Yuval Levin's new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, is worth the attention of all of us who are more and less Catholic social doctrine fans. For starters, Levin is willing to criticize his fellow conservatives and, just so, possesses a key admission ticket for the intellectually honest conversation in the center that our nation so desperately needs.
That said, I think the critical Catholic readers finds himself agreeing wholeheartedly with what we would call "the holding," if this were a court decision, while objecting too much of "the dicta." The holding is that American society would benefit from greater subsidiarity, from a reinvigoration of the intermediate social bodies that lend human scale to a culture and serve as a check on both the rampant individualism of the age and the linked encroachments of the national state. These intermediate bodies also could, if allowed to flourish, provide an avenue for experimentation in social policy from which the country would benefit, gathering information from the bottom up rather than the top down. A society and a culture in which communities and churches and unions and neighborhoods and civic groups and local theater troupes are vibrant is, as Levin persuasively argues, a healthier society. So far, this is an updated Quadragesimo Anno.
For example, Levin writes, "There is a way to understand the trends we have been following -- the growing fracture and diffusion of American life -- as simply advancing the cause of liberty, and so as making our society more free. ... But this understanding of freedom, and therefore of the free society, is badly inadequate. It is a notion of freedom that, in distinct but related progressive and conservative forms, has grown pervasive in our time, and that also lies at the root of some of the bigger problems we have traced in these pages." It is that libertarian notion of freedom that is the principal enemy of Catholic social doctrine in our time. Pius XI predicted it would be a problem, but could scarcely imagine how big a problem. Levin paints the picture and, happily, does not spare the conservative version or the liberal kind.
Levin's understanding of subsidiarity avoids one mistake some conservatives make, but he falls into a different misunderstanding. He describes subsidiarity as "the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well." Many conservatives leave out the last qualifying phrase, but it is essential. Subsidiarity is a two-way street. Decision-making is at the lowest level possible, but the highest level necessary, that is, at the appropriate level of society. It is not simply a philosophical battering ram against federal action. But, Levin does not note that the Latin root of the word itself means "to help." In Catholic social doctrine, the right ordering of society is not primarily about the adjudication of power but about how society is structured so that the different parts work together. It is not a Catholic version of federalism or separation of powers but a theory of how best to pursue the common good. The implications of this difference are significant and warrant further attention if subsidiarity is to be usefully employed in our political culture which is built with a such a wildly alternative framework.
Levin argues that our politics is stuck in nostalgia because the baby boomers still dominate the narrative. He notes not only the demographic dominance of the boomers, but also the fact that the boomers are "an unusually self-aware generation." (That's a nice way of putting it.) Conservatives yearn for a return to an imagined and idyllic 1950s, in which every mom is June Cleaver, every family goes to church on Sunday, and the country is united in the fight against communism. Liberals yearn for a return to their imagined 1960s, when revolution was in the air and liberation from constraints was in the air. Levin is undoubtedly correct that when both major polities are in the grips of their own nostalgic visions the present and the future can be ignored or lost.
I am less convinced by another central thesis of the book, that the first half of the 20th century was marked by increasing social cohesion, the emergence of a strong federal government, a kind of corporatist, heavily protected economy, and national coming together with consequent suppression of individualism, while the second half was the age of increasing liberalization and individualism, a time of fracture, with decreasing confidence in large social institutions, a more competitive market, and a national fracturing. He is not entirely wrong, but he is not entirely right either. Descriptively, Levin is on to something obviously. But, there was more to the picture. He mentions, but does not give sufficient attention to, the exclusionary quality of many national institutions mid-century. We forget that Social Security did not extend to sharecroppers at first because FDR needed the votes of southern senators to get it passed, and their constituents were not interested in paying FICA taxes to the black help.
That said, much of the dicta which surrounds this conclusion, betrays the degree to which his conservative blinkers blind him, and keep him from making a more persuasive argument. Speaking of the institutions associated with the modern welfare state, he writes that the central administration of those programs, among other problems, "requires public spending at levels that are increasingly unaffordable." Why unaffordable? We live in the richest country in the history of the world, but Levin buys into the conservative canard that ours is a time of scarcity. Or, when he asserts that the isolation of America's poor "is not a function of the top 1 percent of income earners, who so fascinate those who emphasize inequality in our economic debates, somehow hoarding resources." My hunch is that Levin does not know the life consequences that happen to those of us who ride the bus when there is a cut back in service because politicians are afraid to raise taxes.
Similarly, Levin at times casually accepts the Protestant distinction between private and public when he writes of the Judeo Christian tradition "[i]t generally looks to the forming of souls before the forming of nations." Oddly, this observation comes two pages after he cites Richard John Neuhaus' "naked public square," which was untrue when it was written and has remained untrue since: Our public and political life is often dripping in religion. And, yet more odd, the whole culture-forming quality of faith, indeed its culture-generating quality, challenges the dualism of classic Protestant views about salvation and morality being more private than communal. I am not sure at the end of the book exactly who Levin sees the relationship of faith to culture.
I shall conclude this review tomorrow.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.