Tuesday Talk… with Yuval Levin

In my first year teaching at Hillsborough High School, I met Yuval Levin, a forty-year old political science professor trapped in the body of a high school junior. Our political views couldn’t be much more diametrically opposed, but I think we both delighted in thoughtful conversation and debate. These after school discussions would lead to the creation of the HHS chapter of Model Congress the next school year. When he graduated, Yuval presented me with a leather-bound edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and inscribed it saying that he had tried to think of a book he knew I couldn’t possibly have read. Although I had very little to do with helping him to develop his intellect, I am supremely proud of his accomplishments… most of all his promotion of the civil exchange of ideas, something he began doing in the mid-90s as a high school student.

You were eight when your family moved from Israel to the United States. What do you remember about living in Israel? What were your feelings about moving to the United States?

I was not happy about moving to the United States, to put it mildly. We moved in the summer between second and third grades for me, the summer of 1985. I had grown up in a little town outside the city of Haifa where we had a pretty close-knit extended family, I had lots of friends, it was the only home I’d ever known. My memories of those early years in Israel are obviously bathed in nostalgia now, but they are awfully happy memories. And here we were moving to another country where we had no family, I knew no one, and didn’t know what to expect.

My family moved largely for economic reasons. The Israeli economy was in horrible shape — hyper-inflation and serious unemployment. My father owned a small construction business that was basically destroyed by the economic downturn, and he had an opportunity here. My parents took a huge risk to give us a better life. I can see now how much they sacrificed and how difficult and scary it must have been to do that with three children. But I didn’t see it for a while.

By the time I took the citizenship test, as a 19-year-old college student, I was pretty much the most patriotic American you can imagine. But at first, as a new immigrant at the age of 8, all I wanted was to go back.

I’m assuming you were already bilingual when you moved here, but was there a significant adjustment to living in the United States?

No, I wasn’t bilingual at all. I spoke almost no English whatsoever. My parents both spoke reasonably good English when we moved, but my siblings and I didn’t. Once they decided on the move, my parents had signed me up for some English lessons in Israel, and I more or less learned how to read. But I spoke basically no English on the first day of third grade.

We first moved to Philadelphia, for a year, and then to New Jersey. It was tough, and definitely involved a challenging transition. But in retrospect, I was welcomed in a really warm and open way by the students in my public school in Philadelphia, and hard as it was it could easily have been far worse.

I also had an amazing English as a Second Language teacher, who had the impossible task of teaching a class of about 10 elementary school kids who not only didn’t speak English but didn’t have a common language between them — I was the only Israeli, I think there were two or three spanish speakers, a Chinese student, a west African student who spoke French, and kids from a handful of other places, I don’t recall exactly. But she had amazing patience with each of us, and she helped me more than I could ever say. It’s a real regret for me that I don’t recall her name by now, and haven’t been able to look her up to thank her for what she did for us back then. She was a young teacher, and I can only imagine how hard it was.

What did your parents do for a living?

My father is an engineer who worked in construction his entire career. In Israel, as I mentioned, he had started a little residential construction company. In the US, he worked as a project manager on different kinds of construction projects, particularly residential building projects around New Jersey.

My mother is a life-long teacher, recently retired. She was a high school science teacher in Israel. When we moved here, she decided her English wasn’t strong enough to do that, and so she worked as a Hebrew teacher at the religious schools attached to a couple of local synagogues. She ended up teaching at the Jewish Center in Princeton, and over time rose to become the principal there. She did that for a decade, and just retired last year.

Looking back at your high school experience, what stands out? What do you recall about your social studies classes?

I liked high school a lot. I had a great group of friends, I basically liked the school work most of the time, and Hillsborough really felt like home by then. And history and social studies were definitely the classes that spoke to me the most. I’d gotten very interested in politics by then, and was an all-out history buff, so I enjoyed my US history courses, took some history electives (US Since 1945 with Al Friedman, which was quite an experience, and maybe one other), and once you started the Model Congress I got involved with that too. I did that with my good friend Adam Keiper — the other conservative history buff I knew, who is still a close friend today — and it was definitely one of the highlights of high school for me.

