. Populism is always anti-institutional, and there’s always been a populist element of the right. But the American right, at its origins, was in the business of defending the institutions. And sometimes that meant defending the institutions from the people running them.
Think about William F. Buckley’s first book. He was just out of Yale and wrote a book called “God and Man at Yale,” which was basically an argument for saving the great universities from the professors. I think that when conservatives think about universities now, they’re more inclined to think that there is no saving these institutions — we have to attack these institutions.
Not everybody thinks this way. And there are people who try to resist these lines of thinking. But I think that on the whole, the culture of the right has become much more hostile to the establishment.
I think the right is overrepresented in American politics. It’s underrepresented everywhere else in the institutions. But our attitude toward politics has also become anti-institutional. Even people who get elected to high office on the right tend to be sort of inherently anti-institutional in the way they approach their voters. And I think it’s a problem. I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society. I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol — which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up.
Ezra Klein: I could completely understand conservatives saying that they need their own institutional counterparts that are filled with people who are more conservative but that do the same kind of thing. The American Enterprise Institute is an example of that. But that has not happened in a lot of places where Republicans have tried to build alternatives.
Take the media. Some years ago, Tucker Carlson mounted a stage at [the Conservative Political Action Conference] and said conservatives need their own New York Times — a place that goes out and does reporting and is not completely bought into the movement’s incentives. And he goes on to create The Daily Caller, which is not at all that kind of operation. And then he becomes a pretty scary form of right-wing nationalism now on Fox News prime time.
Why do you think there’s been that different institutional construction path?
Yuval Levin: Creating alternatives to [mainstream institutions] is quite a challenge. To start a new elite university is not a simple matter. It’s not unimaginable. There are people who have thought about it. But it wouldn’t be an easy thing to start a research university where you would actually want your own kids to go. It’s just very hard to do.
And so I think conservatives have found that rather than create alternative institutions, they’ve created critical institutions. They’ve created institutions that exist to attack the left’s institutions. And there’s an audience for that, but that’s not really mainstream work. That’s not a place to just get your news when you just want news.
To Levin, the problem is that the Republican Party, in hock to these institutions, has become untethered from the tangible stakes of politics. “The question for us in the coming years is whether we can move a little more in the direction of a politics of ‘What does government do?’ and less of a politics of ‘Who rules?’” he said.
That’s exactly the right question, in my view. But we have very different views of what kinds of institutional changes would get us there. I’d like to see a more democratized, majoritarian system. Levin would, among other things, add a filibuster to the House.
Ezra Klein: I recently wrote a Sunday Review piece about this question of how do you reorient politics around a politics of what we do. And my argument was that Democrats need to get rid of the filibuster and just begin legislating. Help people fast in a way that voters can then judge you on the next election.
My view is that the filibuster plus the weird structural imbalances in our electoral system plus the system’s other veto points have created such a slow-moving form of government that symbolic politics can take over. What do you think of that argument?
Yuval Levin: I think that our politics has never really been intended to function as a pure majoritarian politics. One of the most important insights built into the constitutional system is that a functional republic, to be stable, has to not only enable enduring majorities to have their way but also protect durable minorities — large ones. And that means that there are all kinds of structures in the system that compel accommodation, that require differing factions to work together if they’re going to achieve anything.
And I think those are enormously important. I think a politics where a narrow majority could just advance its agenda and then see what the public says at the next election is not a good idea for American society in this moment. I think we are much better served by a politics that compels some work across party lines in order to get anywhere.
Congress has always been designed that way. Congress was not intended to be like a European Parliament, where the majority rules for as long as the public will let it. It is a place where the country works out its differences. The weakening of Congress over decades now has, not by coincidence, brought with it a weakening of our capacity to work out differences in our politics. And I think a strengthening of Congress is required for a strengthening of that capacity. But that requires these supermajority institutions.
So I would create a filibuster in the House before I would get rid of the one in the Senate. And it’s not because my party is not in power right now. I had this view when Republicans were in power and pretty comfortably had majorities in both houses. I think it is very important that our system requires some cross-partisan accommodation, frustrating as it is for those of us who have policy ambitions. I think that the contribution of that to the health of our political culture is absolutely essential, especially now.
Ezra Klein: I have a few responses to that. One, we would not be a pure majoritarian political structure, no matter what you did with the filibuster. We have more veto-generating political institutions than any other advanced democracy — and it’s not even all that close. And as you know, the filibuster was not an idea of the founding fathers. They did not want a supermajority requirement in Congress. They thought about that and rejected it.
That said, one way of framing what you’re saying here is that a system that requires more accommodation to get things done is going to encourage compromise and understanding between the parties. And what I would say in response is, well, look around. We have more filibusters than ever and more polarized politics than ever. More party line votes than ever. Less cooperation than ever.
My argument is that politics is healthier when it is about what we do. But now, we’re just endlessly caught in unpleasant, angry political negotiations that mostly don’t go anywhere. And so politics becomes less about what we do than, as you put it, who rules.
I feel like if your view on this were right, politics would look better right now. And these various blockages we have would encourage compromise. But instead, the more blockage we have, the less compromise we seem to get.
Yuval Levin: I think the cause and effect don’t necessarily work in that direction. We’re certainly in a very divided time. And we are, as you say, in a hypercompetitive political environment in the sense that control of Congress and the presidency is up for grabs in just about every election now in a way that is actually pretty unusual over the range of American history.
And the question is, is that going to get resolved by empowering small minorities to exercise more power? Or is that going to get resolved by requiring more work across these party lines? I don’t think either of those would look clean and easy and fun. I don’t think we get rid of heated political debates either way. The question is, what gives us a chance to arrive at a more legitimate and a more sustainable set of political arrangements?
And I think that requiring a party that has just barely a majority in the Senate to get a small portion of the other party’s members to agree with something significant it wants to do is a good idea if you’re trying to advance public policy that’s going to have a relatively broad range of public support.
Now, I do think the filibuster is overused, and there are probably ways to constrain its use by making it a little harder to use. And I support those moves. But on the big issues, the ones that really matter to us, there are still going to be filibusters. There’s no way around that.
We’re in a place where, in some ways, the cause and effect of the filibuster and inaction are hard to pull apart. But I think, ultimately, it is a good thing for a very narrow majority to have to get some support from the minority for its big ideas if those are going to endure.
This is more than just a conversation about how to fix the Republican Party. It’s a conversation about how to fix American politics — how to recenter it on policy that changes people’s lives, rather than symbolic clashes that harden our hearts. You can listen by subscribing to “The Ezra Klein Show” wherever you get your podcasts, or pressing play below.
(A full transcript of the episode can be viewed here.)
An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.
An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.
Yuval Levin traces the party’s path from Ronald Reagan to Marjorie Taylor Greene.
I’m Ezra Klein, and this is The Ezra Klein Show. [MUSIC PLAYING]
There’s a book I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s by Daniel Ziblatt, who’s a Harvard political scientist, and it’s called Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. And what he shows in that book is that democracies live or die based on how responsible their conservative parties are. [MUSIC PLAYING] In particular, the question is whether the center right quarantines the anti-democratic far right, in which case democracies tend to live and thrive, or it allies with them, in which case, the far right often takes over and democracies often fall. We are in that kind of moment right now. There is a rising far right that has become explicitly, dangerously anti-democratic. It will not be stopped by the Democratic Party because it does not care what the Democratic Party thinks, and it does not rely on the Democratic Party’s voters for its support. It will not be stopped by the mainstream media because it doesn’t care what the media says about it. It will either be stopped by more sober members of the Republican Party, it be purged by them, as has happened before, or it will take over the Republican Party. And right now, it feels like it is taking over the Republican Party. The most important division between the parties right now is not over deficit reduction or capital gains taxation or the proper role of government in the health care system. It is about whether they will protect America’s political institutions or turn to tearing them down. But parties don’t act or evolve in vacuums. They are shaped by institutions. They are shaped by their internal institutions and the broader systems in which they operate, and that’s why I wanted to have Yuval Levin on the show today. Yuval is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, as well as the author of a bunch of great books, but most recently, A Time to Build, which I highly recommend. He’s someone who’s been trying to reform the Republican Party for a long time. He’s served in the Bush administration. He’s very influential with more traditionally conservative Republicans in Congress. And importantly, he thinks in institutions, not just candidates or messages. And so that’s what I wanted to talk to him about. What is the Republican Party? What has it become? And how can the institutions that are driving that evolution be made more responsible? How can the institutions that surround not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party, force them to be better, help them to be healthier, make sure politics is about what is done for real people, how people’s lives are changed and not symbolic fights, not just who rules? Yuval and I have been debating some of these questions for years now. And as you’ll hear, there’s quite a lot we disagree on, but these are the kinds of discussions that need to be had. Our current institutions, particularly our Republican institutions, are failing. We need better ones. We need them quickly. As always, my email is [email protected] Here’s Yuval Levin.
