Author: Why American Politics Is Too Nostalgic


Campbell North Contributor
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The contemporary American political culture strongly embodies the French notion of “à la recherche du temps perdu,” or the itching impulse to be “in search of lost time.”

In his new book, “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism,” Yuval Levin, Herzog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and conservative political analyst, argues that this undercurrent of nostalgia dominates the current political debate.

“American politics are drowning in frustration and anxiety. We are living through an uneasy time, reflected in tone of debates and peculiar candidates that arise and appeal to voters. The way of talking about our problems is dominated by the sense that we have fallen far and fast from a peak that many older Americans can still remember in this lifetime,” said Levin, at a book event held yesterday by the Heritage Foundation.

“‘America isn’t what it used to be’ has become the theme of contemporary politics.”

It is easy to understand why so many Americans are disillusioned with the current state of the nation. “The economy has been sluggish, the century opened in 2001 with one of the worst terror attacks ever witnessed – shattering hopes of post-Cold War peace – there has been breakdown of the family, inequality is pointing in troubling directions and stands in the way of the social mobility that characterizes the American dream,” said Levin.

This disillusionment has resulted in a fracturing of the nation and the loss of a common purpose.

Americans are betwixt and between the values of individuality and those of conformity to be a part of something bigger than themselves — the nation.

The country is in the middle of an identity crisis. In order to caulk the cracks of our fractured nation, Levin believes that the solution to revitalize the republic lies in revitalizing the mediating institution of community life, rather than pining to revert to the past — a mistake that both political parties are guilty of.

Before America can move forward, it needs to relieve itself from the pressure to emulate the prosperous past. To do so, the nation must introspectively reflect on why we are wistfully reminiscent of a better time.

The version of America that our politics misses so much is the America that emerged out of the Great Depression and World War II.

“There was confidence in big institutions, big businesses would work together to meet the people’s needs, cultural life at mid-century was dominated by broad, traditionalist, moral consensus, religious consensus was at peak and divorce rates were low. After WWII we dominated global economy, producing almost 60 percent of all goods consumed in the modern world and offering jobs to almost every level of skillset,” said Levin.

It was out of circumstance that America experienced prosperity. “The moment was fleeting, we were in peculiar situation where the rest of the developed world had been devastated by the war and resulted in a bizarre imbalance of supply and demand.”

WWII also created a unique space in which Americans found a way to unite together for a common purpose against a common enemy, resulting in a culture of unity and cohesion.

The inherently and inevitably temporary nature of this period in American history is exactly Levin feels that trying to revert to the ways of the past is a fruitless endeavor.

The fracturing of the nation began with the decentralization and deregulation of the late 1960s and 70s. “Culture diversified as the struggle against racism coincided with increase in immigration — because of 1920 immigration restriction, there was low degree of diversity 50s until lifted in late 60s. Meanwhile, key parts of the economy were deregulated and there was a globalizing pressure to specialize and become a more highly-skilled workforce,” said Levin.

So while the post-WWII America was a model of consensus and consolidation, the end of 20th century America was a model of growing polarization and focus on individuality over conformity.

“We became more dynamic but less secure, more diverse but less unified. The loss of faith in institutions, security, stability and the loss of a cultural and political consensus have piled up in ways that overlook any of the gains made in the modern era,” said Levin.

“It’s no wonder we yearn for the late 50s and early 60s. That period combined the perfect cocktail of dynamism and cohesion, keeping a foot in both camps by straddling unity and diversity — offering a stable backdrop for liberalization.”

That backdrop of liberalization worked so well in the mid-twentieth century that our presently fragmented and diverse society was produced as a result. Levin believes that conservatism is uniquely poised to take advantage of both the strengths and weaknesses of this fracture in a way that can revitalize the nation.

Conservatism offers a bottom-up approach in which it gives the public multiple options, letting them choose what is best for them individually.

Conservatives can use diversity as a tool for problem solving. The current problem facing contemporary politics is that the diverse and deregulated culture and economy are  extremely fragmented. As a response, there is regulation that micromanages each individual fragment of society.

“The current system is one of domination and invasion because it enters into the details of life, managing every last one, ‘saving’ the individual from burden of making decisions,” said Levin. “The solution is to let authority flow through the middle institutions.”

Rather than building cohesive mainstream culture, conservatism offers the option of developing cohesive subcultures. This would come as a result of reviving the “mediating institution of community life — from families to churches to local government to labor and business groups, focusing on the mediating institutions will help balance dynamism with cohesion,” said Levin.

Mediating institutions give people freedom of choice while still being a part of society. Society does not begin with government or end at individual. It takes form of series of Russian nesting dolls or concentric circles. “Family is first, then community, then the set of institutions on the local government level, then the federal government — the role of each ring is to protect the one inside it.”

The conversation should not center on whether the federal government is too big or too small, but rather on whether it is fulfilling its role to protect these mediating institutions so they can all flourish. It should give people choices, look where those choices lead them and let a bottom-up system develop around them.

“By revitalizing the mediating layers, we can be drawn back to that perfect space between the individual and the state and help to reunite the fractured republic. By applying enduring American principles, we can find the recipe for American revival.”