September 06, 2016
Our country is at an impasse, stymied by gridlock in Washington, a highly polarized press, and an increasingly toxic social media-driven discourse. Far from being our finest hour, the race for the White House has devolved into name calling and nativist appeals to fringe elements, while leaders on both the Left and Right seem powerless to find a way forward. Many citizens, if they can bear to watch, are left wondering how we got here.
In an era of sound bite-driven news, serious reflection and reasoned thought often get short shrift. Which makes Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism all the more welcome. In it, Levin, a National Affairs editor, former staffer in George W. Bush's White House, and historian of ideas (The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left; Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy), lays out a vision for a new politics that rejects the nostalgia of both Left and Right and challenges liberals and conservatives to renew America's social contract by moving beyond the stale certainties of the status quo.
The basis of Levin's argument is deceptively simple. In its efforts to advance economic equality while celebrating the continued expansion of individual rights, the baby boomer Left looks back wistfully at LBJ's Great Society and the creation of the welfare state as a high point in postwar American politics. The boomer Right, meanwhile, pines for the perceived moral clarity of a golden past while lauding the triumph of the market in almost every aspect of our lives. Even now, a decade and a half into a new millennium, the tension between these two versions of recent history reverberates and shapes the lived reality of our public life. But while there are lessons to be learned from both perspectives, the fundamental demographic and socioeconomic conditions of the country have changed to such a degree that the political solutions of mid-twentieth century America no longer make sense. "That the baby boomers so dominate our national memory and self-image means that we don't think enough about what came before the golden age of boomers' youth," he writes, "and we don't think clearly...about how things have changed since then."
Throughout the book, Levin adopts the respective lenses of both Right and Left, recounting their many ideological battles and political skirmishes. In so doing, he suggests that two developments which emerged out of the disasters of the twentieth century have shaped who Americans are and how they think — the expansion of federal power and the celebration of individualism and personal choice. And yet, as entrenched as these two forces in American life have become, little attention has been paid to how they have combined to subvert the middle ground between them. Levin writes:
As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions — from families and communities to local governments and charities — individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow….
He further argues that Left and Right value different aspects of this dynamic, creating an ontological bind that begets an even more "hollow polity." "The Right," he observes, "wants unmitigated economic individualism [and] a return to common moral norms," while "[t]he Left wants unrestrained moral individualism but economic consolidation."