Yuval Levin opens his new book with an accusation that bites: that the Baby Boomers have propagandized subsequent generations into accepting a version of history that has been “blinded by nostalgia.” Both sides of the political divide are guilty. The Left is nostalgic about the 1960s. The Right is nostalgic about the 1980s. Both sides are nostalgic about the 1950s, albeit for different reasons.
In all cases, the Baby Boomers are recalling personal memories that are central to their identities. “The trouble,” Levin writes, “is that it is not only the boomers themselves who think this way about America, but all of us, especially in politics,” which explains “why younger Americans so often find themselves reenacting memories they do not actually possess, and why our nation increasingly behaves like a retiree.” In The Fractured Republic, Levin seeks to set the record straight and lay out a conservative agenda that is in touch with reality.
In Part I, he retells the story of America from Eisenhower to Obama, stripped of the nostalgia. He agrees that the 1950s were a kind of Golden Age, but says they were only part of a unique, unrecoverable era that ran from the end of World War II through the first years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. This era saw the culmination of institutional consolidation that had been going on since the late 19th century. The consolidation had taken many forms: the growth of industrial giants, the creation of national media networks, centralization of power in the federal government, and the pressures for national unity and solidarity during the Great Depression and World War II. The effects of the consolidation had spilled over into the culture, pushing America’s traditional individualism into the background.
Upon the end of World War II, cultural liberalization began. “Crucially, however, the liberalization that would characterize the post-war era took place at first against the backdrop of the highly cohesive America that had taken shape in the prior half-century,” Levin writes. “The country would 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. It was an unstable mix, but it allowed the nation, for a time, to enjoy the best of both worlds.” For Levin, the landmark legislation in civil rights, voting rights, and immigration in 1964–65 was part of the cultural liberalization, while the education, anti-poverty, and health-care programs enacted in those years were continuing expressions of consolidation and centralization that “drew upon the logic of an era that was ending.”
Then came the 1970s and the Age of Frenzy. Everything was going wrong at once. The Vietnam War had been a disaster. Inflation was persistent while the economy sputtered, and “stagflation” entered the lexicon. The idealism of the civil-rights movement was replaced by new forms of racial antagonism. “But it was the collapse of the culture of solidarity that was perhaps the most jarring,” Levin writes. “The spirit of nonconformity that had emerged at the end of World War II, which had morphed in the 1960s into an idealistic quest for self-actualization, had degenerated by the 1970s into a jaded and strident individualism. Rejection of authority had quickly become the reigning spirit of American culture.”
This process had its good side. The deconsolidation of America’s economy led to more competitive and innovative companies during the 1970s (think FedEx, the effort to break up AT&T, and the emergence of the IT industry). But the social capital that historically had made American communities work was taking the hits that would later be documented in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. The sexual revolution and no-fault divorce were wreaking havoc with the family. And there was feminism. “It is hard to think of any cultural transformation in human history as simultaneously swift and profound as the changing place of women in the lives of Western societies in the decades after World War II.”
For Levin, the Reagan years saw a modulation in the frenzy, but not reversals. Those same years should have revealed a truth had we not been blinded by nostalgia: America did not have the option of returning to its mid-century balance of social stability and cultural vitality. Just as Levin sees the early Johnson years as a continuation of the post-war era, he sees the Clinton years as a continuation of the Reagan years. Some of the disorientation of the 1970s faded, but the deconsolidation of America continued.
Then America entered the 21st century and an age of anxiety that continues to this day. The nation is less centralized than before, but we have seen a hollowing out of the middle of American society and greater concentration at both ends — what Levin calls “bifurcated concentration.” Wealth and poverty are each more concentrated geographically, and more separated. Giant corporations and boutique enterprises flourish, while medium-sized factories and locally owned stores are squeezed out. The centralized power of the two major parties has diminished, but political polarization has increased. The Internet enables us to interact exclusively with people who share our avocations and political views, displacing interactions with the more varied mix of the people who live in our geographic vicinity. “Society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions — family, community, church, unions, and others — fade and falter.”
I hope these snippets tempt you to read Levin’s rich, nuanced history of the last 70 years. It is a conceptually integrated guide for stepping back from the conventional conservative narrative — Fifties good, Sixties bad, Eighties good, Obama a disaster — and seeing afresh what has brought us to 2016.
Part II of The Fractured Republic turns to what is to be done. Levin has already signaled in Part I his general solution: subsidiarity, meaning the devolution of power to the lowest possible level. Part II grounds the case for subsidiarity not in nostalgia for a great American tradition but in the realities of the 21st century.
