Bradley Prize Remarks. By Yuval Levin. Ethics and Public Policy Center, June 13, 2013.
The Virtue of Gratitude. By Peter Wehner. Commentary, June 14, 2013.
mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for
what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it,
while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to
need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and
has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be
changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various
endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re
wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.
can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and
defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country
built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s
unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of
ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.
value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because
they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and
they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should
move us to defend them and to build on them.
not to say that conservatives are never outraged, of course. We’ve had a lot of
reason to be outraged lately. But it tends to be when we think the legacy and
promise we cherish are threatened, rather than when some burning ambition is
often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human
affairs—we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human
knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously
impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this
imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we
could do better starting from scratch.
often begin from outrage because they have much higher expectations—maybe even
utopian expectations—about the perfectibility of human things and the potential
of human knowledge and power. They’re often willing to ignore tradition and to
push aside institutions that channel generations of wisdom because they think
we can do better on our own.
can sometimes leave conservatives feeling like we are the brakes on American
life, while people on the left hold the steering wheel. Like they push for
their idea of progress and we just want to go a little more slowly. But that’s
a serious mistake.
American idea of progress is the
tradition that we’re defending. It is made possible precisely by sustaining our
deep ties to the ideals of liberty, and equality, and human dignity expressed
in our founding and our institutions. The great moral advances in our history
have involved the vindication of those principles—have involved America
becoming more like itself.
any society, the task of sustaining those kinds of institutions for the next
generation is the essential task—the irreplaceable precondition for everything
else. That is the work first and foremost of families, and of communities. It can
also be the work of educators, and of legislators. The work of democratic
capitalism and of our constitutional order.
are all connected by the need to sustain the great gift that is our country,
and when we fail to see them as connected—when for instance we think we can
advance our economic agenda at the expense of our concerns about the culture—we
risk losing that gift altogether.
course it is sometimes essential to push the envelope of those traditions when
they become stifling, and to make sure that the past is not an undue burden on
the future. But that is always a reactive or oppositional effort. It is never
the essence, and could never be more important than the work of making sure
that the foundations of American life—our free society, economy, and
government; our culture of virtue—are sustained.
those, there is no future. The work of preserving them is therefore not passive
work, it’s not restraint; it is the active work of keeping our society alive
and thriving. It’s not a brake, it’s the very engine of the American story.