Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Yuval Levin Isn’t Dumb

The new anti-government handbook ‘The Fractured Republic’ confuses a fantasized past for a utopian future

Todd Gitlin
August 25, 2016
Photo courtesy of Fallout Wikia
The United States Capitol building in Fallout3 Photo courtesy of Fallout Wikia
Photo courtesy of Fallout Wikia
The United States Capitol building in Fallout3 Photo courtesy of Fallout Wikia

For readers tired of the same old partisan American ideologies, Yuval Levin, in his book The Fractured Republic, offers something new and seductive. He wants everyone to get real about a new reality, one that baby-boomer ideologues of all stripes have obscured. Levin, founder and editor of National Affairs magazine and a theorist highly touted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, seeks a sweet spot from which he can scorn both the conventional Left and Right as retrograde. Literally retrograde. When they should be modernizing, getting their minds around an age of “fracture” (to use the title of an excellent book by the historian Daniel T. Rodgers, oddly unmentioned by Levin) and the cultural triumph of “expressive individualism” (a coinage of my former Berkeley colleagues Robert Bellah and co-authors, whose devising of the term also goes oddly unmentioned), all the ideologues are rowing back ceaselessly into the past. They all pine to Make American Great Again, you might say, though they disagree on what exactly was great and when.

All the stale partisans, Levin maintains, need rescue from the “politics of dueling nostalgias”—mostly from nostalgia for the 1950s and ’60s, but in the case of the Right, also for the deregulatory uplift of the business-friendly Reagan years. The Left longs for the ’50s-’60s period of high growth and diminished inequality. Then, Progressive reason reigned supreme, along with that bogeyman “conformity”; it was not yet fashionable to see the world from a subcultural or individual perspective. The Right, for its part, longs for a common culture, for the “Judeo-Christian” synthesis, for “Howdy Doody” and “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” before expressive individualism and diffused subcultures took over.

After “decades of liberalization,” Levin argues, the days of behemoth business and government are fading—if only Big Government would stand back and let the people struggle back to life. But between the jackboots of big government and the individualized frivolity and pornography of The Daily Me, the center does not hold. Still, decentralization is the order of the day, and it’s all around us to be seized upon for positive purposes—if only the centralizers would face reality and reconcile themselves to the new dispensation.

Levin wants us to believe that he offers an alternative to anachronism, but read him carefully and you see that his anathemas are far more frequently directed at government than at capital. In Levin’s worldview, as in Ronald Reagan’s, the bureaucracies of Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Volkswagen are not problematic, for already the forces of decentralization—horizontal organization fueled by technological advance—have drawn and quartered the ogre. Corporations naturally cultivate diversity. The age of the Model A is long dead and the age of the personalized car is upon us. Unfortunately, localism has been crushed. But it can be restored if the Big Government bogeyman gets an early retirement.

Levin begins by charmingly justifying the tidy form he has chosen: the essay. “An essay gropes and grapples,” he says. He wishes to operate not “in a tone of confident authority but in a mode of questioning and trying out.” Amen, I say—in principle. But Levin is actually fervent and confident, repeatedly so, in his go-to solution. It is, in a word, “subsidiarity”—“putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible.” The Right should give up on thinking that a uniform culture, a family-centered, church-centered one is feasible. Cultural conservatives should settle, he says, for being a subculture. They should defend the right of companies to refuse to cover birth control for employees, but not insist on making that national policy.

At his strongest, which is in the domain of cultural politics, Levin offers an interesting anti-utopian twist. The problem with cultural conservatism, he argues, is that it is itself centralizing. It wants to restore uniformity. But Levin will settle for less, which would amount to more. He wants a “subcultural traditionalism” embodied in “civic groups,” “helping the poor,” “assimilating immigrants,” character-building (read charter) schools, religious congregations, and communities of “teachers and students who are committed to liberal learning.” Since the chief institution in my life is the university, I have an especially tender spot for his latter conviction.

