×

Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

Creating Unity in a Diverse Society

Yuval Levin, Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Editor of National Affairs, contends that America's founding ideals can create unity amidst our pluralism.

Interview with Yuval Levin, Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute February 23, 2021 //   17 minute read

Yuval Levin is Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he also serves as the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy. The author of A Time to Build, Levin believes that local communities are uniquely positioned to address modern challenges, including doing the hard task of creating unity in a diverse society. Levin, who immigrated to the United States from Israel with his family when he was in third grade, served in President George W. Bush's administration.

He spoke with Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager of the Human Freedom Initiative at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor, about creating room for pluralism and diversity. The founding editor of National Affairs, Levin contends that America’s founding ideals can create unity amidst our pluralism. He also comments on Europe’s identity challenges in the video clip included above.

Let’s start with this question: How do you define “we the people”?

That’s a beautiful and broad question. The assertion of “we the people” at the beginning of the preamble to the Constitution was an aspirational move. It didn't describe something that had already been achieved and was there, it described a goal as much as a nation.

National unity in a diverse society is always an ambition and aspiration. But we're not a new society now. We're a country with a long common history together. An important piece of that history has been our ability to adapt to demographic and cultural change. So, too, is our ability to come together as a country in times of need and to stand together in normal times.

National unity in a diverse society is always an ambition and aspiration. ...We're a country with a long common history together. An important piece of that history has been our ability to adapt to demographic and cultural change.

The fact that the Constitution begins that way is a beautiful marker of how the United States, unlike many other societies, defines itself by the ideals and principles that hold it together. “We the people” describes a society that holds in common a commitment to equality, liberty, and dignity, that allows itself to be defined by that common commitment. We now have more than two centuries of history trying to make that a reality. Our society can be unified by both those ideals and that common history.

We're obviously a diverse country. So how do you create a common narrative in democracies with diverse populations?

The United States has faced this problem for a long time. In a sense, it has always faced this problem. It has dealt with the challenge both by grounding itself in understanding its ideals and principles and by building a common heritage. That common history is not rooted in ethnicity, but in the common experience of American life.

Our great guide is Abraham Lincoln, who embodies in his thought, rhetoric, and actions how our ideals define us and how what he called the “mystic chords of memory” can hold a society together. We can all harken back to that common experience. But it is rooted not in a traditional kind of national identity, which often is ethnic and divisive. Instead, it is rooted in a distinctly American story that is, among other things, a story of openness.

I would never want to downplay the difficulty of the challenge of holding together a diverse society. That is an extremely difficult challenge, as we learn every day in America and are learning at this very moment.

For liberal democracies that may lack a Lincoln, how do they create the conditions to welcome diversity?

We're very lucky to have had a Lincoln and to have had other great leaders who have helped us through this challenge. But the need to welcome diversity while also being a liberal society and a democratic society means allowing majoritarianism to give direction to our public policy and our national life. Majoritarianism sounds nice until you're in the minority, and the challenge we always face is how to protect minority rights while also empowering broad and durable majority views to govern.

The American Constitution is an answer to that question and can be of use to other democracies too. The Constitution looks at the challenge as not choosing between majority rule and minority protections, but instead choosing both and creating a balance between them. 

This means creating institutions that allow for accommodation between different groups in society. In our system, that institution is particularly Congress, and we suffer when Congress is weak, as it is in this moment. When Congress is weak, we lack the ability to reach accommodations and compromise. 

You want institutions that encourage compromise. You want to build a culture of tolerance that is not a culture of nihilism, that doesn't ignore what people think the good is. We are home to people with different views about that question and we can find ways to respect their different views while also holding us together.

It’s essential that there is some agreement about basics, such as the equal dignity of every person. That is fundamental to democratic life. And we cannot do without that belief. Once we have that, then we have a framework that can allow for a fair amount of balance between majoritarianism and respect for minorities.

This also requires of the citizen an attitude of devotion to that society. What do we mean when we say this is my country? Do we mean I belong to this country or do we mean this country belongs to me? Those are very different ways of thinking about the responsibility of a citizen.

What do we mean when we say this is my country? Do we mean I belong to this country or do we mean this country belongs to me? Those are very different ways of thinking about the responsibility of a citizen.

To say this is my country means that my allegiance is here. I define my obligation as a responsibility to my fellow citizens. It does not mean that this country belongs to me, so my group, my community, gets to dominate and everybody else must answer to us. It’s important in America that we recognize that none of us gets to simply own this place. 

We have an obligation to this place that's rooted in gratitude and a commitment to its principles. But it's a hard balance to sustain. And you see it in every diverse democracy. 

You are an advocate of finding solutions to problems that are closest to where people live. What role, then, does localism play in creating room for diversity and pluralism, including making room for immigrants?

Localism is enormously important to how the United States has dealt with this problem and how successful societies in general have done so. We can look at other diverse democracies from Canada to India to see how allowing some freedom for communities, not just for individuals, can enable people to have the sense that they live in a community that takes them seriously. At the same time, they live in a diverse society where not everybody agrees with them about everything.