Why did you opt to go to American University? How much of a factor was being in Washington DC for a political science major?

Its being in DC was definitely the biggest factor. I was a political junkie by this point and wanted to be in Washington. I didn’t have a strong preference among the DC schools, but AU gave me a partial scholarship that made it appealing, and it also seemed focused on having students work in Washington and be engaged with what was happening there, and that appealed to me.

I was, and am, a conservative, and AU like most universities was a VERY left-leaning place. But I found some like-minded fellow students, and being a beleaguered minority when the stakes are low (i.e., we were not actually beleaguered in any practical way) can be invigorating.

I interned or worked on Capitol Hill all four years of college, so I was a full time student and part time congressional staffer, which set me up nicely for working after graduation and was also great fun. But most important, I met my wife at American University, so I have only good things to say about that place.

Why did you opt for the University of Chicago for your graduate work? How did that compare to life as an undergraduate?

My undergraduate education was very focused on policy and politics in a practical way. But at the end of it I wanted more of a foundation in political philosophy and theory than I had gotten, and so I went looking to get a graduate education that would focus on the philosophical underpinnings of our political life. Chicago stood out as the place to do that, particularly because it was home to a very unusual kind of interdisciplinary PhD program called The Committee on Social Thought, which combined political theory, philosophy, history, literature, classics, and related humanities and let students chart their path to a PhD with a lot of freedom.

It seemed wonderful, and it really was wonderful. I had some great teachers, and the University of Chicago just has a very distinct character: It’s a SERIOUS place. The library is packed on Friday night, and the bars are empty. That’s not for everyone, but if it’s what you like it’s fantastic, and it was for me.

You had several jobs working as a congressional staffer. Can you take me through those positions and how your responsibilities differed?

I’ve had basically three Capitol Hill jobs, all on the House of Representatives side, before grad school. I first worked for a great Republican member of the House, Bob Franks, who was our member from Hillsborough. I interned for him as a college student and then worked in his office. This was a junior job, at first an administrative job, and then ultimately I ended up doing some policy research with his budget staffer, and so got involved in federal budget and health care questions.

Franks was on the House Budget Committee, and through my work for his team on that front, I got to know people on the committee staff and ultimately ended up getting a job with the Budget Committee. This was while John Kasich was the chairman, in the 90s, and it was a pretty exciting time to be there. I worked particularly on health care issues, in the buildup to the 1997 budget deal, which was the last time the federal budget has been balanced. That was a more substantive policy job, albeit still a pretty junior job (I was 21), and health care actually wasn’t that central to the budget deal so I was on the periphery. Committee staff work is very different from working for a member of the House. Much more substantive, much more involved in legislation, and at that time it was also still pretty bipartisan. The Republican staff and the Democratic staff worked together a lot. That happens less now, but you still find it on some committee staffs.

Through that work, I ended up getting to know Newt Gingrich’s policy team, and I was hired to work for Gingrich’s policy director in what ended up being his final two years or so as Speaker of the House. This was a great job in a lot of ways — the Speaker’s office is in the middle of everything, and there was a whole lot going on at that time, including of course the impeachment of Bill Clinton at the end of that period.

So through these three jobs, I got to see how Congress works at different levels, and to see how real policy work happens and what it involves. And I built up some expertise in health care and budget issues that has come in handy a lot since then. I went to graduate school after that and focused more on the underlying philosophical questions, but getting that experience in Congress was hugely important, and I would suggest it to anyone interested in politics. Capitol Hill is a young place, full of staffers in their 20s, and it’s possible to find work that gives you a lot of access without too much responsibility (unlike the executive branch). And I also think Congress belongs at the center of our system of government, so it’s the place to be.

I’ve got to ask: what was it like working for Newt Gingrich?

