YUVAL LEVIN, founding editor of National Affairs, is quickly emerging as one of America's most important public intellectuals. Here are snips from a pre-election essay on what was at stake in the election:
Each party is pulled into this debate [about the deeper meaning of the election, beyond the economy] by what it sees as the deeply misguided view of the other. Democrats listen to Republicans and hear a simpleminded and selfish radical individualism -- or, as President Obama has put it, "nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism. . . .
Republicans listen to Democrats, meanwhile, and hear a simpleminded and dangerous radical collectivism -- or, as Mitt Romney has put it, a vision of America as "a government-centered society." They hear people who think that no success is earned . . . .
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[But] to see our fundamental political divisions as a tug of war between the government and the individual is to accept the progressive premise that individuals and the state are all there are to society. The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between those two, and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space is a prime purpose of government. . . .
Progressives in America have always viewed those institutions with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness and seeking to empower the government to nationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest. Progressive social policy has sought to make the family less essential by providing for basic material needs, particularly for lower-income women with children. It has sought to make civil society less essential by assigning to the state many of the roles previously played by religious congregations, civic associations, fraternal groups, and charities, especially in providing help to the pooor. And progressive economic policy has sought to turn the private economy into an arm of government policy, consolidating key sectors and protecting from competition large corporations that are willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers' priorities.
In each case, the idea is to level the complex social topography of the space between individuals and the government, breaking up the tightly knit clusters of citizens into individuals and then uniting all of those individuals under the national banner -- allowing them to be free of the oppressive authority of family or community norms while building solidarity through the common experience of living as equal citizens of a great nation. Dependence on people you know is oppressive, the progressives imply, because it always comes with moral and social strings. . . .
Conservatives have always resisted such gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolving social institutions -- from civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, to charitable enterprises and complex markets -- will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. . . .
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In that space . . . we do more than provide for ourselves and others. We build character and raise our children, we sustain and evolve our traditions and culture -- we flourish and thrive. . . .
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When our government carries out its proper task -- building, sustaining, and protecting that space for private life -- it plays a fitting part in the life of our free society, and earns the right to be elevated, even consecrated, with the adornments of patriotic piety: to be wrapped in the flag and identified with the larger society. But when it fails at this task and becomes a threat to the very way of life it is charged with protecting, it breeds only cynicism and resentment. . . . .
The task of conservatives in politics today, therefore, must be to restore an iddea of government as a preserver and protector of the space in which our society thrives -- of the social architecture of American life. And although they rarely speak in these terms, this is basically what today's conservatives propose in practice. They propose to reform the means of our government in order to preserve the shape of its relationship to the larger society as we have known it in the postwar era.
That relationship has involved a federal government that takes in and spends roughly a fifth of our economic output, protects the country, performs some basic services, offers support to the states in meeting some of their obligations, and provides income and health-insurance support to the elderly and the poor. Beyond that, it is involved an energetic and flourishing common life filled with countless civic, religious, fraternal, corporate, and charitable entities performing a mind-bogglingly immense array of functions -- large and small, necessary or desired, wise or foolish -- and constantly evolving in respose to information and pressure moving from the individual and the family upward. That is where the other four-fifths of our economy lives, and who it grows and enables the American miracle to persist.
It has beome increasingly apparent in recent decades that the trajectory of our welfare state is not consistent with the survival of this way of life. Left on its current course, the federal government will take up a greater and greater portion of our economic output (increasingly starving other social institutions and burdening future generations with debt) and will become less and less able to perform its own crucial tasks (as the costs of benefit payments to individuals overwhelm all other functions). Meanwhile, the character of some of those programs of benefit payment threatens to undermine the character of our citizens.
The latter problem, which conservatives often describe in terms of dependency, is better understood in terms of entitlement. People so poor they actually depend on government support surely deserve our help and a path to independence, which our public programs too often deny them. But it is people who are not dependent but who nonetheless feel entitled to benefits who really pose a challenge to our republican citizenship. Because not ony the poor but the great mass of citizens become recipients of benefits in our welfare state, too many people in the middle class come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens.
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That suggests a very great deal is at stake in this election. It is not surprise that neither party seems quite satisfied with a debate about the narrow set of metrics we have come to call "the economy." But in the debate they are drawn to instead, conservatives must take a broader and deeper view of what they are defending and why. They stand not so much for the individual against the state, but for a vision of American life that consists of more than individuals and the state. They stand for American society -- citizens, families, communities, civil society, a free-market economy, and a constitutional government. They stand for a way of life now increasingly endangered, and it is well worth preserving and modernizing -- a way of life that is decidedly not better off than it was four years ago.
(Yuval Levin, "The Real Debate: The 2012 election is about far more than our pocketbooks," weeklystandard.com, October 8, 2012 (emphasis added))
Read the whole thing.