Yuval Levin: Conservatism is gratitude

by Ryan Streeter on June 13, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Yuval Levin is one the brightest public intellectuals in America today. He’s also an incredibly gracious, good man. I’ve had a privilege of working with him and calling him a friend, so of course I was thrilled when he was selected as one of this year’s Bradley Prize winners.

I found this passage from his acceptance speech characteristic of Yuval’s unique talent: distilling in simple prose the depth of conservatism’s fundamental truths and their importance for today:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

That’s not to say that conservatives are never outraged, of course. We’ve had a lot of reason to be outraged lately. But it tends to be when we think the legacy and promise we cherish are threatened, rather than when some burning ambition is frustrated.

Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we could do better starting from scratch.

Liberals often begin from outrage because they have much higher expectations—maybe even utopian expectations—about the perfectibility of human things and the potential of human knowledge and power. They’re often willing to ignore tradition and to push aside institutions that channel generations of wisdom because they think we can do better on our own.

This can sometimes leave conservatives feeling like we are the brakes on American life, while people on the left hold the steering wheel. Like they push for their idea of progress and we just want to go a little more slowly. But that’s a serious mistake.

The American idea of progress is the tradition that we’re defending. It is made possible precisely by sustaining our deep ties to the ideals of liberty, and equality, and human dignity expressed in our founding and our institutions. The great moral advances in our history have involved the vindication of those principles—have involved America becoming more like itself.

And in any society, the task of sustaining those kinds of institutions for the next generation is the essential task—the irreplaceable precondition for everything else. That is the work first and foremost of families, and of communities. It can also be the work of educators, and of legislators. The work of democratic capitalism and of our constitutional order.

They are all connected by the need to sustain the great gift that is our country, and when we fail to see them as connected—when for instance we think we can advance our economic agenda at the expense of our concerns about the culture—we risk losing that gift altogether.

Of course it is sometimes essential to push the envelope of those traditions when they become stifling, and to make sure that the past is not an undue burden on the future. But that is always a reactive or oppositional effort. It is never the essence, and could never be more important than the work of making sure that the foundations of American life—our free society, economy, and government; our culture of virtue—are sustained.

Without those, there is no future. The work of preserving them is therefore not passive work, it’s not restraint; it is the active work of keeping our society alive and thriving. It’s not a break, it’s the very engine of the American story.

That’s the work so many of you do; the work of active gratitude.

That the selection committee for this prize and the Bradley Foundation think that my own modest part in that effort is worthy of this honor means more to me than I can say.