James K.A. Smith: At the heart of your diagnosis is that we’ve got this contemporary penchant for nostalgia, which is a desire to return to some part of the twentieth century. Whether it’s ’63 or ’83 or something like that, people have some golden age in mind. But what you point out is that these periods of prosperity were shaped by pretty unique conditions and factors that are no longer in place. So you can’t just turn back the clock. There’s no going back. This nostalgia just results in us spinning our wheels. Does that sound like the first half of the diagnosis?
Yuval Levin: Yes. I’d say in particular that what’s appealing to people about the times they miss is that they provided a stable backdrop for liberalization. I think that’s incredibly important. They offer you a way to make positive change without destroying the infrastructure. That’s the core of what we now don’t have. We have liberalized. In a sense, we need to regain that stability, but it’s just not what we’re looking for. We’re very inarticulate about that.
I think a lot of what people on the right miss is the stable family, the stable community that allowed us to believe in free markets and pursue them. A lot of what people on the left miss is the really stable society that allowed us to open it up, to say, “This is great and strong, but we need to be more inclusive and let people of different races in, let women work” and all that stuff that we should be proud of having done. But that was done against a very cohesive backdrop, and our doing it has made it less cohesive. We just live in a different situation.
JS: Were both of those liberalizing moves then also dependent on a kind of borrowed capital that we don’t recognize or own?
YL: Exactly. It spent that capital without restoring it.
JS: Is it too strong to describe it as parasitic?
YL: Well, yes and no. It’s parasitic in a sense. I think progress in any civilization always has to involve burning some kind of fuel. The trick is to be replenishing it. Especially to be replenishing that cultural capital you have to work with in order to make any effective change. We’ve not done nearly enough of that. We just assume it will always be there, and it isn’t.