THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
By Yuval Levin
Basic Books. 262 pp. $27.50.
It’s almost funny reading that autopsy now.
In early 2013, the Republican National Committee ruminated on the party’s latest presidential election defeat and came up with a 100-page report — officially called the Growth & Opportunity Project, although those in the know dubbed it the Republican “autopsy” — concluding, among other things, that the GOP had to find ways to attract young people, women and ethnic minorities, especially Hispanic voters. “Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue,” it decided.
So, of course, the next Republican presidential nominee is . . . Donald Trump. With his wall and his misogyny, his nativism and his arrogance, Trump is almost the precise opposite of what party gurus had hoped to offer. He is splitting the party, alienating movement conservatives, raising fears of a November bloodbath for other Republicans on the ballot and confirming the worst popular suspicions of a retrograde, out-of-touch GOP.
Yuval Levin doesn’t want to wait for the death to launch a postmortem. A former official in the George W. Bush White House and a leader of the “reform conservatives,” Levin has authored “The Fractured Republic,” a dense work of political philosophy that can be frustratingly vague and hard to get through. Yet, get through it we should. Without mentioning Trump or the 2016 race, Levin illuminates this moment in two essential ways. He explains the illusory appeal of nostalgia-driven politics in the United States, the kind that Trump stokes in coarse, simplistic terms. More important, he offers a path forward for the American right after this campaign, whether it is adjusting to life in Trump’s America or coping again with another electoral setback.
“The Fractured Republic” is a short book that sees a long road ahead. Levin wants a humbler, more local conservatism, one less concerned with tearing down Washington or promoting hyper-individualism than with creating space for America’s “mediating institutions” of family and community to blossom. This vision involves “a mix of dependence on others and obligations to them,” Levin writes, “and so a connection with specific people with whom you share some meaningful portion of the actual experience of life.”
Levin wants us to bowl together.
It is the “again” in “Make America Great Again” that gives Trump’s campaign mantra its power, that effectively mixes nostalgia, grievance and revanchism into a political platform. Remember when we were great? Who can we blame for our lost greatness? Muslims? Mexicans? Women? Liberals? Political correctness? China?
Levin understands the allure of nostalgia; indeed, he believes that almost all contemporary politics is based on it. “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,” Levin writes. “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.” These competing nostalgias, though more sophisticated than Trump’s, are no less misguided, and lead to bad politics and policy.
Sure, there is plenty to long for, Levin says. In the early decades of the post-World War II era, the United States enjoyed “relative cultural cohesion, low economic inequality, high confidence in national institutions, and widespread optimism about the nation’s prospects” (especially if you were white and male). But that was a unique pivot point in U.S. history, a time when the country was straddling two opposing forces that would define the American century: consolidation and diffusion.
The first half of the 20th century, Levin contends, was an age of consolidation, with a peerless industrial economy, a strong centralized government and a relatively uniform cultural identity shaped by a powerful mass media. In the century’s second half, by contrast, the U.S. economy became more diversified and deregulated, while cultural conformity broke down in favor of individualism and the politics of personal identity. America went from consolidation to decentralization; it drew together and then it pulled apart.
And for a fleeting moment at midcentury, it enjoyed the best of both. “The social, political, and economic forms of American life at midcentury made possible a degree of prosperity and cohesion that in turn enabled many Americans to flourish,” Levin writes.
There were battles, no doubt. The left rallied against cultural orthodoxies while embracing the top-heavy economics of the era; the right enjoyed the cultural conformism while chafing against economic restrictions. And we’re still fighting. “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,” he writes. “And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us.”
This stale — and stalemated — debate leaves people discouraged with politicians who don’t seem engaged with their current struggles. “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,” Levin writes.
Can’t imagine whom he has in mind.
Trump’s brand of nostalgia is crude, layering prejudice and jingoism with the bluntest of protectionist measures, such as tariffs, religious tests and physical walls separating us from them. But the nostalgia of the traditional political class is also pernicious and “blinding,” Levin argues, because it keeps us from grappling with the real problems assaulting us in the age of diffusion, problems that a candidate like Trump eagerly exploits.
“In liberating many individuals from oppressive social constraints, we have also estranged many from their families and unmoored them from their communities, work, and faith,” Levin writes. “In loosening the reins of cultural conformity and national identity we have weakened the roots of mutual trust. In unleashing markets to meet the needs and wants of consumers, we have freed them also to treat workers as dispensable and interchangeable. In pursuing meritocracy, we have magnified inequality.” The result is a bifurcated America, torn between wealth and poverty, order and disorder. “Increasingly, society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions — family, community, church, unions, and others — fade and falter.”
This is Levin’s fractured republic.