It was crazy, but also great fun. This was particularly because I was a fairly junior staffer. Newt was very nice to those of us at the more junior levels of his team. My impression was always that he was much less nice to his senior team, and drove them pretty crazy. But with us, he took time to hear our opinions, he went out of his way to give us feedback on the work we did and even advice sometimes. So I liked him as a boss. He wasn’t particularly well suited to be Speaker of the House — Newt always had a lot of ideas, and even when they were good ideas (which they were not always) he tended not to hold on to them long enough to turn them into action. He was suited to helping Republicans take over the House, but less so to helping Republicans govern. And in retrospect, though I wouldn’t claim to have seen this at the time, some of his reforms to the structure of the House leadership have turned out to do real damage by centralizing power too much.

But what was it like? I was a young, conservative political junkie who got to work for Newt Gingrich during the Clinton impeachment and see that moment from the inside. It was pretty amazing.

What did your work at the Department of Health and Human Services entail? How long were you there?

So that’s what brought me back to Washington after graduate school. One of my teachers at the University of Chicago, really the person I would describe as my teacher above all, was Leon Kass, a great scholar of philosophy who was chosen by George W. Bush to run a presidential commission on bioethics in 2001. He had been a prominent scholar of the relationship between science and society. Since I was a student of his and had some Washington experience, he asked me to go to Washington with him and serve on the staff of that commission. I was part of the research staff at first and ultimately became the staff director of the commission, which was at HHS. I did that for about three years.

It was a great experience, because it offered a kind of middle ground between graduate school and Washington. The commission had 18 members who were mostly professors in various fields — biologists, social scientists, humanists of different sorts. They were chosen to be politically diverse. And they were dealing with a set of issues, including the stem-cell research and cloning debates — that were very prominent and controversial in that period. We on the staff were responsible for organizing and coordinating their work, drafting their reports, managing the negotiations between them about recommendations to the president. And once I was staff director I also worked a lot with the rest of the Department of Health and Human Services, with the secretary’s staff, sometimes with White House people, so I learned a huge amount both about bioethics and science policy and about how the executive branch worked.

You then moved on to some building known as the White House, where you were a domestic policy staffer under George W. Bush. What did the job entail on a day-to-day basis? Did you directly interact with the president?

Yeah, so after several years at HHS, and thanks to the relationships I’d built with some of the White House team, I was approached when there was an opening on the White House domestic policy staff. This was at the end of 2004, so I was 27. I think I’ve been lucky in my professional life that I’ve always looked older than I am, and this was certainly not a job I would give to a 27 year old. But they knew how old I was, and I got the job.

The White House policy staff, at least in a normal and functional White House, is basically charged with moving information to and from the president. On the one hand, the job is to make sure that the president’s decision process is informed and well organized to let him focus on the right issues, understand the implications of decisions, hear from experts in and out of government, and make key choices. And on the other hand, once decisions are made, you have to make sure those are communicated to the rest of the administration and carried out. So you work with the rest of the White House staff to organize decision-making.

A lot of the work is meetings at various levels with other White House staff and people from the agencies, meetings with outsiders, briefings for senior staff or for the president, working with congressional staff and with outsiders to develop policy ideas and argue for the administration’s agenda. It’s very varied work, it’s enormously interesting, feels very intense, and is all-consuming.

The domestic policy staff is pretty small. In the Bush White House we were about a dozen people, and our work was divided into policy issues. I worked on the broad range of health care issues, veterans’ issues, some pieces of the welfare portfolio, and a few other odds and ends.

I did directly interact with the president, though certainly not every day. I was in a sort of mid-level spot, so my boss was the president’s domestic policy advisor, and he saw the president a lot. I would see the president when something I was working on would rise to his level. A lot of the job, frankly, is to prevent things that don’t need to reach the president from reaching him and to help those be decided at lower levels so that his time could be spent on things that only he could resolve. When those sorts of issues arose, I’d find myself in the oval office briefing the president, and it was pretty surreal.

I learned a lot in that job. And one key lesson that has stayed with me is just how very hard the president’s job is. I can’t imagine why anyone who really understood what that job involves would ever want to do it.

In these roles is it challenging to reconcile personal political views that might not always coincide with your charge? Not that you necessarily would have had huge ideological differences, but were there times where you had to play the role of hired gun as opposed to the free thinker?

