In light of yesterday’s “Leavening our politics,” here’s Yuval Levin in his book The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism:
Whatever the argument being advanced about America’s challenges in our politics in recent years, it is a pretty good bet that it has been rooted in an understanding of the lost era of American greatness—that is has been an argument for understanding our challenges as functions of an unfortunate detour.
Recourse to a glorious past is of course nothing new in political rhetoric. But these kinds of appeals do not hearken to America’s Founders and their principles, or to some heroic peaks of achievement and greatness that might inspire us now to live boldly. They hearken to a living memory so powerfully present for many Americans as to seem like the natural state of American life. And they suggest that a return to that state—that getting back on that track—should be the goal of American politics.
The lost golden age at the center of these stories occurred in the decades that followed World War II. A great many of our current political, economic, and cultural debates are driven by a desire to recover the strengths of that period. As a result, they are focused less on how we can build economic, cultural, and social capital in the twenty-first century than on how we can recover the capital that we have used up. That distinction makes an awfully big difference.
Conservatives tend to stress the social cohesion of 1950s America (or its seeming renaissance under Ronald Reagan), while liberals yearn for the economic security of the 1960s. Although they have different goals, leading Republicans and Democrats alike want to go back to the way things were — and they think they can take us there from Washington. Trump says he’ll cut deals in the Oval Office that will make America great again; Clinton promises “universal” everything (education, retirement, health care) to restore the American Dream.
Levin argues that this is folly. The institutions that work best in 21st-century America are those that give us choices. No one simply lives in the United States of America. We live in Peoria, Harlem, and Seattle. The virtues built close to home, Levin argues, are those that make us good citizens and ultimately draw us together. What would be so terrible about letting diverse communities decide how they want to live and spend their tax dollars? The culture wars would still rage, but at least the winners would have to look the losers in the eye.