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Levin's 'Liberty' Needs Less Utopia, More Whig

Nineteenth-century social reformers, mostly associated with the Whig Party, had a long-running internal debate about how to bend American culture to their will — for its own good, of course. Should they, when they had their hands on the levers of power, write laws that imposed their vision of the good society? Or should they expend their energies winning hearts and minds, persuading the populace to strive to be better people, of their own volition?

Both methods were tried, with varying levels of success, on issues ranging from dueling to temperance, from Sabbath observance to slavery.

Winning hearts and minds takes time. Winning elections takes votes. Votes are easier to get, but if you don’t get them, you can’t do anything. On the other hand, you can always be out winning hearts and minds, perhaps making it possible for you to win votes later on.

Any campaign such as the one Levin envisions would take years of winning hearts and minds. He notes the challenge, writing that he has “no illusions about the political difficulty in rallying support for amending the Constitution by this process.”

As well he should not, for one reason he acknowledges and one he glances past.

The resistance of the governing class “will be stubborn and their tactics desperate,” he writes, a fair assessment to be sure.

But he barely addresses an even more obvious challenge. What should give Levin more pause than the desperation of the elites is the voting record of the masses. It’s never made clear why he thinks the same people who have twice elected Barack Obama president will suddenly do a 180-degree turn and demand that the government undo everything Obama has just done.

Levin writes of the “untold numbers of citizens who comprehend the perilousness of the times and circumstances.”

But their numbers are not untold. They were told in 2008 and again in 2012. Turns out there are fewer of us than there are of them, at least for the time being.

One hates to discourage dreamers, so by all means, read this book. Levin has written a well-argued manifesto presenting a positive vision that serves as a welcome antidote to the leviathan-like present and dystopian future for which we seem to be headed.

Certainly, as he argues, winning elections isn’t sufficient. But winning is necessary. Before attempting a revolutionary rewrite (or restoration, if you prefer) of the Constitution, let’s see if we can muster a simple majority in a presidential election. Otherwise, the convention Levin seeks to call might yield results somewhat less satisfactory than he imagines.

John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and author of a forthcoming history of 1844 that will be published in fall 2014 by Chicago Review Press.

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