He laments the breakdown of the economic and cultural order of postwar America, especially beginning in the 1970s, citing the era’s high crime, explosion of out-of-wedlock births and eroding family structures. And although he acknowledges that the “expressive individualism” of our time — defined as the desire to “pursue one’s own path” and the “yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity” — has unleashed a new spirit of liberation and allowed once-repressed people to express themselves more openly, he worries that the price of this new freedom has been high. “We have set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation that we are still afraid to acknowledge as the distinct social dysfunction of our age of individualism, just as crushing conformity was the characteristic scourge of an era of cohesion and national unity,” Levin writes.
The answer to all this is the pursuit of what Levin describes as a “modernized politics of subsidiarity — that is, of putting power, authority and significance as close to the level of interpersonal community as reasonably possible.” This is not simply an effort to strengthen federalism and the prerogatives of states vs. Washington, though Levin is a fan of that, too. He is most concerned with the thicket of institutions in the middle — families, schools, religious organizations, all the things usually lumped together as civil society. Rather than regarding American politics as a battle between statism and individualism, Levin writes, “we should see it as an effort to open up the space between them — the space where a free society can genuinely thrive.” Our objective should be to “channel power and resources to the mediating institutions of society and allow for bottom-up problem solving that takes a variety of specialized, adapted forms.”
It is a very Tocquevillian vision, with a dash of Catholic social teaching thrown in. No doubt, to yearn for the renewal of these traditional institutions is its own kind of nostalgia. But Levin does not expect or even hope for a return to midcentury values; he knows that this “incremental revival,” as he calls it, would lead in directions we could not anticipate. He does hope that a greater attentiveness to the local would deescalate our left-right divisions, “lowering the stakes, and therefore the temperature, of our national politics.” A nice thought.
So how do we go about strengthening families, religious organizations, schools and all those mediating institutions? Levin’s recommendations are aggressively vague, and where they get specific they seldom surprise. He calls for a “mobility agenda,” with economic growth spurred by tax and regulatory reform, a more competitive and low-cost health-care system, lower budget deficits — all part of a standard conservative recipe. He proposes education reform that includes more professional certificates, apprenticeships “and other ways of gaining the skills for well-paid employment that do not require a college degree.” He prefers to untether employees’ retirement accounts and health insurance from any particular workplace, but acknowledges that this would require “more fundamental policy innovations, and it is not yet evident just what those will be.” Okay, then. It’s nice if the things you want are all bottom-up and empowering and networked and diverse and flexible, but adjectives are not policies.
Of course, Levin’s intention here is less to offer detailed proposals than to shift the locus of policymaking itself — and to infuse it with greater humility. “There is not much that public policy can do,” he admits, “to create communities that do a better job of encouraging constructive behavior: it could, however, do less harm, and it could leave room for such communities to form, and protect the space in which they take root and grow.”
This call for humility extends to Levin’s fellow social and religious conservatives, who he says have “lost their place of honor in the moral life of our society.” They can no longer just make a negative case, say, against single parenthood or the relaxation of traditional sexual mores, but should offer something positive. “Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people’s eyes and hearts to the alternative.” Their incessant focus on religious liberty, for example, while important, may be counterproductive, “a fundamentally plaintive and inward-looking minority asking to protect what it has and in essence to be left alone,” Levin argues. Instead, social and religious conservatives should “assert themselves by offering living models of their alternative to the moral culture of our hyper-individualist age.”
In other words, less hectoring and lecturing, less trying to remake the culture at large, and more strengthening one’s “near-at-hand community,” Levin writes. He calls this approach “subcultural traditionalism” (he might want to try something catchier there), and he sees it in “civic groups that channel their energies into making neighborhoods safe and attractive, or into helping the poor, or protecting the vulnerable, or assimilating immigrants, or helping fight addiction; in schools that build character and inculcate the values parents think are most important; in religious congregations that mold themselves into living communities of like-minded families, and that turn their faiths into works to improve the lives of others; in the work of teachers and students who are committed to liberal learning and engagement with the deepest questions.”
Such a localized focus, Levin maintains, is not “an alternative to fighting for the soul of the larger society, but a most effective means of doing so.”
Levin’s ideas have reportedly influenced some former 2016 GOP presidential candidates, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio, who in his most recent book thanks Levin and his reform-conservative colleagues for “moving conservatism into the twenty-first century.” Jeb Bush last month praised Levin’s “smart, hopeful” vision for a revitalized conservatism. The book might be read as what could have been if a certain New York real estate billionaire had re-upped with “The Apprentice.”
And it still might be that. The kind of transformations Levin seeks will take more than a Republican presidential candidate who is sympathetic to them. In our current politics, it’s hard to imagine Bush or Rubio overhauling the Republican platform along these lines, even with the nomination in hand. No, I suspect the fulfillment of Levin’s vision would require a party and a movement that grasp the exhaustion of their current approach. A November defeat, especially a landslide, might accomplish that.
Instead of retreating into the wilderness, they could just take a walk through the neighborhood.
Read more from Book Party, including: