Blame it on the politics of nostalgia.
Yuval Levin makes a convincing case why both of America’s major political parties have it wrong. The Democratic Party remains fixated on the good old days of the Great Society – the 1960s – when big government programs run by technocratic experts seemed to be the answer to everything. The Republicans are stuck in the glory days of the Reagan era – the 1980s – with supply-side economics and “it’s morning in America again.”
It doesn’t help clarify or resolve anything that the Democrats see the Reagan era as a betrayal of the Great Society, and the Republicans see the Great Society as the betrayal of the Constitution. Both parties are still stuck in the politics of nostalgia, and it’s a politics that is making America and the world increasingly unsettled and uneasy, if not dangerous.
What the two parties seem not to understand is that America, and Americans, have been changing since the 1960s and the 1980s. And Levin sees three key characteristics of that change: “the weakening of our established institutions, a growing detachment from the traditional sources of order and structure in American life, and an intensifying bifurcation of ways of living.”
Traditional sources of authority – political, cultural, religious, and social – have been diffusing and in some cases atomizing. These changes were not caused by the internet and social media – they were well underway by the time Tim Berners-Lee (not Al Gore) invented the worldwide web in the late 1980s. What the internet did do was to exacerbate and enhance the changes that were underway. The internet “is particularly well suited to our individualist, deconsolidated way of life,” Levin writes. “In some respects, the Internet embodies the kind of society we are in the process of becoming: it is decentralized, personalized, and individualized.”
It may seem paradoxical but it actually makes a strange kind of sense. As we decentralize and continue to “personalize and individualize,” more power flows to the federal government. And the federal government is increasingly ill-suited to deal with the domestic and global problems the country is grappling with, and not only because of the politic standoff in Congress.
Levin writes from a conservative perspective, but that perspective doesn’t blind him to the failures of conservatism and the Republican Party. He offers penetrating insights on all of our major institutions. For my generation, the Baby Boomers, he says the equivalent of this: “There’s no going back to the 1950s. Institutions were still respected and heeded. A belief in the progressive improvement of life was still holding sway. The mainline Protestant denominations were a dominant force in American society.” And none of that is true today. Consider the numerical collapse of the mainline Protestant groups who seemed determined to embrace full extinction.
And to my children, the Millennials, he says the equivalent of this: “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad. Nothing works better for civilization than the family, and to throw out traditional concepts of the family is to seriously risk the eventual collapse of society. You may achieve complete individual freedom at the expense of that freedom.”
Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs. He also worked on staff at the White House and Congress and is a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard. He is also the author of Tyranny of Reason: The Origin and Consequences of the Social Scientific Outlook (2000); Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (2008); and The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (2013).
The Fractured Republic isn’t only an explanation of what’s wrong; it also offers possible a number of solutions, beginning with building upon those forces that seem to be tearing our society apart. Levin doesn’t see a fundamental problem of inequality in America, but he does see what he calls the fundamental problem of immobility. Levin’s proposed solutions are not prescriptive and one-size-fits-all. Instead, they rely on an individualized and experimental approach.
I don’t think I could find a better guide to the 2016 presidential election than The Fractured Republic. It’s a thoughtful, important, and vital work.
Top photograph by Dawn Hudson via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.