Sure, that happens. It generally didn’t happen on major issues — I’m a conservative who worked for conservatives, and the agenda they wanted to pursue generally struck me as the right thing to do. But there were certainly instances where specific decisions were made that I didn’t agree with but I basically had to defend or enforce or execute on. That’s part of the job.

There are times when a disagreement is so profound that you have to resign rather than carry out the decision that’s made, but I never confronted a situation like that, and for the most part it wasn’t hard to deal with the fact that only one person in the room got elected to make decisions and it wasn’t me.

In the White House in particular, you had to have a lot of confidence in the decision process. President Bush and the two chiefs of staff that I worked under (Andy Card and Josh Bolton) made sure that different views were heard and discussed before a decision was made, and that people had the sense that their views were considered even if they were ultimately rejected. You have to have some confidence in the chain of command.

That’s one of the many things that worries me about the current White House — that no one really has confidence in the chain of command, and rightly so. People don’t really have the sense that decisions are made in reliable ways, and so in a real crisis I worry their system would just crumple.

You are a writer and editor for a variety of journals and magazines. Let’s first talk a little about The New Atlantis. Can you provide a little back story there?

Yes, after I left the White House at the end of the Bush administration I went into the world of think tanks and journalism as a scholar and writer. I worked first at a conservative think tank called The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a wonderful institution that gives its scholars extraordinary freedom to work on important public policy issues. The New Atlantis is a journal devoted to science and technology policy, which was founded by several friends of mine (including Adam Keiper, who as I mentioned is another Hillsborough High School alum) and is housed at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The issues that journal takes up are obviously related to the work I did at the Bush bioethics commission, and so they’re issues I’ve been involved with for some time, and The New Atlantis is one of the best venues for serious thought on those questions. So I’ve written for them a fair bit, and am on the magazine’s masthead as a contributing editor — which is one of those titles in the magazine world that no one can really define exactly.

You are the founder of the quarterly political journal National Affairs. What makes it different than other political journals?

National Affairs is a quarterly journal of essays on public policy and political ideas. It’s different from others in that its goal is basically counter-cultural in this moment: Through a quarterly schedule, and through long essays with arguments and facts and figures, it tries to help people think through large public questions, see their different dimensions, understand that there aren’t likely to be simple solutions, and yet see what some partial solutions might look like. The journal is basically the existential opposite of Twitter. I think we need that now.

I started National Affairs in 2009 as a place for right-of-center people in the policy world to think out loud together about some key public challenges. And in the decade since, I would say it has had some real influence on policy debates, has allowed some promising young writers to find a voice, and has tried to push back against the tendency to treat politics like a circus.

You’ve written for a bevy of high profile newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and The Atlantic. You’re a contributing editor to the National Review. When you get an idea for an article, how do you decide who to submit it to? Or do they come to you and request a piece on a topic they know you can deliver on?

It depends on the subject and the kind of writing I might be able to do about it. Generally it comes from me, not them, and I’ll approach a particular magazine or newspaper based on a sense of how what I have in mind to write might fit in their pages. A short, punchy idea makes for a good op-ed in the NY Times or the Washington Post, particularly if I want it read by people on the left and not just the right. If I’m trying to reach Republicans with a policy idea, the Wall Street Journal is a good place to go. An argument that speaks to a debate happening on the right is often at home in National Review (where I write a lot, more than these other venues).

It certainly happens that an editor would approach me with an idea they’d like to see me write on, but that’s more unusual.

You’ve worked for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and now you are the director of Social Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. This might be a ridiculous question, but do people go to work every day at think tanks? Is the environment like an office building, a graduate school, or something entirely different?

It varies. I’m in the office every day, 9 to 5, as if I had a real job. I’ve always been that way since I started in the think tank world in 2008, and all the more so now that I have a little more of a management role and really do need to be in. Not everyone works that way. There are think tank scholars who mostly work at home. But my view is that the appeal of working at a place like that is having colleagues who know a lot about issues that I don’t know as well, and who I can talk to and learn from and work with. So I treat it more like a university environment — or an idealized university environment. A think tank is like a university without students. But it does vary.

