The Fractured Republic: Part 2, Everything Starts Looking Like a Nail

As a liberal Christian one of the most challenging things I read in Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism is his analysis regarding how we, as individuals, now stand isolated and alone before the state.

I think this is a potent analysis that we really need to ponder.

In Part 1 we used the words "fracture" and "diffusion" to describe our increasingly individualized society. What do we mean by these descriptions?

According to Levin, over the last few generations we've seen a breakdown in the mediating structures of American civic life. By mediating structures we mean local communities that stood between the individual and the state. Families, unions, churches, civic organizations, etc. In generations past there was more to civic engagement than "the state." Civic and social engagement took place within and through these smaller, local organizations.

But over the last few generations these mediating institutions have broken down or vanished altogether. And so what does that leave us with? Two things: individuals and the state. There is no mediating social structure between the two. There is just me and you, and we both, as isolated individuals, stand before the state.

In Levin's words, this is the great "bifurcation of American life," an increased pull toward individualism on the one hand combined with an increased focus and reliance upon a centralized state. The middle institutions between individuals and the state have vanished.

Here's Levin (p. 89):
...the bifurcation of American life...[is caused by] a greater centralization of power in the federal government to accompany greater individualism in the culture and economy. Increasingly, society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions--family, community, church, unions, and others--fade and falter...[We] find concentration at the ends and a growing vacuum in the middle.
I think this is a huge, huge insight. I'd like to unpack some implications, keeping my eye on my progressive Christian tribe.

That the middle, mediating structures have evaporated in America, leaving only individuals and the state, explains why our politics has become so polarized. When only individuals and the state exist all social action must, necessarily, be done by and through the state. The state has become the only game in town.

Individuals, by themselves, can't do much, and the only other actor on the stage is the state. Thus the inevitable conclusion: If we want to do anything to solve our social problems we have to get the state to do it.

And both liberals and conservatives are affected here. Conservatives desiring to conserve "American values" and the "American way of life" want the state to protect and preserve American culture. Liberals, by contrast, want the state to fix and address economic inequities.

Either way, the solution to what ails America is the state.

Which means that both liberals and conservatives find it necessary to take control of the state. And so we fight over that control. And it's this fight to take control of the state that has made our politics so polarized. As individuals we fight to take control of the state, trying to wrest control away from others. Politics becomes a winner-take-all cage match.

But let's return to Levin's point. The reason we are fighting over the state is because we have an impoverished social and political imagination. We fight over the state because the state is the only thing we can imagine effecting change in the world. As individuals we are too small. So in our imaginations the only thing capable of making a difference in the world is the state.

The trouble with this, as Levin points out, is that while the state is a good solution for many of the problems facing us, it's not so good for other things. A lot of stuff that is broken in our neighborhoods can't and won't be fixed by Congress passing new laws. Many of the problems we find in our local communities can only be addressed on a smaller and more relational scale.

I find myself in agreement with this analysis. As I noted in my posts about a progressive vision of the Benedict Option, one of the things that plagues progressive Christian visions of social action is statism, the belief that social action is primarily done by and through the state. Progressive Christian social action is almost wholly focused on the machinations of the US judiciary, legislature and presidency.

Progressive Christian social action often reduces to getting the state to do progressive things.

Speaking as a progressive, of course I think we should get the state to do progressive things. But the problem with statism is that it doesn't look very much like Jesus' vision of social action, which was a lot more local, relational and intimate. Consider how Jesus gives little political attention to the Roman state but massive amounts of personal attention to hurting people on the street.

Beyond Jesus, a related problem with statism is how it has no room for the church. If the state is the only actor who can get anything done in the world then the local church is irrelevant.

Let's conclude by revisiting the main insight.

The mediating social institutions that stood between individuals and the state have been vanishing in America, leaving the state as the only player on the field big enough to address our social ills. But while the state can help solve many of our problems, it can't solve all of our problems. Especially those problems where the systemic and the personal intersect and interact, from poverty to race relations to chemical dependency to social and familial breakdowns.

I understand that the state can do more or less harm. Like many progressives I'm worried about the next four years. But the state, to take one example, cannot solve our racial issues. During the next four years let us not forget that Ferguson, all the other police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter occurred during the Obama administration. Having a progressive in the Oval Office did not and will not solve our racial issues.

The political imagination of progressive Christians needs to expand beyond electoral politics.

And yet, for far too many Christians electoral politics is the only tool we focus on in order to fix our social problems. We lack the imagination for anything else.

And if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.

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