So how do you describe what the Republican Party is right now?
Well, that’s a beautiful, broad question. I mean, a party is always a coalition, and the Republican Party is more self-consciously a coalition than it used to be. Republicans, for most of my lifetime, were able to think of themselves as a party unified by a set of views— broadly conservative, kind of Reaganite views. But I think it has always been true that the party is actually more coalitional than that. There is a conservative segment of its electorate, and there is a populist segment of its electorate. There’s a more business-oriented and libertarian segment. And the differences between those have become much clearer over time and especially have become much clearer in the crucible of the last few years under Trump. And I think the party emerges from Trumpism much more self-consciously coalitional and really facing the question, the struggle of how now to define itself, how to find voters and expand its electorate, how to keep its base engaged— really fundamental questions that the party has to take up really fundamentally. It’s allowed itself, to much too great a degree, to become a cult of personality around Donald Trump. And now Trump gets pulled out of the political arena, we hope— I hope, anyway. And the question for the party is, without that, what are we about? I think there’s a conservative answer to that. There’s going to be a populist answer to that. There’s inevitably going to be a libertarian or business answer to that. And that’s the next few years, but it’s very much a party wrestling over its own identity.
You mentioned that there was a post-Reagan consensus for some time. And as somebody who covers domestic policy and politics primarily, I often think of the Reagan legacy in terms of tax cuts, in terms of deregulation, in terms of its domestic policy. But of course, Reagan was also defined by this fight against the Soviet Union. That ended. Then a couple years after Reagan, you have George W. Bush and the war on terror, and that has not actually ended, given our deployments to different places. But I think, as a conceptual framework for the Republican Party, it has ended. Donald Trump runs, in many ways, against a lot of that Bush legacy. How much of the split that is growing in the Republican Party actually reflects a party that used to be held together by external enemies? And here, I mean foreign enemies. And now it doesn’t have that. To the extent it has anything like that, it is liberals domestically but not that foreign threat that requires a kind of unity that the past presidents were able to lean on.
Well, I think that’s part of the story. I would broaden it a little to say that the threat of communism for more than half a century, and really from the beginnings of the modern conservative movement in the 1950s, say, the danger of communism organized Republican thinking about both foreign and domestic issues. Certainly, it unified the party around a fairly aggressive stance in the Cold War, especially after the Nixon years and into the Reagan years, where Republicans moved from a party of detente to a party of confrontation and rollback. But the opposition to communism also organized the domestic coalition in a variety of ways. Opposing communism meant defending religious traditionalism. It meant opposing a kind of threat that was, at the very least, secularizing, if not atheistic. And so the party became a home for Christian conservatives over the decades, gradually, slowly. Opposing communism meant making the case for capitalism, and the party became the home of the case for capitalism, gradually, of market thinking, and not just about global economic affairs, but about domestic policy. And so there were certainly a lot of ways in which understanding the American situation is fundamentally oriented by the challenge of communism. It gave a logic to the Republican coalition that helped it take shape. I think the Democratic party was much less organized around that question and much more organized around the character of American society itself, and the question of the Soviets was just never as central an organizing principle. And so the party organized itself around a different set of issues and also was much more explicitly coalitional, the Democrats were. They understood themselves as representing different factions that negotiated with each other and tried to enable one another to achieve important things. The Republican Party was a little bit more of a worldview party by the Reagan era and after, certainly. And so it at least understood itself as organized by these ideas, which certainly had their roots in Cold War thinking.
On the domestic side it, something I have often thought about the post-Civil-Rights-Act Republican Party is that it was a party that harnessed a lot of the energy in the politics of white resentment or white frustration with a changing society and a federal government that was, in many cases, helping those changes along. And it harnessed that energy for, strangely, tax cuts for rich people, corporate deregulation, that there was a way in which the party was very much one thing in the base and then a very much another at the elite level. And you could always see this in polling. I mean, Paul Ryan was Speaker of the House, and you would see this polling that base Republicans wanted to raise taxes on rich people. They wanted a higher minimum wage. They wanted more spending on programs for the poor. How much of what we’re seeing is that different structural changes in the parties, in the media ecosphere have allowed those things to be decoupled and so forces that, at one point, the party elite or structures were able to hold in check have just begun to predominate? They’re able to get their candidates in through primaries. They’re able to get their message out through social media. And so what we’re seeing now is what always was there, and it’s that thin layer that was restraining it or rechanneling it is what has changed?
Well, I think there certainly was a way in which the populism of white Southerners moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the course of the mid-20th century. And that certainly played a part in the transformation of our politics that created the kind of modern arrangement of our parties as we know them so that by the 1990s, it was natural to expect that Republicans would win elections in the South and lose elections in the Northwest and the Northeast and the parties were fighting for the Midwest. American politics hasn’t always been like that, but it’s been like that for some time, as a result of that transformation. I think it’s certainly not all that’s going on, but what you point to is a process that happens in both parties, where there are populist energies, which have a lot to do with the base energy of the party. There’s also a kind of elite, more intellectual-minded consensus at the top that tries to, as you say, harness this in constructive ways, that tries to use it to the good but also to contain some of what’s dangerous about it. The Democratic Party, obviously, has had to struggle with itself in this way over and over in the course of the second half of the 20th century. At times, it has been unable to contain that and has brought itself to the point of really dramatic electoral losses. Think about ‘72 or ‘84. These are times when the party was not able to contain the populist energies that emanated from its base. The Republican Party has had the same challenge, and we’re almost distracted by Reaganism. If you told a history of the Republican Party now, you’d probably put Reagan at its center and sort of think about that as a rise and fall. But I think Reagan is better understood as a kind of detour from a history that is otherwise a story of a constant struggle between populism and conservatism— populism, inherently, a kind of bottom-up, democratic force. Conservatism is almost inherently elite driven, or at least elite minded. And the party has seen itself as a fight between these two for a very long time. Ronald Reagan was able to harness the energy of the Republican populist base in ways that I think were quite constructive and that were also a decent fit for what the more elite-minded conservative side of the party wanted to do. And so it was able to put this fight to the side for a little while, or at least to kind of take over its form, its shape. That also had to do, I think, with the rise of supply-side economics, which actually began as a populist response to more elite-minded, libertarian kind of fiscal consciousness. It’s a little hard to remember now, but it was very much that. And Reagan, in a lot of ways, was a populist figure. Henry Olsen, my former colleague, wrote a wonderful book about this a couple of years ago. And so I think that the struggle that we see now, that we’ve seen in the Trump era, that we’ll see in the post-Trump era, a struggle for the party’s identity between populist forces and conservative forces is an old story. And almost all the arguments that are being had have, in some form, been had before. But the post-Reagan party imagined itself to be a little different than that and understood itself as more unified around a set of conservative principles than its electorate really was. I think that reality is much more powerfully evident in the wake of the last few years and will define the direction of the party’s struggle for its own identity.
So if you’re mostly read into the story conservatism tell us about the Republican Party, who are some of the key figures in its populist lineage?
Well, I think, from the very beginning, the conservative movement itself has consisted of both. For example, the struggle around McCarthyism early in the early days of modern conservatism in the 1950s really tells this story in a lot of ways, where there was a populist force that spoke to real concerns. Some of were the same concerns that more traditional conservatives had. Some of them weren’t. And the politics that arose out of the populist side of this became ugly politics fairly quickly and had to be kind of contained by the rest of the party. But the balance was where the party really existed so that this struggle between Nixon’s side and, at first, the Goldwater side then the Reagan side has always been this fight between grassroots activism, which tended to be populist, and more of a Washington-centered, increasingly over the years, conservative, intellectual coalition. And the kind of arguments that, say, Pat Buchanan made in the 1990s are very similar in tone and substance to the sorts of things that worked best for Donald Trump. I think Trump found that vein and found that he could direct it to his own benefit. And he spoke to a sense in the party that had long been there, a sense that really begins from the premise that the elites in our society are corrupt, that the elites in our society are failures. This is the way Trump often spoke about them. It’s the way populists generally speak about them. But more generally, it’s a kind of frustration with the way that our institutions function and are led, and that points you to a political outlook that comes to be defined by frustration, a sense that people with power, people with privilege in American life routinely abuse that power for their own gain and advantage. They lie to the public. They look down on everybody else’s way of life. And this is populism. There’s a kind of left-wing populism. There’s a kind of right-wing populism. It’s always been an intensely powerful force in American political life.
