Thriving in an Age of Fracture: Yuval Levin’s Prescription for American Culture
by Jacob Reses
For those feeling adrift amid the tumult of our politics, economy, and culture, Yuval Levin’s new book offers hope that some good can be found in the turmoil around us.
Earlier this month, the Jewish people read Parshat Bechukotai, the portion of the Torah in which God promises His chosen people that He will remove wild beasts from their midst if they obey His commandments. On the surface, this pledge may appear to be in tension with the promise delivered in Isaiah that the wolf and lamb will not be absent from the world of the Messianic era but rather shall lie down in it together. Yet the Lubavitch tradition teaches that there is no contradiction here. The wolves and other beasts need not disappear from our world if their wild nature can be altered. God’s words are a promise that they can be tamed and put into our service.
There is a lesson here: when confronted with the wild in our own world, we should seek not to destroy but to subdue and harness, so as to find what is good even in what seems threatening.
To my knowledge, Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the quarterly policy journal National Affairs, does not identify particularly with the Chabad movement. But he shares its optimism about the potential that lies in what is untamed in our world.
The Fractured Republic, his latest work, represents his most wide-ranging effort to demonstrate that civilization, confronted with the wild tendencies of modern life, has an enormous capacity not to fend them off but rather to assimilate what is best of them while mitigating what is worst. “Even as we resist the excesses of our age,” Levin writes, “we should nonetheless find the best in its predilections.” For those feeling adrift amid the tumult of our politics, economy, and culture, The Fractured Republic offers hope that some good can be found in the turmoil around us.
Retaining and Rebuilding the Ties That Bind
Such optimism that the excesses of the modern world can be tamed is characteristic of Levin, whose last book, The Great Debate, was a study of the contrast between Burke and Paine. He has brought this optimism—which focuses on the good that can come from harnessing changes that at first appear to threaten what we have inherited—to his writing from the start of his career.
His first work, Tyranny of Reason (a book long overdue for republication in some form), is an argument against what Levin calls the “social scientific outlook”—the modern effort to apply the scientific method far beyond its proper sphere—and the anti-democratic technocracy it so often breeds. But the book is far from a blanket case against modern social science; it is rather a case for epistemological humility, for a recognition of the limits of the discipline so that it can play its proper role in providing context, not comprehensive knowledge, of how human beings live. Similarly, though his second book, Imagining the Future, is in part a warning of the dangers inherent in reducing inherited taboos to concrete arguments grounded in modern scientific knowledge, it urges conservatives not to retreat from scientific debate conducted on these terms. Levin calls instead for a careful balancing act—a recognition that while the “replacement of sentiment by argument” in public life carries real risks, it is essential work in a scientific age, and it can be done responsibly, “with an eye to what is worth preserving and protecting.” We need not fear science and reason, he argues in these early works, so long as we learn to combine them with and subordinate them to deeper truths.
The Fractured Republic is different from these works because it confronts not an intellectual challenge but a social one: retaining and rebuilding the ties that bind us to each other and that provide order in our lives in spite of forces that tug us apart.
To help the reader understand those forces, Levin begins by contrasting our world with what has come before. During the 1950s, Levin writes, our consolidated society—a mass culture propagated by mass media and built on broadly shared social norms—provided us social stability. Our consolidated economy, in which dominant firms in each industry worked symbiotically with dominant labor unions, was the envy of a world that had been torn apart by war. This age was far from perfect, but signs of progress were apparent in the post-war decades: cultural liberalization during the 1960s, particularly on issues of race, and economic liberalization in the late ’70s and ’80s. No matter one’s views on politics or culture, one could find at least some optimistic trend lines during this period.
Today, decentralization is the new norm of American life, and the accumulated capital of consolidation inherited from the war era has largely been drawn down. Institutions of social authority, such as major media companies and organized religion, lack both the confidence of the public and confidence in themselves. Meanwhile, legacy firms built on integration and outdated labor arrangements with large unions have lost their footing in a global economy that demands maximum efficiency at every level.
Read more: www.thepublicdiscourse.com