Online Conversation | Curbing the Culture Wars: an Online Conversation with Yuval Levin and Brandon Vaidyanathan
As the intensity of our culture war politics intensifies, partisan conflict and division have spread far outside their usual boundaries. Increasingly, virtually any sphere of life has grown politicized, shaded in either red or blue. Neighbors become online adversaries online, and once-independent institutions become platforms for political theater.
So what are the proper boundaries between the various spheres of our lives? Is it possible to discern and develop distinct domains between education, church, family, politics, and finance in a way that is complementary and supportive, rather than either atomizing or totalizing? Can our culture wars be contained and curbed, or are they destined to invade and poison every nook and cranny of life?
On Friday, June 3rd at 1:30pm ET the Trinity Forum and Comment magazine hosted an Online Conversation with National Affairs editor Yuval Levin and sociologist and professor Brandon Vaidyanathan on how we can envision and develop new habits and models that lead us toward more coherent lives and contribute to the common good.
Thanks to New Pluralists for their support of this event.
Transcript | Levin + Vaidyanathan | June 3rd, 2022
Cherie Harder: Let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation on “Curbing the Culture War” with Yuval Levin and Brandon Vaidyanathan. As Anne just explained, this Online Conversation is part of a series we’re collaborating on with our friends at Comment magazine, ably led by Anne, who you just met, who’s also a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum. This effort’s also been made possible by a grant from the New Pluralist Collaborative, and we’d like to thank them for their support for this program.
We’re so pleased that so many of you have registered today, and I’d like to particularly welcome and thank our first-time guests, as well as our guests who are joining us from all over the world, from at least 15 or 16 different countries that we know of. So if you are new, let us know where you’re coming from in the chat box. It’s always fun for us to get to see the range of people joining us from all over the globe. So thanks for doing so.
If you are one of those first-time attendees or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope this conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
As Anne was mentioning, it seems increasingly undeniable that one of the most urgent civic and spiritual crises we face is that of loneliness and division, which has led to ever-growing numbers of us feeling alienated, angry, and adrift. Accelerating and exacerbating this trend is the fact that so many of the spheres of our life together, whether schools or sporting events, churches or corporations, have seemingly been annexed into new battlegrounds for an increasingly vicious culture war. Institutions, activities, and organizations that once served as a trellis on which the vine of relationship and community could grow are now increasingly conscripted into new staging grounds for the next culture war salvo. The fallout is increasingly clear and unsettling. A record-high number of pastors report considering leaving the ministry, demoralized by the way their churches have been divided by partisan conflict. Both students and professors at universities increasingly report being afraid to think aloud or speak freely lest they be ostracized or canceled. And an increasing sense of anxiety often pervades public discussion of any important shared issue, except among those wishing to score points rather than resolve problems, leaving few places of refuge from partisan fighting and even fewer resources for grappling with the inevitable civic challenges that divide us. In the words of one of our guests today, displays of partisan allegiance and factional solidarity may have their place, but they do not belong in every place, and out of their place they can displace other potential goods and divide us along lines that render common action and ultimately common life impossible.
So what might it mean to restore boundaries to our partisan battlefields and limits to the skirmishes? Is it possible to curb the culture war without abandoning one’s deepest convictions? It’s a big question and an increasingly urgent one in our fractured country. And it’s hard to imagine two scholars who have wrestled with it more wisely or creatively than our guests today.
Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research focuses on the foundations of self-government and the preconditions of civic flourishing. The founding and current editor of National Affairs magazine, he’s also a senior editor of The New Atlantis and a contributing editor to National Review. He previously served as a vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics under President Bush, as well as a special assistant to the president for domestic policy. His articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Comment, Commentary, and many others. And he’s also the author of five books on political theory, including his latest work, A Time to Build, which we had the pleasure of hosting him in an Online Conversation to discuss back in December of 2020.
Joining him is Brandon Vaidyanathan. Brandon is a professor and chairman of the department of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, where his research focuses on the cultural dimensions of religious, commercial, medical, and scientific institutions, where he’s been widely published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, including Business and Society, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Social Forces, Social Problems, The Sociology of Religion, the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and Work, Employment and Society. He’s also the author of Mercenaries and Missionaries: Capitalism and Catholicism in the Global South and coauthor of Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion.
Yuval and Brandon, welcome. Great to have you here.
Yuval Levin: Thank you very much.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Thank you.
Cherie Harder: So as we get started, it seems appropriate to kind of start with clarifying the very question itself, because it’s not necessarily obvious to everybody that the culture war needs to be curbed. There are many people who have a very laudable and understandable commitment to justice, to trying to pursue what is right, good, and true, and to seek to live out their convictions in a coherent way across all spheres of their life. But at least one of you has actually made the point that totalizing our tribal conflicts and our cultural wars actually reduces the likelihood that we’ll wind up in a just or humane society. And so, Yuval, I’d like to sort of start with you in asking, does the culture war need to be curbed? And if so, why?
