The fabric of American society is tearing at the seams. Whether witnessed through the disruptive insurgencies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders or the more mundane fissures of pop culture and daily consumerism, Americans are increasingly divided and diverse.
Yet even in our rash attempts to dismantle Establishment X and Power Center Y, we do so with a peculiar nostalgia of the golden days of yore. You know, those days when institutions mattered?
This is particularly evident in the appeal of Mr. Trump, whose calls to burn down the houses of power come pre-packaged with a simultaneous disdain for the power of bottom-up diversity and the liberty it requires. Once the tattered castle on the hill is torched to the ground, we’re told, we will receive a greater castle on a higher hill with a far more deserving king. The scepter will be yuge, and with power restored to the hands of a man shrewd enough to exploit it, surely we will “win” again.
Such a proposal has the right kind of appeal for a populace who have surely been burned by the bastions of power and privilege. Yet as a philosophy of life or path for national/cultural restoration, it offers nothing new, based on warm fuzzies about the past, blind rage toward the present, and fantasies for the future. This is not a promising path for conservatism or the nation.
As Yuval Levin explains in a striking analysis of the situation (adapted from his forthcoming book), each is woven together with the same corrupted logic that got us here in the first place:
Mr. Trump’s core message is often labeled as populist, but it would be better described as mournful or nostalgic. A populist argues that the people are being oppressed by the powerful. But Mr. Trump claims not that our elites or the “establishment” are too strong but that they are too weak—indeed, that the people who hold power and privilege in our leading institutions are pathetic losers and that, therefore, nothing in America works the way it used to and our country “doesn’t win anymore.”
…Much of Mr. Trump’s appeal has to do with his even vaguer nostalgic message. He mentions no specific peak to recover and offers little in the way of a policy agenda; he just harks back to a lost American greatness and says that he alone can recapture it by reversing globalization, immigration and other modern trends. And in the process, by impugning Mexicans, Muslims and women, he embraces the ethnic or cultural animosities of some of those who most resent the ways America has changed. He has taken the logic of our nostalgic politics to its absurd conclusion.
American “greatness” has certainly decreased in many, many ways. But to blame this on the forces of decentralization and diversity — on globalization and immigration and the great innovations we’ve seen as a result — is to get the diagnosis precisely backwards.
America succeeded not because of powerful figureheads or territorialism or competent top-down control. It succeeded because of its original promise of freedom for all — religious, economic, or otherwise. It succeeded because our local cultures and communities valued such liberty, welcoming new ideas, new innovations, and new immigrants to the table. There was perhaps a stronger moral or spiritual or cultural unity that beneath all of this, but if I’m hearing our political leaders correctly, cultural and spiritual revival is not exactly the antidote they’re looking for.
To rebuild, then, we need to return our attention to those features that helped us build from the beginning, uniting our heritage of bottom-up diversity and innovation with the modern challenges we face, even as we seek to rebuild and restore a more unified moral and cultural framework. To accomplish this, as Levin explains, conservatism needs to follow a distinctly different path than what we’ve witnessed and continue to see.
Whether in our policymaking or in our more intimate, personal restorations of those “mediating institutions,” we need to press not toward “powerful leaders” who can “get things done” and push the right people around to get their way and “take what’s ours.”
No, we need a society that restricts power at the top, unleashes power at the bottom and middle, and appoints leaders who respect such constraints. But more importantly, we need citizens, families, communities, and institutions that promote flourishing from the bottom up:
Some traditional conservative priorities—especially an emphasis on economic growth—remain vital to any such forward-looking politics. But that can only be a start. Beyond growth, a modernized conservative policy agenda would seek to use the very diversity and fragmentation of 21st-century America to meet its challenges. By empowering problem-solvers throughout American society, rather than hoping that Washington will get things right, conservatives can bring to public policy the kind of dispersed, incremental, bottom-up approach to progress that increasingly pervades every other part of American life while reviving community and civil society to combat dislocation and isolation…
Such a modernized conservatism would also have much to offer to our troubled cultural debates. In an increasingly fractured society, moral traditionalists should emphasize building cohesive and attractive subcultures, rather than struggling for dominance of the increasingly weakened institutions of the mainstream culture. While some national political battles, especially about religious liberty, will remain essential to preserve the space for moral traditionalism to thrive, social conservatives must increasingly focus on how best to fill that space in their own communities. That is how a traditionalist moral minority can thrive in a diverse America—by offering itself not as a path back to an old consensus that no longer exists but as an attractive, vibrant alternative to the demoralizing chaos of the permissive society.
Indeed, the revival of the mediating institutions of community life is essential to a modernizing conservatism. These institutions—from families to churches to civic and fraternal associations and labor and business groups—can help balance dynamism with cohesion and let citizens live out their freedom in practice. They can keep our diversity from devolving into atomism or dangerous cultural, racial and ethnic Balkanization. And they can help us to use our multiplicity to address our modern challenges.
These are tough tensions to balance, and it will take generational work to achieve what we’ve lost, but we can begin by challenging the current conversation. On both sides of the political divide, we see a reveling in the glories of both libertine individualism and political power, with little respect or outright antagonism toward the basic freedoms and religious/cultural institutions that have traditionally kept both at bay.
“The greatest challenges that America now confronts are the logical conclusions of the path of individualism and fracture, dissolution and liberation that we have traveled since the middle of the last century,” Levin writes. “…We face the problems of a fractured republic, and the solutions we pursue will need to call upon the strengths of a decentralized, diffuse, diverse, dynamic nation.”
We need to strive for a renewed cultural unity around basic truth and goodness, but much of our cultural and economic diversity offers the chance and the channels for magnificent creativity and collaboration. It offers the chance to rebuild and reweave the fabric of civilization in a way that addresses the needs of society in diverse and holistic ways.
It’s time to re-plant the seeds that made us strong, constraining what we can from the top down, but focusing more heartily on freedom, virtue, and spiritual revival from the bottom up.