Hope in the Ruins: Why Politics Can't Save Our Politics
It is hard to imagine a more timely, important, and wise book than Yuval Levin's latest, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Levin, a Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and founding editor of National Affairs, is one of our most astute political analysts, eschewing from-the-hip punditry for careful work that is nourished by both historical insight and social-scientific rigour. But more importantly, Levin is that rare combination of heart and mind, intellect and soul, who writes with the philosopher's commitment to big ideas but as someone who knows and loves his neighbours.
Abandon All Nostalgia, Ye Who Enter Here
All of this is on display in The Fractured Republic, which, as you'd guess, is propelled by a concern for all the ways we are "coming apart," as Charles Murray put it. But Levin's diagnosis is jarringly different: as he frames it, what has led to the moribund cul-de-sac of US public life is an unhelpful nostalgia that characterizes both Right and Left. Parading a litany of quotes from politicians on the stump and in the chamber, Levin highlights our fixation on getting something back, returning to some golden age, "making America great again" (though Levin manages to make this point, in fact, without ever citing Donald Trump). Both poles of our polarized society end up romanticizing some moment in the twentieth century: progressives celebrate the liberations and union-secured wages of the 1960s; conservatives look back to the stability, harmony, and productivity of the 1950s or the prosperity of Reagan's 1980s. All of us believe we've "fallen," in some way; we just disagree on where we want to climb back to. "We have grown so accustomed to the ubiquity of a particular kind of nostalgia in our public life that we barely stop to notice it anymore." For Levin, this is a sign that we've all been sucked into the baby boomer's story of America.
Capitalism, for example, "depends upon some very demanding cultural preconditions and yet frequently undermines those very preconditions
And that is the source of our problems, Levin says. We're blinded by this nostalgia, so instead of looking for solutions that will propel us into a healthy future, we fight about which past to re-create. The tunnel vision of this nostalgia prevents us from seeing all of the unique factors that can't possibly be replicated. For example, we longingly look back on the widespread productivity of the postwar era, yielding gainful employment that could sustain a new era of consumption and almost unparalleled prosperity. We pine for the days when a job at GM could buy a family a house in the suburbs and all of the security and stability that came with that (at least for whites, who benefited from the cartel-like cooperation between corporations and unions). "Play it again, Sam!" our politicians bellow. But when you look at the unique constellation of historical contingencies at play you realize this can't happen. The US economy soared in that era in no small part because we were one of the few developed economies whose infrastructure wasn't decimated by World War II. Once Germany and Japan rebuilt, in the 1970s, the US economy experienced the reality of competition that sent us into the malaise that Jimmy Carter named.
One of Levin's most important insights comes from the historical narrative in the first half of the book, which shows how contingent and fleeting these twentieth-century "peaks" were in US society. In particular, the unparalleled dynamism of the mid- to late twentieth century was the unique experience of "a highly consolidated society in the process of liberalizing." Two war efforts and the Great Depression, for example, engendered not only national solidarity but also a "corporatism"—"cooperation between large public and private institutions in the management of the nation's affairs"—that created an unparalleled, and unsustainable, centralized economy. "But almost as soon as this consolidated America emerged from the war, it began to unwind, and to seek some relief from the intense cohesion that had been building for so long. Cultural liberalization came first, then economic liberalization. Politics would follow even later. But the general trend was unmistakable." Mid-century social arrangements planted the seeds of their own destruction. Homogenization called forth counterculture; a stifling conformity gave rise to individualist nonconformity; or, as Robert Nisbet predicted in his 1953 classic, The Quest for Community: "A culture of excessive centralization could quickly transform into a culture of excessive individualism."
As I read this analysis, I couldn't help but think of Martin Amis's novel The Pregnant Widow—or at least the suggestive metaphor of the title. The details of the story itself are somewhat germane: in the novel, an aging hedonist reconsiders an Italian bohemian romp in the summer of 1970, zooming out to assess the so-called sexual revolution on a larger scale. Looking back, the aging narrator is having conflicted second thoughts, haunted by a question he'd rather not ask: "What have we done?"
But that title image of the "pregnant widow" is suggestive of a strange transition not unlike the one Levin diagnoses: impregnated by a father no longer alive, the child will emerge in a world fundamentally different from the one in which he was conceived. The widow's womb gestates a child who will never know the one who made it possible. The pregnant widow gives birth to a future made possible by a past long gone.
This is exactly the sort of dynamic that Levin notes, except that in our case the child is also responsible for the murder of the father. In the middle of the twentieth century, "our society was then precariously suspended between an era of consolidation and conformity, on the one hand, and an age of liberalization and fracture, on the other—benefiting from the best of both, but in a way that could not last." Capitalism, for example, "depends upon some very demanding cultural preconditions and yet frequently undermines those very preconditions, so that its very preservation demands some limits on its freedom to shape society in its image." Insofar as both liberalism and capitalism tend to devour and erode the institutions and communities that made them possible, they end up parasitically consuming the host and thus engendering their own demise, starved by their own hunger.
This is why nostalgia will get us nowhere. "Those midcentury circumstances constituted an inevitably fleeting transition," he emphasizes. "No combination of public policies could re-create them. No amount of moral hectoring will, either." Our nostalgia is like a desire to crawl back into the pregnant widow's womb. We want the fruits of stability without its demands; we want the free-flying feeling of liberation without the anchored foundations that launched us. You can't go home again.
A Future in the Middle
But Levin's case is not a counsel of despair. Far from it. Nor does he simply dismiss our nostalgia. Instead, we need to learn from it: "To learn from nostalgia, we must let it guide us not merely toward 'the way we were,' but toward what was good about what we miss, and why." Or, as we've suggested here before, we need to "remember forward."
