By Yuval Levin
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No wonder, then, that Americans — and the politicians who represent them — are overwhelmingly nostalgic for a better time. The Left looks back to the middle of the twentieth century, when unions were strong, large public programs promised to solve pressing social problems, and the movements for racial integration and sexual equality were advancing. The Right looks back to the Reagan Era, when deregulation and lower taxes spurred the economy, cultural traditionalism seemed resurgent, and America was confident and optimistic. Each side thinks returning to its golden age could solve America’s problems.
In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin argues that this politics of nostalgia is failing twenty-first-century Americans. Both parties are blind to how America has changed over the past half century — as the large, consolidated institutions that once dominated our economy, politics, and culture have fragmented and become smaller, more diverse, and personalized. Individualism, dynamism, and liberalization have come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, and social order. This has left us with more choices in every realm of life but less security, stability, and national unity.
Both our strengths and our weaknesses are therefore consequences of these changes. And the dysfunctions of our fragmented national life will need to be answered by the strengths of our decentralized, diverse, dynamic nation.
Levin argues that this calls for a modernizing politics that avoids both radical individualism and a centralizing statism and instead revives the middle layers of society — families and communities, schools and churches, charities and associations, local governments and markets. Through them, we can achieve not a single solution to the problems of our age, but multiple and tailored answers fitted to the daunting range of challenges we face and suited to enable an American revival.
LIFE IN AMERICA IS ALWAYS getting better and worse at the same time. Progress comes at a cost, even if it is often worth that cost. Misery beckons relief, so that our virtues often turn up where our vices have been. Decay and decadence almost always trail behind success, while renewal chases ruin. And in a vast society like ours, all of this is always happening at once. That means there are no simple stories to tell about the state of our country, and that upbeat and downcast social analyses are often just partial descriptions of one complex whole.
That complexity is a constant annoyance for people in my line of work. I am the editor of a journal of public affairs and a scholar at a think tank in Washington, DC, where I write about policy and politics. I am therefore in the business of trying to understand our public problems and proposing solutions. That would be easier to do if our public life were, as we all sometimes imagine it is, the scene of simple struggles between the righteous and the wrong, and if the recipe for flourishing were obvious and within our easy reach if only our political opponents were cleared away.
American politics is frequently paralyzed by the illusion that things might be that easy. But in our time, in particular, our politics is overwhelmed by an unusually intense and often debilitating frustration that is rooted in a form of that illusion, but runs deeper. Liberals and conservatives both frequently insist not only that the path to the America of their (somewhat different) dreams is easy to see, but also that our country was once on that very path and has been thrown off course by the foolishness or wickedness of those on the other side of the aisle. Liberals look back to the postwar golden age of midcentury America, which they believe embodied the formula for cultural liberalization amid economic security and progress until some market fanatics threw it all away. Conservatives look fondly to the late-century boom of the Reagan era, which they say rescued the country from economic malaise while recapturing some of the magic of the confident, united America of that earlier midcentury golden age, but was abandoned by misguided statists.
Each side wants desperately to recover its lost ideal, believes the bulk of the country does, too, and is endlessly frustrated by the political resistance that holds it back. The broader public, meanwhile, finds in the resulting political debates little evidence of real engagement with contemporary problems and few attractive solutions. In the absence of relief from their own resulting frustration, a growing number of voters opt for leaders who simply embody or articulate that frustration.
This book begins from that widespread frustration, which I take to be a function in large part of a failure of diagnosis, and so a failure of self-understanding. American life in the decades since the end of World War II has not been, on the whole, a story of finding the right course and then falling away from it. We have actually held fairly steadily to something like a single complex but coherent trajectory, which has turned out to bring us progress at a cost.
In our cultural, economic, political, and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.
The America that emerged from World War II and the Great Depression was exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions. But almost immediately after the war, it began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting: over the subsequent decades, the culture liberalized, the economy was deregulated, and an exceptional midcentury elite consensus in politics gave way to renewed divisions. In time, this fracturing of consensus grew from diffusion into polarization—of political views, of incomes, of family patterns and ways of life. There was no sharp break in this process, and no change of direction midway. We have grown less conformist but more fragmented; more diverse but less unified; more dynamic but less secure.
Both progressives and conservatives are conflicted about this combination of gains and losses. Progressives tend to treasure the social liberation, cultural diversification, and expressive individualism of our time, but they lament the economic dislocation, the loss of social solidarity, and the rise in inequality and fragmentation—and their consequences for the most vulnerable Americans, in particular. Conservatives tend to celebrate the economic liberalization, dynamism, and prosperity, but they lament the social instability, moral disorder, cultural breakdown, and weakening of fundamental institutions and traditions—and their consequences for the most vulnerable Americans, in particular.
Some exceptionally brooding traditionalists bemoan it all, of course, but only by ignoring the genuine progress modern America has made. Some exceptionally gleeful libertarians celebrate all of it, but only by ignoring the human costs we have paid. Most progressives and conservatives see good and bad, but each group believes not only that we could have what it values without what it deplores but also that Americans once had the recipe for such a feat, whether in the mid-1960s or the early 1980s.
As a result, our political life is now exceedingly nostalgic. The ambitions of most of its various partisans begin with calls for a reversal of some portion of the great diffusion of our national life that has defined the American experience for more than half a century. This nostalgia is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics now. If we could see our way past it, we might gain a much better grasp of the nature of the problems we face and the shape of potential solutions.
Some of the most considerable challenges we now confront are actually the logical conclusions of the path of individualism and fracture, dissolution and liberation that we have traveled since the middle of the twentieth century. And some of the most considerable resources at our disposal for addressing those challenges are also the products of our having traveled this path. Our problems are the troubles of a fractured republic, and the solutions we pursue will need to call upon the strengths of a decentralized, diffuse, diverse, dynamic nation.
The state of our politics makes it terribly difficult to see any of this or to act on it, however. The structure of our key debates suggests to us that politics must be a choice between collectivism and atomism—between empowering a central government to impose solutions and liberating isolated citizens to go their own ways. These debates therefore often devolve into accusations of socialism and social Darwinism, libertinism and puritanism, and they encourage us to think that we must either double down on dissolution and radical individualism or return to mass consolidation and centralization.
But if we considered the lessons of our postwar history, and the lessons of what preceded and precipitated it, we might come to grasp a truth that some perceptive friends of American democracy have long sought to call to our attention: collectivism and atomism are not opposite ends of the political spectrum, but rather two sides of one coin. They are closely related tendencies, and they often coexist and reinforce one another—each making the other possible. It is when we pursue both together, as we frequently do in contemporary America, that we most exacerbate the dark sides of our fracturing and dissolution.
There is an alternative to this perilous mix of over-centralization and hyper-individualism. It can be found in the intricate structure of our complex social topography and in the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state. These begin in loving family attachments. They spread outward to interpersonal relationships in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, religious communities, fraternal bodies, civic associations, economic enterprises, activist groups, and the work of local governments. They reach further outward toward broader social, political, and professional affiliations, state institutions, and regional affinities. And they conclude in a national identity that among its foremost attributes is dedicated to the principle of the equality of the entire human race.
Our society is thus like a set of concentric rings, beginning with the most concrete and personal of human connections and concluding in the most abstract and philosophical of human commitments. Each ring, starting from the innermost sanctum of the family and the individuals who compose it, anchors and enables the next and is in turn protected by it and given the room to thrive. The outermost ring of society is guarded and sustained by the national government, which is charged with protecting the space in which the entire society can flourish and enabling all Americans to participate in and benefit from what happens there.
This understanding of society, this picture of our social compact, is itself what is most threatened by the fracture and fragmentation of our era. But it is at the same time what holds the key to balancing diversity with cohesion, and dynamism with moral order. The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
There will be no simple or universal formulas for doing that, but there are never simple or universal formulas for revitalizing a complex society. Indeed, the absence of easy answers is precisely a reason to empower a multiplicity of problem-solvers throughout our society, rather than hoping that one problem-solver in Washington gets it right.
This book therefore ultimately argues that the frustration that defines our time should lead us not to seek an impossible return to a half-remembered golden age, but instead to work toward a modernized politics of subsidiarity—that is, of putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible. That is what the modernization we now so badly need would look like.
Our country has a long tradition of contending with its vastness and its multiplicity in this way. And our politics has resources for the task as well. Progressives can draw upon a deep reserve of experience in populist community and labor activism, a history of intellectual dalliances with a communitarian liberalism, and a lively elite culture of localist consumerism. But they must also resist their own instincts toward both administrative centralization and moral individualism. Conservatives can call upon a profound intellectual tradition and a rich philosophy of society rooted in the preeminence of the mediating institutions, a commitment to constitutionalism and federalism, and vast experience with a host of different forms of bottom-up problem solving in the church, the market, and the charitable enterprise. But they must also resist a long-honed inclination to express their objections to centralization in radically individualist terms. And countless Americans of all parties and no party are practical, experienced experts in putting family, faith, and community first and helping one another in hard times.
A modernized ethic of subsidiarity would therefore not yield a radical revolution in American life but an incremental revival. And it would not involve a checklist of public programs and policy steps. It would begin, instead, with an instinct for decentralization in our public affairs, a tendency toward experimentation and bottom-up problem solving, a greater patience for variety in our approaches to social and economic problems and priorities, more room for ingenuity and tolerance for trial and error, and more freedom for communities to live out their moral ideals, and so to each define freedom a little differently.
It would involve greater attentiveness to the near at hand, and so a lesser emphasis on immense national battles—lowering the stakes, and therefore the temperature, of our national politics. It would surely bring much change to the institutions of our entitlement state and welfare system over time, but by enabling salutary competition rather than replacing one set of centralizing assumptions with another. It would not call upon some revanchist fantasy of a premodern age of voluntarism, but rather would seek to modernize our public institutions to bring them into line with a decentralizing society where choice and competition are the norm. It would, in other words, work to turn our very fracture and diversity into tools for addressing some of their own worst consequences.
THIS BOOK IS STRUCTURED AS an effort to show why such an ethic might be necessary, and what it might involve. It begins by suggesting that the acute frustration that characterizes twenty-first-century America is closely linked to an intense nostalgia that can teach us something but that also blinds us to the nature of our contemporary strengths and weaknesses and must be overcome.
It then offers a cursory overview of some key historical trends of the past century that our nostalgia might particularly incline us to ignore or misunderstand, and that therefore could be particularly useful for putting the midcentury golden age that so beckons to us into perspective. These trends suggest that we cannot hope to address our problems by reversing course. And they argue, in particular, that it is especially implausible to imagine that we might recapture the dynamics of midcentury America. Our society was then precariously suspended between an era of consolidation and conformity, on the one hand, and an age of liberalization and fracture, on the other—benefiting from the best of both, but in a way that could not last.
Rather, we should strive to understand the problems that our fragmentation and fracturing have posed for us, and the ways that our diversity and dynamism might help us to address them. We should look for ways to thrive that are suited to the nation we have become and are still becoming. The book concludes by considering where such a search might lead us—in economic, cultural, and political terms.
What follows is thus part diagnosis and part prescription. But it is mostly a fumbling for clarity—not a comprehensive picture of our circumstances and prospects, but a guided tour of some key elements of each that we might be particularly prone to miss.
In light of that, a few brief caveats about your guide are in order before we begin. First, I am a conservative, and not a bashful or half-hearted one. I have worked for a Republican president (George W. Bush) and several Republican members of Congress, and I deeply identify with the ends and means of the American Right. I would not pretend to put my most basic political views to the side in advancing the arguments that follow. On the contrary, they are drawn from my experience working to refine and elevate conservative ideas in our politics in various ways, and they reflect my convictions and views, as they must.
This book contains a fair amount of criticism of the contemporary Right. But it is, I freely acknowledge, criticism rooted in shared commitments and goals, which points to places where we on the Right now fall short of what American conservatism could be at its best. It is a form of self-criticism, and so is unavoidably prone to the ever-present tendency of self-criticism to meld into self-congratulation. I have tried to avoid that, needless to say, but I am certain I have sometimes failed. The book also contains a fair amount of criticism of the contemporary Left. But it is criticism from the outside, and so is inevitably different in character—less intimate and so less nuanced, fair, and forgiving—than anything I might have to say about the Right. I have tried to correct for this, too, but it likely matters most where it was not obvious enough to me to have been remedied.
Such partiality is the lot of any writer on public questions. Anyone who tells you otherwise is asking to be disbelieved, and ought to be. And I submit that this is not a reason to dismiss social and political writing but to value it. There is no perch above society from which we can see more clearly than the people living in it. There are only perches within society, and we can elevate our sights by considering how things might look from those of others. So I imagine that some readers will not nod their heads approvingly at every judgment in these pages—because they don't see things my way, and also because they see things I do not. I only hope they might ask themselves whether the reverse might also be true—and so that what follows in these pages, by exposing something I have seen to someone with eyes to see it differently from me, might spark some insights that would not have otherwise occurred to either of us.
And this points to the final proviso I would offer: this book is an essay, in the original sense of the term. An essay is an attempt to understand. It is not a legal brief, or a treatise, or a manifesto of some kind, but an effort to grasp what isn't easy to reach, and to see what isn't perfectly clear. An essay gropes and grapples. So the arguments that follow are not intended to be delivered in a tone of confident authority but in a mode of questioning and trying out. That kind of tone can be impossible to sustain in the course of a book-length essay, and constant recurrence to it through qualification and throat-clearing would quickly grow tiresome. I will do some of that, where it seems especially needful. But know that I offer the whole of the case that follows, and each of its parts, as but one man's observations from a particular vantage point on our politics.
That vantage point has left me endlessly impressed with our extraordinary country, but also concerned for its future. That mix of confidence and worry, what Alexis de Tocqueville called "that salutary fear of the future that makes one watchful and combative, and not that soft and idle terror that wears hearts down and enervates them," should guide our thinking about the nation's challenges. I have tried to make it the dominant tone of what follows.1
OUT OF ONE, MANY
BLINDED BY NOSTALGIA
THE FIRST DECADE AND A half of the twenty-first century has been a frustrating time for Americans. Opinion polls and election results attest to exceptional levels of pessimism and unease. We have not been happy with the state of our economy, our politics, and our culture—or, in other words, with our common public life as a nation.
At first glance, this unease seems fairly easy to explain. Our economy has been sluggish since this century began, and not only during the economic crisis and recession of 2008–2009. The country's strongest year of economic performance in the twenty-first century so far, 2004, saw a level of growth (3.8 percent) that barely reached the average of any of the prior four decades. The century also began with the worst terrorist attack in American history, which shattered our hope for a peaceful post–Cold War world. The globe has since seemed to stumble from one perilous crisis to another, with no real prospect of a stable order yet in sight. Meanwhile, our politics has been polarized and intensely divisive. And our cultural battles about sensitive subjects—from stem cells to marriage, religious liberty to national identity—have been fought at a fever pitch that has left all sides feeling besieged and offended.
Some key indicators that cross economics, culture, and politics—such as family breakdown and inequality—have also persistently pointed in troubling directions for quite some time. And these may be especially pertinent to the curse of entrenched poverty and low social mobility in America, which has been with us for decades now but has made itself felt more forcefully in this century.
The opening years of the twenty-first century have thus given Americans real reasons to worry. And yet, there has plainly been more to the frustration of this era than a straightforward response to challenging circumstances. Our problems are real, but the ways in which we discuss them often seem disconnected from reality, so that the diagnoses attempted by politicians, journalists, academics, and analysts have tended only to contribute to a marked disorientation in our public life.
That disorientation has itself been a defining feature of American public life in this century so far. It's as if we cannot quite figure out where we stand, and therefore where we're headed. We live in a period of profound transformation, but we have been thinking and talking about it in a peculiar way: we have tended to understand this era of uncertainty not so much as a transition but as an aberration, and so we have spent the past decade and more waiting for a return to normal that has refused to come.
We have been inclined to judge every new economic datum in recent years by whether it offers signs of our finally getting back to what we assume is our natural course—but in fact has not been our course in this century at all. Our best social analysts have assessed the implications of vast cultural and economic trends more by how far they suggest we have strayed from mid-twentieth-century benchmarks than by what they might tell us about contemporary America and its future path.
The political system has shared in this tendency and reinforced it. The Right and Left alike have seen the challenges of this century as consequences of our abandoning a favored path that once served us well (though, of course, they disagree about just what that path involved). The Republican and Democratic parties have each portrayed our country as the victim of a malicious interruption perpetrated by the other, and so each has seen the challenges of this century as reasons to double down on its own long-standing agenda rather than for trying to apply enduring principles to novel circumstances.
Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.
Even though our leaders are often just reflecting our own anxiety and wistfulness, voters can sense as a general matter that the politicians' diagnoses are wrong, and that their prescriptions are therefore deficient. This suspicion has given us the feeling that our politics has become inept and rudderless, which drives a further loss of faith in leaders and institutions—and even greater frustration with how things are changing and how our country just doesn't seem to function as well as it used to.
We have spent the beginning of this century drenched in nostalgia. And while we might sometimes be nostalgic because we find today's circumstances frustrating, the opposite is also frequently the case, especially in our politics: we are frustrated because we are so nostalgic. And the particular form that our nostalgia has taken renders us incompetent, or at least badly confused.
WE HAVE GROWN SO ACCUSTOMED to the ubiquity of a particular kind of nostalgia in our public life that we barely stop to notice it anymore. But listen to how we speak to one another about the state of the country, and you will quickly be struck by the sheer power that a certain understanding of our fairly recent past has over us. It is a kind of living specter that looms over our sense of the present and the future. It serves as a reference point for our most important judgments. And it emerges with particular force when we analyze our dissatisfaction—when we try to explain what is wrong.
Describing the economic anxieties of many Americans in his 2011 State of the Union Address, for instance, President Barack Obama sought to evoke that common memory of loss:
Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn't always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you'd have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion. Maybe you'd even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful.1
Here we find all of the archetypal elements of the nostalgic appeal: Obama called upon personal recollections of a lost ideal, described that bygone time as possessing everything we now take ourselves to lack, and defined progress as a recovery of what that earlier age had to offer.
It is unlikely that very many people watching that night actually did remember the world the president described, or even that such unadulterated opportunity ever really prevailed in America. But even if it is not a very accurate recollection, this vague collective reminiscence of a prelapsarian America is a defining feature of our own era. And just as in the president's speech, it often serves to root our aspirations in remembrance—to argue that great things are achievable in America because we once achieved them.
Nostalgia serves this purpose for conservatives no less than liberals. Obama's opponent in the following year's presidential election, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, appealed to the same sort of shared congenial memory. Speaking to the 2012 Republican National Convention upon winning the party's nomination for the presidency, Romney began by telling his audience that he had seen the promise of America:
I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer. It was a time when Americans were returning from war and eager to work. To be an American was to assume that all things were possible.2
A recovery of that eagerness, that attitude, that lost assumption, he told the nation that night, was the essential prerequisite to a flourishing future for America. Others at that convention delivered the same basic message to the public: we can do it again because we did it back then.
The Republican who had effectively come in second to Romney in the primaries that year, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, made this case especially powerfully, putting it at the center of his vision of American renewal. In his book Blue Collar Conservatives, Santorum began his assessment of the country's problems this way:
There was a time not long ago when Americans without college degrees could expect to earn a decent and steady income in exchange for hard work. This income and job stability provided a foundation for families and communities that, with their churches, Little Leagues, Boy Scout troops, and a hundred other civic organizations, fostered the strong values and the work ethic that underpinned American life. Millions of Americans came of age in these communities and took those values with them as they started their own families and thanked God for his blessings. With good incomes, Americans could afford new cars, kitchen appliances, and trips to Disneyland. Demand for such new goods kept others working and employment strong. With stable marriages, children enjoyed the gift of security and neighborhoods where values were taught at home and in church and enforced by parents. This is how I grew up.3
- "Yuval Levin is one of the most important conservative intellectuals of his generation, so his books are worth reading almost regardless of the topic. But The Fractured Republic stands on its own as an indispensable piece of work."—Jonah Goldberg
- "A rich, nuanced history of the last 70 years... The Fractured Republic is an invaluable resource for understanding how America came to its present predicament and what must be done to rescue it."—Charles Murray, National Review
- "Should be required reading for all those trying to understand contemporary America."—Financial Times
- "Mr. Levin has done conservatism a service by reining in nostalgia. His writing is precise, well-observed and witty in a sober sort of way."—The Economist
- "Mr. Levin is among the Republican Party's great intellectual leaders and has proposed a new direction for conservatism. We'll soon learn whether the party's political leaders follow his wise advice."—J.D. Vance, Wall Street Journal
- "Useful in helping us understand why conservative intellectuals have been so intensely opposed to Donald Trump."—New York Times Book Review
- "A devastating indictment of the welfare state and a good primer for effective conservative policymaking in the future."—Tevi Troy, National Review Online
- On Sale
- May 23, 2017
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Basic Books