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A Roadmap for Conservatives in the Age of Donald Trump

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Yuval Levin is nothing if not optimistic. Despite setbacks that he and his fellow movement conservatives have experienced so far this election cycle, he’s certain that the present moment offers a chance to look at our challenges with a clear vision and adjust accordingly. This will help us overcome the pessimism and populist anger expressed by the Donald Trump campaign.

In his bestselling new book, “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism,” Levin takes conservatives and progressives to task for pining after eras past. Relying too much on old policies prevents both parties from adapting to the challenges of a globalized economy and the post-1960s cultural war.

“Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern,” Levin writes. “And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.”

Levin has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and is the editor of National Affairs as well as the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Levin also served on President George W. Bush’s domestic policy staff. In the book, he argues that America’s problems stem from a misdiagnosis and misplaced nostalgia. He draws on campaign speeches from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, hitting these themes of idealized, ephemeral bygone moments.

Levin’s argument echoes that of Ronald Heifetz, a former instructor of mine at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Heifetz advises business leaders, heads of state and members of Congress how to engage in “adaptive leadership,” rather than “technical leadership” or quick fixes that only prolong problems.

“Our problems are real, but the ways in which we discuss them often seem disconnected from reality, so that the diagnoses attempted by politicians, journalists, academics, and analysts have tended only to contribute to a marked disorientation in our public life,” writes Levin. “That disorientation has itself been a defining feature of American public life in this century so far. It’s as if we cannot quite figure out where we stand, and therefore where we’re headed.”

Levin contends that we’re living in a period of profound transformation, but we haven’t thought through the implications. “We have tended to understand this era of uncertainty not so much as a transition but as an aberration,” he writes, “and so we have spent the past decade and more waiting for a return to normal that has refused to come.”

Levin traces the “golden age” immediately following World War II and subsequent decades, including the disillusionment of the 1970s. During this period of broader cultural cohesion, America was controlled by large, interconnected institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities and mass culture. Levin traces how in every arena of our national life—with the exception of government—America has seen the disintegration and fracturing of those institutions into what he calls “the unbundled market.” Scholars such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have written about these trends as well.

The end of large, centralized institutions hasn’t been all bad. Some members of society have benefitted in some ways. But Levin makes the case that, on the whole, the trends have contributed to an unraveling of the social order and economic security, obliterating cultural conformity while simultaneously sharpening our differences and eroding mutual trust and civic engagement. Rather than trying to recover a lost era, Levin argues we would be better off finding a counterbalance to cease the “culture wars” and look for a healthy middle ground.

“Even as we resist the excess of our age, we should nonetheless find the best in its predilections,” Levin writes. “We should seek for ways to run with the grain and to make diffusion and diversity work in favor of the human good, as for now we can hardly hope to reverse them, and most of us would hardly want to.”

Levin’s economic policy prescriptions include recognizing that the aging Baby Boomers and the flatlining of female labor force participation present challenges that no amount of immigration can solve. Rather, he argues, the push should be for efficiency, productivity gains and specialization.

“When it comes to economic questions, we should therefore find the best in the age of the specialist and use it to address the worst,” Levin writes. “We can do this by putting intense emphasis on mobility in our policy debates, and by empowering our mediating institutions as a means of discovering solutions and offering aid. And we can do it be seeing the difference between material comfort and genuine flourishing.”

The fact that conservatives fail to understand the feedback loop between culture and economic choices leaves room for a non-conservative candidate like Trump to fill the void. Levin’s book shows provides a way forward…

Cross-posted from Opportunity Lives.

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