'The Fractured Republic' neglects the role of moral urgency

Yesterday, I began my review of Yuval Levin's new book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Today, I shall conclude the review, although this is the kind of engaging book that I could go on about for days.

There is another difficulty with Levin's vision, and an odd one at that, especially for someone who works at the Ethics & Public Policy Center. His analysis is stone cold, often devoid of moral language or logic. So, on pages 48-49, he writes about the ways the civil rights movement fits his narrative of a rebellion against conformity and on behalf of individual rights in the latter half of the 20th century, yet also the ways the movement called forth a sense of national purpose. He even notes that King wanted to shake the nation out of its self-confidence in order to achieve the necessary moral reform. But Levin never says that the movement was a great act of moral courage, nor that it accomplished morally significant laws. He knows this to be the case, because later in the book he says so, but large portions of the text lack this kind of moral analysis in the first instance.

Or, consider this paragraph:

The late 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s constituted the darkest, most ominous time in America's postwar path -- it was the moment when we could no longer deny that something fundamental was changing and that, in some profound way, America seemed to be coming apart. The transient balance of mid-century was undone not by the nefarious workings of ill-intentioned partisans of one stripe or another, but by the progress of the very forces that -acting on a highly consolidated nation -- had brought that balance about to begin with: the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture and diffusion.

What is missing here is any sense of moral agency. Is it really the case that ill intentions had no part to play in this story? Did not LBJ's decision to go to Vietnam, and the Pentagon's repeated lies about the war, play no part in the loss of confidence in our government? Did Nixon's decision to cover up the Watergate break-in not contribute to a loss of nation ideals? Sirhan Sirhan really did shoot Bobbie Kennedy. I understand that we are all subject to large impersonal forces, but people make decisions, and decisions affect the large impersonal forces too.

Or consider this observation. Levin writes, "We should look to our competitive democracy to set public ends and, where we can, should look to something like the competitive markets to achieve those ends." Whatever you think about the value of markets, and I am far more suspicious of them than Levin, the words "where we can" are carrying a lot of water and demand explication. Efficiency is awarded far too much moral prestige throughout his economic analysis and, like many conservative analysts, he does not really seem inclined to examine the simple proposition that America's moral decline is linked directly (and simply) to its material wealth.

Another part of Levin's thesis warrants further analysis. He contends that the mediating institutions of civil society are vital because of the role they play in moral formation, and that is undoubtedly true. He is on to something when he notes that "hyper-individualism and excessive [governmental] centralization are not opposite inclinations but complementary impulses." But his next sentence, while true, has more complications about it: "As a centralizing government draws power out of the mediating institutions of society, it leaves individuals more isolated." I can see, easily, how individualism denudes civil society's mediating institutions, its churches and unions and community organizations. But, the history of federal intervention in our society was not some ideological whim, but a response to a need, and in the case of many European countries, community ties and local rhythms have persisted long since the adoption of a centralized social welfare state to address clamant needs like health care. Only recently have mom-and-pop stores in Italy begun to give way to supermarkets, which is a damned shame, and that is under pressure from Eurozone economics and German bankers' ideas about economic liberalization. For decades, Italy resisted and it worked out fine unless efficiency is the only standard of measurement.

Still, the problems should not obscure the intelligence of this book. These sentences show Levin's incisiveness at their best: "A population of citizens generally capable of using their freedom well is the greatest achievement of modern civilization -- greater even than the U.S. Constitution and the market system, which depend upon such people. That achievement is the prerequisite for the free society, not only at its origin but in every generation. It is what makes the illusion of complete autonomy even minimally credible."

Levin is also clearly attuned to the dangers of failing to address the issues he raises, of remaining stuck in our polarized politics of nostalgia. "And the frustration that now pervades our politics suggests that these strains have put us at risk of both a loss of national cohesion and a dangerous overreaction to that very loss – at risk, that is, of both a loss of our edifying nationalism and the rise of a more pernicious form." I would add that the problem is not merely nationalism: Race, too, attracts the angry and the lost as a rallying point for bad intentions.

This is a good and provocative book. Levin is the kind of conservative with whom someone in a Hillary Clinton administration, for example, could find areas of agreement. There would be plenty of areas of disagreement to be sure, and wildly different perspectives. But, if the Democrats truly want to restore some of the faith in democracy that has been so lacking Donald Trump was able to become the nominee of a major party, Clinton and her team will be looking for ways to work with smart conservatives. Let's hope that the Republicans and the Democrats are both willing to examine the ways they have been responsible for the rise of Trump by their behavior over the past decades, with the Republicans behaving worse to be sure. But, unless they both get serious about making the government work again, next time, a less vulgar version of Trump might win. It is time for the grown-ups to take over the conservative movement and the Republican Party and Yuval Levin is a grown-up.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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