That endeavour informs the second, constructive half of The Fractured Republic. The diagnosis is important: the same mid-century developments we celebrate were Trojan horses that unleashed forces hostile to the institutions, habits, and practices that made them possible. More specifically, what crawled out of those horses were agents of individualism that devoured the mid-level institutions of society, leaving atomistic individuals fending for themselves and/or looking to a behemoth state to save us. The result has been "the collapse of the culture of solidarity."
The creative way forward, then, is to recover a culture of solidarity in the face of atomistic individualism and an abstract state. But what distinguishes Levin's proposal from the nostalgia of others is his almost Hegelian attentiveness to the contingencies of history. So we can't just turn back the clock to consolidation. Riffing on Alexis de Tocqueville, Levin concedes that the "diffusion" that characterizes our society is "a 'generative fact' of our particular time. It can be channelled and directed, perhaps mitigated at the margins, but it cannot be meaningfully reversed, at least in the foreseeable future. Any policy that relies on significantly counteracting it is likely to prove foolhardy." This diffusion has released a thousand ills, to be sure, but these are "the price of progress."
All this means, to paraphrase James Madison, that we must seek diffusing, individualist remedies for diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society. And this is why midcentury nostalgia will not do as a guide for action in our time. To be effective, attractive, and durable in twenty-first century America, the political, cultural, and economic solutions we pursue need to be indigenous to twenty-first century America.
Thus the way to solidarity that Levin recommends is subsidiarity, a "recovery and reinforcement of those middle layers" of society that have been eroded in the past thirty years. This, of course, is a theme familiar to readers of Comment and heirs of both Abraham Kuyper and Pope Leo XIII; indeed, it is in many ways the raison d'être of Cardus. The future of a healthy society is in the middle layers and mediating institutions of society, the web of institutions like families, schools, unions, cities, neighbourhoods, and religious congregations—layers of social life between the individual and the state that generate trust and collaboration and empathy, which are just the virtues we need to sustain the outlandish American experiment.
"This will mean pushing back against both individualism and statism," he rightly points out. The question, of course, is whether you can sell a society what they need. ("It will not be easy for anyone in our politics to pursue that agenda," Levin says in a moment of gross understatement.) The issue isn't just policy; it is the imagination of voters and those who appeal to them. The sort of renewal Levin envisions will also have to be a hearts-and-minds strategy. To rebuild these crucial spheres of sovereignty, we will have to invite people (back) into a different story than the one that governs us now.
A merely anti-state, "small government" agenda is entirely inadequate, Levin points out, because it would only throw us back onto the vulnerability of individualism. "If we do turn over more responsibility to the institutions of our civil society and local government," as he recommends, "we will need to do so with the recognition that these institutions have been weakened in recent decades, for all the reasons we've seen. It would be a mistake to imagine that they stand waiting, ready and strong, just beneath our liberal welfare state, so that we need only roll back that state and they will step up." These institutions haven't just been overshadowed or suppressed; they've been dissolved. "The mediating institutions do not just need to be unleashed—they need to be revived, reinforced, and empowered."
The Subcultures We Need
Who's going to do that work? It's perhaps no surprise that the author of The Great Debate, a marvellous introduction to Edmund Burke, recommends the revivification of little platoons. What deserves special attention in our time, Levin emphasizes, is "the state of our cultural institutions of moral formation" that shape us as citizens who can live in common. And none of those institutions are national: they are inescapably local, tailored to a human scale. This isn't just rolling back federal government overreach in the name of libertarian protest: "The civic purpose of greater localism and decentralization would not be so much to pull people down from the national level, but to pull them up out of an isolating individualism in a way that only vibrant near-at-hand communities can." Thus "all sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have been on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures."
Here Levin sees a unique opportunity for religious communities to show rather than tell: "Prophesying total meltdown is not the way to draw people's attention to this failure to flourish," he wryly observes.
Social conservatives must therefore make a positive case, not just a negative one. Rather than decrying the collapse of moral order, we must draw people's eyes and hearts to the alternative: to the vast and beautiful "yes" for the sake of which an occasional narrow but insistent "no" is required. We can do this with arguments up to a point, but ultimately, the case for an alternative that might alleviate the loneliness and brokenness evident in our culture requires attractive examples of that alternative in practice, in the form of living communities that provide people with better opportunities to thrive.
This sounds like a marvellous opportunity for religious communities until you realize that it depends on these "subcultures" being counter-formative communities that push back on the individualism that has frayed our social contract. So you need families that haven't been eviscerated by self-interest. You need schools that aren't just producing cogs for the consumerist machine. You need unions and guilds that practice a long-forgotten solidarity. And you need churches and synagogues and mosques that haven't been co-opted by the zeitgeist.
But then you look around and realize that—to take just one example—to a great extent, "conservative" religious communities like Protestant evangelicalism and, increasingly, American Catholicism have largely mimicked these wider trends. Evangelical subcultures have too often failed to be countercultures, instead merely reproducing Jesus-ified versions of the dominant, solidarity-eroding culture of individualism and consumerism. If the renewal of solidarity depends on the moral formation of healthy, robust subcultures—well, we might be in trouble. Because before cultural conservatives can "assert themselves by offering living models of their alternative to the moral culture of our hyper-individual age," they first need to push the same Trojan horse outside of the church.
If the solidarity of our social contract depends on formative subcultures and micro-kingdoms like the family, then in some sense the health of society depends on the revitalization of the family, the reform of our schools, and the renewal of the church. Before we can offer assistance to a wider society, we need to put on our own oxygen masks first—not so that we can all, in the end, serve the ends of the state, but rather because it is in these middle layers that we realize something about the very ends of creation itself. We learn how to be human, together.