Yuval Levin Describes the “Fractured Republic”

Yuval Levin
February 3, 2017

Describing American politics as “drowning in frustration and anxiety,” author Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center spoke at IGS about his new book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Levin cited the increasing frustration of American politics as starting long before the 2016 election, and said that voters have often responded to their negative moods with a nostalgia that “overwhelms our politics,” and is sometimes indulged in by both the left and right.

But he noted the striking changes in American society since the Post-World War II era, many of which he described as positive, such as a vast increase in personal choice in many aspects of life. At the same time, Levin described the society as increasingly “fractured” and “fragmented,” a sign of the growth of individualism, which he described as one of the key driving forces of the second half of the 20th Century.

That fragmentation of American society has often produced a kind of alienation among many people, Levin said, and he described a form of “elite disorientation” in which elites were reluctant to hear and to meaningfully respond to many of the complaints of common Americans. Donald Trump, in Levin’s view, realized there was a way to appeal to Americans’ frustration “simply by listening to it.” But at the same time, Levin said, Trump shared voters’ frustrations more than their aspirations.

How can American public policy respond to this more fragmented society? In Levin’s view, the answer is to reorient our thinking on some policy issues toward a more local and decentralized focus, and usher in “an ethic of experimentation in public policy.” He noted that such a focus would not work in some areas – he said he does not think it possible to fight climate change only through local action – but suggested that we should adopt a “default preference for the local,” thus “moving the center of gravity of our thinking about politics.”

Levin closed his talk by suggesting that this reinvigorated focus on decentralized policy solutions might ultimately create a greater sense of American solidarity or connectedness, counterbalancing the fragmentation of recent decades, but he also noted that he doesn’t have all the answers.

“Experimentation is what you do when you don’t know the answer,” he said.