E. J. Dionne has called them the Reformicons. They are a contingent of young “reform conservatives,” who are neither doctrinaire libertarians nor Tea Party primitives. Most nest in conservative Washington think tanks; a few are perched at National Review; one, Ross Douthat, occupies the op-ed page’s rightmost branch at the New York Times. The Reformicon goal is to develop a positive vision for conservatism, defining it (and coincidentally the Republican Party) by what they are for, not only what they are against. So far their influence has been much greater inside the Beltway, and even inside a few congressional offices, than among the conservative rank-and-file of the GOP generally; but as an August 6 front-page story in the Times explained, although most Reformicons despise Donald Trump, his shattering of the Republican establishment may have opened the field for their ideas.
Yuval Levin is often described as the intellectual leader of this group, and The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism presents a Big Framework for their thinking. That alone makes the book worth examination. My own interest goes further. Levin is a Burkean. His last book was The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, a very one-sided debate in which he mainly used Paine as a foil for expounding the thought of Burke. Now I am anything but a young reform conservative, being neither young nor conservative. Still, as a lifelong liberal I have often considered myself a Burkean liberal and, even as a sometime democratic socialist, a Burkean democratic socialist. That is to say, incrementalist, anti-utopian, attentive to the “little platoons” at the base of society. Levin emphasizes the importance of mediating institutions standing between the individual and the state, and he parades the banner of subsidiarity, two concerns prominent in Catholic social thought. Currently the editor of a policy journal, National Affairs, Levin previously edited the New Atlantis, a journal that entertained doubts about science’s resources for addressing the grave ethical questions it raises, doubts that I had felt during my half decade in the then-burgeoning field of bioethics.
Oh, and one other thing in Levin’s favor. He has long spotted Donald Trump as “an unstable, disordered, malevolent charlatan unfit for the presidency.”
THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC begins with the claim that American politics are trapped in twin nostalgias of baby boomers. The baby-boom Left looks back to a vaguely defined Golden Age in which the rebellions of the 1960s rested on the exceptional postwar economy of the 1950s. The baby-boom Right yearns for the lost vision of the Reagan Revolution, which sought to recover the cultural stability of the 1950s.
Levin places this contemporary battle of nostalgias within an overarching scheme of American history since the late nineteenth century. From the 1890s to the 1970s, America underwent a period of consolidation: the rise of giant corporations, progressive government institutions to regulate them, and a more unified national culture, all abetted by world wars, whether One, Two, or Cold. Starting in the 1960s, the nation began to enter an era of “diffusion.” The postwar cultural consensus was fragmented by racial struggle, antiwar agitation, the sexual revolution, the counterculture, and a new individualism. The economic status quo was challenged by a first wave of globalization (think Germany and Japan), stagflation, new innovating industries, declining labor unions, more globalization, and deregulation. “Disruption” became a term of high praise. Anti-Washington fervor, political polarization, and congressional gridlock undid confidence in the federal government.
This framework does a lot of heavy lifting for Levin’s argument. Attributing our political frustration to mere “nostalgias” of Left and Right baby boomers positions the author nicely in the middle as a voice of post-boomer conservative realism. The claim that America has irreversibly passed into an era of diffusion allows him to tag all progressive proposals involving centralized (read federal) action as “outdated,” “antiquated,” “anachronistic,” “mired in the past,” “not plausible,” and so on. Instead, the breakup of older unionized industries, the distrust of Washington, and, above all, the fragmentation of cultural norms and the new diversity of lifestyles dictate greater reliance on market choice, subsidiarity, and working through mediating institutions.
By labeling baby-boomer politics as nostalgic and progressive proposals as anachronistic, Levin gives his case an aura of “wave of the future” inevitability, ironically a rhetorical tactic usually associated with the Left rather than the Right.
Of course viable social policy must escape Golden Ages illusions and accommodate the broad features of a particular era. But Levin’s framework suffers from exaggerations. Are we really trapped by baby-boomer nostalgia? I cannot say whether dreams of reliving the Reagan Revolution hypnotize baby-boomers of the Right. As a slight pre-boomer (born before 1946 but nonetheless a child of the World War II generation), I can testify that for the Left the 1960s and early 1970s were in many respects a frightful, desperate time for which, apart perhaps from the music, we have little nostalgia. As for recent liberal evocations of the postwar economy, they are largely a response to the right-wing insistence that high taxes, economic growth, and greater equality are necessarily antithetical; and they are almost always evoked with the qualification that the postwar years were exceptional.