But Levin, too, suffers from unacknowledged nostalgias. Sometimes he pines for the Jacksonian America visited by his hero, Alexis de Tocqueville, in which entrepreneurs bolstered by small-town virtues of voluntary cooperation presumably built railroads without federal largesse and made ready to abolish slavery without a horrific war. Meanwhile, in Levin’s view, our period of recovery from the depredations of national power was race-blind. In the American morning still celebrated by the Right’s sentimentalists, Ronald Reagan is the principled defender of local initiative and states’ rights, not, in 1980, the first presidential nominee in history to launch his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, right down the road from where three civil-rights workers were murdered by white supremacists under the banner of states’ rights in 1964. In fact, listen to Reagan’s speech there and you will hear the bulk of the conservatism that Levin recommends. Government bureaucracy is the enemy. “I’m going to … restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there,” Reagan said. (He did nothing of the kind.) Levin calls this subsidiarity. As an old New Leftist, from the days when Students for a Democratic Society liked to declare that “people should make the decisions that affect their lives,” this has a nice, if extra-polysyllabic, ring.

It does not offend me that Levin disapproves of the Left’s emphasis on redistribution, for when inequality has swollen to Gilded Age proportions, surely a Wall Street transaction tax, abolition of the “carried interest” loophole for hedge-fund tycoons, and higher tax brackets for millionaires have a good deal to recommend them. Levin does not concern himself with such policies, but still, about the limits of redistributive politics, he has a point. Curiously, during one of the Democratic debates, when Bernie Sanders was asked what he meant by “socialism,” he launched into his boilerplate speech about inequality, but Hillary Clinton came out for tax benefits for businesses that share their profits with workers—a more socialist principle. Levin pays no attention to the left-wing tradition (best articulated in recent decades by the political scientist Robert Dahl) proposing that all stakeholders—workers, consumers, residents, as well as managers and shareholders—share power in corporations. It does not catch Levin’s attention, either, that, in Germany, workers share governance with management. Indeed, in economic life, such schemes might qualify as the ultimate in subsidiarity.

But Levin, despite occasional lip service to the virtues of unions, doesn’t think they deserve any authority in economic life. Nor does he acknowledge that national policies—on the part of the federal government that he so often thinks overreaches—helped cripple them, starting with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. These infringements upon labor draw no thunderbolts of wrath from Levin. His scheme has no place for a recognition that it’s not globalization by itself that has crippled American unions, it’s laws and regulations. Both American and Canadian businesses encounter globalization. But the percentage of the workforce that is unionized in Canada has held more or less steady for 50 years, while American union membership fell off a cliff. American workers want unions as much as Canadians. The difference is in the respective laws and regulations.

The welfare state is indeed encrusted with irrationalities and harms (along with benefits). Government regulations are often enough fatuous. (It’s worthy of notice, by the way, that the vice president and president who worked hardest to “reinvent government” and overcome bloat were, respectively, Al Gore and Barack Obama.) You can read every page of The Fractured Republic, note Levin’s repeated aspersions on social democrats’ “ideal of centralized administration,” and never know that Social Security is a triumph of efficient and rational provision. You can read his allusions to public spending at “levels that are increasingly unaffordable” and never know that federal spending as a percentage of GDP is barely above its 1953 level. You can read his paeans to local and state government and never learn that one of the greatest influences in state and local policy over recent decades is an outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the Koch brothers to promote a uniform agenda including voter ID laws (to guard against virtually nonexistent voter fraud) and “stand your ground” laws. Most recently, ALEC promotes a Constitutional convention to forbid federal deficits and impose term limits. Not too much subsidiarity there.

In the golden age to which Levin seeks to return us, there were no nuclear weapons needing to be controlled by international agencies; no global traffickers in poisonous chemicals cheating on local regulations by flying deceptive flags; no capital flows packaging billions of dollars of bank loans into invisible investment “instruments” and bringing disaster to the economies of whole nations at the click of a few fingers.

And, most of all, there were no effusions of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. In his latest metaphorically rich and ringing call to nonviolent arms against the double meltdown of our time—polar icecaps and business-as-usual—Bill McKibben writes:

In the North this summer, a devastating offensive is underway. Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears…. “In 30 years, the [ice] area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught. “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.”

The enemy who has conquered all that territory is the fossil-fuel-based capitalist civilization that has also brought us laptops with their aluminum frames and silicon chips with which we summon opposition to the depredations of that civilization itself. About this reality, Levin has nothing to say.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.