What Do We Hold in Common?

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender vacations in Paris with his fiancée and her parents. One night Pender takes a walk to escape the insufferable egotists who surround him and stumbles upon an antique Peugeot. It takes him to the 1920s, the golden age for which he has always yearned. He falls in love with Picasso’s lover Adriana, who herself has always longed for the 1890s’ Belle Époque. After a horse and carriage pass them by and whisk them to that period, and after the Impressionists they meet yearn for the Renaissance, Pender realizes that no age is as golden as we imagine and concludes that it is better to live in the reality of the present.

Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic is an extended essay on the same theme. And just as Midnight in Paris was a classic Woody Allen film, The Fractured Republic is quintessential Levin: clear, insightful, balanced, well-researched both in historical and contemporary sources, and already acclaimed as the conservative book to read this year by writers on the right and left alike. The book is not a sociological study or policy brief but rather an essay that, as Levin puts it, “gropes and grapples.” The heart of Levin’s argument is that unacknowledged nostalgia plagues American self-understanding and discourse. Since the end of World War II, our society has followed “a single complex but coherent trajectory . . . of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.” Levin sees this trajectory as positive, negative, and inevitable. It is not going to change any time soon, and any solutions to our social ills must reflect—and even capitalize on—this fact.

The problem is that we yearn for the world we left behind. Or, more accurately, progressives and conservatives both want to recover the parts of the past that they see as normal or natural without acknowledging that we can’t wind the clock back. Their solutions tend toward two sides of the same coin, favoring either large-scale government interventions (Obamacare) or solutions that benefit individual citizens first (tax cuts). Instead, Levin argues, the solutions we seek should lie somewhere in the middle, “putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible.” This “modernized politics of subsidiarity” means smaller scale, bottom-up solutions that fit the particular needs of particular groups: What works in Vermont might not work in Utah. It means more experimentation and more freedom for communities to live out their values, “and so to each define freedom a little differently.” Our fragmented society calls for fragmented solutions; we should fight fire with healthier fire.

Before examining these solutions in greater detail, Levin looks at the nostalgia that keeps us from enacting them and why it won’t help. The problem begins with post-war America in the 1950s, which seems to us now like a time of safety, cohesion, and optimism. With the correct tweaks, we think, we could return to that successful America. But, Levin argues, the 1950s were temporary and unstable. It was a moment in our nation’s history, but by no means its default position. Before the 1950s, America was in an “age of conformity” in which the nation’s economy and culture became more homogenous. More than that, homogeneity and conformity were valued over individual expression. At the same time, the US had emerged as the great victor of WWII, stronger than its allies and enemies alike, a colossus that bestrode the world’s economy and scientific and technological advancement. By the mid-1950s, Americans could reap the benefits of a cohesive society while they began to push away from it. Political leaders on both sides like Martin Luther King, Jr., and William F. Buckley, Jr., saw themselves as rebels against conformism: Liberals tended to celebrate economic consensus while fighting cultural constrictions; conservatives tended to fight economic constrictions while celebrating cultural consensus. As they look back today, both sides see “a stable foundation for a satisfying struggle for necessary liberalization, even if each side has a different idea of what the foundation was and what needed to be liberalized.”

As the seeds of individualism grew, Levin writes, “the spirit of nonconformity that had emerged at the end of World War II, which had morphed in the 1960s into an idealistic quest for self-actualization, had degenerated by the 1970s into a jaded and strident individualism.” The “age of frenzy” arrived. Religion and the economy began to deconsolidate, while drug use, crime, and divorce became more prevalent. Americans sought a cure for the malaise of the 1970s not by recovering the conformity of the 1950s, but by developing new norms that aspired to structure lives thoroughly rooted in the ethic of individualism. In the 1990s, this individualism began to sort our society in at least two important ways. First, social capital began to decline for the less educated and well-to-do. Second, Americans sought out homogenous communities—real and virtual—in which they were able to interact mostly with like-minded people. Instead of bowling leagues and Walter Cronkite, we found smaller, more specialized social groups and news sources we agreed with.

The early twenty-first century has become an “age of anxiety,” Levin continues, with further weakening of the family and economic specialization—both of which affect poorer Americans more. The internet allows us to build those homogenous communities more intensely, at the greater expense of the relations we might have had with those less like us. This social diffusion will only continue. As much as we may long for a safe foundation for our liberalization, we value it more than the foundation. Hence, Levin concludes, “it is folly now to wish we could recapture the very circumstances that America has been systematically demolishing for six decades and more just so we could more comfortably engage in the very same demolition.”