This is an important space, I think. I think of you as an institutional thinker, and so I’d like to talk about this from the perspective of Republican Party institutions. And I don’t just mean here the party structure itself and its primary rolls, but also mean allied media publications and ecosystems and interest groups. And there used to be this idea that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. And the idea was that it was a Democratic Party that was chaotic, that was unpredictable in who it would nominate, that was unpredictable in whether or not they would listen to its own governing or organizing institutions. It didn’t have coherence because there’s all these different groups coming together. And now, Democrats have become— not without exception, but in general— a much more predictable party. They tend to nominate the next in line— Joe Biden, and before Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton. And its Republicans where this anti-institutional force has, it seems to me, overwhelmed the institutions. When I look at the difference between the two parties, it is not that the Democratic coalition and the liberal base does not have conspiracy-minded people in it or people who take a very black-and-white view of the world. But the institutions are still quite moderating. The Democratic Party has some influence over its primaries, as we saw in the Democratic primary, when there was that rush of endorsements that ended up pushing Joe Biden over the edge. It’s media ecosystems are intermixed with mainstream media that has incentives that are different than the Democratic Party, and so that ends up being somewhat restraining. It seems to be Republican institutions have been taken over and have actually lost a lot of battles. And I’d be curious if, one, do you think that’s true? And two, then why it is the Republican institutions are proving weaker?
Yeah, I do think that’s true, and I’m sure it’s a more complicated story than I can see and could get into. But I would say one important force that’s played a role here, and you pointed to it, too, is the increasing capture of our core mainstream institutions by the left. The core institutions of American media, the Academy, culture are just explicitly and abjectly left-leaning institutions. That has meant that to resist the left is to resist these core institutions. And that, I think, has encouraged the kind of anti-institutional mindset that, in some ways, ks always there. Populism is always anti-institutional, and there’s always been a populist element of the right. But the American right, at its origins, was in the business of defending the institutions. Sometimes that meant defending the institutions from the people running them, which there’s a certain irony to it, but it also made a certain amount of sense. Think about William F. Buckley’s first book. He was just out of Yale, and he wrote a book called God and Man at Yale, which is basically an argument for saving the great universities from the professors. I think that when conservatives think about universities now, they’re more inclined to say, to hell with them, and to think that there is no saving these institutions. We have to attack these institutions. Not everybody thinks this way, and there are people who try to resist these lines of thinking. I do, and I’m not alone. But I think that on the whole, the culture of the right has become much more hostile to the establishment. I think the right is overrepresented in American politics. It’s underrepresented everywhere else in the institutions. But our attitude toward politics has also become anti-institutional. Even people who get elected to high office on the right tend to be sort of inherently anti-institutional in the way they approach their voters, and I think it’s a problem. Look, I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society. I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol, which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up.
I mean, some people do.
But let me go back to a couple of things in there because there’s a bunch of interesting stuff in that answer, and I want to stay here on institutions for a minute. I want to express sympathy for the idea that there are a lot of key institutions that very much lean left in their personnel. I think that’s true for the media. I think that is true for academia, without doubt. I could completely understand conservatives saying that they need their own counterparts that are based in places that are more conservative because where people are matters, that are filled with people who are more conservative, but that do the same kind of thing. So you’re at the American Enterprise Institute. The American Enterprise Institute is, in some ways, a reaction to a sense that Brookings is a left-leaning institution, and it’s, I would call it, the center left. And AI, in my view, is a really good conservative institution. I don’t agree with everybody there. Some people I really disagree with. But it functions the way I would understand that kind of operation to function, which is it does the same kind of work as Brookings, but it is staffed by more conservative people. That has not happened in a lot of other places where Republicans have tried to build alternatives. I’ll take the media, which I know very well, as an example here. Some years ago, Tucker Carlson mounts the stage at CPAC and says, conservatives need their own New York Times. They need a place that goes out and does that reporting and is not completely bought into the movement’s incentives. And if they think The New York Times is more liberal, they need to create something that is like it but conservative. And he goes on to create The Daily Caller, which I would say is not at all that kind of operation, and then he becomes, I think, a pretty scary form of right-wing nationalism now on Fox News primetime. I’d say there are similar things in the movement against liberal academia. I could understand constructing alternative institutions. But in the effort to construct them, they seem to have created things that are very, very movement oriented and have very little defense against the movement’s incentives, whereas a lot of these institutions that do lean liberal, in terms of the personnel, they also have contrasting and crosscutting incentives. They don’t want to be seen as too closely allied with the Democratic Party. They want to be understood as independent. They sometimes bend over backwards to criticize Democrats to show they’re independent. So why do you think there’s been that different institutional construction path?
Well, I think there’s this strange and amorphous thing in a free society called the mainstream culture. And the mainstream culture is that part of the culture that doesn’t take itself to be explicitly on one side or another but that it’s just the arena in which a lot of our arguments happen and a lot of our public life happens. And I think what we’ve found in the last more than half century is certainly a transformation of a lot of mainstream institutions in the direction of the left. Now, that’s happened in the culture, in Hollywood, music. I think you could certainly see that happening in mainstream journalism, where a lot of the core mainstream institutions are just more expressly on the left than they used to be. And creating alternatives to these is quite a challenge. There’s certainly a lively think-tank culture on the right in Washington, but it’s a tiny culture. I mean, the think-tank culture, in general, is quite small. And the right has always had some presence in that culture because, in some ways, think tanks have always been more on the right or more on the left. And AI is not a new institution in response to the contemporary changes in political culture. It was created in the 1930s. And so it has been very hard to actually create alternative institutions at the core. To start a new elite university is not a simple matter. It’s not unimaginable. There are people who have thought about it. There’s also a time to look to, a period of institution-building at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century in America, where actually, people started universities because they were unhappy with Harvard and Yale. And those universities, fairly quickly, became elite universities. Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Stanford, Duke all came around in that era and for those reasons. But it wouldn’t be an easy thing to start a research university where you would actually want your own kids to go. It’s just very hard to do. And so I think conservatives have found that rather than create alternative institutions, they’ve created kind of critical institutions. They’ve created institutions that exist to attack the left’s institutions. And there’s an audience for that, but that’s not really mainstream work. That’s not a place to just get your news when you just want news. And so I think the effort to create genuinely alternative institutions generally hasn’t worked. Now, I say that with some bias because I don’t think that’s the right approach. I think the right should want to have a presence in mainstream institutions, that it is more important that there be a diversity of views at Princeton than that there be an alternative university, which ultimately would fight with Princeton for elite students. I think it’s just both more practical and more important that the institutions of elite formation have greater diversity to them. But whether you think that’s the right goal or not, I think the effort to really create alternative institutions has not turned out to be easy or achievable for the moment.
I like that distinction between critical and alternative institutions. I think that leads to this question of underrepresentation and where it comes from. So you were saying that there is a certain amount of reaction, as the right feels more of these institutions are captured by the left. And as somebody more on the left, one of the things that seems clear to me is that part of what is happening is that the right is losing some of these institutions as it becomes more right. If the past four years had been Mitt Romney’s second term, I think there is a lot of corporate America that would have been very happy to be allied with Mitt Romney. It was Donald Trump they didn’t like and who pushed them to make decisions and make statements and draw lines that they wouldn’t otherwise have wanted to draw. I actually see this in the media, too. I don’t there’s any doubt that the media became more explicitly oppositional to the Donald-Trump-led Republican Party. But the Donald-Trump-led Republican Party, and specifically Donald Trump, pushed a lot of media organizations to places they did not want to go and were very uncomfortable going. I remember all of the debates among newspapers about when do you call something that the president keeps saying and is false a lie. When do you call something that is racist racist? Because people didn’t want to do that, but there was a real heightening of the contradictions. So it seems to me, there is some relationship here, some feedback loop between what is happening in the Republican Party, who is leading it, what it is espousing and then what is happening to it in its representation in these institutions. It actually seems to me that a lot of institutions would like to be sort of in the center or not that partisan or even, in some cases, particularly in business, center right have been pushed off of ground they would prefer to be holding and, at the same time, that push has made members of the right feel much more embattled and alone in the American social and power ecosystems.
