Polarization in American politics seems to be splitting the country apart. The
election of Donald Trump was a wake-up call for me (and many others, I’m sure),
and with the way the impeachment process has been going, it doesn’t seem to be
getting better. For me, the question has been: what can we do individually and
collectively to improve faith and patience in American politics?
My personal (read: woefully uninformed) perspective is that this has to do with
a decline in social capital maintained by most American’s. Look around for
discussion along these lines, and you’re sure to come across Bowling Alone
by Robert Putnam (2001). It’s very well-reviewed,
and even though many argue for its continued relevance, I wanted something a
little more timely. That’s why I decided to use a book review from a trusted
friend as a sort of
“Cliff’s Notes” and jump ahead to a spiritual successor, 2016’s The Fractured
Republic by Yuval Levin.
I was surprised to learn that Levin is an outspoken Republican. It’s not that
anything about the subject matter disqualifies a conservative perspective–it’s
just that the author’s political affiliation didn’t come up in my initial
research. My own views definitely skew towards the Left, but since I’m holed up
in the heart of a very blue state, this was an exciting discovery. In addition
to learning more about a problem that’s been bothering me, the book promised a
better understanding of a perspective from which I’m insulated.
Levin’s first big argument is that today’s politics suffer from intense
nostalgia. He cites rhetoric from both sides of the aisle that demonstrates a
longing for days gone by. He goes further in claiming that the specific days we
miss are related to our political leanings: liberals miss the 50’s, and
conservatives miss the early 80’s. Levin argues that neither is helpful
because we can never go back to those times. He implicates the “Baby Boomer”
generation in all this, claiming that this is their beef, and the rest of us
have been saddled with it due to their seniority and (outsized) proportion in
In either case, Levin posits that we’ve been responding to mid-century cultural
diffusion with ever more focus on individualism. That’s the rub:
If the new American ethic pushes every individual to become more like himself
or herself, rather than more like everyone else, it will, even at its best,
tend to accentuate differences, to increase distances, and to turn a range of
distinctions into a set of bifurcations. This is among the more prominent
consequences of America’s postwar evolution.
From the author’s perspective, this amounts to a “hollowing out of the middle
layers of society,” be they political, economic, or social. He leans heavily on
that specific term, and it starts to wear thin as the book goes on. Repetition
aside, it’s a compelling point.
Levin’s solution is subsidiarity, which he defines as “the entrusting of
power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of
using them well.” This is probably a good indication of his political
disposition because it is in many ways an argument for small government. I
found it convincing, though I still have reason to be skeptical. I worry that
market incentives will pervert critical institutions. I also think that Levin
may be too trusting of small communities–specifically, that those which are
organized around political platforms can themselves be forces for polarization.
For the most part, Levin does a good job acknowledging ideological differences
without tying his recommendations to any ideology in particular. This is
crucial because of the problem he’s tackling–we really don’t stand a chance of
seeing eye-to-eye if we can’t discuss the problems in a balanced way.
This breaks down a bit toward the end of the book, where Levin more explicitly
ties his argument with his politics. This was a bit disorienting. I had been
mostly nodding along, and the introduction of partisan rhetoric felt a little
like having the rug pulled out from under me.
But at the end of the day, I think Levin’s central message is strong.
If we Americans are to see past out nostalgia and begin to address the kinds
of challenges that have been leaving us so anxious in this century, we will
need to look more frequently to genuine subsidiarity. That would be a
response to radical individualism and to excessive centralization that would
help to put governing power where our diverse country might best use it.
[…] Injecting the middle layers of American life with more significance and
power could help to detoxify our political culture a little: subsidiarity can
contribute to a badly needed ethic of restraint and toleration in our
national politics by reducing the pressure and the stakes involved in what
I’m not in a position to design any organizational agendas at any scale, but I
can certainly participate more in my local community. If I actually follow
through with that, and if enough my peers do the same, I’m convinced that this
would mitigate some of our biggest problems. I just don’t know if it’s
realistic to expect that to happen.