In the midst of a very unusual presidential campaign, it can be difficult to think past the election in November. To try to grasp a wider perspective and see around the corner to the most useful politics of the future, I decided to read The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin, hearing about it from this review. Levin is a conservative intellectual, but the book comes highly recommended by thinkers on both the left and the right, and deservedly so, as I would soon discover.
Not everyone has the time to read hundreds of pages, so I thought it would be useful to summarize it here. If you’re at all intrigued, I would highly recommend reading the full book, of course. Levin builds his theses very thoroughly and convincingly, and seems to describe quite accurately a wide variety of perspectives on recent history, not just his own. His writing is appropriately nuanced and footnoted in a way that this condensed version inevitably will fail to be.
Levin’s thesis can be summarized in five major points:
- American politics today is all about dueling nostalgias. Democrats want to recreate the policies of 1965, while Republicans want to recreate those of 1981, despite the vastly different world we live in today.
- American history consisted of an era of vast consolidation in the first half of the 20th Century and an era of rapid diffusion in the second half.
- The single most important trend of our current era is this fracture, which exhibits itself in a wide range of aspects of our collective life.
- Any solutions to our troubles in this era must take into account this reality, and work to capitalize on our dispersion rather than simply try to reverse it.
- Of particular promise are the mediating institutions of family, community, civic life, and religion which offer human-scale solutions but need shoring up.
If that whets your appetite, or you’re not quite sure what some of those points mean, keep reading. To put this longer summary together, I reread the book and highlighted my favorite ½-page to 2-page sections, then summarized each section I highlighted in one or two sentences. For another option of length in between these two, you can also check out this WSJ essay version. I’ve split my summary from my review just to be clear which opinions are Levin’s and which are my own.
My sticky notes marking each important section, color-coded by which of the five points they most directly relate to.
Part I: Out of One, Many
American politicians on both sides of the aisle — Obama, Romney, Santorum, Warren — all like to recount a nostalgic story of a lost American ideal from which we have strayed. We tend to see recent history through a typical baby boomer’s eyes: an innocent childhood in the ‘50s, rebellious teenage years in the ‘60s, cynical unsettling in young adulthood in the ‘70s, settling down into real adulthood in the ‘80s and his prime in the ‘90s, and a descent into old age and declining health this century.
The first half of the twentieth century was an age of consolidation, while the second half through today has run the reverse course of deconsolidation. Consolidation began with industrialization, which valued economies of scale and urbanization. The new progressive politics, championed by Theodore Roosevelt, matched size in business with size in government, arguing for governmental control of the economy to the greater national good. Mass media, radio and cinema all homogenized cultural experience like never before. In mobilizing for World War I, progressive President Wilson took the opportunity to centralize and publicly manage the economy, creating a culture of conformity and reducing immigration.
After the brief counterreaction of the 1920s, the Great Depression continued the trend, building a model of cooperation between government and business and encouraging renunciation in society. World War II intensified it, giving government extensive control of the economy and calling upon individuals to sacrifice for solidarity and the nation above all else.
In the postwar years, this tightly wound body politic began to unravel. Popular psychology in the ‘50s encouraged people to love and affirm themselves and popular literature railed against conformity. Peaceful protests shook the sense of solidarity and began a breakdown of common norms.
But age was still quite consolidated, with protections keeping primarily white male workers across the income spectrum secure, offering a stable foundation for that necessary liberalization. The 1964 Democratic landslide then gave President Johnson a mandate to pursue an extension of the consolidated and administratively centralized mentality in his Great Society programs.
By the ‘70s, the diffusing culture had drifted into disillusionment, and the postwar economic order broke down. Centralization through price and wage controls could no longer solve our problems, sparking (alongside Watergate) a crisis of confidence in the nation’s core institutions. Spiritually, the large mainline Protestant denominations — just recently consolidated in the modern era — chose to accelerate the cultural transformation and undermined their own authority, leaving just a decentralized, personalized and consumerist evangelical Christianity with us today.
