The Fractured Republic: Part 1, Blinded By Nostalgia

Over the summer I read Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Levin is writing from a conservative perspective, but from what I'd heard about the thesis of the book I wanted to read it as that thesis resonated with me as a liberal Christian, what I was experiencing in my life on the streets of my town walking alongside the paroled, the homeless, the working poor, the mentally ill and the addicted. I'm increasingly disillusioned with the political insights coming from progressive Christians on Twitter and Facebook. And I've never been very impressed with the conservative insights.

Given what I'm looking at on the streets of my town, I'm searching for something more helpful, honest and realistic than what passes as political discourse on social media.

So I was intrigued by The Fractured Republic, wondering if it might point to some bridges that could connect liberal and conservative Christians when it comes to the issue of social engagement.

Toward that end, I'd like to share some of the analyses from The Fractured Republic along a few thoughts about how I think it points to some common ground that might be exploited by liberals and conservatives. Also, I wrote these posts last summer before the election, and reading them now I think they are even more important.

The major social diagnosis at the heart of The Fractured Republic is that over the last two generations America has experienced increasing fracture, diffusion, fragmentation, and liberalization. More and more we see ourselves as isolated individuals rather than as members of smaller communities. Some of the forces of this individualization are of concern to conservatives, like the breakdown of families, and some are of concern to liberals, like the breakdown of shared civic engagement. Some of the forces of fragmentation are cultural and some are economic. Regardless, we live in an age of individualism.

Now to be clear, this individualism is both a blessing and a curse. Autonomy and independence isn't all bad. We've arrived at this moment because we've desired it. And yet, this radical individualism creates some problems when we seek to address many of the social ills that confront us.

According to Levin, both the Right and the Left are hampered by nostalgia for the past, wanting to go back to an age where some sort of consolation balanced out the individualism and fracture of our time. The differences between the Right and Left are rooted in that they want to consolidate different things. The Right looks back nostalgically and seeks to recapture the cultural consolidation of the 1950s, when America broadly shared the same beliefs and values. The Left, by contrast, looks back nostalgically and seeks to recapture an economic consolidation, a time when American manufacturing reigned and unions were a strong and powerful political force.

[Post-election note. Reading this bit of Levin's analysis after the election it sounds less on point in the wake of Trump's victory, especially in the Rust Belt. There's been a lot of post-election discussion about if the Left has abandoned its traditional concern about class and labor issues to focus on identity politics. At the very least it happened in this election when the Democrats nominated Clinton over Sanders, whose socialistic concerns were more classically liberal. Trump, it seems, was better able to exploit the traditionally Democratic economic nostalgia for America's history of manufacturing in his attacks on globalization and trade. In this Trump was able to exploit both sorts of nostalgia, cultural and economic.]

Trapped by our nostalgia, cultural and economic, we struggle to face up to the reality that there will be no going back. Despite Trump's victory, American culture remains radically multicultural. There's no collective going back to the "Father Knows Best" 1950s.

In addition, there is no way to reverse the modern economic realities of globalization and decentralization. Despite Trump's promises to renegotiate trade deals or a Bernie Sanders-style socialism, we are not going to return to the golden age of American manufacturing.

In short, our politics is stymied because we keep looking backwards to some Golden Age. Both Left and Right have their own visions of this Golden Age. Regardless, both Left and Right offer solutions to current problems by turning toward the past.

But in the analysis of Levin, there is no going back. The cultural and economic ground has so shifted under the feet of both the Left and the Right that we need new solutions.

Here's how Levin describes the situation (pp. 92-93):
Our republic has become deeply fractured, and our politicians have struggled to pin the blame for this phenomenon somewhere without fully acknowledging its character. The Left see economic inequality as the root of all other forms of social fracturing, and argues therefore that a policy of more aggressive redistribution would not only help ease income inequality but also mitigate the political power of the wealthy, strengthen poor communities and families and create more opportunities as well...The Right sees cultural disintegration and polarization--marked by dysfunction at the bottom and reinforced by a loss of cultural self-confidence at the top--as the source of the persistence of entrenched poverty in America. Conservatives therefore argue that social policy must focus on family and community, and worry that the Left's misguided, if not opportunistic, efforts to address entrenched poverty through greater economic redistribution can only make things worse by hampering the economy, distorting the personal choices of the disadvantaged with perverse incentives, and exacerbating dependency.

In the effort to avoid the (rather obvious) conclusion that cultural and economic factors are inseparable, liberals and conservatives tend to exaggerate the implications of their favored explanation...

Our debates about whether culture or economics ultimately matters most keeps us from seeing what kind of action might be plausible. These debates often implicitly revolve around the question of whether we should attempt a reversal of the profound diffusion and decentralization of the past half-century and more in the economic sphere (as the Left would prefer) or the social sphere (as the Right would like), when the fact is that we stand little chance of any wholesale reversal in either realm. This leaves us a politics of dual denial: in any given policy debate, one party (be it Republican on cultural matters or Democrats in economics) denies the fact that the diffusion in our society is a dominant and essentially irreversible fact about contemporary America, while the the other party denies that this fact entails some very significant problems.

This pattern suggests a broad and deep failure of self-understanding--and perhaps, above all, a failure to grasp precisely the social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics of America's postwar evolution. It is a failure that has much to do with the blinding nostalgia...[a nostalgia] that has shaped and sharpened the unease and disorientation of twenty-first-century America. This is where a half-century and more of fragmentation and fracture, or liberalization and diffusion, has left us.
On both the Left and the Right, the new wine calls for new wineskins.

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