Tag Archives: atomization

A Fractured Vision for a Fractured Nation

1 Jun

Book Review: The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin

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.

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American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.

Whatever Happened to the American Dream?

21 Mar

Book Review: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert Putnam

For the past twenty years or so, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has been the most prominent scholar studying arguably the most important, and most worrisome, trends in contemporary America: the decline of civil society and the splitting of society along class lines. The point of the title, Putnam argues, is that we’ve stopped thinking of the children all around us as “our” kids; they are now just kids, and the only ones “we” own are the ones we raise ourselves. There is no shared inheritance or duty here, just each of us living out our isolated, atomized lives, caring for no more than our own progeny. For Putnam, the root of this separation in the fates of kids is not exactly income (though that is related, and very important) nor race (still a real issue, but the trends are slowly but steadily equalizing on that front). It’s parents’ education.

I buy this completely. I’ve lived it: I certainly don’t come from money, but I was fortunate to grow up in a very intellectual milieu, and my childhood, while far from idyllic in some respects, has much more in common with that of the privileged kids described in the book than those of the ones who have been left behind. These commonalities cut across race and region and parents’ professions, and they are self-reinforcing. In every case the gap between those who come from “upper-class,” backgrounds and those who do not grows more extreme, illustrated strikingly in “scissors graphs” that show two lines growing further and further apart. Neighborhood integration, most every financial measure, unmarried motherhood, single parenthood, family dinners, parenting time, school class and extracurricular offerings, college degrees, breadth and usefulness of informal networks, obesity rates, religious activity (which traditionally provides a community and a support network), voting…the list goes on and on. We’re splitting apart.

Most of the information here is not really new; the innovation comes in packaging it all together and intertwining the heaps of data with compelling stories. In each chapter, we meet children from well-off backgrounds who illustrate one particular trend (be it in family stability, parenting style, education, or community) and corresponding children with far less happy life stories. Using kids is a superb storytelling innovation, and one designed to draw out readers’ sympathy: we come to realize just how much things are stacked against the less privileged kids in the book, and how powerless we are to stop these trends (if we even accept our roles as that “we”). There is no one root cause, as everything is tied up in knots and feedback loops that are impossible to untangle. Neither the easy liberal narrative (it’s all the economy) nor the easy conservative narrative (it’s all culture and/or individual choices) hold up, though both are certainly true in places. It’s a master class in mixed-methods research for a popular audience, and most everything points toward a coming decline in social mobility: the death of the American Dream.

The book intentionally avoids blaming anyone for these trends, a choice which will no doubt frustrate some commentators, especially those on the left. The portraits of the upper-class people in the book are just as raw, and the fragility of their own lives, while better cushioned than that of some of the less privileged, is all too clear. Our Kids does propose some public policy solutions, most (but not all) trending toward the left: more mentoring, support for community colleges, parent coaching, greater maternal/paternal leave, daycare subsidies, incentives to get good teachers into bad schools, and expansion of the earned-income tax credit or similar programs. There is nothing radically new here, and most of the ideas are possible but not entirely likely in the current political climate. The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, in her wide-ranging review of the book, makes a very valid critique when she says its desire to influence policy leads an unwillingness to call out institutional factors at play.

Our Kids even includes a rather daring attempt to make a moral case for action against this widening split, citing both a mildly liberal reading of American history and scripture. I’m not sure it’s robust enough to convince anyone who doesn’t already believe it. This might just be a symptom of my own unfortunate habit of always taking everything to the most existential plane possible, but I think it reflects the ambivalent relationship many Americans have with the American Dream, even as we all claim to believe in it. The most religiously devout among us may like the general ideas, but ultimately have a different endgame in mind, and this is where their loyalties lie. Many on the left like the idea in principle, but think the concept is too deeply caught up in some of the less savory aspects of American history, and place their loyalty in other ideals or groups first. The atomized among us, worn down by the very rat race that Dream creates and tired of the shrill voices around them, don’t really care if other people have it so long as they can guarantee it for their kids. By its very nature, the American Dream makes it hard to have time to care about the fates of others.

What’s the future of the American Dream? For all its troubles I’m still a believer, and may well spend my life fighting to make sure it remains reality, since this is the language most people speak. However, we also need a clear-eyed appreciation of its limits: it will never reach everyone perfectly, proffers no salvation, has historical baggage, and the relentless pursuit it implies grinds people down. It’s a sensible organizing principle for a plural society, but it pulls that off because it’s a base common denominator, not a creed for all to share. Moreover, I’m confident that, in a worst-case scenario, I can still carve out a good life for myself even if it does fail. Instead of lamenting the past Paradise Lost of 1950s Port Clinton or even the 2000s east side of Duluth, perhaps it’s time to come up with a more crisp idea of what “we” want for our kids. The wisdom of the past can be a helpful guide, but the language of the American Dream forgets other bits of wisdom that sometimes provide a more robust idea of what the good life truly entails.

***

As longtime readers know, I think about these questions often in relation to Duluth, because I think its east-west split captures the greater societal split perfectly. And sure enough, Putnam had much the same thought: his research team interviewed people in Duluth for the book. His work on the city got some mention in an August 2013 New York Times column that I blogged about at the time, and used as a basis for some of my points about the east-west tension that will decide Duluth’s fate. Sadly, however, all the Duluth material ended up on the cutting room floor in the final edition.

I’ve contacted Putnam and friends to see if they have any more information on Duluth that I might be able to share, and will pass it along if I do hear back from them. Also, for anyone who notices that line on page 272 that mentions the pseudonymously-named “Tyler in Duluth, whose dad is a college professor and who plays string bass and now studies at a leading Ivy institution” who was interviewed but didn’t make it into the final draft of the book—Georgetown isn’t in the Ivy League, so this is not me, despite the otherwise eerie resemblance. I did reach out to “Tyler” (an acquaintance of mine) for better understanding of the research team’s methods, though, and if the research team ever gets back to me, we can find out if our suspicions about their intent were correct.

Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.