Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Fragmented Society - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

David Brooks MAY 20, 2016, New York Times

image from

There are just a few essential reads if you want to understand the American
social and political landscape today. Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Charles
Murray’s “Coming Apart” and a few other books deserve to be on that list.
Today, I’d add Yuval Levin’s fantastic new book, “The Fractured Republic.”

Levin starts with the observation that our politics and much of our
thinking is drenched in nostalgia for the 1950s and early 1960s. The left is
nostalgic for the relative economic equality of that era. The right is nostalgic
for the cultural cohesion. The postwar era has become our unconscious ideal of
what successful America looks like. It was, Levin notes, an age of cohesion and

But we have now moved to an age of decentralization and fragmentation.
At one point in the book he presents a series of U­-shaped graphs showing this

Party polarization in Congress declined steadily from 1910 to 1940, but it
has risen steadily since. We are a less politically cohesive nation.
The share of national income that went to the top 1 percent declined
steadily from 1925 to about 1975, but has risen steadily since. We are a less
economically cohesive nation.

The share of Americans who were born abroad dropped steadily from
1910 to 1970. But the share of immigrants has risen steadily ever since, from
4.7 percent of the population to nearly 14 percent. We are a more diverse and
less demographically cohesive nation.

In case after case we’ve replaced attachments to large established
institutions with commitments to looser and more flexible networks. Levin
argues that the Internet did not cause this shift but embodies today’s
individualistic, diffuse society.

This shift has created some unpleasant realities. Levin makes a nice
distinction between centralization and consolidation. In economic, cultural
and social terms, America is less centralized. But people have simultaneously
concentrated off on the edges —­ separated into areas of, say, concentrated
wealth and concentrated poverty. The middle has hollowed out in sphere after
sphere. Socially, politically and economically we’re living within “bifurcated

For example, religious life has bifurcated. Church attendance has declined
twice as fast among people without high school diplomas as among people
with college degrees. With each additional year of education, the likelihood of
attending religious services rises by 15 percent.

We’re also less embedded in tight, soul­-forming institutions. Levin makes
another distinction between community — being part of a congregation — and
identity — being, say, Jewish. Being part of community takes time and involves
restrictions. Merely having an identity doesn’t. In our cultural emphasis and
life, we’ve gone from a community focus to an identity focus.

Our politicians try to find someone to blame for these problems: banks,
immigrants or, for Donald Trump, morons generally. But that older
consolidated life could not have survived modernity and is never coming back.
It couldn’t have survived globalization, feminism and the sexual revolution,
the rising tide of immigration and the greater freedom consumers now enjoy.

Our fundamental problems are the downsides of transitions we have
made for good reasons: to enjoy more flexibility, creativity and individual
choice. For example, we like buying cheap products from around the world.
But the choices we make as consumers make life less stable for us as

Levin says the answer is not to dwell in confusing, frustrating nostalgia.
It’s through a big push toward subsidiarity, devolving choice and power down
to the local face­-to-­face community level, and thus avoiding the excesses both
of rigid centralization and alienating individualism. A society of empowered
local neighborhood organizations is a learning society. Experiments happen
and information about how to solve problems flows from the bottom up.

I’m acknowledged in the book, but I learned something new on every
page. Nonetheless, I’d say Levin’s emphasis on subsidiarity and local
community is important but insufficient. We live within a golden chain,
connecting self, family, village, nation and world. The bonds of that chain have
to be repaired at every point, not just the local one.

It’s not 1830. We Americans have a national consciousness. People who
start local groups are often motivated by a dream of scaling up and changing
the nation and the world. Our distemper is not only caused by local
fragmentation but by national dysfunction. Even Levin writes and thinks in
nation­state terms (his prescription is Wendell Berry, but his intellectual and
moral sources are closer to a nationalist like Abraham Lincoln).

That means there will have to be a bigger role for Washington than he or
current Republican orthodoxy allows, with more radical ideas, like national
service, or a national effort to seed locally run early education and
infrastructure projects.

As in ancient Greece and Rome, local communities won’t survive if the
national project disintegrates. Our structural problems are national and global
and require big as well as little reforms.

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