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Make America Small Again

Yuval Levin suggests a return to subsidiarity can cure our fractured republic.

As we all know by now, ideas have consequences. No ideas have been more consequential for our own time than those that emerged in the middle of the 20th century. They ushered in what Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers called, in his 2011 book of the same name, the Age of Fracture.

“Across the multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post–World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire,” Rodgers writes. He calls our time “an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.”

Yuval Levin, not quite 40 and one of the leading conservative thinkers of his generation, has published an insightful, visionary book seeking a way forward for American politics through the ruins. To call The Fractured Republic cautious as well is no criticism: in fact, the modesty of Levin’s program is a virtue. He argues that by its nature, ours is not an age in which big, sweeping ideas can unify the nation and dominate our politics. Levin, who is himself Jewish, says the solution to “renewing America’s social contract in the age of individualism”—the book’s subtitle—comes from a core principle of Catholic social teaching: subsidiarity.

He makes a strong, data-driven case that by every measure, America today is a less cohesive nation than it was in the immediate postwar era. We are politically more polarized, economically more unequal; socially atomized, religiously diffuse. As the culture and the economy have liberalized, giving the individual more lifestyle options and consumer choice, the bonds holding Americans together have become much thinner.

It is no accident, then, that Washington has come to resemble the savage stalemate of trench warfare, the economy has stalled, and the culture war seems like a forever thing. And our politicians are apparently powerless to reform the system, resolve its major issues, and move ahead.

According to Levin, the great conceptual barrier to reforming and modernizing American politics is baby boomer nostalgia for the 20th-century Golden Age of their memories. He writes:

Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.

What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunction—in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classes—that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.

As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant cost—including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choice—that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced “the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”

America’s political, social, and economic life of the last half-century has been a working-out of that belief—thus, the Fractured Republic. The inability of the U.S. political class, now dominated by boomers, to deal with the consequences prevents them from coming to terms with realities of the 21st-century world. We are stuck in what Levin describes as a “politics of dueling nostalgias.”

Our tragedy is that the same tectonic forces that gave us all more individual freedom also damaged or destroyed the structures that allow free individuals to thrive. Levin calls this the “paradox of liberation” and says it afflicts all modern societies. His deepest insight is the idea that we cannot hold back the towering wave we unleashed at mid-century but must figure out how to ride its crest. He writes that “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion … have been the chief sources of many of our deepest problems in modern America, yet they must also be the sources of solutions and reforms.”

That is, we have to accept our fracturing and make it work for us. America no longer has the moral and social consensus required for major government initiatives. In Levin’s view, the best politics for a decentralized society is one based in subsidiarity, a concept which holds that because society is a complex web of institutions, with the whole structured like concentric rings, political challenges should be tackled as close to the local level as possible.

Levin offers a number of policy proposals within this framework, ideas that challenge both the left and the right. Burkean conservative that he is, Levin does not claim that anything he proposes will resolve our deep conflicts or make America great again, in that unrepeatable mid-century style.  “It is a way to live in tension,” he writes, “not to resolve the tension.”

If this sounds like the second coming of old-style federalism, devolving power back to states and localities, allowing them to experiment with policies and programs tailored to local cultures and local needs, well, it mostly is. What’s new here is that Levin entertains no Reagan-era illusions that the only thing wrong with America is a big government that stifles the creativity of individuals and mediating institutions. If our government is sick, then so are our people—and sick in ways that leave them ill-suited to thrive in the instability of the Fractured Republic.

For example, the sexual revolution’s fracturing of the natural family through the normalization of divorce and unwed childbearing has left millions of Americans mired in intergenerational poverty that has proven highly resistant to policy solutions. The collapse of the authority of traditional moral norms and the institutions that “form our habits rather than reflect them” has depleted the nation of social capital.

Levin calls on Republicans to devote far more attention than they presently do to creating opportunities for the poor to get an education and find meaningful work. What about those whose backgrounds leave them unfit for higher education and skilled labor? If you talk to public-school teachers who serve a primarily poor and working-class population, you will hear bleak tales of spectacular and widespread family dysfunction that foretell a dark, chaotic, and impoverished future for these children.

There are no government policies that can arrest these developments. Indeed, the government seems to be doing all it can to accelerate the unwinding of the American family and calling it progress. Love wins, as they say, but it’s not the charitable kind of love.

As a social conservative, I’m biased, but Levin’s chapter on “subculture wars” strikes me as his best, and not only because he generously praises the Benedict Option, a concept—that I’ve explored in The American Conservative in print and on my blog—in which I call on religious traditionalists to thicken ties to each other and their institutions of formation, such as churches and schools, while deepening their devotion within their discrete religious traditions: all this to enable them both to survive and to thrive in the disorder of a nation coming apart in late modernity.

Levin says that small communities of committed traditionalist believers can be “agents of resistance” to “the culture of expressive individualism,” and, if they resist bunkering down into angry apocalypticism, can be an example to others of how to live happy, stable, peaceful, and productive lives. He urges religious traditionalists to create “at once a shelter and a model, a refuge and an act of edifying rebellion.”

The power of subversive orthodoxy: that’s my hope, anyway. Yet I am more pessimistic than Levin about the possibility of renewing the social contract absent a tremendous, thoroughgoing religious revival of the sort that re-establishes the Judeo-Christian moral order in the hearts and minds of the American people. There is no evidence that one is on its way; indeed, younger generations are secularizing at historically unprecedented rates, and mainstream American religion is enervated, having exchanged the prophetic for the therapeutic.

thisarticleappears julaug16It is a maxim of traditionalist conservatism that all political problems are at bottom religious problems. That is, the way a polity governs itself has to do with what its people view as ultimate reality. Irving Kristol once said, “What rules the world is ideas, because ideas define the way reality is perceived.”

The Age of Fracture has fractured the Republic because the long historical process in which the West abandons God to deify the sovereign individual has reached its full ripeness. When John Adams said that the U.S. Constitution can only work for “a moral and religious people,” he meant that liberal democracy could only succeed if the people living under it order their liberty according to a higher vision. If Adams was right, nothing less than the future of the Fractured Republic is now on the line.

Levin concedes that “the center has not held in American life.” As W.B. Yeats famously prophesied in the poem to which Levin alludes, things fall apart. We had better hope that the future belongs not to Yeats but to the vision of subsidiarity provided by Yuval Levin in this hugely important new book.

Rod Dreher is a senior editor for The American Conservative. His most recent book is How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem.