Thriving in an Age of Fracture: Yuval Levin’s Prescription for American Culture

 
 

For those feeling adrift amid the tumult of our politics, economy, and culture, Yuval Levin’s new book offers hope that some good can be found in the turmoil around us.

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Earlier this month, the Jewish people read Parshat Bechukotai, the portion of the Torah in which God promises His chosen people that He will remove wild beasts from their midst if they obey His commandments. On the surface, this pledge may appear to be in tension with the promise delivered in Isaiah that the wolf and lamb will not be absent from the world of the Messianic era but rather shall lie down in it together. Yet the Lubavitch tradition teaches that there is no contradiction here. The wolves and other beasts need not disappear from our world if their wild nature can be altered. God’s words are a promise that they can be tamed and put into our service.

There is a lesson here: when confronted with the wild in our own world, we should seek not to destroy but to subdue and harness, so as to find what is good even in what seems threatening.

To my knowledge, Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the quarterly policy journal National Affairs, does not identify particularly with the Chabad movement. But he shares its optimism about the potential that lies in what is untamed in our world.

The Fractured Republic, his latest work, represents his most wide-ranging effort to demonstrate that civilization, confronted with the wild tendencies of modern life, has an enormous capacity not to fend them off but rather to assimilate what is best of them while mitigating what is worst. “Even as we resist the excesses of our age,” Levin writes, “we should nonetheless find the best in its predilections.” For those feeling adrift amid the tumult of our politics, economy, and culture, The Fractured Republic offers hope that some good can be found in the turmoil around us.

Retaining and Rebuilding the Ties That Bind

Such optimism that the excesses of the modern world can be tamed is characteristic of Levin, whose last book, The Great Debate, was a study of the contrast between Burke and Paine. He has brought this optimism—which focuses on the good that can come from harnessing changes that at first appear to threaten what we have inherited—to his writing from the start of his career.

His first work, Tyranny of Reason (a book long overdue for republication in some form), is an argument against what Levin calls the “social scientific outlook”—the modern effort to apply the scientific method far beyond its proper sphere—and the anti-democratic technocracy it so often breeds. But the book is far from a blanket case against modern social science; it is rather a case for epistemological humility, for a recognition of the limits of the discipline so that it can play its proper role in providing context, not comprehensive knowledge, of how human beings live. Similarly, though his second book, Imagining the Future, is in part a warning of the dangers inherent in reducing inherited taboos to concrete arguments grounded in modern scientific knowledge, it urges conservatives not to retreat from scientific debate conducted on these terms. Levin calls instead for a careful balancing act—a recognition that while the “replacement of sentiment by argument” in public life carries real risks, it is essential work in a scientific age, and it can be done responsibly, “with an eye to what is worth preserving and protecting.” We need not fear science and reason, he argues in these early works, so long as we learn to combine them with and subordinate them to deeper truths.

The Fractured Republic is different from these works because it confronts not an intellectual challenge but a social one: retaining and rebuilding the ties that bind us to each other and that provide order in our lives in spite of forces that tug us apart.

To help the reader understand those forces, Levin begins by contrasting our world with what has come before. During the 1950s, Levin writes, our consolidated society—a mass culture propagated by mass media and built on broadly shared social norms—provided us social stability. Our consolidated economy, in which dominant firms in each industry worked symbiotically with dominant labor unions, was the envy of a world that had been torn apart by war. This age was far from perfect, but signs of progress were apparent in the post-war decades: cultural liberalization during the 1960s, particularly on issues of race, and economic liberalization in the late ’70s and ’80s. No matter one’s views on politics or culture, one could find at least some optimistic trend lines during this period.

Today, decentralization is the new norm of American life, and the accumulated capital of consolidation inherited from the war era has largely been drawn down. Institutions of social authority, such as major media companies and organized religion, lack both the confidence of the public and confidence in themselves. Meanwhile, legacy firms built on integration and outdated labor arrangements with large unions have lost their footing in a global economy that demands maximum efficiency at every level.

Rejecting Nostalgia and Channeling our "Consumer Orientation"

In our contemporary culture, Levin notes, the new ethic is an “expressive individualism” reinforced by online channels of self-selecting social connection, not fealty to shared moral norms. In our economy, the best source of security is individual attainment of high skills, not collective arrangements of solidarity between employer and employee. And while many have found new ways to prosper in this world, for others it has been isolating.

Our leaders struggle to grapple with these changes, Levin notes, not just because the institutions they run are weakening but also because social change often occurs “at the juncture of the generations, right at the core of what makes us a society at all.” Generational change can build slowly, under the surface, then emerge suddenly as a wave. Waves can be ridden if they are recognized in time. But if we are distracted, as our leaders tend to be, they can crash into us.

