'The Fractured Republic' Explores How Nostalgia Led To Polarized Politics
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The fact that Americans are politically divided is self-evident from recent elections. But just how we are divided and why it's proved so hard to get past our differences are questions that admit to many answers. And here's an interesting one from the conservative political theorist Yuval Levin. He says, American liberals and conservatives are both inspired by nostalgia from mid-20th-century America, and they are mired in hopeless efforts to go back rather than focus on the future.
Yuval Levin, who is the editor of National Affairs, is the author of the new book "The Fractured Republic" joins us now. Welcome.
YUVAL LEVIN: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: When you speak of liberal and conservative nostalgia, you should explain that it's not for the very same time and the very same things.
LEVIN: That's right. In a sense, they are both forms of a kind of baby boomer nostalgia. But liberals tend to miss the especially economic arrangements but also the kind of social liberalization of the 1960s. Conservatives tend to miss the 1980s. But they're both telling nostalgic stories, and the two parties have put before the country, one election after another, that seem like a choice between going back to 1965 or 1981.
SIEGEL: When you think of (laughter) - when you think of political arguments that are that kind of nostalgia, what stands out most for you?
LEVIN: You know, you hear Hillary Clinton - for example, when she's asked about college protests, her immediate instinct is to say, I'm from the 1960s; I know what college protests are like and are about. Donald Trump goes to Pittsburgh and says he's going to bring steel back. Pittsburgh doesn't even really want steel back anymore. It's been a long time. Or if you listen to Ted Cruz, every sentence is a kind of regurgitation of not just Reagan's principles but Reagan's actual agenda from 35 years ago.
SIEGEL: The big problem that you say has gone unaddressed in this age of nostalgia is a hollowing out or a bifurcation of America, which you say is something different or more complex than the rise of economic inequality. What's the difference between that?
LEVIN: That's right. In a sense, the way America has changed since that 20th century period that both liberals and conservatives miss so much is that it's fragmented. The America that came out of the second world war and The Depression was an extraordinarily cohesive, consolidated society with amazing faith in large institutions.
And really what's happened since almost that moment is a kind of fragmenting, breaking down of those large institutions. It's been good and bad. We're a much more diverse society, a more dynamic society. But we have less social order. We have less economic security, so a price has been paid in each case.
But our politics now is not very good at thinking about either of the advantages we have or the weaknesses we have. We're just not looking at 21st century America. We're nostalgic for another time.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about conservatism. If the old, nostalgic conservatism is finished, what can a new conservatism be about? What's the prescription for what ails that party?
LEVIN: I think if the challenge for our politics is using the strengths of this fragmented or fractured society to address the weaknesses, then one thing that has to mean is a kind of decentralization of our politics. If our society is not so consolidated, then public policy shouldn't be so consolidated. And I think conservatives are actually in a pretty good place to think about what a more diverse, more decentralized, more Federalist or subsidiarity based public policy approach would look like. It's what school choice looks like in relation to America's urban public school systems or what conservative ideas on health care look like.
But conservative politicians rarely talk to the public this way, and so rather than showing people that conservatism can be a kind of modernization in 21st century America, they tend to talk about it in terms of reversal.
SIEGEL: I found your analysis of this idea of nostalgia, of competing nostalgic ideas to be quite interesting. But then I wondered well, how unusual is that? I mean, Lincoln opened the Gettysburg Address by talking about what happened 87 years before that. Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians nurtured their idea of being independent through decades of Soviet rule. You could call that nostalgia for something that had been long dead. Is it really not in our nature typically to be nostalgic for an earlier time?
LEVIN: Well, so there's obviously always an element of appealing to past glory in political rhetoric and political life. The difference now is that there's an actual desire to recover the conditions of the past as a way of pursuing public policy, and so that is fairly unusual in American life. It's obviously not the first time it's ever happened.
The striking thing about the baby boomer's cultural dominance over our country for so long is that we view our own past through their eyes. Our idea of the '50s is this kind of simplistic, childish notion of simple families and everything is possible. We see the '60s as a teenager - idealistic, rebellious. In the '70s, we're somewhat maturing, becoming a little cynical. By the '80s we're settled down. In the '90s everything is great. And now, in this century, it seems like we might be over the hill as a country.
Well, that's just the way that you would think about the past few decades if you were born in 1950. Some of it is true. Some of it is not true. But it misses an awful lot about what's changed in America over that time. And so in a sense, we've rented out our understanding of ourselves to the older baby boomers.
SIEGEL: As someone who is involved in this intellectual project, to rethink conservatism and the Republican Party, to come up with new ideas, would Donald Trump's election be more damaging to that effort than his defeat?
LEVIN: You know, it's very hard to say because his defeat would mean the election of a candidate who I think would be hostile to a lot of these ideas. Yet at the same time, Donald Trump himself is a candidate who I think would do enormous harm to this way of thinking and to presenting the country with the notion that conservatism could be a modernizing force and a positive force.
I'm not a fan of Donald Trump. I won't be voting for him. I'm not a fan of Hillary Clinton either and won't vote for her. And so I approach this election year as a very frustrated voter because I think part of this is a generational transition. I do think that there are reasons for hope when you look at the younger generation, but Donald Trump does not fill me with hope.
SIEGEL: Yuval Levin, thank you very much for talking with us today.
LEVIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Yuval Levin is the author of "The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract In The Age Of Individualism." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.