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How the Constitution Can Bring Us Together (with Yuval Levin)

How the Constitution Can Bring Us Together (with Yuval Levin)

Update: 2024-06-101
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Yuval Levin, a political thinker and author, joins Econ Talk to discuss his new book, "American Covenant: How the Constitution Unified Our Nation and Could Again." Levin argues that the Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. He emphasizes that unity does not mean thinking alike, but rather acting together, even when disagreements exist. Levin highlights the Constitution's unique approach to balancing majority power and minority rights, arguing that it intentionally creates restraints on majorities to prevent oppression. He also discusses the role of competition in the Constitution, emphasizing how it forces different groups to put their best foot forward and seek compromise. Levin further explores the concept of "mitigated majority rule" in the American system, acknowledging the potential dangers of unchecked majority power. He argues that the Constitution's structure, including the Electoral College and the Senate, is designed to promote regional balance and prevent the dominance of large states. Levin also addresses the concern that the Constitution's checks and balances hinder progress, arguing that the system is designed to facilitate bargaining and accommodation, not simply to pass legislation. He concludes by emphasizing the importance of understanding the Constitution's underlying logic and the potential risks of eroding its norms, particularly in the context of social media and the increasing polarization of American politics.

Outlines

00:00:00
Introduction

This Chapter introduces the podcast and its host, Russ Roberts, along with the guest, Yuval Levin, and the topic of discussion: Levin's new book, "American Covenant." The podcast also provides information on how to subscribe, comment, and find links related to the episode.

00:01:20
Unity in a Divided Society

This Chapter delves into the concept of unity in a diverse society, particularly in the context of the United States. Levin argues that unity does not mean thinking alike but rather acting together, even when disagreements exist. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

00:24:35
Competition and the Constitution

This Chapter explores the role of competition in the American constitutional system. Levin argues that the Constitution intentionally promotes competition between different groups, including political parties, branches of government, and even states. He suggests that this competition serves as a moderating force, forcing groups to put their best foot forward and seek compromise.

00:44:38
Republicanism and the American Character

This Chapter examines the concept of republicanism in the American context. Levin argues that republicanism presumes a set of core virtues and ideals that must hold a society together, including selflessness, accommodation, restraint, deliberation, and service. He acknowledges that this view is unpopular in contemporary society but argues that it is a precondition for a liberal society.

00:54:28
The Future of American Unity

This Chapter addresses the question of whether the United States is on the verge of division or secession. Levin argues that the idea of Californians and Texans being too different to be part of the same country is absurd, emphasizing the shared American identity that binds them together. He acknowledges the existence of divisions but expresses confidence in the strength of the American character and the enduring nature of the United States as a single nation.

Keywords

American Covenant
A book by Yuval Levin that explores the role of the Constitution in unifying the United States and its potential to do so again. The book argues that the Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Constitution
The fundamental law of the United States, which establishes the structure of the government and defines the rights of citizens. The Constitution is a complex document that has been interpreted and reinterpreted over time, and its meaning continues to be debated. The Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Unity
A state of being united or together. In the context of the United States, unity refers to the idea of a shared national identity and purpose. Levin argues that unity does not mean thinking alike but rather acting together, even when disagreements exist. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Democracy
A system of government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections. The United States is a democracy, but it is also a republic, which means that the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. The Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Majority Rule
A principle of democracy in which the decision of the majority prevails. Levin argues that majority rule can be oppressive and that the Constitution is designed to mitigate its potential dangers by creating restraints on majorities. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Minority Rights
The rights and freedoms of individuals or groups who are not part of the majority. The Constitution is designed to protect minority rights from the potential tyranny of the majority. Levin argues that the Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the Constitution as a framework for achieving this kind of unity, particularly in challenging times.

Competition
The act of striving to gain something that is also being sought by others. Levin argues that the Constitution promotes competition between different groups, including political parties, branches of government, and even states. He suggests that this competition serves as a moderating force, forcing groups to put their best foot forward and seek compromise.

Electoral College
A body of electors established by the United States Constitution, constituted every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president and vice president of the United States. The Electoral College is a complex system that has been the subject of much debate. Levin argues that the Electoral College is a vital part of the American system, as it forces presidential candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters and prevents the dominance of large states.

Federalism
A system of government in which power is divided between a central government and regional governments. The United States is a federal system, and the Constitution defines the powers of the national government and the states. Levin argues that federalism is an important part of the American system, as it limits the power of the national government and protects the rights of states.

Republicanism
A political ideology that emphasizes civic virtue, public service, and the common good. Levin argues that republicanism is a core value of the American system and that it requires citizens to be selfless, accommodating, restrained, deliberative, and service-oriented. He acknowledges that this view is unpopular in contemporary society but argues that it is a precondition for a liberal society.

Q&A

  • What is Yuval Levin's main argument in "American Covenant"?

    Levin argues that the Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society, particularly in a time of division and tension. He emphasizes that unity does not mean thinking alike but rather acting together, even when disagreements exist.

  • How does the Constitution balance majority power and minority rights?

    The Constitution intentionally creates restraints on majorities to prevent oppression. It establishes a system of checks and balances, including a bicameral legislature, separate branches of government, and an indirect method of electing the president, to ensure that minorities are protected from the potential tyranny of the majority.

  • What is the role of competition in the American constitutional system?

    The Constitution promotes competition between different groups, including political parties, branches of government, and even states. This competition serves as a moderating force, forcing groups to put their best foot forward and seek compromise.

  • What is "mitigated majority rule"?

    It is a concept that acknowledges the potential dangers of unchecked majority power. The American system is designed to mitigate majority rule by creating restraints on majorities and promoting broader coalitions.

  • Why is the Electoral College important?

    The Electoral College forces presidential candidates to appeal to a broader range of voters and prevents the dominance of large states. It also encourages candidates to focus on swing states, which are often more moderate and diverse.

  • How does the Constitution shape the character of citizens?

    The Constitution, along with other institutions like the family and religion, shapes the character of citizens by promoting values like civic virtue, public service, and the common good. It also fosters a sense of independence, rights, and equality among individuals.

  • What are some of the challenges facing the American system today?

    The American system is facing challenges from the increasing polarization of politics, the rise of social media, and the erosion of norms. These factors have led to a decline in trust in institutions and a sense that the stakes of elections are absolute.

  • What is the future of American unity?

    Levin expresses confidence in the strength of the American character and the enduring nature of the United States as a single nation. He believes that the country is not on the verge of division or secession and that the shared American identity will ultimately prevail.

  • What is the most significant concern about the American system?

    The most significant concern is the potential for a candidate who has lost an election to refuse to leave office. This concern is heightened by the increasing use of social media to spread misinformation and undermine trust in democratic institutions.

  • What is the key takeaway from "American Covenant"?

    The Constitution is a vital tool for achieving unity in a diverse society. It is designed to promote competition, balance power, and protect minority rights. Understanding the Constitution's underlying logic and the potential risks of eroding its norms is essential for preserving the American system.

Show Notes

Can a document unify a nation? Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute and author of American Covenant argues that the Constitution unified the United States at the founding of the country and that understanding the Constitution can help bring the country together today. Listen as Levin speaks with EconTalk's Russ Roberts about how the Constitution not only took into account fractious politics, but also ensured that polarization would lead to a stronger democracy. Topics include the inherent limitations placed on the majority and how that affects policy formation, the vital if misunderstood advantages of the electoral college, and why, despite all the warnings to the contrary, this is far from a dangerous moment in American political history.

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How the Constitution Can Bring Us Together (with Yuval Levin)

How the Constitution Can Bring Us Together (with Yuval Levin)

EconTalk: Russ Roberts