More serious are Levin’s exaggerations of consolidation, especially of political centralization. Beltway-based Reformicons share the Reaganite fixation on the federal government. They pay scant attention to the real power (not necessarily any more efficient or any less corrupt than Washington’s) of states, cities, villages, counties, courts, school districts, and a host of other local entities and authorities to elect, appoint, decide, tax, spend, subsidize, administer, redistrict, investigate, jail, compete, cooperate, or obstruct. To say nothing of the for-profit enterprises and charitable organizations that government relies on at every level. In fact, not a few of the federal government’s failings, but also its strengths, stem from its entanglement, driven by either administrative or political necessities, with this complex web of decision-makers.
Levin’s overestimation of governmental centralization is matched by his neglect of economic centralization. (Levin also has little to nothing to say about climate change, pollution, consumer safety, foreign policy, and war, areas where consolidated policy cannot be easily avoided.) In sector after sector, from banking to pharmaceuticals to hospital chains and health insurance to communications to airlines, top firms have increased their market share. For communities as well as consumers, economic diffusion evidently means that decisions are made by fewer people farther and farther away, in New York or China or Europe or Silicon Valley. One might imagine a conservative of Levin’s stripe to be sensitive to this loss of local power.
Power and its disparities are, in fact, the invisible protagonist in Levin’s framework. Federal power and progressives do get called out for being “anachronistic.” Still, this is a very abstract story. Changes are attributed to forces, not agents. At least not agents defined much more concretely than “Right” and “Left.” Otherwise, things change because of the “political system” or “structural transformations in the economy” or “extreme individualism.” That’s one way of analyzing our republic, to be sure; what’s missing is any sense that behind those forces for change are also profit-seeking CEOs and shareholders, corporate lobbyists, state legislatures engaged in partisan redistricting, wealthy campaign donors, state and municipal officials bidding against one another to lure new enterprises, advertisers and entertainment promoters eager to “push the envelope” of sexual expression, rich donors and foundations who fund socially liberal causes, women and racial minorities infuriated by traditional barriers.
No wonder that Levin can write so confidently, “Wealth is not a social problem, but poverty is.... In our society, the wealth of some does not appear to cause the poverty of others.” No wonder he can dismiss the political “overemphasis on income inequality” and judge attention to the “super-rich” to be “a bizarre obsession.” One might take this warning against zero-sum thinking about income and wealth more seriously if the author found something bizarre, perhaps even appalling, in last year’s parade of presidential hopefuls before small circles of the super-rich to be vetted for the highest office in a democracy. What makes this complacency about disparities in power, especially economic power, particularly problematic is the Reformicons’ agenda, as Levin describes it, of “replacing the institutions of the liberal welfare state with more market-oriented mechanisms.” These mechanisms, in line with a “postmodernizing assumption,” promise to be “nimbler and more responsive, customizable, and adaptable” than the allegedly “one-size-fits-all benefit programs” of centralized, progressive government.
Furthermore, Levin argues, we don’t really know how to solve problems like poverty, social mobility, inner-city education, and assuring health care. So market mechanisms, which he describes somewhat antiseptically in terms of an “epistemology,” a “bottom-up theory of distributed knowledge,” provide a laboratory for experimentation by consumers rather than progressive experts. This is an odd laboratory, however, in which experiments can be designed and the results determined not just by distributed knowledge but maldistributed assets.
The most original part of Levin’s framework, certainly for fellow conservatives, is his argument regarding the culture. In the present era of diffusion, he maintains, conservatives can no longer assume a cultural “moral majority,” let alone imagine that it can enlist government to defend popular values against an elite veneer of sexual and lifestyle liberation. Nor, to the extent that this liberation extends important life choices, should conservatives oppose it. At the same time, he advises them that the commanding heights of the culture are no more controlled by the cultural Left than by the Right. The culture will continue to be a terrain of sometimes overlapping, sometimes contending moral minorities, a landscape not of a single culture war but of multiple subcultures and subculture wars. Conservatives should abandon their defensive, apocalyptic rhetoric and adopt instead a “subcultural conservatism” aimed at strengthening communities, above all faith-based ones, of character-forming values and ways of life. This leads Levin into exploring ideas like Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” or other spin-offs of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s “melancholy vision” in After Virtue of cultural chaos.
