"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. “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 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 says.
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.
So 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 merely harden our hearts.
Mentioned in this episode:
“Big Tech, Big Government: The Challenges of Regulating Internet Platforms,” National Affairs, Winter 2021
The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen
"Democrats, Here’s How to Lose in 2022. And Deserve It." by Ezra Klein
"On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters" by Edmund Burke
"Reflections On The Revolution In France" by Edmund Burke
"The American Crisis" by Thomas Paine
"The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine
"Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition" by Roger Scruton
"Freedom From the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand" by Mike Konczal
"Social Democratic Capitalism" by Lane Kenworthy
"The Upswing" by Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of "The Ezra Klein Show" at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein.
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“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Rogé Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.