Yuval Levin: Well, thank you very much, Cherie. I appreciate the question and the invitation and everything that Trinity [Forum] does. And I’m very grateful to be part of this conversation, thanks to Comment and to be in the same issue with Brandon, who is an intellectual hero of mine, too. I think the question is an important question, because to say that the culture war needs to be curbed or constrained is not to say that it is not important or that it doesn’t take up crucial, critical questions. Some of the deepest moral and ethical questions that our society confronts present themselves when they enter politics as what we would call “culture war” questions, maybe dismissively calling them that. And that is not to say that they don’t matter. They do matter. The question is, though, how does our society, an often divided and always pluralistic society, take on these kinds of questions in ways that enable us to live together. The premise of our kind of political order is that people won’t always agree. That’s really, in a sense, what makes us a modern, liberal democracy. We don’t begin where a kind of classical Greek polity might have begun with the premise that there’s going to be moral consensus and the question is who has the authority to establish it. Our premise is there’s not going to be moral consensus. And the question is “how do we then live together?”
Now there are some issues where we do require consensus. We have to believe that we are all created equal if we’re going to live in a society like this. Otherwise, you reject the basic founding principles and premises of our society, and some of our cultural debates are about that. And those have to be fought out and they have to be fought out in almost totalizing ways. Maybe we don’t want them quite totalizing, but it’s right that they be dominant as questions of the day.
Most of what we argue about isn’t really about that. It’s not that fundamental. It is about questions of how we prioritize our moral principles. It’s questions about how we apply them in particular circumstances. And as much as they matter, it’s still important that we can continue to live together as citizens, as neighbors and friends, even when we disagree, so that we can work out our differences. Because another premise of our politics is that we resolve differences by accommodation. That’s the nature of our political system. We don’t fight to the death. We find ways to answer problems, to meet needs while living together. And the ways by which we do that require an enormous amount of accommodation and compromise. And in order to do that, we’ve got to make sure that we don’t see each other as enemies. And we are not enemies. The people that I disagree with about some of the most important culture war questions are not my enemies. They are my fellow citizens. And if I can’t see them that way, then there is no hope that our society can hang together.
The danger of a totalizing culture war is that we stop being able to see people as our neighbors, and that instead we understand our society as divided into two camps, and everywhere we go—not only in the political arena or in arenas of cultural debate, but in our work lives, in our neighborhoods, in our religious institutions, in our schools and our communities—everywhere we go, we see two teams. And the only question we have about other people is, are they on my team or are they on the other team? That ultimately makes it impossible for us to address precisely the kinds of problems that the culture war is all about.
And so I do think that it’s really essential that we see that these debates have their proper place and their proper character, and that there are also places where they don’t belong. And there’s also a way of engaging them that isn’t the right way. And so we have to think about distinctions. We have to think about drawing boundaries. And I really love the way that Brandon’s piece takes up this question from another angle, because it forces us to see that we need ourselves as individuals to be coherent, to be morally coherent, whole persons. And yet we also need to see that there are times and places in our lives that require different kinds of modes of behavior. I would almost say the difference is between “who am I?” and “what should I do?” To the question of “who am I?” there has to be a coherent answer. The question of “what should I do?” is a contextual question, and the right thing to do actually is different in different parts of our lives. And living with those two facts at the same time is part of the challenge of living in a free society.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Brandon, I want to give you a chance to jump in there and elaborate.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Oh, gosh. Yeah, thanks. Well, I mean, it’s such an honor to be here, such an honor to share the stage with Yuval. And I’m sorry we’re not able to do this in person, but I’m glad everyone who was sick is now feeling better. Yeah, this is a really challenging issue, and, you know, I think that part of the challenge is, for a lot of us, we have internalized scripts that we are not really on the same stage. We’re not part of the same team. This is the idea that we are fellow citizens, that we’re not necessarily going to agree, but we have to figure out how to live together. A lot of those premises are off the table. I mean, the assumption with a lot of the current scripts and as well as models of behavior that we’re seeing out there is that we are in a war and we have our allies and our comrades and then our enemies. And if we don’t fight to win, we’re going to lose. And there’s really a palpable sense of pressure, both on the left and the right that we’re seeing, that we have to fight to win. And the louder voices that get more airtime and sometimes the presidency are modeling for people, I think, this sort of framing of things as really absolute, as you have to choose what side you’re on. And that makes it really challenging, I think, to figure out what it means then to live together as citizens. How do we look at each other and then what does it mean to have an identity? Who am I if my identity is contingent on taking this sort of stance?