The ‘80s and ‘90s turned this around, not by reverting to the previous era but by doubling down on the diffusion and releasing the last economic vestiges of the consolidated regime. Socially, the 1980s saw a partial renorming in the ethic of personal responsibility, but this individualist bent was inevitably bifurcating, hitting the wealthy as rewards and the poor as punishments. On the economic front, Reagan’s tax cuts sowed the seeds of renewal by accelerating the liberalization of the economy, replacing regulation with competition and the New Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, found a similar if more socially liberal formula that extended this late-century boom but also increased inequality dramatically. In all areas, Americans moved from strong affiliation with large, established institutions to more flexible, casual, and dynamic networks, sorting themselves into more homogenous communities and narrower circles of trust.
Today, we are stuck in a bit of a funk. Unlike previous recessions, the economy hasn’t rebounded vigorously after the Great Recession, and the problem appears to be structural: The workforce isn’t expanding anymore, and we can only become so much more efficient. Large corporations have lost their competitive advantage, but the most sclerotic institutions are the centralized bureaucracies of our government which are poorly suited to today’s decentralized society. The Internet — decentralized and personalized — is the epitome (and an accelerant) of our diffusive age.
Perhaps ironically, this decentralization has led to a sort of bifurcated concentration evident in economic inequality, political polarization, and more. Economically, both large companies like Google and Walmart and tiny small businesses increasingly dominate, with no room in the middle. Politically, the major parties are both more extreme and less in control, again with the middle emptying out. Socially, college educated adults are becoming much less likely to divorce or have children out of wedlock and more likely to remain in church (!) than those with less education. The Left tends to blame everything on the economic inequality, and the Right on cultural disintegration, both ignoring the obvious fact that economic and social factors are inseparable.
This story of intense consolidation followed by intense diffusion explains why the midcentury golden age is unlikely to recur: It provided the stability benefits of consolidation while allowing liberalization to progress. But today, we value this liberalization much more than the backdrop that ensured its success. Inevitably, the problems of today are direct consequences of the progress made in solving the problems of the past. Here’s where it’s worth quoting a whole paragraph:
In liberating many individuals from oppressive social constraints, we have also estranged many from their families and unmoored them from their communities, work, and faith. In accepting a profusion of options in every part of our lives to meet our particular needs and wants, we have also unraveled the established institutions of an earlier era, and with it the public’s broader faith in institutions of all kinds. In loosening the reins of cultural conformity and national identity and opening ourselves to an immense diversity of cultures, we have weakened the roots of mutual trust. In unleashing markets to meet the needs and wants of consumers, we have freed them also to treat workers as dispensable and interchangeable. In pursuing meritocracy, we have magnified inequality. In looking for a more personalized, representative politics, we have propelled polarization. In seeking to treat every person equally and individually rather than forcing all to conform, we have accentuated and concentrated the differences between the top and bottom in our society, and hollowed out the middle.
Therefore, the solutions we propose today must be native to our diffusing, individualist times, not transplanted nostalgically from a much more consolidated era. The middle layers of society — family, community, civil society, and religion — have been under siege both by the gigantism of the consolidating age and the individualism of the deconsolidating age. But they hold the key to our success: They are effectively decentralized, at a human scale, offering pluralism without isolation. Our government should adopt an ethic of subsidiarity, solving problems at the lowest possible level capable of handling them well.
A nostalgic politics will simply not work. The Left needs to realize that large federal programs are a mismatch to how people live today and that cultural liberalization comes with real costs. The Right needs to understand that this fracturing is a fact of life, stop trying to take back the dissolving mainstream, and recognize how big businesses work to undermine the fairness of the markets that grow them.
Part II: The Next America
The Left interprets the past half century as a pure fall from grace, ignoring the growth in incomes and rise in living standards of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The right sees the economic reforms of the ‘80s as key to solving today’s problems, ignoring that we no longer have the overregulation and 70% top marginal tax rate of the late 1970s. Both take solutions that worked in specific contexts due to specific pressures and try to blindly apply the same methods today.
Economically, we face four structural transformations: globalization, automation, immigration, and consumerization. Instead of the US offering opportunities at all skill levels, now the world does, and as the wealthiest nation, we have concentrated on the highest skill levels at the exclusion, but not complete abandonment, of low-skill jobs. Automation leads to a bifurcation in the types of work available: abstract “knowledge work” for highly educated professionals, and interactive manual tasks for cooks, janitors, and so on that cannot be outsourced or automatized. The middle has been hollowed out, leaving to the same bifurcated concentration. Immigration has exacerbated this trend, bringing in both high-skilled individuals from advanced countries and lower-skilled immigrants from poor nations. Finally, as we have begun to see ourselves more as consumers than as workers, worker bargaining power has been replaced with consumer bargaining power, lowering prices but also lowering wages.
