Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Disunited We Stand - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By indulging in ‘competing nostalgias’ for the 1950s, conservatives and liberals ignore our hyper-individualistic culture and economy. 

BARTON SWAIM, Wall Street Journal 

May 23, 2016 7:19 p.m. ET 

‘Say not, Why were the former days better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” That injunction, from the Book of Ecclesiastes, is hard to follow for conservatives like me. Looking backward is what we do. But as Yuval Levin explains in “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism,” longing for a return to the past isn’t just futile: It’s dangerous. And both conservatives and liberals have indulged in it for a generation.
Most Americans, and not just baby boomers, idealize the 1950s and early ’60s. Mr. Levin finds an ideologically disparate array of observers—from Charles Murray to President Barack Obama—defining the decade or two immediately after World War II in more or less the same nostalgic terms. What they see are different components of midcentury America’s consolidation. Liberals see an era of high taxes and intrusive economic policies, but also high employment levels and economic stability; conservatives see a time of cultural unity around a set of shared values. Thus both liberals and conservatives tend to see present-day realities—economic stagnation and uncertainty for liberals; cultural dissolution and fragmentation for conservatives—primarily as aberrations from an ideal. And so, writes Mr. Levin, “we have spent the past decade and more waiting for a return to normal that has refused to come.”
The trouble with viewing the decade after World War II in this way, he contends, is that the decade’s prosperity and cultural stability were the result of a set of historical circumstances that cannot be duplicated. Midcentury America’s economy, governed by an intrusive federal government and sustained by a few gigantic employers, was able to thrive primarily because the U.S. had so little foreign competition—Europe, remember, still lay in ruins. At the same time, American society was reaching the end of a long period of cultural consolidation: We read the same books and magazines, and watched the same television shows.


By Yuval Levin
Basic Books, 262 pages, $27.50
But centrifugal urges we commonly associate with the later 1960s were already evident. Consider the sheer cultural heterogeneity of the film “Rear Window” (1954), or the incipient countercultural waywardness of the novel “Catcher in the Rye” (1951), or the beginnings of the civil-rights movement, when Rosa Parks and others orchestrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. The postwar era’s consolidation was leavened by an openness that blunted some of the ugliest cultural constraints.
The desire to recreate or return to midcentury America’s virtues has led us into a kind of ideological stalemate. Liberals clamor for a return to the era’s high taxation and a doubling down on entitlement spending, while conservatives demand a return to the 1950s’ cultural solidarity. The result is what Mr. Levin calls “bifurcated concentration”: In personal income, in education, in political affiliation and in cultural identity, Americans are clustering at the extremities and vacating the center—rich and poor, right-wing and left-wing, educated and uneducated. 
The “politics of competing nostalgias,” as Mr. Levin aptly terms it, fails to acknowledge the irreversibility of “diffusion” in both the economy and the culture. The hyper-individualism animating American society shows no signs of slowing, and a more or less free-market economy is necessary to pay for our welfare state. The only question is, What can we do about it? How can both conservatives and liberals advance their aims in light of the decentralizing forces of American life?
This is where so many books of cultural and political criticism go wrong. Their critiques may be reasonable, but their proposals depend largely on people of one ideology or viewpoint persuading everybody else, or at least a majority, of the truth. A book by a conservative or liberal author treats ideological adversaries as obstacles to be persuaded or displaced, as if winning some metaphorical “war of ideas” will somehow get us back on the equally metaphorical “right track.”
Here is what makes “Fractured Republic” so compelling. Though he is a conservative, Mr. Levin’s overarching proposal does not presuppose the reader’s conservatism. What he calls for, in essence, is a return to the proximate. Americans must find ways, he says, to strengthen our mediating institutions that stand between the individual and government, and especially the national government—families, churches, civic organizations and so on.
Mr. Levin is realistic about what this will require. “There is not much that public policy can do to create communities that do a better job of encouraging constructive behavior,” he admits. “It could, however, do less harm.” Many of our most acute problems have arisen because for over half a century we have nationalized every political question. 
The results are before us. Welfare and health-care policies are decided in Washington. Decisions at local school boards are driven in part by federal regulations and funding. State and local governments, Mr. Levin correctly observes, “have increasingly become mere federal agents.” And in the cultural sphere, deeply complicated social and moral questions—abortion, the definition of marriage—are routinely decided for the entire nation by peremptory court rulings.
The task is to denationalize our mindset. Social conservatives, as Mr. Levin explains in a brilliant chapter titled “Subculture Wars,” have already started to do this. They’ve begun to drop the pretense that America somehow belongs to them and instead sought to make the positive case for the attractiveness of their own communities. It’s a slow transition, however, and it’s not helped by the fact that lately emboldened liberals sound as if the culture belongs exclusively to them.
Yuval Levin has written an incisive and irenic critique of contemporary American society, together with a series of reflections that offer a way forward without trafficking in the false hope of “solutions.” That he has done so in fewer than 250 pages of clear, well-organized prose ought to make the book famous for a generation. Maybe, in time, we can stop asking why the former days were better than these.
Mr. Swaim is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”

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