Yuval Levin, the editor of the quarterly National Affairs and a sometime contributor to Commentary, has just published The Fractured Republic, an essay in book form about the political divide in the United States. It has excited more attention in the weeks leading up to its release than any comparable work in memory. I called it “the book of the year” in a New York Post column, and in a review in these pages in May, David Bahr said The Fractured Republic “merges a deep philosophic understanding of the American experiment and a conceptual analysis of American history into a practical basis from which we can examine contemporary American problems with crystalline clarity.” Given the richness of the book, we invited four right-of-center intellectuals to expound upon, and expand on, Levin’s themes and message. -John Podhoretz
he Fractured Republic stands as a rare example of a book even more relevant when published than the author could have hoped—or feared—at the time it was written. It arrives in the middle of a political season that exposes the United States as a country not merely fractured, but riven. On the Democratic side, the primary contest ended as a stark racial confrontation. Hillary Clinton consistently lost whites to Sanders, while piling up super-majorities among minorities. On the Republican side . . . well, Commentary readers already know that story all too well.
Yuval Levin is one of the most creative thinkers on the American right. At a time of confusion and anxiety, he has presented a way forward. It’s less a program than a vision: one that seeks social peace by allowing more diversity, in the truest sense of that word. If Americans are less likely to agree on big questions today than they were in, say, 1970, then quit trying to force them to agree. Allow them to experiment for themselves, reach different answers in different places, test what works best, and learn to live together even if they do not all think exactly the same. This was the original approach of the Founders of the country, after all. In a year when the federal government took it upon itself to decide the locker-room rules of states and localities, Levin-style decentralization offers a welcome means of escape from arguments that can’t be settled and probably should never have been started.
However—and you probably heard this “however” rumbling southbound down the avenue from three blocks away—we also need something more.
The centralized America of the 20th century was built in response to three challenges: economic crises like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s; the military crises of the two world wars and the Cold War; and the moral and social crisis presented by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and so on.
Twenty-first century America now faces a state-building challenge of its own.
The two most important drivers of the trends so well described by Yuval Levin are accumulating economic inequality and accelerating immigration. Both are consequences of national policy, and both create demands upon national policy.
Because America is home to more insecure and more troubled people than before, it faces demands for more activist national government than before. Federal disability programs have become a retirement program in all but name for workers displaced by trade and technology shifts. Food stamps—still serving 44 million people even after six years of economic recovery—have become a form of permanent income supplement for working as well as nonworking Americans.
Somebody has to underwrite the health care that poorer Americans cannot afford to buy. Somebody must deal with the consequences of addiction and suicide in economically stranded cities and communities. And if the national government wishes to mitigate those demands, then somebody must do something to stabilize families, combat addiction, and ensure that the proceeds of economic growth are more widely shared.
At the same time, the country is living through the most dramatic demographic transformation arguably since the original European settlement of North America. In a 1998 commencement address, President Bill Clinton delivered this warning of the risks presented by this transformation:
Each year, nearly a million people come legally to America. Today, nearly one in ten people in America was born in another country; one in five schoolchildren is from immigrant families. Today, largely because of immigration, there is no majority race in Hawaii or Houston or New York City. Within five years there will be no majority race in our largest state, California. In a little more than 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States. No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time.
Those migrants have arrived even faster than Clinton predicted. Some 5 million of them live here in a strange quasi-legal status concocted by President Obama’s lawyers and contested in the courts. Another 6 million or so remain outside the law altogether.
To absorb and acculturate those migrants who will be staying, to protect the country against extremist ideologies that may have entered with them or that may arise among them: These are demanding tasks for an activist central government. Neglect these tasks, and uncontrolled demographic change will up-end the political stability of any country—as we’ve seen in Europe over the past decade and in the United States over the past year.
In a county as diverse as the United States is becoming, national citizenship will often be the only thing that Americans share: not language, not culture, and alas not commitment to common civic ideals. The next generation of Americans is split even over such a seemingly fundamental ideal as freedom of speech: 40 percent of millennials believe that government should censor speech that offends certain minority groups.
The last thing Americans still share is the bond they should be most concerned to strengthen and enrich—lest the fractured Republic descend into a fissiparating republic, dividing and subdividing into mutually alien, mutually mistrustful, mutually hostile cantons and not the empowered communities that Yuval Levin so inspiringly invokes. Levin is clearly right that centralizing political power in Washington is not the answer. But the hope that through subsidiarity Americans will discover an “ethic of restraint and toleration” that has eluded them over the past few decades—that hope may just be too faint for the demands of our time.