Yuval Levin reminds readers that political nostalgia for an era of midcentury national harmony rests on an unproductive impulse to restore a romanticized, imagined past. The underlying forces of social diffusion that have brought about the peculiar historical developments of the past century cannot be undone. And so, in a formulation inspired by James Madison’s famous closing words in Federalist 10, Levin argues that “we must seek diffusing, individualist remedies for the diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society.”
This prescription of democratic solutions for democratic problems again reflects Levin’s intellectual debt to Tocqueville’s masterful study of American democracy. But as I suggested in my previous post, I am skeptical that bolstering individual choice can effectively temper the excesses of an atomized democratic culture. Tocqueville too, I suspect, was far more pessimistic about democracy's capacity to regulate democracy than Levin may wish to believe.
To Levin, the “defining feature of twenty-first century America” is our contemporary “bifurcated concentration.” The forces of individualism dissolve mediating bonds across society, while cementing ever-more ossified and separate subcultures. In Levin’s words:
Individualism involves a corrosion of people’s sense of themselves as defined by a variety of strong affiliations and unchosen bonds and its replacement by a sense that all connections are matters of individual choice and preference. It breaks up clusters of people into more isolated individuals held together by more casual affinities and more utilitarian relationships—each bets understood in relation to the needs and wants of the individual.Like Tocqueville, Levin takes this to be an inescapable development in a democratic social state. Against a long tradition in Western political thought, the two doubt the possibility of a mixed regime that combines aspects of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy to limit the political defects of each. In Tocqueville's words, "What is called mixed government has always seemed to me a chimera. ... in the end one discovers that in every society there is one principle of action that dominates the others." Instead, what is needed is the cultivation of essentially democratic institutions, which can nonetheless be used as if they were aristocratic in tempering the wilder temptations of the demos.
America's distinctive brand of Protestantism, for instance, plays a critical role in preserving freedom in American society. Tocqueville catalogs at length the harsh, invasive laws drawn from Leviticus which structure life in Puritan New England. Yet unlike in Europe (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter), religion in America does not derive its power from an external source of authority—an independent papacy, for example. Instead, laws enforcing stringent codes of religious morality are democratically voted on and ratified. Religion both limits and asserts democratic sovereignty.
Alongside religion, juries, voluntary associations, gender norms, and local townships all follow this basic pattern. Rather than checking democracy from outside, they build on democratic first principles to regulate American culture from within.
Such a culture of democratic self-regulation is Levin’s basic diagnosis for American society today. Gone are the days of a unified national culture. Rather than yearn for their return, we should invest in building an even more decentralized society. Individual choice is to be celebrated and expanded, rather than restrained in the interest of conformity and community. Our priority should be “to make the most of the narrowing circles of cohesion and reliance that we now tend to inhabit—not by constructing massive, centralized stores of authority, but by building smaller, decentralized networks of trust.”
But the self-segregation Levin extols is no substitute for community. Replacing unchosen bonds of obligation with custom-designed experiments in living may well deepen the ruthless atomization and the unrelenting worship of the gnostic self that plague contemporary life. A carefully chosen and curated set of Facebook group affiliations cannot compare with the rich, humane bonds of communal life. As Chesterton puts it in a masterful celebration of that which is given, not chosen:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.Perhaps, then, what is needed is contradiction within our civic culture. Forthrightly aristocratic institutions—churches, universities, and the like—must regulate democracy not from within, but from without. To adequately check our worst impulses, they must derive their legitimacy precisely from their non-democratic roots. As the Tocqueville of Volume II of Democracy in America and later writings saw, we would do well to abandon our alchemical faith that democratic institutions alone can cure democratic ills.