© 2017 Nathan Trulsen
You don’t have to look far to see fractures in American society. Rightly or wrongly, nearly every move by the new Trump administration has been met with steep opposition. From the Dakota Access Pipeline, to Black Lives Matter and transgender rights protests, our political, economic, and cultural divides run deep. In view of this moment in history, Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic (2016) is a timely book diagnosing what ails our divided America and why this moment is unique. We have been divided before, but now stuck in a politics of nostalgia–the Left longing for 1960s and the Right for the 1950s and 1980s–we have sorted ourselves into like-minded identities and weakened the local institutions that form meaning in our lives and sustain a healthy civil society.
The cure is to restore and empower those middle institutions in which we have direct personal relationships and agency. This is not a panacea for all ills, but a framework from which both Left and Right could experiment with solutions. Levin is honest about his center-right leanings and conservative roots, but his analysis is balanced and is supported by that of other authors. Even though Levin identifies as Jewish, his solution traces its roots to Christian social thought and has the potential to reinvigorate the three principal spheres of society–political, economic, and cultural–while being realistic and humble about our human potential on this side of eternity.
Centralization, Decentralization, and Bifurcation
The first half of Levin’s book highlights three key eras: centralization (1890 – 1945), decentralization (1945 – 1999), and bifurcation (2000 – today). Two world wars and the Great Depression led to centralization, when authority and power concentrated in large institutions–e.g., big businesses, labor unions, mainline Protestant churches. After WWII came decentralization, weakening these large institutions and strengthening individual expression, through the liberalizing culture of the 1960s, economic deregulation of the 1980s, and the loss of political cooperation in the 1990s.
The third trend is perhaps the most counterintuitive and a direct result of decentralization: bifurcation. This is a new type of concentration, not a broad society-wide centralization but rather concentration at the poles of social life. Economic inequality and political polarization are significant manifestations of bifurcation, but the cultural manifestations are at least as, if not more, significant. We have sorted ourselves into like-minded identities and loosened bonds with institutions that form meaning–family, church, and school. In essence, there has been a hollowing out of the medium-sized institutions across society.
An Experimental Solution
Based on the realities of these three eras, Levin proposes a framework for mitigating the worst of polarization without regressing to the centralization of the mid 20th century: subsidiarity, “empowering institutions at different levels of our society to address those problems for which they are best suited” (p 142). Subsidiary institutions include local governments, economic institutions like businesses, labor unions, and trade groups, as well as cultural institutions, with everything from family, religion, and education to media, art, recreational, and civic organizations. These institutions restore the middle layers of American society that stand between the individual and the national state. They offer experimentation and flexibility when addressing public issues, and they form in individuals the virtues required for a free society. This latter point in particular puts Levin in an intellectual tradition first voiced by nineteenth century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. The broader framework of subsidiarity has more recent roots in Catholic social teaching and links to the Christian insight on creativity and fallenness from Scripture.
Embracing subsidiarity is complicated by the fact that our mediating institutions are not just standing by, ready to jump in and start performing all the tasks the federal government has been doing for the past century. Consequently, the first task is to involve mediating institutions in solving public problems. For poverty programs in particular, this could look like voucher programs where workers are given a subsidy to take to the market. It could also look like letting government programs compete with the private sector in what is known as a “public option.” These ideas have some early advocates on the Right and Left and would bring a greater level of experimentation and flexibility to our biggest government programs.
But restoring market experimentation alone is not sufficient for subsidiarity; to stop here is to commit the common error of the Right that Levin seeks to avoid. The second task for implementing subsidiarity is to return the market to its intended place and restore civil society under non-market values. As political philosopher Michael Sandel has argued, our country has gone from simply having a market economy to becoming a market society where cost benefit analyses and contracts replace covenants, justice, and mercy. Reestablishing such cultural values requires us to practice our virtues in face-to-face communities, particularly in the character-forming institutions of family, church, and education. There are a number of contemporary Christian thinkers who have made similar arguments. Rod Dreher has called this sub-culturalism the Benedict Option, while James Davison Hunter calls us to be faithfully present in whichever institutions we find ourselves.
Even in a society with distinct and thriving political, economic, and cultural spheres, fundamental tensions will never be resolved. Neither centralization or decentralization will ever fully prevail. Not all injustice will be righted or all problems solved. Yet these tensions may be the greatest strengths of subsidiarity. Levin’s argument understands humans as flawed, acknowledging that we cannot create Utopia. Christians have long valued this understanding, believing the world is simultaneously wasting away and being redeemed. While we are called to participate in redemptive activity, anything we create in our fallen nature will also be marred. We cannot usher in the complete restoration of the world; that work is reserved for Jesus Christ alone. Until that time, we can be faithfully present in the mediating institutions, living virtuous lives that should discover ways of seeking the common good in public life.
Nathan Trulsen has been a Wilberforce Academy Fellow since 2009, and works as a business consultant with Accenture Consulting. He has his BSB from the University of Minnesota and is married to Melanie, with whom he recently welcomed their son Henry.