Cherie Harder: That’s a fascinating point. And you write in your article [in Comment] a lot about the fact that we are in a societal identity crisis in many ways, that there’s a growing sense of fragmentation among individuals and a loss of connection. And, of course, one of the appeals of the idea of a totalizing culture war is it does provide a measure of coherence to essentially all of reality, becomes very easy to categorize and kind of easier to simplify and make sense of. And, Brandon, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the link that you see between the loneliness and fragmentation we’re currently experiencing and our attraction to culture warring.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Hmm. That’s a good question. Yeah. I mean, I think there’s— You know, there’s a sociologist, Ann Swidler, who talks about what it means to live in settled and unsettled times and what that does to us in those contexts. And we’re living in, I think, some pretty unsettled times. And her argument is that in these sorts of unsettled times, what drives our action is not traditions and mores and this is how things have always been. And so that is typically, in most societies, that’s how we operate. We’re driven by just the force of habit and tradition. But unsettled times are times when ideologies really kick in. They take a dominant role in actually shaping our strategies of action. And I think that culture-war framework provides a sort of heuristic for a lot of people. It’s a quick shortcut to escape the hard work of figuring out the “who am I?” questions, right. I think those are fundamentally—I mean, those are profound existential questions we all have to wrestle with. And we typically do that in communities in which we’re embedded. They can, you know, help us to—the richness of religious traditions in particular, is that they can help us to plumb the depths of those questions. But even, you know, university and liberal arts education and there are lots of other kinds of spaces in which those things can be cultivated. But I think that even those institutions have been derailed from helping us pursue those questions. Right? So I think the challenge now with the erosion of various associational forms that we used to be embedded in—the loss of small communities, religion, all those sorts of things—I think pushes us towards forming tribes, particularly through the Internet and social media. And those are tribes in which we— they become echo chambers rather than spaces in which we can really pursue the richness of these deep questions that have been guiding humanity for millennia.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Yuval, you’ve suggested that a vital part of providing curbs on what might otherwise be a totalizing culture war is a refortification of boundaries along the separate spheres of life. And I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about what that means and what kind of boundaries we need.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, let me do that by building a little bit on a couple of very important points that Brandon just made. I think that it’s crucial to see why we think about what we’ve been calling the “cultural war questions” in terms of winning and losing. And the sense that we have to win is an understandable sense because, in one respect, the questions at issue are very profound and important. They are literally, “How will I be able to raise my children?” Maybe the most important question that most communities and most people face in their lives is whether you have the ability, the opportunity to raise the next generation up in light of the truth, as you understand it. And the way in which our society has tended to answer that question has been by creating spaces for communities to answer it themselves, by allowing for there to be simultaneously different answers to the question, “How should we raise our children?” That’s hard. That’s a challenging kind of society to sustain. And inevitably, it means that you confront a culture that is not simply or completely supportive of the answer that you offer to that question. And I think that as the institutions through which we do that—through which we raise our children, through which we build up our communities, through which we engage with one another—have grown weaker—the local interpersonal human-level institutions have grown weaker—we’ve looked instead to something more like national-level institutions, and that makes this kind of diversity much more difficult. The question of “how will I be able to raise my children?” then becomes a national question and it becomes one big yes-or-no question. And that means that we do think in terms of winning and losing everything.
And, you know, political campaigns become much more important when they’re about this one big question on which everything else depends. And so that kind of totalizing tendency is very, very hard to resist. It becomes the fight we’re engaged in, and it’s hard to see that the way out of that is not to win that fight, which isn’t going to happen. The way to do that is to rebuild the structures that allow us to answer that question in different ways, in different parts of our society: the structures of local community, the structures of religious life that let me, as a Jewish person in America, raise my children in the way that I think is right, while my neighbor, with whom I’m on excellent terms, does the same in a very different way. That’s a social achievement that we should never underestimate. It’s an extraordinary thing we’re able to do in this country, and doing it does require a set of healthy institutions that need to be tended to.
And I think this gets to your question of boundaries, because when we lose sight of the need to sustain these diverse spaces so that you and I can work together, even though we don’t have the same religious commitment, even though our answer to the question of “how shall we raise our children?” is not the same answer, we can not only work together, we can be friends. We can do a lot of things together in American life. And the reason we can do that is that there are some boundaries, that in order to enter one arena of our society’s existence, we don’t have to offer proof that we’re on the same team in another arena. It just doesn’t work that way. As it begins to work that way, more and more, it becomes much more difficult to sustain these different spaces, these different stages. And so I think what boundaries look like really involves a willingness to live together with people who are different from you.
The basic fundamental demand made on us by modern, liberal democracies, by free societies, is that we be able to, that we exercise the patience and the restraint to be able to live with one another when we don’t always agree about everything. And that means that at work we don’t make religious and cultural questions the tests of who gets promoted and who gets in and who is left out. That means that at school we have a lot of tolerance for different points of view. And the purpose of that is not some, you know, just highfalutin, nice-sounding words about civility. The purpose of that is precisely that we are actually able to live our lives in the way that we believe is necessary, in accordance with our deepest moral commitments. It’s so that I am able to raise my children in the way that I think is demanded of me.
And I think seeing that is hard. It’s not obvious, it’s not self-evident. And we’re living in a time when we have to articulate that fact, when the case for pluralism of this sort, not just as a way to be nice to each other, but as the only way to ultimately sustain our ability to meet our foremost obligations, that case has to be articulated. It has to be made in different arenas, in different ways, in different moments. And right now, to say we’re failing to make it would be an understatement. We’re practically forgetting it altogether.
