The state of disunion

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— The 2016 pres­i­den­tial race al­ready counts an ex­tra­or­di­nary ac­com­plish­ment: It has made the 2000 elec­tion seem like the good old days.

Be­fore Bush v. Gore be­came a Supreme Court con­tro­versy, the con­test seemed to demon­strate that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics was mod­ern­iz­ing in a hope­ful di­rec­tion. Clin­ton­ism (in­clud­ing Al Gore’s slightly re­vised ver­sion) had helped Democrats come to terms with what was right about Rea­gan­ism, par­tic­u­larly on crime, trade, wel­fare and ba­sic eco­nomics. Ge­orge W. Bush was Reagan-like on taxes and trade, but set out to com­pete with Clin­ton­ism on do­mes­tic pol­icy — propos­ing con­ser­va­tive and free mar­ket meth­ods to im­prove ed­u­ca­tional out­comes for mi­nor­ity chil­dren and pro­vide pre­scrip­tion drug cov­er­age in Medi­care. It seemed as if 21st-cen­tury ver­sions of lib­er­al­ism and con­ser­vatism were con­duct­ing plau­si­ble ar­gu­ments about how best to gov­ern in re­sponse to new eco­nomic re­al­i­ties.

A decade and a half later, the par­ties have turned hard against both vi­sions. The left has sys­tem­at­i­cally forced Hil­lary Clin­ton to up­hold the ban­ner of anti-Clin­ton­ism on crime, trade, wel­fare and ba­sic eco­nomics. The right was con­tent, at first, to re­ject Bush’s com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­vatism. Now a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the GOP base, un­der Don­ald Trump’s lead­er­ship, is re­ject­ing Rea­gan­ism in fa­vor of na­tivism, pro­tec­tion­ism and iso­la­tion­ism.

Both Clin­ton­ism and Rea­gan­ism, no doubt, needed up­dat­ing. But the par­ties have gone fur­ther, es­sen­tially aban­don­ing the two most com­pelling, suc­cess­ful gov­ern­ing vi­sions of the last few decades. With the in­flu­ence of Bernie San­ders and the suc­cess of Trump, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has launched into un­charted ide­o­log­i­cal wa­ters.

The seas are pretty choppy. We are see­ing the in­ter­play of (1) fear caused by rapid eco­nomic change, (2) deep po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion, (3) de­clin­ing trust in al­most all in­sti­tu­tions and (4) strong re­sent­ment against po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic elites. The re­sult is a po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere charged with rad­i­cal­ism and heavy with threats.

How in the world did we get to this state of disunion? One un­ex­pected, com­pelling ex­pla­na­tion comes from Yu­val Levin, in his new book “The Frac­tured Repub­lic.” Levin faults a “per­verse and ex­ces­sive nos­tal­gia” by baby boom politi­cians for Amer­ica in the 1950s and 1960s. For lib­er­als, this was a golden age of job se­cu­rity, grow­ing wages, high tax rates and rel­a­tive eco­nomic equal­ity. For con­ser­va­tives, it was a promised land of fam­ily sta­bil­ity, com­mu­nity strength and con­ser­va­tive so­cial norms. Levin de­scribes this as a “con­sol­i­dat­ing Amer­ica” in which in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, re­stricted immigration and the shocks of de­pres­sion and war led to greater so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic co­he­sion than Amer­ica had ever seen.

But this post­war pe­riod was also an in­flec­tion point. The sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury saw the “de­con­sol­i­da­tion of Amer­ica,” with grow­ing so­cial lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, vastly ex­panded immigration, the glob­al­iza­tion of la­bor mar­kets, the growth of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and gen­eral abun­dance. These were cen­trifu­gal forces that made both our econ­omy and cul­ture far less co­he­sive and cen­tral­ized.

Both right and left, in Levin’s ac­count, miss the co­he­sion of mid-cen­tury Amer­ica, and yet both are also re­lieved (in dif­fer­ent ways) to be freed from those forces. “The right gen­er­ally longs for cul­tural con­sol­i­da­tion,” Levin told me, “but is glad for the eco­nomic de­con­sol­i­da­tion. And the left longs for eco­nomic co­he­sion but is glad of the cul­tural lib­er­a­tion.” Each side is con­vinced the other has achieved the greater vic­tory and thus be­lieves the coun­try is go­ing to hell.

This back­ward look­ing ap­proach has de­formed Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. “Be­cause both par­ties are chan­nel­ing that nos­tal­gia,” ar­gues Levin, “their ob­jec­tives and pri­or­i­ties tend to be em­bod­ied less in con­crete pol­icy pro­pos­als and more in vague and aim­less frus­tra­tion, which of­ten man­i­fests it­self as pop­ulist anger.”

Levin warns of a real risk: a kind of gen­eral de­con­sol­i­da­tion that be­comes ex­treme in­di­vid­u­al­ism, leav­ing men and women iso­lated, aim­less and alone. The an­swer, how­ever, is not to re­cap­ture the cul­ture and reim­pose eco­nomic or so­cial co­he­sion (which Levin re­gards as a hope­less task). It is to cul­ti­vate com­mu­nity in the space between the in­di­vid­ual and the gov­ern­ment. “The mid­dle lay­ers of so­ci­ety,” ar­gues Levin, “where peo­ple see each other face to face, of­fer a mid­dle ground between rad­i­cal in­di­vid­u­al­ism and ex­treme cen­tral­iza­tion.”

In­stead of des­per­ately try­ing to go back in time to re­cover lost unity, Levin urges cit­i­zens to look for­ward — as well as down­ward, to im­prove the cul­tural patch around them. This fu­ture ori­en­ta­tion may seem like an odd mes­sage for a con­ser­va­tive — and it is all the more pow­er­ful for com­ing from one. The goal is not to make Amer­ica great ... again. It is to make Amer­ica great in a dis­tinctly 21st-cen­tury way.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post.com.

WASHINGTON

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