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
just finished The Fractured Republic and am already nostalgic for the experience of reading this trenchant and humane book. Its 272 pages are so dense with insight that the treatise is the bibliographic equivalent of a neutron star: compact and brilliant.
Most impressive is the fact that Yuval Levin wrote an entire volume on the politics of nostalgia without once mentioning Donald Trump, since the Republican nominee is both an exemplar and an agent of Levin’s thesis. His campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” is nostalgia codified. His personality, as John Podhoretz has observed, evokes the Rat Pack of the 1960s. His celebrity was forged in the 1980s, to which conservatives long to return. One of the aims of his platform of immigration enforcement and protectionism is to re-create the social cohesion and economic consolidation of his youth. His flouting of political correctness appeals to GOP voters by mirroring their own anger over the state of the world. Trump is not captive to any of the institutions in which they have lost trust.
Trump personifies the ethos of expressive individualism that dominates our culture. Self-referential, megalomaniacal, bombastic, narcissistic, he is an expert at branding, at showmanship, at publicity. His campaign is driven not by political consultants or by precinct captains but by Tweets, Facebook posts, videos on Instagram, and by billions of dollars worth of media exposure. This notorious ladies’ man, married three times, has won the support of evangelical Christians despite living by a moral code of his own creation. Trump embodies the worst aspects of the trends Levin describes, all under a shock of blond hair.
One thought prompted by The Fractured Republic is that the flip side of nostalgia is fear of the future. Imagine a Republican Baby Boomer. From his point of view, economic, social, political, and technological change is only accelerating. The declining trust in public institutions, the detachment of males from the workforce, the disaffiliation of the nominally religious, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the bifurcation of wealth, the polarization of politics, the explosion in immigration and ethnic diversity—none of these trends is abating. This Republican Boomer wanted his kids to grow up in a country like the one in which he matured, but that country no longer exists. He worries about his children’s future, his grandchildren’s future, as he prepares to book his ticket to that big Springsteen concert in the sky.
A Democratic Baby Boomer would have a different perspective. This Democrat might admire what Paul Krugman calls the “Great Convergence” of the postwar economy. But he has no illusions about restoring the past. Indeed, he may have been disgusted at the state of America when he came of age. For him, the Great Convergence is not a model to be rebuilt but a standard by which to judge policy. He locates his ideal not in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s, but in the decades to come. He has a far greater confidence in the future, of an America that becomes more tolerant, more inclusive, and more progressive over time. Young people, immigrants, adherents of novel styles of life do not make him anxious. They inspire him.
What separates Republicans from Democrats are not only those aspects of the past each party admires but also their differing attitudes toward the America that is coming into being. It is for this reason that I am not as hopeful as Levin about the course of our politics. He calls for a modernized politics of subsidiarity—the principle that things work best when they are closest. This means a renewal of federalism and a lowering of political ambitions.
“All sides in our culture wars,” Levin writes, “would be wise to focus less attention than they have been on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures.” This advice is humble. It is good. But it is sure to be ignored, both by the side that believes itself to be winning, and by populists aggrieved at the loss of resources and status to outsiders.
“The greatest barrier to nostalgia, in contrast to simple respect for the past, is a social structure in which the forces of stable growth outweigh those of instability and perceived formlessness,” Robert Nisbet wrote in his Philosophical Dictionary. “Ritual—religious, political, and other—is a strong force against nostalgia. But, as is evident enough, both the stable and the ritualized are diminishing in this century. And there is nothing to suggest a reversal of this trend.” Yuval Levin has diagnosed a pathology that may not have a cure.