The chief distraction, Levin suggests, is a nostalgia for what has come before: the post-war world of “a highly consolidated society in the process of liberalizing.” His case, which he makes quite compellingly, is that the moment our leaders long for is not merely gone but unreplicable, an “inevitably fleeting transition” that has already concluded.

But while most reviews of the book have focused on Levin’s debunking of this nostalgia for the post-war era, nostalgia for the past is not the central focus of The Fractured Republic. Rejecting nostalgia, the book argues, is merely a first step toward recognizing the opportunities this new moment of diffusion presents.

Those opportunities are tied to the same generational transition that has created the nostalgia that obscures them. If we learn to contend with the trend toward fracture on the terms of the rising generations who have internalized it, we may find that decentralization can actually be a source of renewal. Like Levin’s past subjects, it can be tamed in the service of our efforts to build a thriving society.

Among the encouraging realities of the next generation of Americans is what Levin calls its “consumer orientation.” This reality has in part been created by the economic changes to which it contributes. With decreased attachment to employers, Levin argues, comes a shift in Americans’ understanding of their role in the economy: they are consumers first, workers second. And that orientation feeds into employers’ own incentives in a cycle, increasing the pressure on them to compete for customers and leaving less margin for the generous employee benefits of old. In the world of the consumer, old guarantees of security are harder to come by.

But people who think more like consumers will learn to be more discerning in meeting their needs. They will take greater care in making major investments—in housing, in education, and so on—and will be more demanding of those who answer to them. They will have less tolerance for corruption in government or for programs that dictate how their money will be spent rather than offering them choices in the allocation of their own resources to meet their own needs.

The Limits of Political Solutions

Still, there are limits to what can be done to reground Americans who feel lost in a world of fracture in the realm of policy and politics. A politics centered on choice can only do so much, even for the Uber generation. We’ve seen that during our current election cycle. The dominant effort at this sort of work—namely, the “reform conservatism” championed most prominently by Levin himself—was ignored by the voters thought to be most receptive to it.

This is not to speak ill of the merits or urgency of that work. Rather, it is to point out the insufficiency of any policy agenda as a primary solution. The fact that The Fractured Republic is largely focused on the non-political dimensions of fractured America demonstrates that Levin recognizes this truth. We cannot take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by decentralization if we cannot address the deeper problem facing us in fractured America: our atomized culture.

Here, a politics of fracture has played a decidedly negative role. It has distorted our sense of what freedom means and how it is properly exercised. On this point, Levin argues, both sides of our debate have had a hand in doing the damage:

The individualist progressive therefore sees freedom as a power to act, while the individualist conservative or libertarian sees freedom as an absence of restraint. This is a real difference—a lot of our political debates turn on it—but it can too easily obscure a deeper agreement: that a free society is simply a collection of individuals who are free of coercion or constraint, and nothing more.

But real liberty, Levin reminds us, requires that human beings are grounded in the constraint that comes with a proper understanding of the nature of the choices before them. It is a freedom that is possible only through moral formation. And like every other element of the old consensus, our moral consensus has been under assault in our age of fracture.

Fortunately, decentralization poses opportunities here too. As Levin points out, cultural conservatives have long been forced to play the role of defenders of consensus. That role has led them to view the collapse of consensus as a crisis. But the antagonists of religion and the family, though more powerful today than in the past, may find in the age of fracture that they are overplaying their hand. A fragmented society that defies consensus of all sorts, Levin predicts (perhaps too optimistically), will not necessarily embrace the norm of aggressive secular liberalism just because it rejects the old Judeo-Christian consensus. If he is right, cultural conservatives may find ample room to rebuild.

And that rebuilding, unburdened by the need to set national norms, will strengthen the draw of our social vision for a new generation that rejects the new consensus just as it did the old, allowing us “to make a positive case, not just a negative one,” not just through word but through deed. “Especially when we are in no position to enforce or enact our ideals as national norms, social conservatives need to emphasize and prioritize such modeling of alternatives—illustrating the possibility of a more appealing form of modern life by living it.” In the age of fracture, which has left young people skeptical of widely shared norms but longing for community, countercultural traditionalists may find that they can thrive. In fact, once they see them in practice these new audiences may prove more devoted to the old ways than the nominal believers who have left the fold.

Levin’s past works, arguing against the intellectual excesses of modern thought, were themselves, in their arguments, the answers to the problems they identified. But arguments cannot fix problems of the soul, and the fractured society is one that is leaving many souls ill. It will take a different sort of persuasion than argument to make an impact on this world: persuasion through action. The Fractured Republic does not present its analysis as a panacea but as an exhortation to readers to create the solutions our country needs themselves. In a world where we feel more space around us, we have more freedom to find new ways to draw together.

Our fractured world may seem like a wilderness, but if we venture into it with optimism, we may find that its diffusion can be tamed.

Jacob Reses is the director of strategic initiatives and advisor to the CEO at Heritage Action for America.

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