No one disputes the fact that the nation is polarized and coming apart. This is evident, especially in light of the 2016 election cycle. Likewise, no reasonable person can deny that we need to return to the order of social bonds that mitigate the effects of extreme individualism, especially the erosion of our national unity.
Yuval Levin’s fascinating book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism does much to address these great problems and offer corresponding solutions. The book is a well-written historical analysis of what has led to the fracturing of the nation. Thankfully, Dr. Levin does not resort to instant push-button solutions. Rather he recognizes the need to propose ways to mend and meld these fractures over the long term.
What Dr. Levin describes is the battle between two conflicting yet inadequate visions of American society. Simplifying a bit, one is a conservative America that yearns for the security of moral values and social unity. The other is the progressive America that longs for the heady idealism of extreme individualism, income equality and governmental safety nets. Both visions are the two main baby boomer narratives, which also represent a clash of “nostalgias” where one side longs for the stable 50s and the other for the restless 60s.
Dr. Levin, an avowed conservative, outlines the unique historic circumstances that gave rise to these competing visions and their nostalgias. He makes the case that all uniting factors have eroded over the last several decades. America’s broad political consensus has broken down. The mediating institutions of family, community and faith that normally stand between the individual and the State are being “hollowed out” and worn away. These middle layers are “where people see each other face-to-face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization.”
The author suggests that the competing visions are “blinded by their nostalgias” and eroded by the culture. Neither one has the power to recapture the mainstream. Neither one can afford to follow the present narrative which does not address the present reality. Something different must be done.
The second part is aptly titled “the next America” in which Dr. Levin asks his readers to visualize what the nation’s future might look like. In the book’s introduction, the author makes it clear he is not providing a detailed blueprint for America. He is rather groping and grappling toward organic bottom-up remedies that cannot be rigidly planned or imposed. Dr. Levin’s grappling approach is therefore refreshing, original…and problematic.
The refreshing part of his remedy can be summed up in one word: subsidiarity. He defines this social concept as “putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of interpersonal community as reasonably possible.” That is to say letting each social unit take care of itself while relying on larger institutions, especially government, only when necessary.
Subsidiarity makes sense considering his evaluation of the crisis. For if the problem in America is the loss of bottom-up mediating institutions of family, community, and faith, then the solution is the restoration of that middle layer that fosters social bonds. Dr. Levin claims that “The mediating institutions do not need to be unleashed—they need to be revived, reinforced and empowered.”
Such a remedy is original in that it does not come from the government—the preferred agent of change in today’s world. Indeed, it is as if “government” and “solution” are two words that normally should not appear together. Dr. Levin puts the responsibility for solving the present moral crisis where it belongs—with moral institutions. He desires the next America to be “a free society rooted in an understanding of liberty that depends upon our institutions of moral formation and on the kind of person they produce—the citizen fit for virtuous freedom.”
How such a remedy might be implemented is more problematic. Dr. Levin proposes that Americans replace the outdated narrative of the Culture War, blinded as it is by nostalgia. However, Dr. Levin himself appears a bit blinded by the nostalgia, since he fails to mention the moral values, principles, and ideals that are so much a part of the Culture War. It is not clear how these very important non-nostaglic issues (like abortion, for example) should be handled in his proposal.
Dr. Levin believes efforts might be better employed in what he calls “subcultural wars.” For cultural conservatives, this would entail offering attractive alternatives that embody a vision of the virtuous good life. “The center has not held in American life, so we must instead find our centers for ourselves as communities of like-minded citizens, and then build out the American ethic from there.”
Dr. Levin’s option makes many assumptions that are not necessarily certain to happen. He assumes that a cultural ceasefire might be arranged that would allow political space for such communities to grow and flourish. The present judicial and regulatory infrastructures may not be so willing to relinquish their stranglehold upon American life, or cease their hostility, that makes so many good life alternatives difficult if not impossible.
It cannot be presupposed that the mere presentation of the good life, however attractive, will guarantee its widespread acceptance since arduous virtue has always struggled to compete with easy vice. Example alone may not be compelling enough to reverse the inebriating “freedom” of an extreme individualism.
Finally, there is the assumption that strong subcultures will necessarily repair the fractured republic. Without proportionally strong unifying principles, there is the risk that these strong subcultures might just shatter the nation.
The Fractured Republic is an important commentary on the present state of disunity and polarization. Dr. Levin has the courage to talk about the politically incorrect principle of subsidiarity. His work frames the debate where it should be framed—around those institutions of moral formation that really matter.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in American Thinker (June 2016) and is republished with the gracious permission of the author.