Mending the social fabric

Yuval Levin wants us to knit together pieces of American Dream

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism
By Yuval Levin
New York: Basic Books
262 pages

SPEND SOME TIME in West Virginia or Kentucky and you begin to understand why Donald Trump has made it so far as a candidate for president. Making America great again sells well in the communities of those Appalachian states. Jobs in coal mining, never an easy living but work that at least paid a decent wage, are disappearing as mines close down. During a recent visit, a school principal told me with sadness in her voice that once the last coal mine closed in her county, the Walmart superstore became the region’s largest employer. There were simply not enough good jobs to go around, and that was having a devastating impact on her school—big increases in behavioral problems, more depression, more students needing a meal and other necessities, and more students afraid to go home for the weekend. Chaos had replaced community, and hope for a better future is all but gone among her neighbors.

Being in Appalachia during the presidential primaries opened my eyes to a country that I did not know. I wanted a deeper explanation beyond the usual knee jerk reaction about Trump supporters—many of them good people caught up in forces beyond their control. This drew me to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Levin’s book wrestles in a very serious way with the issues that Trump (and Bernie Sanders as well) has been eager to exploit—inequality, the failure of our institutions, the power of a small elite class, the decline of the middle class. Levin is tough on the politicians anchored to policies no longer relevant for today’s challenges and on the civic institutions responsible for social and economic mobility. It’s a book with big, bold themes. But beware: Levin is prone to generalizing about the conditions and circumstances that have led us to today.

Levin is one of the country’s leading conservative intellectuals and founder and editor of National Affairs, a leading journal of politics and policy that is well worth having on your reading list. Fractured Republic attempts to explain the forces that are tearing the nation apart. Can we be great again? Yes, says Levin, but only if we as a nation turn away from a “political life [that] is now exceedingly nostalgic” and work toward a more modern form of governance that he calls “subsidiarity,” a place where power and authority are “as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible.”

America has lost its way because the two major political parties keep offering us policies and politics mired in the past. Nostalgia, he says, “is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics right now.” Our problems are real, but our answers seem “disconnected from reality.” Too many Americans have yet to transition to the post-industrial economy, the benefits of which accrue to some but certainly not all.

The response of our political parties to the economic anxieties many Americans face, Levin says, has been woefully inadequate. “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,” he writes. “And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us.” The result is a public more frustrated and more cynical about politics. We long for a return to what Levin describes as the golden age of post-World War II America.

Many Americans did indeed prosper during that period. My dad, who at 88 still receives his monthly pension check after a career with General Electric, was one. The system worked for our family. He bought a nice house on one income, sent five kids to college, and bought a small condo in Florida for his retirement. During his working life, both political parties shared a consensus view on how to keep the nation strong, stable, and prosperous.

 But for many Americans, the 1950s and 1960s were not so great. Blacks, Hispanics, women, and gays all were excluded from the progress being made and needed to fight for the social and economic opportunities that they felt rightly entitled to. During the 1970s, recessions hit the nation hard as the rest of the world caught up to us economically. Global economic changes brought disillusionment about American exceptionalism and, with it, nostalgia for a better time. As trust in our civic and cultural institutions continued their decline, often exacerbated by the rise in individualism—or narcissism, as Levin categorizes it—the institutions that make up American civil society failed to adequately respond. “The forces underlying the confidence and optimism of the postwar era seemed to be failing all at once,” argues Levin.

Political parties responded by diffusing power and loosening regulatory restrictions on businesses to compete in an increasingly highly competitive global economy (i.e., the Reagan Revolution and declarations that “the era of big government is over”). The economic advantages that provided opportunity to many Americans no longer existed. The economies of other nations had recovered and changes in technology and an increasingly shrinking world meant that we now faced more global competition than we had faced in decades. These changes, global in nature and beyond our control, meant that American institutions began to lose the coherence, cohesion, and public trust that kept us prosperous. Political consensus evaporated and, as Robert Putnam and others have argued, we entered a period of declining “social capital.”

It is the decline of social capital that is at the center of the fragmentation that afflicts us today. “Declines in social capital,” Levin argues, “tend to be self-intensifying: as people come to have less in common with their fellow citizens, they find it more difficult to cooperate and identify with one another, which brings a further weakening of remaining social bonds.” The decline in social capital, a process which took several decades, has resulted in “sharp bifurcations in one area of American life after another—with people at the top moving higher and higher, and those at the bottom moving lower and lower, while the middle hollowed out.”

Levin says that our political institutions are not equipped to deal with these current challenges and “are all in varying states of dysfunction.” The result is a decline in public trust and a growing “detachment from some core sources of social order and meaning,” such as the family, the labor force (especially among men and those without a college education), and community institutions, especially religious institutions. Power is less centralized, but wealth and poverty have become more concentrated in what he says is “bifurcated concentration” (what most of us call inequality). We have become a society of individuals within a national state, a condition that has altered not only our politics but our civic institutions, contributing to the decline of the middle class.

Levin argues that we need to adopt local solutions to the complex problems we face, a time-honored conservative approach that he has dubbed “subsidiarity.” He states, “Honing an inclination to subsidiarity would offer us a way of thinking about solving problems together that begins in the neighborhood, in the church, in the school, in the community, and builds up.” Subsidiarity, he would have us believe, combined with power devolved to the states, will revitalize civic culture, strengthen social capital, and help restore the middle class.

No doubt creating more social capital is needed. But how do we balance local initiative with the will, resources, and capacity to reform our institutions? How do we respond when states don’t act in the best interest of their citizens?

Giving states more leeway to solve public problems has been, since the founding of the republic, one of the great sources of conflict in American politics. As we are reminded by the lessons of American history, relying on the states doesn’t always work as planned. It was not that long ago that the federal government had to step forward to assert voting rights for all, a pillar of citizenship that, left to the states, had become a tool of white segregationists in the South to maintain power.

In this fragmented age we are quick to reject national solutions to national problems. But for too many Americans, government and institutions at all levels have failed them. The Fractured Republic offers plenty of valuable insights in its analysis of what ails us. In the end, though, despite his scorn for those clinging to outmoded ways, Levin himself seems nostalgic for an approach that will, I’m afraid, still leave many of our fellow citizens behind. 

John Schneider is director of policy and advocacy for a national education reform organization based in Boston.