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."
Given this fundamental disagreement, what's a political scientist — or politician, for that matter – to do? Levin makes a case for what he calls "subsidiarity"— the empowerment of "institutions at different levels of our society to address those problems for which they are best suited." It's not a new solution exactly, but rather a call for a more federalist form of government. It's also an approach, he believes, that would start to undo a century of governmental consolidation at the federal level and return power to local communities seeking diverse solutions to local problems.
What is truly novel about the book, though, is not his policy proposals — the book is more meditative discourse than blueprint — but rather his willingness to consider and reflect on the arguments of his ideological opponents. The Fractured Republic is not a partisan tract meant to rally the Republican base with and through hoary platitudes, fear tactics, and demonization of those who disagree with its views. It is, instead, a book of ideas. Levin is admirably even-handed in recounting the evolution of American politics and society, equitably sharing the blame for the current nadir in our public discourse between both parties. And he is intellectually honest in explaining his frame of reference, proudly stating, "I am a conservative, and not a bashful or half-hearted one." While readers who comfortably locate themselves left of center may not agree with those ideas, especially as they pertain to cultural issues, thoughtful citizens from across the political spectrum will benefit from engaging with his argument, which is aspirational rather than prescriptive.
That said, Levin could have more deeply explored the role of social media and technology in creating our current political divide. Of technology, for example, he writes, "[The Internet] is a kind of embodiment of the ethic of expressive individualism — it lets all of us put ourselves out there, but it generally gives us only what we want and seek out." But he doesn't explore in any detail how these self-forming virtual communities may respond to, or work against, his call for subsidiarity. Nor does he spend much time on the role played by the mainstream media, more broadly, in the fraying of the American social fabric.
Perhaps the most glaring omission in the book, however, is his failure to mention, and account for, the one name in politics that has become ubiquitous in this fraught political season: Donald Trump. It's an omission that rings loudly. Perhaps Levin (or his editors) wanted to extend the book’s shelf life by not pegging it to a particular election cycle. Or maybe, as the book was going to print, Trump was not yet seen as the erratic if entertaining (in ratings terms) front-runner he has become. Or perhaps the absence of any reference to Trump is purposeful, a silence subtly signifying the Trump candidacy as both symptom and culmination of our fractured republic.
Throughout the book, Levin cites Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French aristocrat and historian/sociologist famous for his 1838 masterwork Democracy in America. Central to Tocqueville's thought was his wariness of tyranny and his observations about the unique American institutions and practices of governance that form a bulwark against despotism, from either crowd or crown. Levin, like Tocqueville, is hopeful about the American experiment: "We will recover our strength and also our unity," he writes, "by living more of our lives at eye level with one another."
But with so many voices vying for attention, perhaps what The Fractured Republic most usefully provides its readers is an opportunity to listen to someone who shares their aspirations but has arrived at them from a different starting point. Indeed, how less fractured would our republic be if more of us took the time, as Levin does, to think deeply about the goal of politics and engaged those who see the world differently with an open mind and more generous spirit? While it's not likely we'll divine the answer to that question in this election cycle, Levin gives us hope that, with a little more effort, we will figure it out.
Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.