A Cure for What Ails Us? If you are looking for a way of understanding the political party conventions of July and the fall campaign season, one could do worse than read Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism.
Levin is the editor of the conservative National Affairs and a contributor to The National Review. He served as a domestic policy advisor in the Bush II White House. He’s unabashed about his conservative convictions but he is equally critical of the misdirections of the Republican party as the Democratic.
His analysis of our present political malaise is rooted in an thorough examination of the changes in American society in the decades after WWII.
He believes that the 50s constituted a period in which a strong consensus about American identity, purpose, and destiny emerged. It was a period of consolidation, stability and rising prosperity. Left relatively unharmed by the great wars in Europe and the Pacific, America easily turned a wartime economy into a peacetime economy. Big corporations thrived unthreatened by foreign competition, industry boomed and supplied American consumers with products they yearned for, union members and college student grew in numbers. Perhaps the 50s look so good is that the political actors were able to find the right balance point or sweet spot between individualism and the common good.
Levin is a wise enough historian to know that there is a mythology that has grown up around the peaceful 50s, for beneath the surface of the decade, the forces of discontent and liberation were roiling. As he says, some Americans renounced renunciation. They wanted to dramatically escape the hardships of the Depression and war years. The revered organization man was challenged by Greenwich Village beatniks and Hefner’s hedonists. See the Madmen series for treatment of this tension. The expressions of individualism would erupt dramatically in the turbulent sixties where some rebellious members of the Baby Boomer generation became the counter-culture.
While both today’s liberals and conservatives may look back with some fondness at that period of national unity, the Democratic and Republican parties are more nostalgic for other decades that would follow. It is Levin’s conviction that this nostalgia for a once glorious and overly-admired past is what impairs our present political discourse and, more importantly, our ability to address problems that are significantly different than those that faced previous generations of politicians. The same point was made by the liberal columnist David Sirota in his 2011 Back to the Future: How the 1980s Explains the World We Live in Now – Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. The current battles are unproductive replays of past confrontations.
What we are highly likely to see at the party conventions and on the campaign trail are the nostalgic narratives of both parties. For the Democrats the Golden Age was the 1960s, a period of social activism that produced monumental civil rights legislation, saw the blossoming of feminist and gay rights activism, and witnessed justifiable opposition to misguided foreign policy. Enlightened individualism had not morphed into the narcissism of 1970s “me decade.” In the liberal plotline, the obstacles to greater personal freedom and choice were the hidebound cultural institutions, like both the mainline and fundamentalist churches and traditional political organizations. This special time was a short one, coming to an end with the assassinations and riots of 1968.
The Republican story is essentially a veneration of the Age of Reagan, a period in which the ascendant political forces tried to control the liberalizing forces of the 60s (the genie could not be put back into the bottle) and at the same time unleash the forces of the free market through deregulation, changes in banking rules, and giving a Green light to Wall Street entrepreneurs. The obstacles to such changes were those who argued too insistently for the principle of the common good as a counterweight to the destructive forces of unrestrained capitalism. The opponents were academics and bureaucrats and minorities too enamored of the New Deal “collectivism,” a wrong turn for the American nation.
In a nutshell, liberals continue to espouse social values that place a premium on individual choice and self-actualization while arguing for strong government or statist intervention in the economy and civic life to insure equality of opportunity. Conservatives endorse the social values of restraint, order and obedience to moral authority while pressing for the reduction of government meddling especially in the economy To his credit, Levin is aware of the hypocrisies of his own party: a party that argues for a smaller government is also the party that wants to set up the mechanisms that restrict the bedroom choices that citizens make. Nevertheless, Levin, a values conservative, expresses great concern about the rise in the number of births to unwed mothers and by citizens who shift from “nominally religious” to “unchurched.”
Another dimension of our present situation is the disappearance of or at least the reduction in the potency of what Levin calls the intermediary institutions through which civic life can flourish and progress can be made. What Levin has in mind here are the churches, fraternal organizations, and civic clubs which flourished in two or three decades after the end of WWII. He is very mindful of Robert Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a lament for the disappearance of the formal and informal places of face-to-face social and civic interaction.
The dire situation that Putnam described fifteen years ago seems more acute in the age of social media and expanding entertainment and news channels. [Some cultural analysts are not particularly worried and say that the function that the bowling league once served has been replaced by internet book discussion groups and model train aficionados websites.] In the Golden Age of the 50s, we got our news from three national TV organizations; today the news industry is dramatically fractured and splintered. Every citizen is now her own news and entertainment aggregator.
Levin’s goal then is to show us that the parties are moribund, prisoners of a romanticized and distorted past, that prevents them from clearly identifying contemporary problems much less come up with novel solutions. He believes that the American experiment in democracy has always been a struggle between individual liberty and the common good, but today’s combatants fail to see that the great diffusion of American culture, the solidification of many distinct regional political cultures, the rise in the number of Americans born outside of the country, and the lack of 1950s style consensus requires new ways of thinking about the future. They fail to admit that we live in a balkanized political landscape where regional differences well defined by the 19th century are even more pronounced today. This is a point powerfully made by Colin Woodard in his recent American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle between Individual Liberty and the Common Good.
While short on specific solutions, Levin does emphasize that we need to readjust our vision to the local and the regional. He does argue that a new commitment to federalism will enable us to see once again that states are laboratories of democracy and out of such experiments will come models of governance that others can imitate. [Some states today, like Kansas, are showing us bad models.]He cautions both parties to resist the impulse to over-reach during periods of their ascendancy; a diverse nation has no tolerance for a one size fits all approach, whether it be for an expanded welfare state and solutions by experts or for a radical individualism that wants to “drown government in a bathtub (Grover Norquist).” For instance, he cautions evangelicals, whose power and influence has eroded over the last decade, to accept their new minority status. Better that they show through their actions that choices about church attendance, family management, and charitable giving produce exemplary outcomes rather than argue that their religious liberties are imperiled by the secular state. Whether this and a thousand other points of light will diminish political rancor remains to be seen.
Not only during heated primary and general campaign times are we overly transfixed by presidential politics. No sooner will the 2016 election be finished than the 2020 will begin. To follow the parties’ constant efforts to win our votes for the presidency is to be struck by how divided the nation is, despite our current president’s observations that we have more in common that we generally acknowledge.
One antidote to despair and one source of finding “meat for Levin’s bones” are the endeavors of Atlantic columnist James Fallows. With his wife, private pilot Fallows has been traveling around the country documenting ways in which non-ideological local politicians (e.g., mayors, country executives, and business entrepreneurs in places like Duluth, Bend, and Greenville) are attempting to create livable environments and, in their own way, “put American back together again.” As Fallows says, in these places “national politics are a distant concern.” But it’s very hard to find a media profile of a dynamic, 34 year old mayor of South Bend who is transforming his city amidst the glut of attention lavished on Donald Trump.