Without doubt, America is more seriously polarized and anxious than at any time at least since World War II, and there appears very little hope that these maladies will be in any meaningful way cured by the results of this election year; in fact, they are likely to be exacerbated, whatever the outcome.
There has been no shortage of books, essays, and commentary on this condition, but none more perceptive and ambitious than the recent book by Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.
Levin’s major theme is that America, across the political and ideological spectrum, is in what he calls a trap of competing nostalgia and that this condition is preventing any meaningful discussion across partisan lines. He is from staunch conservative instincts, but he says that both right and left have been blind to how America has changed over the past five decades. The left is nostalgic for the middle of the 20th century, when unions were strong, big government made huge promises to solve social problems, and the civil rights movement was prominent. The right looks back at the Reagan era of deregulation, lower taxes, cultural traditionalism, and American optimism and confidence. Both sides mistakenly think that a return to their respective “golden age” would solve our problems and Levin is convinced that this politics of nostalgia is failing Americans of the 21st century. Of interest, in a recent article in the Washington Examiner, Michael Barone also uses the nostalgia angle to describe the same problem, while using somewhat different eras that attract the nostalgia of right and left.
For Levin, the path forward must avoid both radical individualism and centralized statism and seek to revive the Tocquevillian institutions of voluntary association in the private middle layers of society–schools, churches, civic organizations, chambers of commerce, trade associations, charitable organizations, etc. This, along with the re-establishment of the principle of subsidiarity, the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well, will reinforce the return to community-based governance.
Levin provides a perceptive analysis of the history of how we got here and an ambitious plan for how we proceed to get out of this seemingly unending cycle. And he is not naive about the daunting challenges in reviving these traditions, which have been undermined by overreaching government at every level over the past 80 years. There really is no better alternative. I just wish I could be more optimistic.