Cherie Harder: I want to ask both of you about the combination of cultivating in four defined different spheres within public life and the coherence that you are talking about Brandon, in that it’s hard to talk about different spheres without also referencing Abraham Kuyper, the Christian philosopher and statesman who was the prime minister of the Netherlands, who articulated the idea of sphere sovereignty, the thought of which kind of undergirds some of our conversations. But Kuyper, the same guy who articulated the importance of sphere sovereignty and the fortification of those boundaries in public life, is also someone who said that there is not one inch of creation over which God does not claim “it is mine.” Brandon, you’ve written quite a bit about what you call the “sacred canopy,” the meaning and coherence that Christian thought has given to so much of our country’s history. And so one question I would like to pose to both of you, coming from different religious convictions and political backgrounds, is is it possible to maintain coherence and distinct spheres without some kind of overarching agreement on ultimate questions that faith provides? And Brandon, maybe we can start with you.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: That’s a really great question. Yeah. So the sacred canopy idea, this is Peter Berger’s term. And you know, early in the 20th century, you had sociologists like Max Weber, who I think very presciently sort of diagnosed this kind of problem we’re in, where we’re really in a context in which religion, which used to be once the governing sphere, has sort of become one domain among others. And so now you’ve got politics and economics and the arts and so on, all kind of battling with each other with their own internal logics and each one sort of vying for some sort of absolute autonomy. And so I think it’s challenging to navigate life without—I don’t know if it’s possible—to really navigate life without some sort of ordering of these domains. Right? I think we invariably end up doing it in some way or other. And I think the default has become for the political to become the ordering sphere, even in our faith communities for most people. Right? So you are, first of all, a conservative or a liberal, and then secondarily a Christian or whatever tradition you’re in.
But then also navigating the boundaries between those spheres is challenging. Can I read you an example? This has been something that just, you know, I came across it a couple of weeks ago. It was going viral on social media. And it’s a short account by a Jewish lawyer. And I was really struck by it because it resonated so much with the narratives of these professionals I had interviewed when I was doing my research. And so his name is Eli. And he says, “Today I finished family dinner. I ran to my desk to catch a zoom call. And as the video came on, I realized I was wearing my kippah, a traditional Jewish head cover, and I instinctually pulled it off my head and stuffed it in my pocket. I grew up wearing a kippah. As a child, I knew it was intended to remind me to uphold a higher set of ethics, morals, and standards. And as a teen, I attended public high school and wore kippah openly. But when it was snatched off and a swastika was carved in my locker, I pulled it off my head and stuffed it in my pocket. When attending university, I was advised not to wear a kippah. Do you want to draw attention to yourself and have your grades impacted? Grades were too important to me. So again, I pulled it off my head and stuffed it in my pocket. In law school, many of my Jewish classmates and I did not wear kippahs, fearing rising antisemitism and incidents of hate on campus. Once again, I stuffed it in my pocket. And thus today, after my zoom meeting, I walked out of my office and my son Aria said, ‘Daddy, where’s your kippah?’ I said, ‘I don’t wear it for work.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I was quiet for a while and said, ‘I don’t know.’ But I did know. I know that I was scared. I know that I’m scared that my Jewishness will impact my career and professional ambitions, scared that people will see me as different. Scared that it will draw ridicule or unwanted attention, scared to write this post.” And so on. And then he goes on to say that he’s making this resolve now to wear his kippah. Right?
So a few things that come to mind. Very clearly you can see the kinds of scripts he had internalized as to why these domains had to be kept separate, why he could not really integrate them in the way he wanted. He saw these models, these other lawyers who were— “Ok, to get ahead, you’ve got to be like these people. They don’t wear kippahs. I’m not going to wear one.” And then the habits, just the instinctual pulling off. It’s become second nature, right. And that was consistent across all the research I had done. When people are drawing these boundaries, even as they are trying to live integrated lives, there are these sort of pressures as we’re socialized at these domains. So, Eli, what he wants is inner freedom, to be able to make these choices and live his faith more coherently. He wants tolerance. So it’s not just an internal thing, but there’s also an external request for some tolerance, you know, sort of “don’t discriminate against me, don’t paint swastikas on my locker.” Those are very important things.
But we don’t know if wearing the kippah is going to be enough for coherence. Right? He may still, you know, maybe the models that dominate how he governs his life as a lawyer are not really coherent with his faith. Maybe his boss is a real jerk and mistrusts others and sabotages them. And, you know, so there’s all that other stuff that, you know, that’s happening under the radar as well. So it’s not simply intentionality that’s enough. We are shaped by our environments in so many ways that occur under the radar.
But what’s also important to note is that Eli is not asking everyone in his office to wear a kippah. But I think that the context we’re in today is that the totalizing sorts of identities we have, because I think they are fragile identities, it’s very hard to navigate the world with a fragile identity. Eli has a stable identity. Of course he’s making some compromises that he regrets. But he’s not really questioning it and doesn’t really need to be in an environment where that’s constantly reinforced. But if my identity rests on a certain set of political beliefs that’s fairly new, I need a bubble in which I’m not exposed to ideas that challenge me. My students tell me in class, “I don’t want to hear the voices of people who disagree with me or express opinions that I find abhorrent.” Right? So “I don’t want to be contaminated.” There’s a sense of purity. And I think that’s because of this instability of our identities. And I think it’s hard then. How do you live with each other if you’re not capable of making room for the other? If your identity is so fragile that you can’t express even any curiosity about the other, to be able to begin to want to understand them? Which I think is a precursor to being able to live with them.
Cherie Harder: Yuval?
Yuval Levin: You know I think it’s wonderfully well put and maybe to use the example, to stretch the example a little bit, I think that we should want to live in a society where that lawyer can wear his kippah at work. And not to live in a society where you would wear, say, a Make America Great Again hat or a Joe Biden cap at synagogue. That is, we should prioritize these things in a particular way that allows us to differentiate between the high and the low. And politics is not the lowest thing, but it is lower than some other things. And also, as Brandon says, that MAGA hat tells other people what he thinks they should do. The kippah does not. It tells the world who he is. And we should understand the difference between those things in a way that allows us to, again, distinguish high and low and also respect other people. So I do think it’s very important that we have the level of tolerance and also the ability to cross boundaries such that our core identity is our core identity. We bring it with us where we go. But also that we can recognize the different contexts precisely to protect other people’s identity too and their place in this society, that there ought to be some constraints on what we do in different contexts.
I always think, you know, about—there was a charitable group of Jewish women that began in the United States in 1920s called Hadassah. And they engage in helping people outside the Jewish community. And they were criticized for this for a lot of their early years. And they ended up landing on a kind of slogan for themselves that says, “We don’t help people because they’re Jewish. We help people because we are Jewish.” And I think understanding that distinction of “I do this because of who I am.” But on the other hand, there are times when we’re trying to change other people, and that requires a different kind of engagement. There’s obviously a religious meaning to this, too. This has to affect how we operate and function as religious individuals and communities as well. But I think recognizing what’s required of tolerance and why—and the “why” is especially hard for us to see. Tolerance, again, is not just about being nice to other people. That’s important. We should be nice to other people. It’s also about allowing us to have the room to live in the way that we want to live, while also benefiting from the tremendous benefits and value of this great society.
And I would say in that sense, my view of these questions is no doubt shaped by my own Jewish identity, by being part of a religious minority that has been a religious minority basically everywhere it has lived for most of the last 2000 years. And is now, with the exception of Israel, everywhere a religious minority. The idea that prevails in some of our thinking about this, that the ideal we should want is an integrated whole society in which everything supports the fundamental views we have, I think is actually not an idea that is native to our Jewish and Christian and Muslim traditions. It’s an idea that was native to the classical polity in ancient Greece. But Jews and Christians and Muslims have never lived outside the fact of religious pluralism. From the very beginning, for all of us, we have always dealt with the fact that not everybody thinks the way we do, and we’ve offered different kinds of answers to it. All three of the major religious threads have answered that through conquest sometimes, through the use of force, but very often have answered it by finding ways to live together with other people who make very, very different kinds of commitments. This is not a brand-new problem. It’s not even only a fact of life in political modernity. It was certainly the case in the Middle Ages. It was certainly the case in the earliest days of Christianity and also of Judaism, that how to live with people who do not begin where we begin has been a core question for us, and I think we should see that the answer to that cannot be to make those people go away. That’s not actually an option. And the question we always face and the one that to me leads to an emphasis on setting boundaries in order to allow for personal coherence is the answer that’s embodied by our pluralistic society. And it’s well worth defending.
Cherie Harder: There’s so many more questions I’d love to ask both of you, but I also see that the questions from our viewers are piling up. So we’re going to switch to those. And just as a reminder to those of you watching, you cannot only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So one of our first questions comes from an anonymous viewer. And they say or they ask, “It seems like so much fuel for the culture war comes from a fear of a ‘unilateral disarmament.’ Both sides feel attacked and justify their own escalation by fear of the enemy. Will resolution require someone or some kind of movement to take a first step by voluntarily ‘losing’ on an issue?” And, Yuval, since you have worked in the White House for the president, I want to toss that one to you first.
Yuval Levin: Well, I guess I’d start this way. I think everybody is already losing. And the sense that people have that the other side is winning is generally not shared by the other side. Everybody feels like they’re losing. And the reason for that is that they are. Because ultimately what we’re losing is the foundation that enables us to engage in these fights in a way that could allow for a win-win conclusion. And a win-win conclusion looks like an accommodation, so that what we should be aiming for in a lot of these issues is an accommodation that allows for differences and also for persuasion. That allows us to explain to our neighbors why we think they’re wrong about abortion or about some of the most divisive issues that our society confronts. And so I think the sense that to allow for the mechanisms of pluralism to operate is unilateral disarmament is a mistake to begin with. That’s actually the only path to anything that could look like winning. And the sense that outright winning, that just vanquishing the other side is an option is a mistake. And the sense that we’re losing all the time is also a mistake. So that makes it very hard to get back to a place where we can really make the argument for a pluralistic society. And I think that’s where we have to change our attitude. We have to see that victory doesn’t really look the way we think it does. It doesn’t look like a surrender of the other side. That’s not what it looks like. It looks like persuasion. And along the way, it looks like the ability and the space to live in the way that we believe is demanded of us. And that actually requires a lot of these mechanisms of toleration and pluralism to function, which is why we should be on their side.
Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Susanna Gao. And Brandon, I want to toss this one to you. And especially as someone who is coming as a Hindu convert to Catholicism, I think you’ll have a really interesting insight to offer this. Susanna asked, “How does our sense of belonging impact this conversation if that sense is lost or challenged or changed, in reality or in our own perception? Might that make one feel a need to engage in the absolutist approach to living?”
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s a really profound question. Yeah, I do think that our sense of belonging is a lot weaker. Again, I think with, you know, Yuval’s work has really shown just the sense of trust in institutions that has collapsed over the years. And so what is it that we are part of? Like, where is it that we see ourselves embedded in some sort of community where we can recognize a sense of belonging? I think that the scope of those kinds of communities is reduced, so it does make it a lot more challenging. I do think that, I mean, so even in faith communities where typically one would find such a sense of belonging, it’s harder for the younger generation, as you’re seeing now, with just the disaffiliation of the younger generations, that that sense of belonging has been eroded. I’m not really sure what it would take to rebuild trust in—. And so a lot of, I think, part of the challenge is—whether it’s workplaces or faith communities—a lot of the erosion of trust and the loss of a sense of belonging has been because of betrayal, a sense that these institutions have betrayed me. They’ve done wrong—whether it’s Catholic priests molesting children and bishops covering it up. How do I belong to this institution after what they’ve done? Right? So it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of work on the part of those institutions to rebuild trust. But I think it also requires us as individuals to not pretend that we can navigate the world without belonging to someone and to a people. But how do we do that without making those forms of belonging turn tribal? Because it seems like that is what’s growing is “I belong to a community that is fundamentally defined by being against those people.” Right. And that’s the challenge, is how can I see myself as belonging to my enemies in some way? What are the forms that we have that allow us to experience that kind of connection?
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, a related question comes from Indra Klein, and, Yuval, I’ll throw this your way. Indra asks, “Is the loneliness and mistrust that are inherently part of the culture war related to the fact that so many people feel overlooked or undervalued as a result of demographic change, amalgamation of ethnicities, and shifting to a more tech-driven society?”
Yuval Levin: Well, it’s a very profound question, and there’s a lot wrapped up in it. I certainly think broadly speaking, yes, these factors are big part of what it is that’s changed in our society that has left people feeling disaffiliated, disconnected. I think change and the breakdown of familiar norms and practices and habits has a lot to do with why and when people feel isolated, people feel lonely. The structures of affiliation that allow us to feel like we’re part of something break down in the face of social change. And that makes it very hard for us to feel connected, to feel stable.
I also think that the demographic point is an important point. I said before, I think some of the way that I think about pluralism has to do with understanding myself as part of a minority community. I would say to my neighbors now, whoever they are, that they are also part of a minority community. That is, sometimes there are majorities in American politics, but those are coalitions, and coalitions are formed by compromise and accommodation. So we could form a majority around a question we agree about. But that doesn’t ultimately mean that we are a majority. And part of the core insight that’s always driven American political development, really best articulated still to this day by James Madison, is that this society is best understood as a collection of minorities and that this is a good thing. That it’s a good thing because a society that is a large majority and a large minority is a society at war, where being part of this group or that group is all you are. But a society that understands itself as broken down along different kinds of axes where there are shifting majorities and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, that’s a society where people are more likely to be invested in the infrastructure of pluralism. And I think that is the kind of society we are. The danger of the culture war in that sense is that it leads us to see ourselves as part of a society that just has two parts. We’re either this one or that one. And again, that means everything comes down to an all-or-nothing sort of question. Do we win or do they win? We should want there to be more questions.
And so I think in that sense, some of the fragmentation of modern life certainly has to do with why we feel more disconnected, why we feel more alienated and lonely. But that can’t mean that the solution to that is to define ourselves by these two broad political tribes. What it has to mean is a rebuilding of institutions that are near at hand, at the interpersonal level, where we most deeply define ourselves so that these communities that sometimes form coalitions can function for us and can allow us to feel like we are part of something that’s close to us, that actually consists of our neighbors, that actually consists of people with whom we share in common a way of life and not just a set of abstract political beliefs. And that, again, that allows us to be recommitted to that infrastructure of pluralism. And I think that’s where the danger is now. That’s where the threat is. It’s what we’ve lost.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So our next question comes from Mira Bowa. Brandon, I’ll toss this to you. Mira asks about the realities of many people in the US. And she asked, “If there is a side that has historically been fighting to win its superiority by all means, how can other small groups maintain a sense of safety, emotional balance, when their histories still echo in the ears and hearts of their descendants?”