Rather than focusing on the super-rich, the income inequality debate should really be about increasing mobility for lower-income Americans. In terms of percentile ranks in society, mobility has never been high, even in the midcentury golden age. Relative to their parents, 93% of poor Americans are still better off, but that’s mostly still due to gains of the late ‘90s. A 21st Century mobility agenda must start with economic growth, but also make a priority to lower costs of living, specifically health care, childcare and higher education.
It isn’t enough to simply send more kids to college and have government bear more of the rising costs, furthering the cycle of inflating costs. We need to introduce competition and alternative ways to gain skills, and provide families with accurate information about the value of education through available future careers from each option, taking advantage of our consumerist tendencies.
American progressives today seem to take for granted that the ideal of social democracy, a series of competent bureaucracies managing all aspects of life, is the only possible road forward, and all other suggestions are merely distractions. But this ideal is anachronistic today, since it wrongly assumes a degree of social cohesion that has evaporated, a modernist approach of one-size-fits-all rather than the postmodern approach of adaptability and customizability, and a top-down model of centralized expertise rather than a bottom-up model of distributed knowledge. We don’t have all the answers for how to address problems like entrenched poverty today, so we need to have humility and experiment. This doesn’t mean simply contracting out federal programs, but offering the right kinds of rules and incentives to help local problem-solvers find their own flexible solutions — adaptive evolution, not industrial engineering. Progressives would do well to champion a public-options progressivism by introducing public service providers into competitive markets on equal terms.
Conservatives do seem to understand that knowledge is distributed, but instead of simply fighting to roll back the liberal welfare state should work for a greater market orientation and decentralized, not just diminished, administration. We need to give mediating institutions (schools, churches, local civic groups, nonprofits, and so on) a role in public policy; they answer immediately to felt needs and are moved by warmer sentiments of love, friendship, compassion and justice. But in doing so, we should recognize that they have been hammered and need to be revitalized before they are ready to replace the role of the welfare state.
The ethic of our age is expressive individualism, the yearning for fulfillment of one’s own identity. The spirit of our age is liberation, a breaking of constraints, which has both made our society much more free and broken the moral consensus essential for thriving with freedom, a tragedy of good intentions. Also ironically, our profusion of choices has led to a stagnation of culture, with movie remakes, throwback fashion, and other homages to the recent past. If everything strives to give us what we want, our culture will just become more of what it already is. On the other hand, technology keeps advancing, and the Internet is the perfect venue for this fragmentation. It builds new forms of decentralized social capital and even new economic relationships through the sharing economy.
Family life has taken the biggest toll, with 41% of births occurring out of wedlock in 2015, steadily rising from 4.5% in 1955. Single parenthood is closely linked to social mobility and behavioral problems, which isn’t to discount the heroic efforts of many single parents.
It’s become increasingly apparent that these changes are not as much a failure to live up to a shared moral ideal as a loss of consensus about the value of that ideal itself. Social conservatives used to think of themselves as the leaders of a broad “moral majority,” but by now the diffusion of both belief and norms has eroded the loose attachments of without personal commitments. Convictional believers are as numerous as ever, but the nominally religious have shed that identity, and with it, their previous deference to moral traditionalists and the stability of Judeo-Christian norms.
Nevertheless, we aren’t living in a nightmarish dystopia, which sounds comforting but actually poses a grave threat: There will be no action-forcing cataclysm, but rather simply the acceptance of widespread despair. Instead, social conservatives need to model alternative subcultures that alleviate loneliness and brokenness. They should rethink both the victories of the Bush years and the losses of the Obama years: Both sides are tempted to think that history on their side, fighting for control of a mainstream that is rapidly losing its own influence.