Levin begins with the seismic changes in the economy since the end of the 1960s, featuring the usual suspects: globalization, automation, and immigration. Levin also emphasizes “consumerization,” by which he means the way that consumers’ preferences for low prices and high quality have come to dominate workers’ preferences for high wages and job security. Together, these changes should have, but haven’t, transformed the way that Left and Right approach the problems facing Americans at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
In the course of this discussion, Levin makes a contribution of great importance: He takes on the logic of social democracy as a way to help the people at the bottom.
The ideal of social democracy remains at the center of progressive American politics, as exemplified by Bernie Sanders’s plea that the United States become more like Europe. The reality is that the social-democratic model is now obsolete, for three reasons.
First, the social-democratic model “takes a degree of social cohesion for granted that is no longer realistic.” The traditional form of the safety net initially works in a society of stable families and tight-knit communities. But it undermines those very institutions, and now is increasing the estrangement of the most vulnerable Americans from mainstream life.
Second, “our welfare state also looks and functions like the institutions of a bygone age.” Private companies have had no choice but to become “nimbler and more responsive, customizable, and adaptable.” Public bureaucracies have not been required to be any of those things.
Third, “the social-democratic vision points back to a fundamentally anachronistic epistemology.” The Progressive movement was founded on the belief that experts could solve social problems and that they must be given freedom to work their magic independent of political interference. It was never a sound theory of knowledge — the range of public-policy issues that lend themselves to technocratic solutions was always narrow — but the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that still prevails in government is absurdly out of sync with the private sector’s use of dispersed knowledge and diverse consumer choices.
All of these are familiar talking points among conservative critics of social democracy. Levin’s argument is more ambitious: As of 2016, he says, the Left itself should jettison its attachment to social democracy, because it is now the horse and buggy of governing models. The Left can doubtless find some other model that will enrage the Right, but holding up Sweden and Denmark as exemplars is myopic. The Swedes and Danes themselves have long since abandoned Bernie Sanders’s version of the social-democratic model. So should American progressives.
Turning from the economic to the moral realm, Levin takes up the problem of “expressive individualism” — a spirit of liberation from the condemnation and social stigma of traditional norms regarding sexuality, marriage, religion, or simply appropriate behavior in public. Levin has a few kind words to say about the ways in which expressive individualism has made our society more welcoming and accommodating, producing “a softening of our society’s hard edges and a warming of its cold places.” But these good things cannot balance the damage that the solipsism of expressive individualism has done to society’s most crucial institution, the family, “the primary source of the most basic order, structure, discipline, support, and loving guidance that every human being requires.”
There follows an analysis of why social conservatives have been so powerless to oppose the ravaging effects of expressive individualism through suasion or political action, leading eventually to Levin’s conclusion that conservatives “should assert themselves by offering living models of their alternative to the moral culture of our hyper-individualist age” by forming communities of their own. It is jujitsu social reform: Take the forces of multiculturalism and self-segregation that in other ways are tearing the country apart and make use of them for conservatives’ purposes.
It’s an intriguing idea. But family decay has not reached all parts of America. A typical upper-middle-class community, even one that votes Democratic, already consists overwhelmingly of married couples who are raising their children lovingly and assiduously. It’s hard to find evidence that the rest of America sees these as “living models . . . to the moral culture of our age.” Why should communities of conservatives behaving in much the same ways have any greater effect?
The final chapter of The Fractured Republic begins with extended discussions of the dysfunction of contemporary government and how both Left and Right get “freedom” wrong. I have differences with Levin on both counts. I think he neglects the role of America’s institutional sclerosis in explaining the federal government’s dysfunction (see Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Decline of Nations for details). Much of what ails Washington is beyond repair by either the White House or Congress, no matter how many conservatives hold office. I think that Levin neglects the distinction between the Left’s “let people do their own thing” definition of freedom and the understanding of freedom shared by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (and, for that matter, the Founders): Let people do their own thing but require them to pay the prices of their decisions. The distinction amounts to the difference between libertinism and libertarianism, and taking it into account would have modified Levin’s presentation substantially.
But this is another way of saying that Levin is a classical conservative and I am a classical liberal. Levin concludes the book with an agenda that I wholeheartedly endorse, based on subsidiarity and restoring the roles of mediating institutions. We take slightly different paths to the same end.
This marvelous book appears at the worst possible time. It is erudite at a moment when erudition is ridiculed; nuanced at a moment when simplistic idiocies win elections; motivated by a devotion to human flourishing at a moment when “human flourishing” is calibrated in disposable income. But Levin deals in verities, and verities have a long shelf life. The Fractured Republic is an invaluable resource for understanding how America came to its present predicament and what must be done to rescue it.
– Mr. Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.