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Yeah. It’s a very, very challenging question. I think this—. Yeah. I don’t have an easy answer to this issue. Right? And I think it’s part of the challenges—especially now. I mean, in the last couple of years, I think this question has really been intensified since George Floyd and so on, I think. So it’s really— I think part of what it’s going to take is, going back to that question of belonging, some way of assuring people who feel that they have been, instead of welcomed more deeply into the fabric of this country, ostracized even more. Right? So how do you convey in that context that, you know, we are together in this, we’re fellow citizens and you belong. And rather than sort of a sense that the dominant culture is, you know, out to— going to just simply perpetuate the older forms of oppression. Right? I think that’s certainly going to take changes. And changes have been certainly underway. But it’s— I don’t really have a very— I don’t think there’s an easy formula. I mean, I’m thinking about even the context of other countries, and India, too, where I think there are a lot of similar situations that I’m familiar with. And it’s very difficult for marginalized communities that have been historically ostracized then, you know, to feel that sense of belonging. I think there’s a tendency to just say, “Look, we’re fed up, we’ve tried and it’s not working. And now it’s time for revolution.” And that’s—I think in some parts of the world, even in our country, I think that’s sort of where we are. So it’s going to take some creative work to address that. Yuval might have some better ideas, but it’s, I see it as extremely challenging.
Yuval Levin: I can only share that sense. I think that one advantage that we sometimes have in America is that our ideals, the ideals we’re failing to live up to, are actually pretty high ideals on this front. And they do offer an object of belonging that speaks to exactly these kinds of anxieties and worries. They tell us that what we believe together is that everybody is equal under God, and not every society has that kind of ideal to look up to. And we should always try to use that as a source of strength, and the best American leaders have, so that even when speaking to a society about what it is doing wrong, you know, Martin Luther King can stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial and say, we’re actually supposed to be better than this. That is a way to draw people together, to say we all belong to something and some of us are failing to live up to it. It’s not a solution. But I do think that we should look for where our strengths are, and a lot of our strengths do lie in the aspirations we have and what we would like to be. Or at least we say we would like to be. We should take ourselves seriously and think about what it would mean to actually strive for that level of commitment to equality.
Cherie Harder: Yeah.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: You know, if I could just sort of add to that. I mean, just even in my experience in India recently where Christians have been persecuted for a long time, one of the moves that is being proposed in Christian communities is precisely reeducation in the constitution of the country, which sees the nation as a secular country. And secular in India means something different. It means equal respect for all religions. So the idea is by helping Christians to recognize, “Look, we are part of this country. Even if you are being told you’re a third-class citizen, that’s not right. You are part of this.” So, I mean, calling, you know, both dominant cultures as well as minority cultures to share in this sort of common ideal, I think is really crucial.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Spencer Bradford: “How much of the diminishment of tolerance in the culture wars is connected to the emergence of new forms of power, such as social media or academic associations and new institutions for which we’re still figuring out how to harness their benefits while limiting the impact of their power for intolerant reactions?” Yuval, want to take a shot at that one?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think it’s hard to deny that social media has changed the way that we engage with each other and interact with each other. I would say, though, that to my mind it seems like the degree to which it has had that influence is also in part a function of the waning of more traditional institutions. It’s still the case that people are most shaped by what is nearest to them, by their family, oftentimes by their religious community, by school, by the ethic of the place where they are. But as families have grown weaker and as some of our religious affiliations and other institutions have grown weaker, there’s been more room for us to be shaped by other cultural forces. And I think social media, among other things, stepped into that breach and shaped us in ways that I would think of as fundamentally deformative. So it’s not just the sheer power of social media, but also the weakness of the other institutions that should be playing that role. And I think what we should always ask ourselves, in looking at moments of breakdown, not only what is too strong, but also what is too weak. Not just what do we have too much of that we should try to get rid of, but also what do we not have enough of that we need to be building up? And to me, that is really an argument for thinking again about the core institutions of civil society and family and community, because their weakness is part of the reason why these other institutions that were never intended to be character forming have become character deforming.
Cherie Harder: That’s right. I want to combine two questions and toss them off to both of you. So first a question from Mark Bridgham. And Mark asks, “What gives you the most hope that we might find a way out or a lessening of the culture wars and return to our restrengthening of the boundaries and norms you’ve described?” As well as a question from an anonymous viewer who says that, “It’s easy to watch a conversation like this one and then walk away and immediately lose hope because of the circumstances around us. There’s so much suffering that we’re exposed to on a regular basis. How do we work to retain hope in times like this?” So essentially, what gives you hope and what should we do? Brandon, maybe we can start with you.
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Wow. Well, I mean, I do think there are, you know, so forums like this I think are great. I mean, even the forum like Comment magazine even to communicate that there are alternative voices to the culture wars, I think is really crucial. In my piece I wrote about mimetic models, right? We are really creatures of imitation. We need to see other models of being together in society and they have to be visible. The models that are out there that are appealing to a lot of people, I think, are—I think part of it is—incentivized by the ways in which mass media profits immensely from pitting us against each other. And so it’s a formidable challenge to make more visible other models of of being together, of living together. I think the existence of initiatives like Braver Angels or Heterodox Academy or even conversations like this, I think, gives me hope. I wish I knew how to do this at scale and to make it more appealing.
I do think we also have to take some personal initiative to reach out to people who are politically very different from us and figure out what can we do together. I don’t think the dialogs that need to happen need to happen around politics. I think they should happen in friendship where we’re about something else, part of some other community, whether it’s a faith community or something else. But I think finding places where we encounter those who are different and hold different opinions and recognize not just their humanity but their ideals. What do they aspire to? What are their joys and their hopes and their pains? I think rediscovering each other in that way is really crucial. And we have to, I think, be responsible individually for taking those steps.
Cherie Harder: Yuval?
Yuval Levin: That’s a tremendous answer and I can’t imagine that I can add to it. I’ll just try to subtract only a little. I think that the only thing I really would add is that part of my hope is rooted in the fact that people are not satisfied with this situation, that pretty much everybody recognizes that there is a problem to be addressed here. No one is just thrilled with how the life of our culture is going. And that means people are open and looking and asking, “What could we be doing differently?” It doesn’t always feel that way, but I think that a lot of us are just looking for a different and a better way.
And I think what’s important about both of those questions that you combined is the emphasis on hope. Hope is a very important way to think about a moment like this. And I would distinguish hope from just optimism, from just a sense that, you know, things could be fine. I think of hope as a virtue, right? Hope lives between despair on the one hand and a kind of presumption on the other hand. It lives between the notion that nothing could work out and the notion that everything is going to be fine. Both of those notions drive you toward passivity. They just say, “It isn’t up to me.” “It isn’t up to me, and we’re lost.” “It isn’t up to me. And don’t worry, everything’s fine.” Hope says, “It is up to me and I’m up to it.” Hope says the resources are there to find our way forward, that if we participate in our own salvation, it is possible.
And I think that is the right way to think about the kind of moment we’re in. It’s actually the right way to think about every moment. And so it isn’t really—that’s not an analysis of this situation, but of the human situation, where I think hope is the right response to the kinds of challenges we face. There are reasons to think that hope can be repaid, and what it demands of us is action in the name of improvement and strengthening and rebuilding. And I think this is a time for exactly that kind of action.
Cherie Harder: Yuval and Brandon, this has been such a pleasure and a joy to get to talk with you both. And in just a moment, I’m going to give each of you the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with all of you watching. First, immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online survey. We’d love for you to fill it out. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions into making these programs ever more valuable and enriching, and as a special incentive for doing so, if you do fill out that survey, we will give you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading digital download of your choice. We have over 100 different titles and there are several that pertain directly to the conversation that we have just had, including “The Federalist Papers,” “Children of Light, Children of Darkness,” “The Long Loneliness” by Dorothy Day, “Democracy in America” and several others. So we hope that you will avail yourself of that opportunity.
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Finally, as promised, I wanted to give the last word to Brandon and Yuval. Brandon?
Brandon Vaidyanathan: Gosh. Well, thank you. I’ve been really, really honored by just this opportunity and it’s been such an edifying conversation. I guess the one word that comes to mind after Yuval was talking about hope was what makes it worthwhile to persevere and to rebuild our institutions? And one of the things that strikes me is beauty, that there is a lot, I think, in, Yuval, your work you’ve talked about really how much progress we’ve made in terms of, you know, over the past couple of centuries in our country in terms of really discovering, I think, ways of being that—you know, we’ve made mistakes, but there’s also so much I think we’ve uncovered that really keeps us able to live more coherent lives. And I think recognizing really the beauty in our humanity is very critical. And that’s, you know, especially as we are tending to, in these times of culture war, take these sort of yes-no types of positions, staying open to the beauty of the humanity of the other I think is really critical and finding ways to to discover that. I’ve a new initiative in which I’m interviewing people of various political stripes and trying to explore what they find beautiful across a variety of domains. So interviewing a very conservative poet and then a very liberal cocktail bar owner. And for me, it’s been really edifying to recognize in people who are very different things that educate me about my own humanity. So I think there may be something in Dostoyevsky’s claim about beauty saving the world in these times.
Cherie Harder: Yuval?
Yuval Levin: That’s wonderful. You know, in thinking about a last word here, I almost inevitably fall to Abraham Lincoln and to his last word in his first inaugural address, which I really recommend reading out of context every now and then, because it’s very contextual—it was said in a moment on the precipice of war—but here’s what he said. This is the last paragraph of his inaugural address. He says, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the union when touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” I don’t know if there is a bad time to read that, but this is a very good time to read that. And it seems to me that it’s a reminder we all need. And so I thought I’d end there.
Cherie Harder: Yuval, Brandon, thank you very much. This has been a delight. We’d also like to thank Anne and all of our friends at Comment magazine and to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.