No More Nostalgia
Yuval Levin shows how America can thrive in its age of fracture.
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, by Yuval Levin (Basic Books, 272 pp. $27.50)
Yuval Levin has issued a challenge to both the Left and the Right: define and communicate a positive vision for twenty-first-century America. The new book by the founder and editor of National Affairs would be formidable if it merely diagnosed how America arrived at what he calls “our age of fracture.” But The Fractured Republic is exhilarating because Levin doesn’t just demand that policymakers jettison nostalgia and come up with creative new approaches—he walks the walk, offering a model answer of his own.
Levin traces the national economic and cultural consolidations of the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar era, when a moment of cohesion and liberalization allowed the country to “benefit from the familial, social, cultural, and economic stability made possible by that unity and order, while also benefiting from the dynamism made possible by greater individualism, diversity, and competition.” But this “inevitably fleeting transition,” he shows, gave way to “dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.”
Change creates serious problems if met with nostalgia instead of creativity. In a wry yet insightful passage, Levin maps the aging of the nation’s culturally dominant Baby Boomers to the way each decade has come to be remembered: childhood in the 1950s as “a simple time of stability and wholesome values” giving way to the “youthful rebellion and growing cultural awareness” of the mid-1960s, then a “confidence shaking” entry into real life in the 1970s, “settling down” in the 1980s, “building wealth and stability” in the 1990s, and starting to “peer over the hill toward old age” at the turn of the century. The Left, he suggests, looks back longingly to the idealism of the sixties; the Right, to the stability of the eighties. Rather than accept society’s profound transformation, “we have tended to understand this era of uncertainty . . . as an aberration, and so we have spent the past decade and more waiting for a return to normal that has refused to come.”
Levin illustrates how this nostalgia infects and distorts American politics, leading both parties to create platforms aimed at resurrecting a bygone era. Policymakers on the left are forever “seeking to add more rooms onto the mansion of the Great Society” because they fail to recognize the “unstable dichotomy” of economic consolidation and cultural liberalization it embodied. Presiding over the Obamacare vote in the House of Representatives, Levin notes, Nancy Pelosi proudly wielded the same gavel used by Congressman John Dingell for the passage of Medicare 45 years earlier. The Right, meanwhile, feels “the urge to define today’s problems as simply a reversal of Reagan-era achievements . . . . They paint in broad strokes an economy that could grow with gusto if only some straightforward, misguided restraints were removed.” But “the combination of global circumstances, regulatory restraints, cultural exclusions, and policy controls” that supported a “half-remembered golden age” at mid-century “is not one that we could (or would want to) re-create today.” So Levin poses the question at the book’s heart: “How can we make the most of the opportunities afforded by the dynamism and the freedom set loose by America’s postwar diffusion while mitigating its costs and burdens, especially for the vulnerable among us?”
The key question is not which federal programs should we expand, contract, or reform, but under what social framework—inevitably different from the one in place in 1950—will America thrive? Neither Left nor Right has answered this question. Levin seeks to offer a plausible vision of an American future that sounds different from LBJ-era progressivism or Reaganite smaller government. Paraphrasing James Madison, he argues that “we must seek diffusing, individualist remedies for the diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society.” He calls his own vision “subsidiarity,” which he defines as “the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well.”
Subsidiarity demands a reinvigorated role for what Levin, following figures like Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhas before him, calls the “mediating institutions” of society—family, work, community, religion—that operate in the middle ground between individuals and their government. These institutions have, he says, been “hollowed out” by the complementary ascent of centralized government and radical individualism. Forcing interaction “face to face” or “living more of our lives at eye level with one another,” as he puts it, “can help build stronger habits of engagement and participation at the local level, where, too often, meeting spaces now stand empty, because what happens there is not allowed to matter.” This is a federalism of sheer necessity: localized problem-solving is uniquely responsive to the challenges of fracture.
These principles find ready application in the economic sphere. The concept of subsidiarity provides intellectual grounding for a broad range of existing policy ideas from the Right—flex funds, charter schools, faith-based initiatives, among others—and also offers a basis for the nascent “public-options progressivism” on the left.
But what about the culture, whose transformation Levin says has run much deeper than the economy’s? Levin is at his best when making the secular case for social conservatism—describing how “expressive individualism,” in coming to dominate American culture, has eviscerated many of society’s critical institutions, and what an alternative built on relational obligations and “morally meaningful communities” might look like. While declaring it “rather obvious . . . that cultural and economic factors are inseparable,” Levin views “family breakdown, cultural dysfunction, and the polarization of norms” to be the primary culprits impairing opportunity.
His formula of subsidiarity, however, makes an awkward fit for this challenge. Levin believes that “the common culture is much less important than it used to be,” which makes it “much easier to imagine local, bottom-up moral subcultures creating the circumstances necessary for social renorming and moral revival.” He wouldn’t “abandon” the common culture or “stop struggling for its character and soul,” but he sees the best opportunity for positive change in “living out what we propose to our neighbors as the good life.” That prescription seems inadequate for those struggling with cultural dysfunction in collapsing communities, who are the focus of his concern. Many of the societal bifurcations he laments would preclude these Americans from encountering positive role models. And his prescription of a “subcultural approach” doesn’t differ much from what we’re doing today, which isn’t working terribly well. Levin suggests that traditionalists “may not need to do something new, but they might need to understand what they are already doing in a new way,” and that “this can suffice, especially if they are willing to welcome into their circle outsiders who come in search of what they have to offer.” But this can’t suffice if the goal is to reverse the decline of subcultures whose members seem ill-equipped to turn this around on their own.
“The absence of easy answers,” Levin argues, “is precisely a reason to empower a multiplicity of problem-solvers throughout our society.” Yet he wants the conservative subculture to “embody universal human truths that should shape the character of the larger society.” Since, in his view, there is a right answer, subsidiarity as he describes it seems less solution than resignation.
Still, it’s no small accomplishment that Levin manages to give readers a thorough diagnosis, a usable vocabulary, and a foundation to build from. He urges us to define notions of success that are “indigenous to twenty-first-century America,” not relics of an earlier era. And he puts society’s mediating institutions at the center of his vision. “The work of reinforcing them,” he concludes, “sustaining the space for them, and especially putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible must be among our highest and most pressing civic callings. That calling, rather than a hyper-individualist liberation, should be the organizing principle of our political life, helping us to see what to conserve and how to progress.”Agree or disagree with Levin’s prescription, he has made the need for a novel and aggressive course of treatment impossible to deny.
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