There are just a few essential reads if you want to understand the American social and political landscape today. Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and a few other books deserve to be on that list. Today, I’d add Yuval Levin’s fantastic new book, “The Fractured Republic.”
Levin starts with the observation that our politics and much of our thinking is drenched in nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s. The left is nostalgic for the relative economic equality of that era. The right is nostalgic for the cultural cohesion. The postwar era has become our unconscious ideal of what successful America looks like. It was, Levin notes, an age of cohesion and consolidation.
But we have now moved to an age of decentralization and fragmentation. At one point in the book he presents a series of U-shaped graphs showing this pattern.
Party polarization in Congress declined steadily from 1910 to 1940, but it has risen steadily since. We are a less politically cohesive nation.
The share of national income that went to the top 1 percent declined steadily from 1925 to about 1975, but has risen steadily since. We are a less economically cohesive nation.
The share of Americans who were born abroad dropped steadily from 1910 to 1970. But the share of immigrants has risen steadily ever since, from 4.7 percent of the population to nearly 14 percent. We are a more diverse and less demographically cohesive nation.
In case after case we’ve replaced attachments to large established institutions with commitments to looser and more flexible networks. Levin argues that the Internet did not cause this shift but embodies today’s individualistic, diffuse society.
This shift has created some unpleasant realities. Levin makes a nice distinction between centralization and consolidation. In economic, cultural and social terms, America is less centralized. But people have simultaneously concentrated off on the edges – separated into areas of, say, concentrated wealth and concentrated poverty. The middle has hollowed out in sphere after sphere. Socially, politically and economically we’re living within “bifurcated concentration.”
For example, religious life has bifurcated. Church attendance has declined twice as fast among people without high school diplomas as among people with college degrees. With each additional year of education, the likelihood of attending religious services rises 15 percent.
We’re also less embedded in tight, soul-forming institutions. Levin makes another distinction between community – being part of a congregation – and identity – being, say, Jewish. Being part of community takes time and involves restrictions. Merely having an identity doesn’t. In our cultural emphasis and life, we’ve gone from a community focus to an identity focus.
Our politicians try to find someone to blame for these problems: banks, immigrants or, for Donald Trump, morons generally. But that older consolidated life could not have survived modernity and is never coming back. It couldn’t have survived globalization, feminism and the sexual revolution, the rising tide of immigration and the greater freedom consumers now enjoy.
Our fundamental problems are the downsides of transitions we have made for good reasons: to enjoy more flexibility, creativity and individual choice. For example, we like buying cheap products from around the world. But the choices we make as consumers make life less stable for us as employees.
Levin says the answer is not to dwell in confusing, frustrating nostalgia. It’s through a big push toward subsidiarity, devolving choice and power down to the local face-to-face community level, and thus avoiding the excesses both of rigid centralization and alienating individualism. A society of empowered local neighborhood organizations is a learning society. Experiments happen and information about how to solve problems flows from the bottom up.
I’m acknowledged in the book, but I learned something new on every page. Nonetheless, I’d say Levin’s emphasis on subsidiarity and local community is important but insufficient. We live within a golden chain, connecting self, family, village, nation and world. The bonds of that chain have to be repaired at every point, not just the local one.
It’s not 1830. We Americans have a national consciousness. People who start local groups are often motivated by a dream of scaling up and changing the nation and the world. Our distemper is not only caused by local fragmentation but by national dysfunction. Even Levin writes and thinks in nation-state terms (his prescription is Wendell Berry, but his intellectual and moral sources are closer to a nationalist like Abraham Lincoln).
That means there will have to be a bigger role for Washington than he or current Republican orthodoxy allows, with more radical ideas, like national service, or a national effort to seed locally run early education and infrastructure projects.
As in ancient Greece and Rome, local communities won’t survive if the national project disintegrates. Our structural problems are national and global, and require big as well as little reforms.