Yuval Levin is an Israeli-born American political analyst and former member of the Bush White House domestic policy staff, whom New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait once called "the most influential conservative intellectual of the Obama era." Three years ago, Levin published The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, a study of the historical and philosophical roots of our modern Left-Right political divide, the kind of illumination of present political debates by engaging the great tradition of political philosophy that I was once schooled in and taught to try to emulate. Interestingly, Levin was born in 1977, the same year I finished my academic graduate study in political philosophy. That makes him not only almost 30 years younger than me but a member of the subsequent generation and thus able to look back at my mid-century era with both familiarity and distance. This he does very well in his latest work, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of individualism.
Levin is unabashedly an intellectual of the Right. He is, to my mind, much too fond of "federalism" and much too distrustful of what Progressive politics has accomplished in the last century and, with certain caveats, I believe can yet accomplish. He seems to share the conservative disdain, for example, for Medicare, which continues to be an electoral albatross for the political Right. (Witness, therefore, the rise of Donald Trump and the decline of Paul Ryan). That said, Levin makes a powerful case for the need to reinvigorate the middle layers of society, the network of mediating structures and institutions of families and communities where we live most of our lives and which must flourish if we are really to thrive. This is not a new argument. It has its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville's masterful analysis of the Ancien Regime (The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 1856). Peter Berger addressed it in 1974 in Pyramids of Sacrifice, a book I once assigned in one of my courses when I was teaching. It has been a staple preoccupation of communitarian-oriented thinkers in this era of extreme social fragmentation in which increasingly isolated individuals find themselves bereft of traditional communal connections and are connected only to the centralized, administrative state.
None of that is particularly new. Nor is it new to notice that both sides - Right and Left - have equally contributed to this. The Right's economic libertarianism and the Left's moral libertarianism have - over roughly the same period - collaborated in undoing many of the social supports people need to depend upon, notably the family. What stands out in Levin's analysis is his historic perspective.
His premise is that both Right and Left look back nostalgically to the post-war era as a kind of Golden Age. And that nostalgia, he believes, blocks both sides from engaging effectively with the new society that has developed in the interim.
He rightly recognizes the post-war era as one of successful consolidation. It rested on "an extraordinarily stable and cohesive social foundation" and "exceptionally limited diversity in every area of American life." It was in important respects "a corporatist,, cartel-based" economy" that sustained and was sustained by cultural conformity. Of course, as we all know, a sustained process of cultural liberalization began during that period. But, for a time, it all continued to work so well, because "the culture being liberalized was highly consolidated and constrained."
Back then, "the Left was fighting the cultural constriction while reveling in the economic consensus; the Right was fighting the economic constrictions while reveling in the cultural consensus. Both sides today therefore recall that time as offering a stable foundation for a satisfying struggle for necessary liberalization, even if each side has a different idea of what the foundation was and what needed to be liberalized."
Since then, consolidation has given way to de-consolidation - both economically and culturally. Ours is a diffused and fragmented society in both arenas and is becoming more so all the time. Levin analyzes both processes of diffusion - the fragmenting of a once concentrated economy (a development he seems to see on balance as more positive than negative) and the breakdown of traditional religious and cultural structures, most notably the family (a process he recognizes as much more problematic).
So today we have a situation in which "the Right wants unmitigated economic individualism but a return to common more norms. The Left wants unrestrained moral individualism but economic consolidation. Both will need to come to terms with some uncomfortable realities of twenty-first century America."
The resulting challenge for liberals is to recognize "that cultural liberation has real costs, especially fro the most vulnerable. And it means they must look at our mediating institutions not as threats or as relics of prejudice and backwardness, but as partners and as constructive means of change." Conservatives, on the other hand, have to come to terms with a much more diverse and culturally fractured society and "should think about preserving the preconditions for moral living in terms of building cohesive, attractive, moral subcultures in those mediating layers of society." That requires that conservatives shift from a vocabulary of "radical individualism" to one of "middling communitariansm." As a conservative, Levin inevitably values markets. But he also values "families, communities, charities, religious congregations, fraternal groups, unions, and countless other institutions."
Unsurprisingly, there remains some distance between Levin's economic prescriptions and what I would favor. I remain much more convinced of the necessity of a strong modern national community than he seems to be. He dismisses President obama's statement in his Second Inaugural Address - Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people - as an "emaciated understanding" that leaves no room for "meaningful middle layers of society" between the individual and the nation. I admit that there is such a dangerous dynamic in contemporary progressivism - notably in the increasing hostility to religion. The challenge, I believe, is to strengthen both the bonds of our national community and the mediating structures of family, religion, etc,, within which we live most of our day-to-day loves. An unbalanced conservative emphasis on society at the expense of the state, may be less harmful than the unbalanced conservative emphasis on the individual at the expense of both society and the state which has largely reigned up until now. But it is still unbalanced and still fails to appreciate the singularly necessary role of the sovereign national community in the modern world.
I resonated more with Levin's recommendations to religious institutions and communities - to which I shall shortly return in a separate post.