Well, I think that’s certainly true in part, but there’s been another force, which I think has been a stronger force in driving these changes, which has come more from the left than from the right, it seems to me, which is a rising generation of employees in white-collar America, certainly in the media and cultural institutions, but also in corporate America, that I think, in some ways, because of the culture of the university, enter the world of work expecting their workplace to stand for what they stand for and expecting a company that’s not in the business of anything political to express political views, to stand for a kind of political identity when things happen in the country that speaks to their core concerns. Often, these are well-motivated concerns about race, about justice, about other things. Sometimes, they’re more radical social views. But whatever they are, you find young workers pressing companies to become more political and to do so on the left. And I think these CEOs, which I’m sure some of them would love to identify with Mitt Romney, I think most of them would love to just not be in the business of politics. Michael Jordan’s old line that got him in so much trouble, he doesn’t talk about politics because Republicans buy sneakers, too, that’s the logic of a lot of corporate America at the end of the day. And they just don’t want to be in these fights. But increasingly, the logic looks a little different to them. Some of their customers want them to be in the fight and to have something to say, whether it’s about Black Lives Matter or whether it’s about the big issue of the day. And a lot of the workers want them to. [MUSIC PLAYING]
The dividing line, the litmus test that helps people to see if they are on the right or the left seems to be changing. When I came to Washington now probably 17 years ago, because I’ve become an old man, or 15 years ago, how you felt about Grover Norquist’s tax pledge really told you whether or not you were a Republican or a Democrat. You really could tell everybody almost based on that. Economic issues were the locus of party competition, and social issues and views were much more mixed in between the parties. And that seems to me to have changed, not that literally Republicans are voting for a bunch of tax increases in Congress. They’re not. But in terms of where the energy in the party is, in terms of where the energy between the party is, it seems to me, it’s moved much more towards the issues of civil rights, of demographic change, of LGBTQ rights, of gender issues, of what people broadly categorize as social issues. And I do think that has changed some of the elite lining up. I would say that a lot of corporate America is still quite fiscally conservative, so to speak. There’s not a lot of great statements in support of Medicare For All or some other kind of single-payer health care or cutting the child poverty rate by half, all kinds of things that I think of as very, very, very important questions within our political sphere. But there is a lot of solidarity around issues of race and policing, around immigration, around gender and LGBTQ rights. And a lot of it is hollow, particularly from corporations. But that is a place where corporations are more willing to take a stand. And as that has become more the dividing line in our politics, I think that has pushed more of this realignment. I’m curious if that seems right to you.
Yeah, absolutely. I think it gets at a very interesting point and a very important point in this moment, when we have a new administration that, it seems to me, wants to make some cross-partisan deals. Because the point you make really can help us see where those deals are to be had, which is not quite where they would have been had 15 years ago, as you say. My first job in Washington, now more than 20 years ago, an even older man, was for a Republican member of Congress named Bob Franks, who was really a wonderful member and a great mentor. He was a pro-choice Republican. He was, in every other way, and absolutely mainstream Republican. He was in the leadership some of his career. He was on the Budget Committee. But he didn’t agree with most other Republicans in the House about abortion. That kind of Republican today would have a much harder time being as central as Franks was in the Republican Party in that time. And I think it’s even more the case on the Democratic side that a pro-life Democrat, of which there were many in that time when I started working in the House, would have a very hard time now functioning in the party.
Including Joe Biden at that time.
That’s right, and Joe Biden was— maybe not by then, but certainly in the ‘80s, into the ‘90s. I’d put it this way. I think it is now the case that each party is divided internally over economic questions. Even the core question of the role of government, which I think would have been the essential dividing question between the Republicans and Democrats 20 years ago, is now a question that divides Republicans, where there is a rising group, which have been identified kind of as populists in recent years and in some ways that’s right, who have a much greater openness to aggressive government action for certain purposes, who are much more open to government spending than Republicans have tended to be. In some ways, Donald Trump was one of these people, but I think they mostly attached this to him. But if you think about where Marco Rubio is now or Josh Hawley has been, they are very much at odds with traditional Republican views about spending and taxes and the role of government. And a fair amount of the energy among younger people on the right is on their side, on the side of these more populist conservatives. And in some ways, the same is true in the left, where there are traditional neoliberal Democrats. Maybe nobody would call themselves that anymore but people with a traditional, kind of Clinton-era sense of what government should be about. And then there are people who are willing to call themselves socialists, even, in some cases, but in any case, who have much greater ambitions for what public policy should be doing and what government should do. And both parties have some divisions along these lines. And in fact, those socialist Democrats probably agree with Josh Hawley about more than they would imagine. But the parties are very divided on social issues. And not only the traditional ones— abortion and so on— but they’ve broadened the definition of social issues so that immigration is now almost entirely a social issue and questions of culture and the rest of it are really what divides the parties now. There’s much more room for compromise on economics and much less on social issues than there used to be.
I really wonder if that room for compromise is actually there, and I mean that in this way. I can really track the divisions on the Democratic side around policy. I can really tell you which part of the party is supporting Medicare For All and which part isn’t, and it’s a real difference. It’s going to lead them to do different things and in different ways. My background and my present, I guess, is as a policy reporter. You and I used to have lunch and argue about Medicare For All for long periods of time. I often feel, particularly through the Trump era, that when I’m trying to track Republican Party policy divides, I’m tracking something that both is there and isn’t. It is there rhetorically, and people will talk in different ways. You’ll have a Josh Hawley or a Tom Cotton or a Marco Rubio or Tucker Carlson give pretty interesting speeches— and a Donald Trump, in his own way, in 2016. And then when it comes time to govern, there’s a lot less there, that the policy is much more symbolic than it is anything else and that trying to follow the Republican Party this way and trying to then assess what they might compromise on or not just doesn’t end up working out because that’s not the beating heart of it.
I think it’s certainly been a function of the Trump era that this has happened. The Trump era has been incredibly devoid of policy substance. And that’s partly a function of the president himself having had no interest in it and the party becoming so tied around the axle of his personality that it’s become just impossible to have policy conversations. You have people who just don’t want to get on the wrong side of Trump. So where does that mean you ought to be on health care? I don’t think any of them really knew, and they just didn’t want to touch it. And it’s absolutely right that there just hasn’t been a lot of interest in conservative policy work. Look, I work, as you say, at a conservative think tank. The work we do is public policy work. I was brought on at AI in 2019. I’d been at another think tank before that for about a dozen years. But I was brought on, really, in part to start a project that would make the health of American institutions, you might say the infrastructure of our political life, an explicit subject of inquiry of think tank work. Because we had a sense that the other work we all do, which is public policy work, just can’t matter on the right until we do a better job of understanding what’s gone wrong at the infrastructural level— political culture, the condition of Congress, the electoral system, these kinds of questions that seem like they are deeper than public policy and where there are just profound problems— some of them on the right, some of them in general— that make it difficult for us to have traditional policy debates. But I also think that if you stand aside from Trump for a minute, some of the differences that have emerged, really, in the last 10 years, but that have emerged with even greater force in the Trump era, do manifest themselves in some ways in policy differences and in a different level of willingness to engage in public action. Think about the $2,000 check debate, a small thing in some ways. But the pressure for more direct help to individuals came, in a lot of ways, from the Josh Hawley types on the right. The Democrats were for it. Ultimately, even Donald Trump was for it. But the argument for it on the right, the actual substantive argument, came exactly from that camp that inclines to think that, as George W. Bush once said and was endlessly attacked for saying, when people hurt, government’s got to move. That’s not the traditional conservative way of thinking. I, myself, was very uncomfortable with that statement when he said it— I worked for him at the time— and would be still. But that is something like the view of a certain kind of more populist-inclined Republican politician. And it’s hard to know, but I think that if the Biden era is more policy inclined— look, it’s going to be more policy inclined— but if it is really an era of policy debates, where there are actual arguments and bargaining and negotiation, I think you will see these differences emerge with much greater force, differences among Republicans on the role of government.
But is that truly possible? And here’s why I ask. Take a Josh Hawley because he’s come up a couple of times in this conversation. Not my favorite politician in recent weeks, in particular. But here’s a guy who what he is trying to do is create simultaneously a more policy populist profile than Donald Trump really did, take some of Trump’s rhetoric and make it into to actual ideas, and at the same time, be as much or even more of a fighter against liberalism, against the establishment, against the forces arrayed against the right than Trump even was, in part because I think he’s not able to be as naturally celebrity-oriented and outrageous, so he’s got to do much better at getting into direct fights with people. And Josh Hawley cannot come together with a Biden administration over $1,400 checks, or whatever it might be, because to do so would be to violate the other side of his politics. If you’re going to combine this kind of populism with this kind of anti-establishment, and particularly anti-liberal, anti-left, anti-Democratic-Party approach, where they’re real villains who maybe even just stole the election, there’s no room for compromise there. You have already ruled that kind of positive-sum negotiating out because to compromise with the Biden administration is such a breach of another part of your politics. It doesn’t really matter what they think about checks or coronavirus relief or that the government should move when people hurt. You can’t get over that first hump. So it may be interesting if he were in power. But as long as he is not in power, there just isn’t much actual room for negotiation, whereas the people who might be more into the room for negotiation are folks like Romney and Collins and others who actually haven’t moved that far on the underlying economics.
