Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism does something for the conservative movement that it is in more need of than anytime in history: It proposes to break from the nostalgia of the post-war 20th century, it offers a policy framework that is consistent with her principles but also palatable to the larger society, and most importantly, it works from a place of intellectual foundations and not mere emotional angst. In fact, what Levin does is the highly important work is offer a prescription to both the left and the right, and does so in civility, and with the needed exhortation that both movements understand why past will not be prologue in this present social era.
Levin starts by pleading with both sides to see where nostalgia has taken over political life. He does not lament the positive developments of the last 50 years of the 20th century, recognizing leaps forward in economic prosperity and social liberation, but goes to great lengths to demonstrate that each side has bones to pick with the progress as well (the left with economic inequality; the right with cultural breakdowns; etc.). Levin is effective in demonstrating where the dislocations of the last fifty years came from, and why it behooves each side to be nostalgic about some parts of the progress their side achieved, and yet he offers compelling arguments as to why the path forward will simply not allow for the same framework to lead us forward, as the set of social, economic, and cultural circumstances has changed, and with it the need for a new path in healing and advancing the presently fractured republic.
The temptation exists for a civil, reasonable, and reform-oriented writer like Levin to try and “split the baby” for all policy differences between the left and the right. Nothing is more tempting and yet useless than when a non-polarizing figure decides to just put one arm in the refrigerator and one arm in the oven and think they have moderated a policy matter effectively. Levin, to his huge credit, does nothing of the sort. The book is overtly conservative, but it is conservative in a Buckleyite foundational sense, not a belligerent Coulterite way. Levin is a gentleman, and he writes as such, and that alone may alienate much of the present [alt] right audience. And of course the progressive side will be unconvinced by much of Levin’s prescription, as he is unrelenting in his arguments that greater collectivism and more forceful surrender to centralized bureaucracy are antithetical to the greater social good. What Levin has done is use conservative principles to argue for many of the professed progressive ideal results – a society advancing in liberalization and diversity but through a politics of subsidiarity. Stronger communities via “mediating institutions” will enable us to thrive and be free. A decentralization of federal power replaced with a re-focusing on families, communities, the marketplace, civic and religious groups, etc. represents the antidote to the present fracturing whereby strong individualism has pulled at our society “from below,” and heavy centralized government “from above,” and somewhere in there these competing forces have “hollowed out the middle spaces where a free society forms its citizens.”
Levin does not claim to offer all detail and particulars of this particular vision, but he does provide more granularity than I expected. His proposals do great justice to James Madison’s fear of federal powers falling to “every subject in the idea of general welfare,” but also to de Tocqueville’s exhortation that individualism not “place men beside one another without a common bond to hold them.” The book is not remotely focused on being a political guide for winning an election – indeed, quite the contrary. Levin knows what real conservatives have always known: The politics follows the culture, and never in the reverse order. Those who claim they desire a vision more akin to the founders, of a dynamic, moving, and flourishing country, would be wise to take up this book. It is as powerful a manual for renewing Locke’s social contract as has been written in decades.