A Feature Review of
The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism
“Make America Great Again” is Donald Trump’s slogan, but it conveys a sentiment that reaches far beyond his supporters: that our nation is diminished. The Right laments moral decline, while the Left bemoans rising economic inequality. Everyone agrees that we have, somehow, lost what is essential.
Such pervasive nostalgia, however, is actually near the root of our problems, argues conservative intellectual Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in an Age of Individualism. Moving forward, he contends, requires that we focus on the achievements, the problems, and the possibilities of our current, fractured society.
Founding editor of National Affairs and a contributor to other conservative publications, Levin worked in George W. Bush’s White House and has become an important thinker on the Right. But while he is admittedly partisan – and as a left-of-center Catholic, I disagree with important aspects of his vision – Levin is no political hack. A learned, humane, and lucid work of public philosophy, The Fractured Republic draws on decades of scholarship on American society and politics, and it often (if not always) takes opposing arguments seriously. The book’s ultimate vision certainly reflects Levin’s politics, but his argument chides both Right and Left.
Levin stakes his claim on a diagnosis. Conservatives and progressives, he argues, both fail to see the present clearly because they seek an impossible return to a mid-20th century golden age. Of course, they miss different things about that era. If the Right laments lost moral order and cultural cohesion, the Left mourns economic equality and labor security. They share, however, a generational perspective. “We really have no self-understanding of our country in the years since World War II,” Levin writes, “that is not in some fundamental way a baby-boomer narrative” (27).
The problem, however, is that the mid-century order was inherently unstable and necessarily transitory. Over the course of three chapters, Levin unpacks this claim in a two-part historical story. The first part, “an age of growing consolidation and cohesion in American life,” (32) begins with the late 19th century rise of industry, and it includes the progressive movement, wartime mobilizations, the New Deal, and the ascent of mass culture.
The second, an era of “growing deconsolidation and decentralization,” (32) followed almost immediately upon World War II. It began with an individualist cultural rebellion against conformity but, by the 1970s, included the liberalizing of an economic order that had yielded low inequality and secure jobs across class levels.
That order could not last. On one hand, a regulated and bureaucratic economy boomed largely because the war had decimated competitors. On the other, the residual cohesion of the old, consolidated world provided a stable background against which new, individual freedoms could be safely enjoyed. The mid-century moment, in sum, was “an inevitably fleeting transition: a highly consolidated society in the process of liberalizing” (30).
Nostalgia for that transitional moment keeps us from accepting that a multi-tiered deconsolidation is here to stay, Levin insists. Its problems mirror its strengths, and their solutions must arise from our present, fractured reality.
When it comes to those problems, Levin has a keen eye for overarching trends. By the end of the 20th century, he shows, diverse parts of American society showed a trend of “bifurcated concentration” (87). By that, Levin means a “hollowing out of the middle and greater concentration on both ends” (92). Political polarization is an example, but so are changes within socio-economic classes, where the rich are richer and cultural disorder disproportionately afflicts the poor. To repeat just one remarkable statistic for 2006-2010, “68 percent of women without a high school who gave birth were not married.” The figure for women with college degrees was a mere 6 percent (90-91).
For Levin, though, the most pernicious form of “bifurcated concentration” occurs at the level of social structure. The rise of a “hyper-individualist culture,” he argues, is deeply linked with the presence of “a hyper-centralized government” (100). The logic runs like this: an expanding national state has absorbed the tasks of civil society, making our mid-level, face-to-face organizations less relevant and less necessary.
Levin’s prescriptive, conservative move follows: reviving this middle layer of society offers the best hope, and best fit, for our fractured society. In particular, he recommends an embrace of “subsidiarity – the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well” (101). Rather than adopt the centralized welfare programs of the Left’s social democratic dreams, for instance, we should focus on creating the conditions for economic mobility in a specialists’ economy, Levin argues. Figuring out precisely how to do so, he contends, is a question that requires diverse experiments by local organizations and social service providers, as well as attention to the preferences of the poor themselves.
This approach does not reflect a “fetish to privatize,” but rather a basic humility, Levin insists. “Experimentation,” he writes, “is what you do when you do not know the answer, and when it comes to many of our biggest public problems today, we are lacking answers” (135).
Readers might expect this small-government line from a conservative writer. But Levin also lays out the implications of an anti-nostalgic politics for the Right. In a deconsolidated society, he argues, conservatives must abandon their desire to define a national, moral culture. But rather than shrink into a purely defensive embrace of “religious liberty,” they should strive to create vibrant and appealing moral subcultures. Doing so, they would not abandon national political life, but would rather maintain their identity as “salt and light” (178).
Levin’s cultural argument also targets the libertarian wing of his own party, as well as liberals. For both, he argues, a flawed understanding of the individual leads to a flawed understanding of freedom. Democratic freedom requires individuals capable of self-constraint and self government, and such individuals are not born, but made. Free societies, that is, require moral formation in family, church, work, and civic organizations – just those middling social institutions Levin seeks to center. This is not a new argument, but it is a compelling one.
Nonetheless, Levin’s commitment to conservative economics, and their underlying utilitarian philosophy, sometimes keep him from addressing tensions that less conservative readers (like this one) are sure to notice.
Certainly, he understands how structural transformations – specifically “globalization, automation, immigration, and consumerization” (114) – contribute to economic inequality, another form of bifurcated concentration. Yet he fails to address the powerful ways in which the precarious, high-pressure jobs of the resulting economic order undercut the time, energy, and geographic stability that allow people to join civic organizations.
Indeed, for all his focus on local, face-to-face initiatives, Levin simply accepts the vast, faceless power of multinational corporations and global capitalism. Perhaps this is simple realism, but it undercuts Levin’s attempt to place work – and power – within the realm of local, morally edifying, face-to-face community.
To be fair, Levin does not totally ignore these issues. He writes, for example, that conservatives might distrust corporate as well as government “gigantism,” (103) and that a nation of nimble specialists may need portable forms of worker security. But these are issues worthy of more than an occasional aside – as is income inequality, which Levin dismisses with a few curt sentences that footnote articles in his own journal. He ignores race almost entirely.
Whether for political or rhetorical reasons, Levin also avoids discussing issues that require large-scale responses. Most notably, he fails to even mention climate change, although the logic of subsidiarity would, in theory, allow a large-scale response to a large-scale problem.
More broadly, Levin provides a searing critique of nostalgia – only to respond with what is, debatably, a nostalgia of his own. I share Levin’s hopes for the revival of civic society. Yet I also worry: if it is as weakened as Levin claims, is reviving it another exercise in nostalgia?
Conversely, are diffusion and deconsolidation as permanent as Levin insists? As I read his book, Britain voted to leave the European Union, a move against the economic liberalization and cultural pluralism Levin regards as permanent. In the United States, Donald Trump promises to roll back the same trends – as, in a different way, does Bernie Sanders. Like the mid-century golden era, our own, anxious, unequal, deconsolidated moment may prove unsustainable.
That said, Levin’s book is a worthy read. For readers on the Right, it proposes a clear, bold agenda. For those on the Left, it offers an occasion to engage with an intellectually serious conservatism worth considering carefully – something we must do to live, together, in this fractured republic.
Ben Brazil is assistant professor at the Earlham School of Religion