How often do you write? What kind of environment do you need to be productive?

I write constantly. On one subject or another, one project or another, I write several thousand words a day every weekday, pretty much without exception. When I’m working on a book, which I usually am, it might be largely devoted to that. Otherwise I’d be writing articles or essays or long blog posts or a random book review or op-ed. But I always have a writing assignment that I should be working on instead of talking to you. That’s how I keep myself focused and sharp, and a weekday when I haven’t spent a meaningful amount of time writing generally isn’t a good day.

Having to write that much means I can write in different sorts of settings and environments. But my nice quiet office, with a view of P Street just south of DuPont Circle in DC, is where I’m most productive.

Your first book Tyranny of Reason: The Origins and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook was published in 2000. This was, if I recall correctly, a modified version of your dissertation. Your focus was on how people misapplied lessons learned from scientific study to analysis of human affairs, that there was a hubris where people incorrectly thought one would have to inform the other. Is that a remotely accurate description, and in your view, has your analysis stood the test of time?

So that book actually came before my dissertation, and I think of it now as a kind of youthful excess. It started as a thesis in my senior year as an undergraduate that I developed further with encouragement from a professor and then with his help got published by a university press. A very small-run academic book. The topic, as you say, was basically the temptation and tendency to apply methods taken from the natural sciences to social questions — the book looks at the history of that tendency (which long predates what we think of as social science) and at the way that it has actually undermined the social sciences some in our time.

I think there is enormous value in the social sciences, obviously, but that what they do is not really analogous to what the harder natural sciences do, so that we have to be careful about hubristic analogies between them. “If we can send a man to the moon why can’t we make peace in the Middle East?” isn’t actually a very good question, for reasons that a look at the history of philosophy can help us see. Different subjects call for different methods of inquiry.

I certainly still hold the view laid out in that book, and I think it has stood up reasonably well. But I was in my early 20s when I wrote it, a graduate student, and my style of writing has calmed down a little since I wrote it. I can’t help but cringe a little if I look it over now.

Somehow I completely missed your second book, Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. Taking my cue from a book blurb: contentious political debates over science created challenges for American self-government, and exposed strengths and weaknesses of both ends of our political spectrum. What’s the Cliff’s Notes version of those strengths and weaknesses? Do you see the debate as having evolved (or devolved) in the last decade?

Rest assured you weren’t the only one who missed it. That book really drew on my experience in the bioethics commission and at the White House, working on science and health issues. It used the science debates (from stem cells and cloning to environmentalism and teaching evolution) to think about the differences between the left and the right in our politics. That is definitely a subject I come back to in my work, the distinction between the left and right. It was key to my academic work, and has been important to how I look at politics. I’m on the right, but I try to see the left and right as they seem themselves and to understand what they tell us about the life of our society.

I thought the science debates revealed some of the foundational priorities and assumptions of the left and the right in an unusually clear way, and that book tries to bring that out.

Your third book was The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. You draw connections between the revolutionary period and the modern era, pointing out — again — strengths and weaknesses of both Right and Left. I’m starting to see a trend. You are most assuredly a conservative, but you have a rare ability to detach from ideology when you do historical and political analysis. How do you check yourself?

So this book is actually the one that is a revised version of my PhD dissertation. It’s much revised, and came out quite a while after I wrote the dissertation, but its core is the work I did at Chicago on the Burke-Paine debate. And it’s really where I dissect the left-right divide most extensively.

I think it’s entirely possible to be useful as an observer of politics without pretending to be non-partisan. No one is really non-partisan, no one can approach the politics of his own society as an outsider or a zoologist. Everybody sees things from a certain perch, but that doesn’t mean we’re all blinkered and blinded, it just means you have to listen to people who see things from different perches and try to understand them in their own terms.

I would say that actually working in politics while writing these books has helped me have that distance. Time spent in Washington has made me less cynical about politics, not more, because it’s pretty clear that no one wakes up in the morning and sets out to hurt people or destroy the country. Our political struggles are not between people who want to help our country and people who want to hurt it but between people with different ideas about what would be good for it. And those different ideas, even though people don’t generally think them through philosophically, can be fairly coherent, and they tend to fall into roughly two broad clusters so that left and right are actually pretty useful ways to think about political question.