Instead, conservatives should seek to assert themselves by offering attractive moral subcultures, naturally by pursuing the revival of the mediating institutions; the Judeo-Christian moral vision is focused much more on the level of souls than the level of nations. This doesn’t necessarily even involve doing anything new, apart from simply a new understanding of the goal. Focusing on the near-at-hand community isn’t a retreat, but an adaptation to the present fractured reality. Orthodox moral and religious institutions prove counterculturally attractive in individualist times.
This vision of subsidiarity is not merely conservatives strapping on the shield of identity politics, since community and identity are not the same thing. Community is more than simply a label we adopt, since it offers real tangible connections to particular others. It is also uniquely well-suited to transforming lives of Americans stuck in poverty, since it rebuilds expectations and mores that encourage better behavior rather than simply offer distant incentives.
In government, we find ourselves in a populist moment because the establishment is weak and hard to respect, not because it is strong. Corporatism, too, was much more common in the consolidated age, but what remains of it is far less trusted. Congress has also fragmented, with the middle institutions of important committees losing power to a centralized leadership and independent-minded backbenchers. The well-intentioned elimination of earmarks has made bipartisan coalitions all but impossible to build, and driven a rift between older members who recall an era of consensus building through favor and pork and newer members who find that appalling but don’t really have an alternative.
Despite its dysfunction, federal power grows stronger and stronger, offering states large sums of money in exchange for compliance and thereby reducing the opportunity for local experimentation. Political power needs instead to be dispersed just as other forms of power have been, reemphasizing localism and subsidiarity.
Our latest arguments about freedom have pitted the progressive freedom to act against the conservative or libertarian freedom from governmental constraint, which explains the battles over redistribution of wealth, campaign-finance laws, and speech restrictions on college campuses. But both fail to see that true liberty also involves freedom from the tyranny of unrestrained desires, which requires the moral formation that our decimated social and cultural institutions provide.
Ultimately, we will have to come together again, to rediscover the truths of equal dignity and rights of all. Centralization of our political life hammers away at this, encouraging a sense of constant combat and high stakes. We must fight the twin temptations of consolidation and individualism by entrusting power in the lowest level that can effectively use it to the good. There will be no simple, wholesale solution, no nostalgic reenactment or formulaic checklist to address the ills of our day. This is not the politics of today just yet, but holds the best promise for the politics of tomorrow.
This was a very refreshing read, especially against the backdrop of our current politics. It’s easy to see what’s wrong with Trump’s brand of Republican politics, but it takes a deeper analysis like this to see how much of what he says is simply taking politicians’ nostalgic rhetoric, on both sides of the aisle, to its most dumbed-down extreme.
In Part I, Levin’s descriptions of our recent history, I strongly appreciate his level-headed realism: “Just as solidarity had an underside of repression, so liberalization had an underside of chaos; there are no unmixed goods in the city of man.” In a world painted by most as black and white, it was refreshing to see the nuance and tradeoffs clearly described.
This unfortunately cuts both ways, though. I remember criticizing pork barrel spending and the earmark system when I first heard about them in high school and welcoming their elimination in 2011. But I’m similarly saddened to understand that this change dramatically reduced the ability of leaders on Capitol Hill to build bipartisan consensus, furthering the polarization and inaction that have characterized the last few Congresses.
Levin’s description of our era of diffusion matches much of my own observations as well. My dad got a job at Hewlett-Packard out of college and was still working there 20 years later. As I wrote last year, though, today’s job market seems far less consolidated:
In high school, I remember hearing Richard Rusczyk, the founder of The Art of Problem Solving, say that every job he had after college didn’t exist when he was in high school, so it’s not worth planning ahead for a specific job. A couple years ago, I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, mostly to educate myself about the realities that women face in the workplace, but I also found that her messages were rather broadly applicable. In particular, she compared the traditional pattern of promotions as a “career ladder” and advised women to think of it more as a career jungle gym, with multiple reasonable methods of ascent.
Overall, I found his description of our ills far more promising than the potential solutions he offers. This isn’t as much of a criticism as it sounds; the first step to solving problems is understanding them. But one problem with his proposed subsidiarity is that empowering local authorities to solve problems will continue to work better for the well-off who have maintained greater engagement with mediating institutions like schools and churches. This isn’t to say that these institutions are inherently racist or otherwise biased, an argument he ascribes to many progressives, just simply that it’s the poor and broken families who will disproportionately fall through the cracks of patchwork solutions like this. Inevitably, there will also be spectacular failures to any new initiatives, which John Oliver will go and exhaustively chronicle on Last Week Tonight.
