The Fractured Republic

In: Uncategorized

24 Jun 2016

This is the original (unedited) version of my latest book review for the Financial Times.

Although Yuval Levin is a self-avowed conservative he takes aim at both sides of the US political divide in this perceptive work. The former White House staffer under President George W Bush sees both progressives and conservatives as wallowing in an unhealthy nostalgia. The Fractured Republic argues eloquently that striving for a better future means desisting from romanticising the past.

Republicans, in Levin’s view, tend to hark back to 1981. In the first full year of the Ronald Reagan presidency the conservative president set about implementing free market reforms in earnest.

The nostalgia of the Democrats, in contrast, harks back to the Great Society of 1965. That was the high point of the campaign against poverty and racial injustice implemented by the administration of Lyndon B Johnson.

Neither side, Levin argues, has the answer to the most contemporary problems in the US. The left is too wedded to statism and the right too often favours a hyper-individualism. Neither, in his view, is up to the tackling the central challenge of America’s fractured society. Both social order and economic security have been weakened. A dysfunctional political system is ill-equipped to tackle these problems.

Many leading American thinkers share Levin’s preoccupation with acute social divisions although each has their own particular take on it. Robert Putnam, a Harvard academic, has bemoaned the decline of social capital in US society. Bill Bishop, a prominent journalist, has used demographic data to show Americans increasingly choose to live with like-minded neighbours. Charles Murray, a conservative thinker, has bemoaned how a powerful upper class has separated itself from the rest of society.

For Democrats, and those who more generally define themselves as progressive, economic inequality is generally central to this concern. They criticise an ostentatious super-rich for separating itself from the rest of society.

Levin accepts that high inequality is a reality but is surely right to argue that it is an effect rather than a cause. The wealthy, for instance, have benefitted from the booming of the financial sector and financial assets over the years. But to see this trend as the main reason for America’s fracturing is misleading.

Conservatives also identify a growing social divide but they tend to see it more in moral terms. Levin is influenced by Charles Murray’s argument on the growing gap between those with a university education and those without. It is perhaps not surprising that college graduates suffer lower unemployment. But they also tend to have significantly higher marriage rates, lower divorce rates and more religious commitment. For the right, cultural disintegration and polarisation, rather than economic inequality, are the key concerns.

Although Levin is critical of both conservatives and progressives he argues that the right is better able to come up with a solutions. His solution is a reinvigoration of what he calls mediating institutions in society: a strengthening of community life. As a self-professed conservative it is not surprising that he sees the family as playing a central role in achieving this task. But he also argues for increased importance to be attached to liberal education (as opposed to vocational learning) and greater civic engagement. Above all he emphasises the importance of religious institutions as he sees these as a direct challenge to the age of fracture.

This emphasis on mediating institutions is in line with his support for what he calls a modernised politics of subsidiarity. That is the idea that key decisions should be made as close to the community level as reasonably possible.

Despite the many insights in Levin’s work there are good reasons to call some of his key insights into questions. For example, there is a lot of emphasis on institutions but much less on the ideas needed to develop a common outlook.

It is also arguable that the widespread concern about inequality is driven by factors other than economic ones. At least in part it seems to reflect an insecurity within the elite itself. It no longer has confidence in its own ability to cohere society.

Nevertheless the Fractured Republic should be require reading for all those trying to understand the contemporary US.

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