I’d put it this way, as I do in that book: Everybody looks out at a world that has both good and bad in it. Some people are first and foremost struck by the good and want to preserve it and sustain it and build on it; other people are first and foremost struck by the bad and want to uproot it and free people from it and replace it. The first tend to be on the right, the second on the left. And they both have a point. We need them both, because some things in our society are precious and glorious and deserve to be protected and some things in our society are unjust and oppressive and need to be uprooted. Our political debates are often about people with these different attitudes taking on public challenges.

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism focuses on how both ends of our political spectrum have indulged in the politics of nostalgia, thinking that they are continuing a debate from decades past (although each chooses a different time period as its jumping off point). You suggest that our current state of polarization stems from the two sides essentially talking at each other, framed by incompatible talking points. And yet there’s still a tone of optimism here. How do we get past this, and has the situation further deteriorated… or am I too focused on the latest ridiculousness?

Yes, that book tries to explain the ways that American social and political life have changed since the middle of the 20th century — that golden age of the 50s and early 60s that the baby boomers look back to so fondly. Those changes have been both good and bad, but the good and the bad have both tended to involve forms of liberalization or dissolution, social and economic and political. We have less of a middle — the middle class, the political middle, the middling institutions of civic life — so that polarization (of incomes, political views, ways of life) defines our experience now. There are ways we could address the problems that result from that, but our politics is very bad at finding those ways because it is so incredibly nostalgic for that golden age. The boomers still dominate our self-understanding.

That book came out in early 2016, so it was written in 2014 and 2015 and wasn’t yet about Donald Trump, but Trump is in a lot of ways an example of that boomer nostalgia too. He comes from that moment. Trump was born in June of 1946; George W. Bush was born in July of 1946; Bill Clinton was born in August of 1946. That’s a little crazy. And all of our key leaders right now are in their 70s. This is not a normal situation, and it’s a function of a kind of political exhaustion.

There was hope in that book, not quite optimism but hope, because I do think generational change will do us good. But the exhaustion of our politics is pretty amazing to see.

You have a new book coming out in January. I gather from the title A Time to Build that you are proposing a way forward out of the morass. Can you give an outline of what you’re focusing on?

That book tries to explain the social crisis we are living through — the polarization and division and isolation and even despair that so many Americans experience — by looking at our country through the lens of its institutions. Lots of people say Americans are losing confidence in institutions, and the book tries to explain what that means and why it matters. What is an institution? What is confidence in such a thing? Why have we been losing confidence in so many of our institutions? How does that help explain the dark mood of our common life at this point? And what might be done about it? At a bookstore near you (if there are still bookstores near you) on January 21.

Last one: talk to my AP US Government and Politics seniors, many of whom hope to go into politics and public policy. What can they do to contribute to a brighter future?

A lot. They’re coming of age in a time when politics is hard to take seriously. It almost demands to be treated like a ridiculous circus full of clowns and monsters, and it can be hard to see the point of devoting your life to it.

But politics is much more serious than it seems just now. It’s how our country governs itself, how we deal with the largest public problems, how we come to accommodations and make the most of the strengths of our society and how we resolve deep differences, make positive change, and deal with the worst of our society. National politics isn’t everything. What happens in families and communities and civic and religious life can matter more. But a healthy, functional national politics is essential for the health of those core institutions. And right now we don’t have a healthy, functional national politics.

So there is work to be done. It’s work that can be interesting and important, can preserve the best and address the worst, it’s intellectually engaging and it’s sometimes even fun. Don’t give up. Even if watching the news tempts you to be cynical, don’t be. You’re a lot younger than the people you hate in our politics, so build and become what you’d like to replace them with someday.

Previous Tuesday Talks:
Jessica Piper
Joel Boyea
David Van Taylor
Nina Jankowicz, HHS 2007
Jacob Slichter
Gwen Prowse, HHS 2007

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