Levin’s new vision for the purpose of social conservatism does seem both promising and necessary. His description of the culture wars brings to my mind an image of the mainstream as a sinking ship. In executing a successful takeover of the ship, the cultural left has weaponized the fracturing individualistic age, arguing that everyone should be able to choose their own values and ethics. But now possessing the mainstream, they have been much less successful at using that power to bring about new conformity.
It also brings to mind a common argument raised against the postmodern claim that “There is no absolute truth”: Okay, so is that statement true? That essentially describes exactly how the debate has gone. To take a recent example, gay rights activists effectively argued that everyone should be able to decide for themselves what marriage means to them, not for, say, a particular vision of marriage that also includes same-sex marriages. This clearly won the debate, but we probably won’t be seeing schools will start to teach students that traditional marriage is not really marriage anymore. Just like with consumerism, the options just continue to grow, and it’s up to us to model our option as an attractive one.
It was interesting to see a conservative like Levin talk about perspectives apart from his own, such as when he criticized the social democratic vision of many progressives today as anachronistic, a better fit for the consolidating 1930s than today. (That certainly puts a new spin on how I’ve heard some describe Bernie Sanders as a standard New Deal Democrat, usually by someone who sees that as a good thing and the Clintons as an aberration.) However, as someone who finds himself arguing with progressives on social media more often than any other partisans, I’m probably not well-equipped to assess Levin’s criticism, although I would be very curious how my progressive friends would.
I did find his criticism of the reactionary Republican strategy of trying to roll back the welfare state (“Repeal Obamacare!”) very welcome. It has frustrated me how much the Ted Cruz-led obstructionist Republicans have failed to offer better alternatives and use states’ rights arguments only whenever they seem to be losing the national debate rather than as a coherent case for localism.
There’s a bit of a fine line to balance between the plausible and the optimal when talking about political solutions. Levin’s key argument is that the hope of reversing diffusion is too far out of reach today, so we should instead try to harness it. But couldn’t the same be true of, say, his solution of subsidarity? That the mediating institutions of churches and schools have lost so much influence that trying to reverse course is similarly out of reach? The best Levin could do to address that was to admit that this vision is perhaps several years away.
Which may be for the better. In the immediate future, of course, the Republican nominee is Donald Trump, offering a simplistic version of the nostalgic politics that Levin critiques. In an alternative universe, of course, a John Kasich or Marco Rubio would steamroll Hillary Clinton in November and The Fractured Republic would serve as a handbook for their new administration, writes Nicholas Lemann in his review. But for now, the best hope for this “reform conservative” vision is in a landslide Clinton victory to bring a thoroughgoing rejection of the nostalgic politics of “Make America Great Again.”
As I’ve just spent another couple weeks in Singapore, and plan to move here after Grace graduates, I can’t resist examining Singapore in the same light. Of course, its history is very different, with remarkable growth in nearly every area in the last 50 years that make nostalgia seem ridiculous. The tiny country also seems remarkably consolidated, from the electoral dominance of the PAP, universal mandatory conscription for males, catchy National Day songs, ubiquity of government-built housing, and (as I noticed on this trip) norm-reinforcing effect of many Singlish phrases, all despite its religious and racial diversity. At the same time, though, I see posters encouraging a relaxation of norms against divorce, and the consumerization of the ubiquitous malls is as rampant as in the US. It’s certainly possible that Singapore experiences the same dispersion that occurred throughout the West in the coming decades. We can only hope they learn from our mistakes.
What do I take away from this book? Beyond continuing to hope Trump is thrashed and this style of reform conservatism takes hold, Levin’s message of subsidarity encourages us to look not to distant authorities for help but to build and strengthen close-at-hand communities, serving people in between the scales of the individual and the state. That is a message I know I can wholeheartedly get behind. Rather than trying to win the debate over whatever the national conversation topic is at the time, invest personally in the communities around you: family, schools, clubs, churches, religious organizations and nonprofits. It’s only when we come together, in our patchwork net of own local communities rather than a nationwide political campaign, that we can fix the problems of our world.