Yeah, I think, of course, there’s a lot of truth to that. And I would say Hawley is his own separate example because of his behavior in the last month, which I have had a lot to say about it and I think has been horrible and indefensible. In some ways, Hawley has been a populist longer than a lot of the people who discovered populism in the Trump era. You can find Hawley writing, even in National Affairs 10 years ago, in ways that suggested a different attitude about the role of government, about public policy. What you also find in Hawley is something that’s very important to understand about populist politics, I think, which is that there’s a distinction made by political scientists between a politics of who rules and a politics of the direction of policy. Both of these are part of the political life of any democracy. People care about who’s in power. Do they look like me? Do they speak for me? That’s very important. And people care about, what is the government doing, and do I agree with it? Populist politics often will incline to be a politics of who rules, of we should be in charge and they have too much power. And we and the they can be defined in various ways, some of them uglier than others, more dangerous and sinister than others. I think there is an inherent tendency in a populist political culture to think in terms of who rules. And that language of who rules, of the great middle of the country exercising the power it’s entitled to, is very much a part of the language of the populist tradition in America. But of course, there’s a politics of who rules on the left, too. It takes the form of a certain kind of identity politics, of counting minorities and women and the first this and the first that. And these things matter to people. They’re important. I don’t mean to degrade it. But I think that the question for us in the coming years is whether we can move a little more in the direction of a politics of what does government do and less of a politics of who rules on both the left and the right. I think the health of both parties depends on that being possible.
What a wonderful segue to something I wanted to speak to you about. So I wrote a piece, it came out in Sunday Review a week or two ago now, that is all about this question of how do you reorient politics around a politics, as you put it, of what we do. And my argument, and this was framed in the structure of advice to the Democratic Party, was that they need to get rid of the filibuster, which makes it so they can’t pass really any of their agenda through the Senate, or very little of it, anyway, and just begin legislating. Do things that help people fast. Try to put things out where people can see what you did and judge you based on what you did. My underlying argument here being that the filibuster plus the weird structural imbalances in our electoral system plus the system’s other veto points, divided government, checks and balances, which are all supposed to be there and will continue to be there, it’s created such a slow-moving form of government that symbolic politics can take over, quite often, because so little legislation happens outside the context of true emergencies, like right after, say, coronavirus hits or the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. What do you think of that argument?
I think that our politics has never really been intended to function as a pure majoritarian politics. One of the most important insights that are built into the constitutional system are that a functional republic, to be stable, has to not only enable enduring majorities to have their way, but also protect durable minorities, large ones. And that means that there are all kinds of structures in the system that compel accommodation, that require differing factions to work together, if they’re going to achieve anything. And I think those are enormously important. I think a politics where a narrow majority— and the Democrats have narrow majorities in both houses now, in the Senate, barely even that— could just advance its agenda and then see what the public says at the next election is not a good idea for American society in this moment. I think we are much better served by a politics that compels some work across party lines in order to get anywhere. And Congress has always been designed that way. Congress was not intended to be like the European parliament, where the majority rules for as long as the public will let it. It is a place where the country works out its differences. The weakening of Congress over decades now has, not by coincidence, brought with it a weakening of our capacity to work out differences in our politics. And I think a strengthening of Congress is required for a strengthening of that capacity, but that requires these supermajority institutions. So I would create a filibuster in the House before I would get rid of the one in the Senate, and it’s not because my party’s not in power right now. I had this view and made this argument when Republicans were in power and even pretty comfortably had majorities in both houses. I think it is very important that our system requires some cross-partisan accommodation, frustrating as it is for those of us who have policy ambitions. I think that the contribution of that to the health of our political culture is absolutely essential, especially now.
Well, I never get to argue with anybody who wants to create a House filibuster. This is going to be wonderful. It makes my skin crawl. It’s great. So let me push on that, a couple of things. One, we would not be a pure majoritarian political structure no matter what you did with the filibuster. We have more veto-generating political institutions than any other advanced democracy, and it’s not even all that close. We have the Supreme Court. We have divided government, oftentimes, across the different branches. We have power distributed across the different branches. We have a system that was designed to be hard to do things in before the filibuster was ever a gleam in anybody’s eye. As you know, of course, it was not a founding father idea, the filibuster, and they did not want a supermajority requirement in Congress. They thought about that and rejected it. So that’s one thing. I always want to push that majoritarian thing to the side. And of course, we still have a Bill of Rights and all kinds of protections for individuals and minorities. That said, I think that one way of framing what you’re saying here as a model is that a system in which you require more accommodation to get things done is going to be a system that encourages accommodation, compromise, understanding between the parties. And what I would say in response is, well, look around. We have more filibusters than ever and more polarized politics than ever. We have more filibusters than ever and less compromise than ever, more party-line votes than ever. We have more filibusters than ever and more moments of divided government. As Francis Lee has noted, this has actually been the most competitive era in American government ever, and we have less cooperation than ever. The parties are bitterly divided. And I think that my argument, which really traces back to something you were saying, is that politics is healthier when it is about what we do. Because then at least electorates can say, well, we elected the Republicans, and they did this tax bill or they got rid of Obamacare, which they promised to do, but I didn’t like that because my sister had health insurance through Obamacare, and I didn’t realize she was going to have health insurance anymore. So I’m going to vote for the Democrats. Or you can elect the Democrats, and they pass a Green New Deal or Medicare For All or whatever it might be, and maybe you like that or maybe you don’t. But what we’re in now, we’re actually just endlessly caught in the bickering phase. We are caught in unpleasant, angry political negotiations that mostly don’t go anywhere. And so politics becomes less about what we do than, as you put it, who rules. I feel like if your view on this was right, politics would look better right now, and these various blockages we have would encourage compromise. But instead, the more blockage we have, the less compromise we seem to get.
Well, I think the cause and effect doesn’t necessarily work in that direction. We’re certainly in a very divided time. And we are in, as you say, a hyper-competitive political environment in a sense that control of Congress and the presidency is up for grabs in just about every election now in a way that we may have become used to over the last 30 years, but is actually pretty unusual over the range of American history. And the question is, is that going to get resolved by empowering small minorities to exercise more power, or is that going to get resolved by requiring more work across these party lines? I don’t think either of those would look clean and easy and fun. I don’t think we get rid of heated political debates either way. The question is, what gives us a chance to arrive at a more legitimate and a more sustainable set of political arrangements. And I think that requiring a party that has just barely a majority in the Senate to get a small portion of the other members to agree with something significant it wants to do is a good idea, if you’re trying to advance public policy that’s going to have a relatively broad range of public support. Now, I do think the filibuster is overused, and there are probably ways to constrain its use by making it a little harder to use. But even if you do that— and I support those moves, there are all kinds of ideas on that front— on the big issues, the ones that really matter to us, there are still going to be filibusters. There’s no way around that. And I think a lot of the reason why there are so many more filibusters now is also the increasing centralization of control of the Senate schedule, where the party leaders arrange things such that most votes that make it to the floor are clean and convenient kinds of party votes, where their members all know how to go. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gotten to the floor. That, in itself, ought to change, and I think there are ways to empower committee leaders to control some floor time to put some very uncomfortable votes on the floor for the minority party, whoever that happens to be. And a fair number of its members might feel like they need to vote for that bill because they believe in it or their voters want to see them support it. Senators now almost never have to take those kinds of votes. And so we’re in a place where, in some ways, the cause and effect of the filibuster and inaction are hard to pull apart. But I think, ultimately, it is a good thing for a very narrow majority to have to get some support from the minority for its big ideas, if those are going to endure.
One thing that really drives a lot of my thinking about how politics should work is that there is a question of how the public is supposed to hold leaders accountable and then how politics is supposed to change over time, right? How do people change their views? Why would you maybe move from one party to the other? What would make politics fluid, such it would have accountability? And you’ve read my book on this, Why We’re Polarized, and you know I think that we’re pretty locked in place for a bunch of different reasons. So in many ways, I’m, I think, quite on the pessimistic side of this argument. But when you talk about the narrow majorities, one thing that, I think, keeps those narrow majorities in place is that there is very little reason, over time, to change your opinion, unless you are a political junkie, right? So if you’re reading everything and you’re checking in on everything Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley and Elizabeth Warren and so on are doing, then you’ve got a lot of information about what people on different sides think, and you can see where you fall. But most people aren’t like that. Most people are pretty disengaged. Politics is unpleasant. People don’t like conflict. They’ve got other stuff going on in their lives. It is not a crazy thing to not want to be following every twist and turn of Congress. And so there, I think what has traditionally happened in this country, the way narrow majorities sometimes became durable majorities, the way that a consensus changed was that big policies were passed, and those big policies changed the landscape. The Democratic majority in the 20th century comes out of the New Deal. The Republican majority before that comes out of the Civil War, so that’s an ugly example that I prefer we don’t have to go back to bloodshed. But I think it is healthy for there to be actually a fair amount of policy churn and then people can decide where they want to stand. And in part, I take your point actually quite seriously, that there is a concern about narrow majorities creating legislation that is profound and far reaching. But at the same time, if they create legislation people don’t like, they won’t be a majority anymore, and they’ll hopefully learn their lesson. Or if they create legislation people love, maybe they do become a durable majority. But at some point, there has to be, it seems to me, more of a feedback loop, in which the public gets something akin to what they ask for and then they can hold leaders accountable for that. As opposed to the public repeatedly doesn’t get what they ask for, it’s not clear who to hold accountable for that, and so then you’re just in this miasma of which side seems to allied with you in some spiritual, fundamental, identitarian way.
Well, I agree with that, but I think the question of what the public is asking for is a more complicated question than that would suggest. So ultimately, the fact of our division, the fact of our roughly 50-50 country on most election days— not always— is, in some ways, the beginning here. And you’re suggesting the parties could change that fact by virtue of what they get through Congress. And I think the question of whether that’s quite right is related to the question of how we think about durable minorities and how we think about durable majorities. We are in a time, and we have been for now three decades, where there’s not a dominant majority party. Generally speaking, in our history, there has been a dominant party, and the other party basically functions by pushing off it in one way or another, by being against this or for that, in relation to what the majority is doing. We’ve been living, since the 1990s, in a period where we have two minority parties, and each of them wins elections by getting the public just a little bit more frustrated with the other. And it’s just a little bit, and it’s generally in a negative way. Most people who win elections now win by not being the other person. And the argument that therefore, we should eliminate the protections for large minorities in the rules of the Senate and allow these temporary majorities to make big changes in how we govern ourselves, it doesn’t seem to me like the right way to respond to this moment of intense division. I do think that we can think about other changes in the institution, in Congress. It seems to me that, as I said, there needs to be less centralization so that more questions are on the table. I think there’s room for electoral reform, for ways of expanding the electorate, and that would help both parties in ways that I think are not entirely clear right now to both parties’ politicians. The 2020 elections has a lot of lessons on that front. It turned out, there were 10 million more Republican voters than the Republican Party thought there were, and it was only mail-in voting that brought them out. I think there are ways of bringing more people into the system that could allow us to break the logjam, in some respects. But to focus on the fact of minority protections on the limits on majoritarianism as the key that holds us back from having a clearer set of political divisions or a dominant political majority or a clear direction for the country, I don’t think that’s really how the causation flows here.
In terms of expanding the electorate, would you support something like HR1, the For The People Act, which Democrats want to bring as the first bill in the new Congress?
Well, there are elements to that bill that I would support, and there are elements that I would not. There’s a lot of things dumped in there, some of which are just ways of helping Democrats, but others are, I think, ways of broadening the electorate. I would support much more experimentation with things like rank-choice voting. I think the House should allow multi-member districts, which could be done just by a small change in federal law, ways of allowing the diversity of the country to be reflected a little more, especially in the House of Representatives. I think there is room for experimentation within the boundaries of the constitutional system that reaches much further than we’ve allowed for, and in general, that we should think of this moment as a time to try some institutional reforms, to expand the House some, which is way overdue and could help in a lot of ways, including by rebalancing the electoral college and other things, to try some reforms to the budget process in Congress that could help break some logjams, and to try some electoral reforms. The coming decade ought to be a decade when we try a lot of these kinds of ideas out and get ourselves into a mode where we think about changing rules to improve things. I just don’t happen to think that the protections against majoritarianism are the right rules to play with.
I’ll try this one last time, although I know I’m not going to fully convince you on this. But I agree with you that we need a lot of experimentation, but it seems that we are locked in a system that cannot experiment. Whether you liked all of HR1 or not, and I can understand why you might not, the truth is, with the filibuster, none of it’s going to pass because you can’t put it in budget reconciliation. And one thing that I think is a really, really big problem in the system, we talked earlier about how a lot of the energy in politics has moved off of straightforward economics issues to things that get grouped into social issues, I would also say to things that should be understood is democracy issues, practically on the Democratic side, a lot of energy around voting rights issues. As you know, but I’ll say for those in the audience who don’t, the filibuster imposes a 60-vote requirement on almost everything, but there is a pathway called budget reconciliation, which can only be used a couple of times during a presidency and has a lot of very weird strictures on it. But one of them is you can get some things in there and protect it from the filibuster, as long as it is primarily related to spending and taxing, as long as it is primarily budgetary. And one problem with that is that it pushes Congresses towards just doing these weird budget reconciliation bills because they can get them done, even with a narrow majority, and away from trying to figure out how to actually do things about these other issues that people really want to see change and experimentation on. So I always think that social conservatives should be much more upset about the filibuster than they are because their issues are consistently down-weighted because they can’t clear a filibuster from Democrats in the Senate. And so instead, it’s like the Club For Growth side of the party that gets tried out because at least I can go through budget reconciliation. On the Democratic side, you could potentially do things like $1,400 checks, a big expansion of the child tax credits— all really, really important— but you can’t do democracy reform. There’s a lot of things on green energy you can’t do. And so there is also this warping away from experimentation but also away from whole issue areas that probably, at this point, really, really need to be pushed out of the realm of symbolic argumentation and into the realm of, well, do you actually have an idea, Josh Hawley and the Republican Party, about how you want to regulate tech companies? Do you actually want to get rid of Section 230? Do you want to do any of these things? Do you want to change something about moral regulations in this country? But you don’t actually get there because so long as the filibuster is in place, you’re never really playing with live ammunition. You’re just talking on Twitter, as opposed to actually trying to figure out, OK, how does this become a bill? And if it became a bill that passed, would people actually like it in practice, which I think is a usefully disciplining system.
Well, I think the filibuster can be disciplining in a different way. I don’t think it’s true that nothing in HR1 couldn’t get through the filibuster. It’s certainly true that HR1 couldn’t get through the filibuster, and what that calls for is some negotiation, is breaking it apart into pieces. I think you’d see the same thing about the immigration reform that the Biden team seems ready to propose. These things, if they were broken down into smaller pieces that could be negotiated as legislation in a more traditional way, some of them could get through. Whether they could get time on the floor, I don’t know. That’s a separate problem. But I don’t think it’s the case that the argument for social change has to be that these ideas that only the narrow majority party can get through and you can’t even get one in five members of the other party to agree to them have to be pushed through for there to be any movement on any issue, I think that suggests to us something about how we’re thinking about packaging these issues and how we’re thinking about putting debates on the floor. I do expect the Democrats to expand the bounds of the reconciliation process. I think they will do that, even if they don’t get rid of the filibuster, which they probably won’t. And so to push a little more through that path, social conservatives do hate the filibuster, generally speaking. At least when the Republicans are in power, you certainly hear a lot of criticism of the filibuster. I think they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong because, ultimately, we’re all likely, sooner or later, especially in an era where power shifts back and forth, to find ourselves in that large minority facing that narrow majority. And I think it is important that narrow majorities can’t make big changes in how our government does what it does. That’s not a reason for us being unable to make any changes in how our system works. I think that is the result of a different problem, of a sense that we are passive in the face of the structure of the system. I talk to a lot of members of Congress. For my sins, I spent a lot of time with congressional Republicans. And I would say, they all have complaints about how Congress works. They all even have complaints about how the budget process works. When you say to them, well, you could just change it, it’s up to you, that feels like news. And it’s not the way they’ve ever really thought about the role they have. I think changing that and helping people see that the structure, the rules of the system— within the bounds of the Constitution, which are pretty broad bounds, in most respects— that system can be changed, and we should think about how it should be changed. And we should think about how it could better serve us in a time when we are divided, in a time when power does shift back and forth. There are a lot of ways that Congress could work better. There are a lot of ways to think about how to change the electoral system and other things. And I don’t think that requires empowering narrow minorities to get their way and then after the next election, the next narrow minority reverses what they’ve done. I think we want more durable policy change, and I do think it’s cheap. [MUSIC PLAYING]
I think there’s a question that gets asked a lot today, which is, where does the Republican Party go from here? And I don’t want to ask that specific question. I think it is a axiomatically important, that America needs a responsible right-wing party. It needs a party on the right that governs, that is, in some way or another, committed to the system itself. I think this is how political systems work, and they don’t work well if the right-wing party goes off the rails. So I think you have views about where the Republican Party should go. It would be, ideologically, not the right party for me, but I think I’d probably be happier if you were in charge over there. So how does the Republican Party change? When you think about what’s going to happen to it, as an institution, what are the levers? What are the pathways? Who are the leaders? When you think about a good future for the Republican Party, one that moves in a direction you’ll be happier with, what are the points of pressure and power that can be leveraged there?
