I have finally gotten around to reading Yuval Levin’s much heralded study of our present political dislocation and philosophical exposition of a conservative political vision. The book is worth the hype. Combining philosophical insight, empirical breadth, and historical sobriety, Levin well-deserves his reputation as the leading intellectual light of the contemporary Right.
The work can fairly be described as an extended meditation on a basic Tocquevillian insight: individualistic atomism and collectivist consolidation are not antagonistic poles, but are rather twin forces marching always in tandem. As I’ve written about before, philosophical individualism leads to the leveling of intermediary authority and the elevation of a distant bureaucratized state as the sole legitimate epistemic and political authority. Levin’s great contribution is to demonstrate that this dialectical theory is no unfalsifiable pseudo-scientific theory of social change, but is instead the basic underlying logic with which we must understand the homogeneity of mid-20th century America and the cultural chaos of the last four decades:
The transient balance of midcentury was undone not by the nefarious workings of ill-intentioned partisans of one stripe or another, but by the progress of the very forces that—acting on a highly consolidated nation—had brought that balance about to begin with: the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.Again following Tocqueville, Levin suggests that America’s foundational cultural attachment to individualism cannot be abandoned. Nor can the providential fact of the democratic revolution be undone. Any attempt to restore the nation to a mythologized mid-century moment of unity and consensus as is demanded by our collective political nostalgia would be both politically infeasible and morally undesirable.
Instead, America’s political malignancy demands democratic solutions for characteristically democratic problems. Only by strengthening the salutary aspects of an individualistic culture can we temper the insidious effects of the same. To that end, Levin calls for a modernized ethic of subsidiarity to overcome the alienation of contemporary social life. By strengthening abandoned mediating institutions of civil society and by cultivating subcultures of shared meaning and value, the best of our democratic tradition can check the worst impulses of our democratic culture. Though the forces of individualistic deconsolidation have been “the chief sources of many of our deepest problems in modern America,” they must also be “the sources of solutions and reforms.”
In the following three blog posts I raise objections. Some of these objections reflect genuine disagreement, while others give voice to unresolved questions I have with Levin’s basic thesis. But though I take these objections to be significant, I want to be clear that this book is among the clearest, smartest, most eloquent works of contemporary conservative thinking I have ever read. Once again, the hype is well-deserved.
My first post considers whether Levin’s sociological narrative of American political fracture makes sense of the great economic consolidation we have seen in recent decades. I suggest that Levin is insufficiently bold in challenging the kind of corporatistic gigantism and mass culture that Tocqueville aptly diagnosed as the economic partner of political soft despotism. My second post will ask whether a democratic solution can really resolve our distinctively democratic problems, and whether choice can satisfactorily address our contemporary crises of social diffusion and bifurcation. And my third post will outline longstanding concerns I have with the Benedict Option, which, building off Rod Dreher’s work, serves as the philosophic center of much of Levin’s thought.