The most prominent figure in the background of Levin’s analysis is Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French aristocrat who saw American equality as the wave of the future and traveled across the Atlantic to see what that future would hold. He called equality a “generative fact,” something that can be channeled or directed, but not reversed any time soon. Levin argues that diffusion/specialization/liberalization is the generative fact of our own time, and, like Tocqueville, he sees promise and peril in this inexorable force. Levin also takes from Tocqueville and from the sociologist Robert Nisbet the insight that when the government becomes stronger and more centralized, taking over the work of intermediate institutions like families and churches, individuals become more atomized and powerless. And while he never cites them, his work resembles Peter Berger and Richard Neuhaus’ To Empower People, which argued that the way to truly help the poor was not by large government programs, but by strengthening the “mediating structures” between citizens and the state. One can hear other sources in the background, too; given the way Levin advocates for solidarity through subsidiarity, The Fractured Republic could have been subtitled “a Jewish case for Catholic social teaching.”

Levin’s contribution is to apply these insights to our own time and place, focusing primarily on economic and cultural problems. Since our economy will only become more increasingly specialized, our solutions to economic problems must be specialized. Social democratic governance and Reagan-era tax rates are no longer effective tools. Instead, we should work on raising the skill level of our population and channeling unskilled labor from manufacturing and production to occupations that cannot be easily outsourced. We should also replace the centralized administration of many of our government programs with “decentralized mechanisms of knowledge discovery at the margins,” recognizing that experts don’t know enough to prescribe the same solutions to all parts of our diverse polity.

On the cultural front, Levin offers extended counsel to his fellow social conservatives. For decades they saw themselves as part of the broad “moral majority” governed by a sliver of radical elites. But, like so many other forms of consensus, the cultural conservatism of the nominally religious—roughly half the population—has dissolved, and many nominally religious declare themselves to be “nones” who are increasingly more hostile to traditional religion. Instead of lamenting their loss of cultural prominence, Levin argues, social conservatives should make a positive case for their vision of human nature and society. They should appeal, not lament. And the best way to make that appeal is by focusing on building thriving subcultures: schools, churches, and synagogues that show a more excellent way to live.

As an essay groping towards understanding, The Fractured Republic does not stray from the confines of its argument. By doing so, it leaves other aspects of our cultural moment unexamined. Consider three. First, the nature of our education and public discourse. As our election cycle and protests on university campuses demonstrate, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue have proven all the more correct after thirty years. We have exchanged substantive debate for entertainment and a war of aggrieved feelings. Like the other aspects of cultural diffusion Levin charts, our inability to carry out rational discourse seems only likely to increase, further undermining our solidarity as a society.

Second, Levin argues that the social left is a minority aspiring to dominate our institutions at a time when they are most weak and diffuse. Their victory will be pyrrhic in two ways: The heights they have seized no longer command in the same way, and they will overstep their boundaries, never winning the support of most Americans. Perhaps, but the heights the social left commands are impressive—the Supreme Court and large swathes of the judiciary, the entertainment industries—and in the past year alone have made significant advances for their cause, with little protest from the majority Levin thinks will eventually resist. Moreover, the degree to which the leaders of the social left hold their position ideologically has become increasingly clear. Could they allow heresy to persist in pockets of society, as Levin’s vision of subsidiarity would entail? And when will that resistance come?

Most important, Levin argues well for a more healthily fragmented society, but never takes up the question of what holds America together as a nation. The closest he comes is in a lengthy footnote:

Liberalism from its earliest incarnations has presumed and relied upon the existence of a far-reaching moral consensus in society regarding the basic premises of the Christian worldview. It has also, throughout that time, undermined these premises, and so undercut the preconditions for its own success. It has persisted despite that self-destructive tendency because the denizens of most liberal societies (and Americans, in particular) have always been less liberal and more Christian than they have claimed (and perhaps believed). To say that this is decreasingly the case in our time is another way to describe our contemporary condition.

In other words, the greatest casualty of our fragmentation is our society’s spiritual and philosophical foundation, the philosophical glue that holds us together even though we do not notice it. If we continue to form groups that “each define freedom a little differently,” what do we all define in common? For all the diversity of American religion and culture, there once was a real moral and spiritual common ground that united many communities in a system of subsidiarity and federalism. It seems unlikely that mutual support in the gratification of our wills can replace it.