Yeah. I think it’s an enormously important question, obviously, a very challenging one. But I think that when you think about it in those terms, there is a terribly important role for elected leaders in the party who need to see themselves in more active terms and less passive terms, as people with something to say about where the party goes and not just as conduits for public sentiment. Obviously, that’s part of what our elected officials need to do. But people who make politics their profession, their life have a particular role in shaping the direction of our political institutions. Part of what we’ve seen in the Trump era, as opposed to, say, the Reagan era, is that a leader who wants to take the energy of the party and turn it in a destructive direction can do that all too easily. I think you can also see, if you look at the Reagan era, if you look at others, that a leader that wants to take some of those same energies and turn them in more practical, constructive directions can achieve that, too. And that means that Republican leaders have to think about, what of the things they’re hearing from voters do they take to be constructive and productive and they want to make something of? And focus on those. A party has to be united by what it’s for together and not just by who it’s against together. And the Republican Party has come to be defined far too much by its opposition to the left or to some idea of the left. And so I think Republican politicians have not had to think about what they’re for and what they want to offer their voters enough. And the doing that would not only allow them to approach the public in a much more constructive way, it would also allow them to broaden their coalition beyond getting out every last base voter and by appealing to voters who are winnable, who might be persuadable in other ways. There’s nothing insightful about this. I mean, that’s just an obvious description of what a politician in a democracy ought to be doing. But I think the party needs to hear that and think about it. And in these years, when it is mostly out of power at the national level, needs to be thinking about the agenda that it needs to put before the public going forward, a future-oriented agenda that is not about who won or lost the fights that are the sources of the grudges we’ve had for decades, that are not about finishing to-do list of the early 1980s, but that are about what 21st century America needs. And I think there are some people in the party who see that and who are inclined in that direction, but there are a lot of people in the party who don’t. And there needs to be a set of internal arguments and fights and struggles for the character of the party. And my hope is that the side that thinks about how to use politics to advance good ideas and use government to help people live better lives is the side that wins.
I would say that, in 2016, Donald Trump managed to stomp a lot of Republican politicians in that primary, who, even if they’re a little bit more stuck in an older version of Republican Party orthodoxy, did approach politics more in that way. They did have policy ideas. They wanted to be constructive. Marco Rubio, even then, was trying to begin breaking with some parts of Republican Party orthodoxy or conservative orthodoxy to try to come up with a slightly more working-class agenda. And Trump just won. And there were a lot of tributaries to that victory, and some of them were the media coverage he’s able to command and so on. But he was also right that much of the Republican base wanted to have this fight over who rules and wanted to have more of a fight over what kind of country America is. So when I look now at the Republican Party in Congress, I see a lot more learning of that lesson than I do of any policy lesson. I was very, very disturbed that such a large majority of the House Republican conference voted against certifying the electoral college results, even after all that happened on that day. You had these stories of Republicans down there in the safe space not putting on masks. There is a real re-centering of this politics of pure fight than you had before. So I want to push on this just a little bit, which is what would make it go differently next time? What lessons need to be learned by the kinds of politicians you would like to see triumph from their more recent losses?
Yeah, look, that’s right. Now, Trump won with more difficulty than we now tend to remember. In 2016, there were 17 candidates, and he won a plurality. And he won by first appearing to be the candidate of the moderate lane of the party and then becoming also the voice of a kind of angry populism in the party. But he did win the nomination and then narrowly, the election. What happened in 2020 was different. I think the party lost an election that it could have won because it went the way of Donald Trump, and then it lost two more in Georgia that it could have won because it followed in the path of Donald Trump. And ultimately, the experience of electoral wins and losses is the way that politicians learn lessons. There’s no way around that. And for the kind of agenda that I’m describing, that’s both good and bad because there is a lot to be gained by taking the path of a kind of angry populism that is largely empty of policy direction and that is hostile to the institutions. Republicans, in recent years, have done reasonably well doing that. And my argument for why they shouldn’t do that is that it’s wrong and that it’s bad for the country. But I don’t have to win elections, and so it’s easy for me to say. I do think, though, that ultimately, they won’t win elections in this way, that the combination of a kind of bizarre personal charisma with a way of harnessing the anger of some of the base with a sort of grasp on how to get the kind of attention that puts you at the center of every conversation helped Trump to do this very narrowly. I don’t think there are other politicians right now in the Republican Party who could pull that off. And so at the very least, if they ask themselves, how do we get anywhere? They should consider that getting somewhere might mean offering voters something they want. And I do think there are politicians in the party who do see that and who want to get to that place. You mentioned Marco Rubio. And there are others who have been more hostile to Trump who, I think, can see their way to that, too. There are others in the middle on the Trump question, people like Ben Sasse or Mike Lee or Ted Cruz, who represent very different views of Donald Trump, but who, in different ways, try to be attuned to what voters want. And I think, ultimately, the model of Trumpism is not a durable model for how the party can function. But that’s as much a hope as it is a fact. And so I hope it’s true.
What does it mean for the Republican Party and for Republican Party politicians that in the most recent Pew poll I saw, 64% of Republicans think Donald Trump actually won the election, that in a fair vote count, he won? Almost 2/3 of Republicans believe that.
It’s very hard, in part, to know what to do with these kinds of polls, where a lot of people take the question to be, are you a Republican or a Democrat, and whatever the specific question is, they answer it that way. But it also points to a real rot in the culture of the Republican Party. And I think we’ve seen, in the wake of the election, although it was evident before, of course, a kind of turn to the fantasy and escapism and conspiracism that is extremely dangerous for the country. And when a party veers in these directions, it finds itself in tremendous trouble. So the lessons are red flags. They’re blaring warnings. And I think it is absolutely incumbent upon leaders of the Republican Party to help their voters separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy and conspiracy. That’s always necessary in a populist era. It’s always necessary on the left and the right in populist times. And there have been times when the left has fallen into conspiracy in similar ways. But I think, at this point, the challenge on this front is for the right, and it is absolutely necessary for elected officials on the right to avoid pretending that false things are true. That’s what happened with Hawley and Cruz and others in the wake of the election. And they tried to do it as carefully as they could and in ways that let them say, well, we’re just asking questions. But what they were doing was affirming fantasies and conspiracies that are dangerous to the American civic order and deadly and destructive to a functional politics. We saw that result in a mob attacking the Capitol. I think even if that had not happened, it would have been absolutely inexcusable. And it’s necessary for Republican leaders to take a different path on that front.
One thing I am struck by over the past however many days it’s been, the banning of Trump from Twitter and Facebook really silenced him. There are other ways he could have gotten more attention. He could be calling into more shows. He could have, when he was still president, walked out in the briefing room. So there may be a part of him that is licking wounds, too. But he is quiet in a way that I think if he were still particularly on Twitter, he would not be. And so that worked. And at the same time, in part because it worked, you have to be a little unnerved by it. You have to be a little unnerved at that power being held by Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerburg. There’s certainly a lot of fury on the right about that, certainly a lot of fury on the right about Parler and the way that was taken out of a lot of different kinds of web providers, from app stores to cloud hosting, given their moderation structure, because these places did not want to provide infrastructure for another insurrection to be planned. How do you think about that power of tech, on the one hand, to regulate access to what I think is best understood not as free speech, but a public square? And on the other hand, it has responsibilities as a company. It wants to keep people. It wants to keep staff. It doesn’t want to be a place where violent insurrections are planned. Where do you come down on that?
Yeah, I think it’s an enormously complicated question, and I worry about it a lot. I would say, it is amazing how being off Twitter has meant that Trump has just said nothing, not only since the inauguration of Joe Biden, but in some ways, before that, too, when he lived in the White House. There’s a room in that house where you can get the press together and be heard everywhere. He didn’t do that. And it’s not hard to understand why Twitter did what it did in the wake of January 6. But I think that the power that that proved they had is a power that we should be very, very worried about. I actually think the bigger problem is not so much the platforms, which at least have a greater claim to say, what we’re doing is providing you with this platform, with this access to the public and we’re going to withdraw it if you abuse it, but the companies that really provide access to the internet itself, what Amazon did, what, in some ways, Apple did, and this kind of taking of Parler off of its platforms. Whatever you think of Parler, and I don’t have a high opinion of it, it seems to me that having that kind of power in the hands of corporations is very, very troubling. I think we are only beginning to come to terms with how to think about the nature of that power. What is that power? Is it economic power? Is it cultural power? Is it political information power? What does that really mean? Something like the process by which American politics came to get its arms around an industrializing economy at the end of the 19th century is going to be necessary for us to get our arms around the digital economy and the tech giants, and I think we’re only at the very beginning of that process. It’s reasonably clear that there’s going to be interest in doing some of that on both the left and the right in different ways for different reasons, and I think that’s good. It’s necessary. It doesn’t seem to me that a pure laissez-faire approach to this is going to work because the power involved is enormous power over, as you say, the public square. And there’s no solution that I’ve seen that strikes me as a comfortable path forward, so far.