Family, faith, work, community, education, direct citizen participation: concern about the “hollowing out” of these mediating and character-forming institutions standing between the state and the individual is at the heart of Levin’s argument. Public policy, according to Levin and other Reformicons, should work to strengthen and not replace these institutions. It should respect their diversity and, whenever possible, their autonomy. Market mechanisms like vouchers vest choices in families and may increase job opportunities. Federalism and local control enhance civic participation. What can be done for religious communities is not so clear except “do no harm.” Levin fears that the freedom of religious groups to maintain institutions abiding by their own standards at odds with secular culture is under threat. Unlike many of my fellow liberal Catholics, I believe his fear is warranted.
OF COURSE, DEFENDING mediating institutions in principle is one thing. Deciding whether specific public policies would help or hollow them out in practice is quite another. That cannot be decided in the abstract. In fact, the Reformicons are a notably wonkish bunch, insisting, with Levin in front, that conservatives must offer detailed proposals in place of sweeping slogans. Unfortunately, The Fractured Republic relegates such well-developed examples to references in the endnotes.
The most comprehensive of those references is Room to Grow, a 120-page collection of Reformicon essays (available online) examining middle-class anxieties, health care, employment, poverty, tax reform, schooling, energy, child care, higher education, and family stability. (Curiously missing, as in Levin’s book, are discussions of climate change, foreign policy, defense spending, and national security. In the Wall Street Journal, the Brookings Institution’s William A. Galston added that the essays also skipped “hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage”; are “all but silent on the budget, trade, and immigration”; and touch on “tax reform and Social Security only tangentially.”)
As Levin signaled, the emphasis is on market mechanisms, which are generally assumed to be free of the unintended consequences and potential abuses besetting government programs. The essays flaunt plenty of antiliberal, antigovernment, promarket boilerplate, perhaps to demonstrate their Republican bona fides, because a few ideas do challenge GOP orthodoxy—and have been duly denounced by libertarian and Tea Party stalwarts. One leading heresy is to abandon the party’s fixation with cutting marginal tax rates in favor of tax credits for those raising children. And despite the boilerplate, there are quiet concessions to the value of government programs, as well as warnings against unfortunate conservative reflexes—e.g., blaming educational failure on teachers and their unions. The language is the language of ends and means, not of war to the death.
In fact, a good many left-of-center analysts and activists are well aware of the shortcomings of government programs and don’t hesitate to propose ways, some including vouchers or market mechanisms, to make them more flexible and responsive. Levin admits as much, though he chooses to call them “a small band.” One would imagine that such liberal and Reformicon reforms could be fought out, or compromised, on their merits if there weren’t forces more entrenched than competing nostalgias.
A major problem is the Reformicon starting point. In theory, it should be the health of character-forming mediating institutions, like family and work and schools, and threats to that health coming from any direction, from the market, the culture, the government, or even other mediating institutions. In practice, the Reformicon starting point is almost always the threat from the federal government. As Galston notes, Room to Grow is essentially a Republican document that “colors within the lines.”
Dionne’s “Reformicon” label is a play on “neocon,” the eventual shorthand for the neoconservatism that I analyzed at book length in 1979. At that time, while I was highly critical of neoconservatism, I was impressed with it enough to make a wager. In 1949 Lionel Trilling famously lamented that in America conservative impulses did not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It was a lament that might have once been unfair but seems timely again today.
In 1979, for all my differences with neoconservatism, I argued that it promised, on various grounds, to be “the serious and intelligent conservatism America has lacked.” I was well aware that this conclusion was risky and sure to elicit scornful objections from many liberal friends. “Let me not hedge my bet,” I wrote bravely.
Well, as I explained when my book was reissued with a new foreword in 2013, I not only lost that bet but lost it much more quickly than I could have anticipated. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, many neoconservative intellectuals, previously political outsiders and broad-gauged pragmatic social theorists, became Washington operators and, finally, sophisticated proponents of American unilateralism and military intervention. By 2003, when they were associated with the invasion of Iraq, pundits and headline writers had abbreviated their identity to neocons.
Now the same question is posed about the Reformicons. Any chance that they could offer the serious and intelligent conservatism America has lacked—and at this moment so sorely needs? For all the reasons given above, I’m not betting on it. I wish it were otherwise.