After four years of the Trump administration, how the Republican party moves forward is the topic of much debate. A conversation between Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Arthur C. Brooks, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership, tackled this issue in a recent John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. As Brooks, a former director of the American Enterprise Institute, noted, having the conversation is important for conservatives and progressives and our democracy. 

After an introduction by Doug Elmendorf, dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Brooks began by asking: “Is this the worst time ever?” giving Levin the space to put the last four years in context. “That allows even me to be cheerful and optimistic because surely it's not the worst time ever,” Levin began. “I do think that we are living in a moment where our political culture, and you might say the infrastructure of our politics and our civic license in terms of respect, has broken down in some powerful ways. And that means that it’s hard for us to overcome the problems we do have.” He continued, “This term ‘civility’, is one which people throw around as if it just means being nice to each other. I think that term really means beginning from the premise that the people you disagree with are still going to be there tomorrow. And a lot of our politics now is based on a desire to reject that premise and to find a way for those people to not be there tomorrow. And that's politics that cannot work.”

Brooks agreed, invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you want to persuade your enemy, you must redeem your enemy. And the only way you can do that is to be in conversation with your enemy.” Given the coldness of our national dialogue, Brooks noted something has broken. He put the question directly to Levin, “What is it that’s broken down?” 

For Levin, the answer lies in society’s lack of trust in our highest institutions. He described our slide into seeing institutions as performative, as platforms to stand on and express ourselves, rather than formative: “People in positions of power, of real institutional responsibility, understand themselves, not as constrained and shaped by those institutions, but as elevated and displayed by them.” Levin included journalism in his assessment, saying, “A lot of elite journalists now step out of that process on their own, onto a platform like Twitter and display themselves as individuals on that platform, building their following, literally. And that makes it much harder to trust them.”


Screen capture of people on a video call.

“We shouldn’t disagree less; we should disagree better.”

Yuval Levin

Speaking of politicians, Levin said that while the purpose of our parties is to shape the political arena, candidates today do not have that incentive. “That means they will be inclined to speak to the converted, and to move toward the edges of our politics, rather than towards the middle,” he said. “Stronger parties that understand themselves as having a kind of formative role are more likely to be more moderate, but what we’ve seen happen to our parties in part, because of campaign finance reforms, in part because of the changes in the political culture more generally, is that they’ve become platforms for narcissists. They’ve just become a place to stand and put on your own show. And in that sense, I think both parties would become weaker.”

“I think conservatives are naturally defenders of a society’s institutions—not blindly, they're also reformers—but they believe in the purposes of those institutions,” he continued. “And the Republican party has gradually become hostile to Americans institutions. It sees them as possessed by the other party. It sees them as corrupt. It looks at them through a populist lens as the source of the problem, rather than the source of solutions.” Levin argued that in order to best serve the country, “the Republican party has to recover its love for our institutions.”

While Levin noted the party is often successful at the state and local levels, and the House and Senate are nearly equal in representation, our democracy depends on a functional political culture. “If the system is set up in such a way that you have to view the other party as the country’s biggest problem, that means what they’re trying to solve is the other party. And that’s politics that cannot work in our society and especially can’t work in a time when the parties are actually pretty evenly divided.” Which is why, Leven noted, a healthy Republican party is beneficial no matter which side of the aisle you sit: “That means each party has some interest in the health of the others. There’s no way around it.”

Banner photo by Louis Velazquez

The Future of the Republican Party

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