‘The Fractured Republic’: Exploring the divide between the right and the left
by Charles Murray
"Individualism, dynamism, and liberalization have come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, and social order."
Yuval Levin opens his new book with an accusation that bites: that the Baby Boomers have propagandized subsequent generations into accepting a version of history that has been “blinded by nostalgia.” Both sides of the political divide are guilty. The Left is nostalgic about the 1960s. The Right is nostalgic about the 1980s. Both sides are nostalgic about the 1950s, albeit for different reasons.
In all cases, the Baby Boomers are recalling personal memories that are central to their identities. “The trouble,” Levin writes, “is that it is not only the boomers themselves who think this way about America, but all of us, especially in politics,” which explains “why younger Americans so often find themselves reenacting memories they do not actually possess, and why our nation increasingly behaves like a retiree.” In The Fractured Republic, Levin seeks to set the record straight and lay out a conservative agenda that is in touch with reality.
In Part I, he retells the story of America from Eisenhower to Obama, stripped of the nostalgia. He agrees that the 1950s were a kind of Golden Age, but says they were only part of a unique, unrecoverable era that ran from the end of World War II through the first years of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. This era saw the culmination of institutional consolidation that had been going on since the late 19th century. The consolidation had taken many forms: the growth of industrial giants, the creation of national media networks, centralization of power in the federal government, and the pressures for national unity and solidarity during the Great Depression and World War II. The effects of the consolidation had spilled over into the culture, pushing America’s traditional individualism into the background.
Upon the end of World War II, cultural liberalization began. “Crucially, however, the liberalization that would characterize the post-war era took place at first against the backdrop of the highly cohesive America that had taken shape in the prior half-century,” Levin writes. “The country would benefit from the familial, social, cultural, and economic stability made possible by that unity and order, while also benefiting from the dynamism made possible by greater individualism, diversity, and competition. It was an unstable mix, but it allowed the nation, for a time, to enjoy the best of both worlds.” For Levin, the landmark legislation in civil rights, voting rights, and immigration in 1964–65 was part of the cultural liberalization, while the education, anti-poverty, and health-care programs enacted in those years were continuing expressions of consolidation and centralization that “drew upon the logic of an era that was ending.”
Then came the 1970s and the Age of Frenzy. Everything was going wrong at once. The Vietnam War had been a disaster. Inflation was persistent while the economy sputtered, and “stagflation” entered the lexicon. The idealism of the civil-rights movement was replaced by new forms of racial antagonism. “But it was the collapse of the culture of solidarity that was perhaps the most jarring,” Levin writes. “The spirit of nonconformity that had emerged at the end of World War II, which had morphed in the 1960s into an idealistic quest for self-actualization, had degenerated by the 1970s into a jaded and strident individualism. Rejection of authority had quickly become the reigning spirit of American culture.”
This process had its good side. The deconsolidation of America’s economy led to more competitive and innovative companies during the 1970s (think FedEx, the effort to break up AT&T, and the emergence of the IT industry). But the social capital that historically had made American communities work was taking the hits that would later be documented in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. The sexual revolution and no-fault divorce were wreaking havoc with the family. And there was feminism. “It is hard to think of any cultural transformation in human history as simultaneously swift and profound as the changing place of women in the lives of Western societies in the decades after World War II.”