There really, I think, is also just a language problem here, something I’ve been reflecting on in this debate, because I’m uncomfortable with it. On the one hand, I support a lot of the decisions that were made. And I wrote a Twitter thread about this because everything is recursively eating its own tail in this conversation. Trump left people with no good choices. Hard cases make bad law, and Trump was a very, very hard case, as was Parler, by the way, in the way it was positioning itself in that aftermath moment. And for societies and systems to work well, you need people to abide by certain norms and disciplines and restraints, and they didn’t. And so everybody was put in a position where there were no good options. But one thing I kept seeing in this is how much I think the free speech language ends up confusing both sides. So you’ll see people on the right say, they’re stifling free speech. And then somebody on left will say, this is not a First Amendment issue. It’s not free speech. The First Amendment does not give you access to algorithmic lift on Facebook, and then kind of think they’ve rebutted the argument. But it was never a free speech issue, but it is an issue. It’s a corporate power issue. To some degree, it got turned into a corporate social responsibility issue and an employee retention issue inside the companies themselves, if you look at their decision-making process. But we need, it seems to me, better language for what we’re dealing with here because I think we keep having and then rebutting arguments that don’t actually get at what is worth being concerned about, which is simply that these groups have too much power. At the same time, I’ll often hear on the left, well, just break them up. But if you actually look at the ways people would do that, if you split up Amazon Web Services from Amazon and you split Instagram off of Facebook, I don’t think the situation would actually change in any significant way or people would be any less concerned about it. So I think there’s some conversation that needs to be had, but I’m actually struck by how insufficient our current vocabulary is at least in politics. I’m sure there are people in academia and elsewhere debating this at a much higher level of sophistication.
In some ways, the development of the right vocabulary for this is the first challenge, and it is the kind of work that some people like us might do. And we, at AI, have been trying to do this for a while. People can find on the AI website a project over the past year that has tried to define the nature of the power being exercised. And it is extremely difficult to do. I think that it challenges us to think about the nature of the public square, to think about the nature of access to information. But we’re going to have to find that vocabulary in a way that rings plausible to a majority of the American public, and we’re pretty far away from that. It is certainly true that bad cases make bad law in this situation. Those bad cases often involve failures of restraint and self-control, which in some ways, these platforms invite, but which, nonetheless, they’re not exactly responsible for. I think it is imperative for people who exercise power or who want to be taken seriously to be off these platforms, to not be on Twitter. I don’t think journalists should be on Twitter. I don’t think Joe Biden should be on Twitter. He should discourage any politician from being on Twitter. You lose something by that. You could lose a lot by that in the media. But a platform that simply encourages the worst possible behavior from someone in your position is the platform that you should just not have anything to do with, and that has to be part of our response to this by helping us avoid those bad cases that make bad law. But we’re also going to need to think about what good law looks like in this situation. The internet’s not going away, and that’s a good thing. Social media is not going away, and that’s a good thing. We have to learn how to live with it more constructively, and we’re at the very beginning, I think, of a long process toward doing that.
You should send me the link to that AI project, and I’ll put it in the show notes here. But now that I’ve got you recommending AI projects, I think it’s a good time to move to the final section here, Recommendation Engine. So I’m going to throw a couple recommendation questions at you. You can always skip, but I’m interested to hear what you come up with. So I’ll start with this. What is your favorite conservative movie?
Well, that’s a hard question. I’m inclined, at first, to riff a little bit on The Lord of the Rings, but that’s better as a book, really, than a movie. I think my answer, oddly enough, would be Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day is an incredibly rich movie. It’s not just a conservative movie. But it makes an argument that, ultimately, we find our fulfillment not by expressing ourselves and drawing our true meaning out of our own will, but by meeting higher external standards of virtue. And I think that’s a profound case for what conservatism stands for, from my point of view. It’s a beautiful way to make that argument without being off-putting. It’s a wonderful movie.
What institution in America still does the best job molding character?
I would have to say the answer to that is probably the military, and it’s not a coincidence that the military is also the one national institution that Americans say they trust in large numbers. I don’t think that’s just because the military is good at what it does but because it takes men and women and turns them into soldiers and Marines and airmen and so forth. And we have a sense that they come out better than they came in. When somebody tells you that they went to Harvard, you might think, well, that’s a smart person. She got into Harvard. When somebody tells you they went to the Naval Academy, you think, that’s a serious person. And it’s not because they got in but because the Navy somehow made them that way. I think we have a very strong sense that the military is in the business of forming people. And if more institutions thought about how they look in this respect— are we approaching the country in a way that says, we take people and make them better or our people or people you can trust— I think we’d be in better shape.
You wrote a book arguing that the left-right divide is all there, or at least a version of it is all there, in the debates between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. So if someone has never read any primary sources from either person, where should they start?
I think if you’re trying to understand those roots of the left and right and if you’re trying to understand Burke and Paine that way, there are some great collections of the two of them. The challenge with Edmund Burke, who I think is just really essential to read for understanding modern conservatism in the West, is that he was a politician. He ran for office every two or three years, the entire time that he was writing everything that he wrote, so everything he wrote is directed to some dispute of the moment and requires a lot of context. But I think the collections of Burke’s writings, put together, for example, by The Liberty Fund or put together in various readers— Yale Press has a great one— really do give you a sense of the nature of the arguments that he made. You should start by reading some of his speeches about America, which are really exceptionally interesting and profound and still tell us something about ourselves. And you should end up reading the Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was his deepest and fullest expression of his political views and is an extraordinarily powerful piece of writing.
And how about Paine?
Paine was easier, in a sense, because he always wrote for a popular audience. And there are two phases to Paine. There’s the American Paine, where you could read Common Sense. I’d say start from the American crisis, which is much more of a general reader, popular piece, series of essays written, really, as pep talks to soldiers, more or less, in the course of the Revolutionary War. But there’s a lot of political philosophy in them and a very profound case for human liberty. And then there’s Paine of the French Revolutionary period, where the thing to read is really The Rights of Man, which is a two-volume book that Paine wrote. You should read The Rights of Man after you read Burke’s reflections on the revolution in France because The Rights of Man is actually a direct response to Burke, answers him in some wonderfully interesting ways, and engages, really, with some of the deepest questions of our political tradition.
What book would you give a democratic socialist to read about conservatism?
There are a couple of places to start, but I think that a nice place to go first is one of Roger Scruton’s books about conservatism. He wrote a couple of books, all of which are basically called conservatism, more or less. They’re short. They’re accessible. And Scruton, because he, himself, had traveled from the left to the right, really had a sense that the concerns that people on the left have about the right are serious concerns and needed to be spoken to in a serious way. And I think he does it wonderfully. He’s a wonderful writer. Scruton is probably underappreciated in America. He’s an English conservative. He just died last year. And there’s a lot of work of his it’s worth reading, but I think his several short books about conservatism are a great place to begin.
What book would you give a conservative to read about democratic socialism?
Well, that’s a hard question. I don’t know the answer to that. I’m sure there’s a range. I’ve been reading Mike Konczal’s Freedom from the Market, which I’m finding very interesting. I disagree with it, but it’s learned and thoughtful and smart. But I bet you could recommend some books to me that I wouldn’t think of.
Well, I thought you were going to recommend Lane Kenworthy’s book, actually.
Is that a book about socialism? I don’t know if it is.
Yeah, democratic socialism. It’s a case for a certain kind of welfare state. And it’s a very smart book and one that every conservative should contend with and should think through.
And then finally, what’s the last book you read that actually changed your mind about anything?
I’m not sure what I’d say. I think, in some ways, Bob Putnam’s book The Upswing, which was just published last year, offers a picture of early progressivism that was eye-opening, in some respects that was a little fuller than what I had focused on before and that I think is worth reading for anybody on the right or the left. I think that’s probably the latest book I’ve read that’s really changed my mind about something. It changed my mind about the nature of the case that the early progressives were making and changed for the better, in some ways.
Yuval Levin, thank you very much.
Thank you. [MUSIC PLAYING]
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“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.
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