----dynamic----

That demands a degree of tolerance that can be difficult to achieve. We have to be willing to say, “This is how we do it here, they do it differently on the other side of the country, but we're one society.” There are different ways of living within the broad boundaries of a single nation and its identity.

The United States has always been very good at this. If you want to be hopeful about American life at this point, it makes much more sense to look at it from the bottom up. I can imagine very few of our problems being readily addressed from Washington, but I can see many of them being addressed in local communities.

People there see each other face-to-face. They recognize that sometimes our way of life might not make sense in theory, but it makes sense in practice as we live together as neighbors and take each other seriously and respect each other.

This is what a liberal society ultimately amounts to. And it involves an enormous amount of tolerance and accommodation, while enabling communities to be morally meaningful and to live out their views about the good. 

To me, the kinds of problems we have, which are challenges of belonging and alienation and failures of community-building and affiliation, can only really be addressed at the community level. As a nation, we can enable different communities to address these problems in their own ways for their people. Through that, we can build an allegiance that adds up to a national identity. 

That’s America. That's the American story. That's the American secret.

As a nation, we can enable different communities to address these problems in their own ways for their people. Through that, we can build an allegiance that adds up to a national identity. 

That’s America. That's the American story. That's the American secret.

So, how do we create a welcoming society that integrates immigrants and refugees into our common ideals and common story?

Some of it is civics education and a traditional sense of learning about that history. Some of it is also the nature of the ideals and principles that help to define that American story and American experience.

Here, too, I would look to Lincoln. He gave an amazing speech in 1858, where he talked about how many of our people are not descended from the founders. They can't look back to their fathers as the source of their national identity, but there's something else they can look back to. 

I made sure to have this here with me, so I can read this one passage from this extraordinary speech. Here is the quote:

"But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relations to those men. That it is the father of all moral principles in them and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. And so they are." 

As an immigrant myself, I've always found it so powerful that by integrating these ideals into your own understanding of the human person, of politics and society, you become a child of the founders yourself.

As an immigrant myself, I've always found it so powerful that by integrating these ideals into your own understanding of the human person, of politics and society, you become a child of the founders yourself.

Unlike many societies, we enable people to become part of this community by taking on some of these truths that we hold together. Our history is a story of this kind of integration. It can speak to new immigrants in a way that says, “You’re the latest chapter in a long story that is a great story of success and can continue to be.”

----dynamic----

That’s a great passage. Are there local communities where you see Lincoln's words alive, integrating immigrants and their families into the community? If so, what is working?

We can find a lot of examples of Americans being a very welcoming society. I find those in my own experience.

I came to the United States when I was eight. My family came to Northeast Philadelphia. Looking back, there were enormous challenges and I found it very difficult as a child. I'm just shocked by the amazing, welcoming attitude of just about everybody around us, who looked for ways to be helpful, including children in school.

I was in third grade. It could easily have been a nightmare, but it wasn't. The sense that we welcome people who are new here and understand that this is how the country builds its future, runs very deep for a lot of Americans. 

How can we have a common national identity while at the same time having people maintain their own particular ethnic, social, or cultural identity?

This is an important, enormous challenge. We have to see how our differences are something that we bring to the table in America. 

They're not all that we bring and they're not all that we stand to gain. We're not just insular factions fighting for turf in American life, we're a society. We get to be Americans together, and that means we get to benefit from the distinctiveness of different communities in our society, including our own community. But that requires us to respect others and allow other people to draw on their roots and to live within their own communities, even as they live in that larger society.

Some of this is recognizing the complexity that's inherent in federalism and subsidiarity and the notion that most of life is lived close to the ground. It’s not lived at the national political level, especially in a country as big as ours. It is lived at the level of family, community, religion, and school. There can be an enormous amount of diversity, even in a country that ultimately defines itself by a commitment to certain common ideals.

It can be very hard to articulate a philosophy that opposes the inclination now to identity politics. But that inclination is extremely dangerous and destructive for our kind of society. We have to see this is one country made up of distinct communities and ultimately of distinct individuals.

We have to see this is one country made up of distinct communities and ultimately of distinct individuals.

You started to go down this road, so how do we in a free society maintain an identity, but not weaponize it through racial, religious, or ethnic national sentiments?

There’s a tendency in identity politics to say that our differences are what matter most about us. Our differences matter, but they're not what we are ultimately about. Our society looks to draw on the best of a diverse array of communities and individuals. That means we ultimately are working towards cohesion and cannot stop at the level of our differences. We have to look for what can unite us and bring us together.

Identity politics lazily gives up on that and says, we are where we start, we are what we are by our ethnicity, by our race, what we're born with, and that's it. And we have to arrange a society that recognizes the reality of these distinct and insular communities. 

But our society has a much higher ambition. It ultimately looks to achieve an integration that doesn't lose the distinctiveness of its different communities.

This is very hard to do. Sometimes, it's practically impossible. But in the effort to do it is where we are our best selves as Americans.

 

Up Next:

How Gender and Technology Impact Migration on February 23, 2021