I have a certain fascination with books about American decline. It’s part a case of morbid curiosity, and part genuine concerns about such excitement as declining civic institutions, lack of trust, segregation by race and ethnicity leading to new battle lines…the list goes on. It’s not difficult to drift this way given the current political climate, even as I try to stay critical of it all. Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism hits all these notes, so I made sure to snap up a copy right away.
Levin’s book follows in the recent tradition of alarm bells about divergence in American society, a topic that attracts authors both on the left (George Packer, The Unwinding; Robert Putnam, Our Kids) and the right (Charles Murray, Coming Apart). They all share a profound concern for a collapse of national unity and a thinning middle class, and wonder what may come of it. Levin falls on the rightward side of the debate, and fits in with the “reform conservatives,” a group that has mustered some intellectual heft and gets the occasional nod from the likes of Paul Ryan, who (along with Packer) gives the book some plaudits on the dust jacket. To date, however, they’ve had limited electoral success, and very little policy success. (One could almost see the rise of Donald Trump as a sort of cruel joke on them: here is a populist attacking the “establishment” thinking of the left and the right, paying attention to the grievances of Middle America left behind by our current political and economic climate…and yet instead of careful, wonkish solutions with strong philosophical backing, we get their antithesis.)
Levin offers his best insights in his historical analysis, in which he traces the U.S.’s march from its incredible post-World War II cohesion to our increasingly fragmented present state of affairs. Here, he usually avoids an ideological reading and critiques both the left and the right for their sense of nostalgia for varying forms of midcentury political situations that aren’t coming back. The left is still pushing for the same general things it wanted in the 1960s, while the right is stuck in Reagan-land. Levin calls out baby boomers for imposing a false history, as popular readings of the past 60 years map neatly on to boomers’ march through stages of life, from youthful rebellion to in the 60s, settling down in the 80s, and on into a decline into old age in recent years. Weirdly, because the old authorities have faded away, our era of extreme fragmentation doesn’t lead to diverse, new, creative solutions: people just hear what they want to hear, and fall back on the same old canards.
Both left and right can claim some successes since the 60s: the left has tended to win the culture wars, while the right has advanced its economic thought. Levin shows that these wins are two sides of the same coin: in each case, a philosophy of individualism wins out, whereas the collective worldview of leftist economics or cultural conservatism fades away. And the atmosphere that created the prior cohesion, a story of modernization and corporatism and responses to great crises like the Depression and the World Wars, is unique to mid-century America. It’s not coming back, so Levin concedes (too quickly?) that all future policy responses must acknowledge this reality and look to work with it and block only its worst excesses, rather than trying to turn back the clock.
The solution, Levin tells us, lies in the old principle of subsidiarity: the idea that we should find solutions to problems on the smallest practical scale, one that reflects the diversity of human experience. This may sound stupidly obvious, but it’s actually a fairly alien sentiment in modern political discourse, which tends to consider only the individual’s relationship to the nation-state. The left is certainly guilty of this, often viewing anything in the middle as something to be liberated from instead of a potential partner in solutions, and while Levin tries to argue the right offers more fertile ground, his practical evidence for this point proves sparse. Rather than framing it as a conservative philosophy, he could gain more followers by emphasizing the story of human interaction at its core, which can find adherents anywhere and everywhere.
The Fractured Republic faces something of a paradox in its attempt to rebuild the United States by giving the work of doing so to its smaller parts. We’re conditioned to think on a national scale, but if the solutions are frequently sub-national and experimental, how on earth do we come out of that with anything resembling a coherent republic? So often, critics of our federal leviathan take for granted the benefits of a nation-state; for all the flaws in our system, it’s a guarantor of incredible stability and opportunity for growth. If there really is no nation-building project to go along with all of the local work, the outcome may be far more radical than Levin intends. Whether this is a bad thing or not is up for debate.
Levin is a believer in the “laboratory of democracy” theory, where different states and cities try different approaches, and we all learn from one another. I like this method, but to my disappointment, he doesn’t touch on the most glaring criticism: experimental policy runs the risk of turning people into lab rats, and may underestimate the power of inertia in the failed experiments. Take charter schools, for example, which Levin tosses out as an unquestionably good idea: yes, some are very successful, but others are not, and empowering them consigns kids to failing schools, with potentially long-lasting damage. Is that worth the cost, and how do we hold the failures accountable? The public school system obviously can fail to do this also, but at least here we know how to navigate the bureaucracy, and all the data are readily available. If this is a laboratory, who’s running the experiment?
The worldview Levin draws from to build his case is one I know well. From Tocqueville to Nisbet, I spent a lot of time swimming in these waters when I went looking for a philosophical backstory for my shifting beliefs as I wrapped up my time at Georgetown and headed home. With some nuances, I still think this is a valuable place, and one that needs a much louder voice in contemporary America. It provides both as a realm to build close ties with people and build toward a vision of what a strong community looks like, and, as events warrant, as a place to pull back and build defenses against a wider threat of collapse.
Reading Levin, however, I found myself more on guard than ever before about this milieu. I need to make sure that my discussions of the “human scale” don’t replace one fetishizing ideology with another, and that my own nostalgia for the community I grew up in—one whose ability to provide options for everyone, I fear, is fraying, even less than a decade out of high school—does not cloud my judgment over how to order things wherever I end up. In tearing down Levin’s creative solutions to partisan gridlock, I run some risk of simply being the great defender of the status quo, too skeptical of the alternatives to trust any of them. But there are still a lot of lingering questions about our faith in local ties and altruism to really offer something profoundly different from the vicious cynicism of national politics.
A Fractured Republic offers a compelling history, but remains a bit too mired in that history, and a bit too vague on the details, to offer up a compelling vision going forward. I think that vision exists, and it has a lot to learn from Levin and his fellow travelers, but no one has quite written that book yet.