The 2016 presidential race already counts an extraordinary accomplishment: It has made the 2000 election seem like the good old days.
Before Bush v. Gore became a Supreme Court controversy, the contest seemed to demonstrate that American politics was modernizing in a hopeful direction. Clintonism (including Al Gore’s slightly revised version) had helped Democrats come to terms with what was right about Reaganism, particularly on crime, trade, welfare and basic economics.
George W. Bush was Reagan-like on taxes and trade, but set out to compete with Clintonism on domestic policy — proposing conservative and free market methods to improve educational outcomes for minority children and provide prescription drug coverage in Medicare.
It seemed as if 21st-century versions of liberalism and conservatism were conducting plausible arguments about how best to govern in response to new economic realities.
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A decade and a half later, the parties have turned hard against both visions. The left has systematically forced Hillary Clinton to uphold the banner of anti-Clintonism on crime, trade, welfare and basic economics. The right was content, at first, to reject Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Now a significant portion of the GOP base, under Donald Trump’s leadership, is rejecting Reaganism in favor of nativism, protectionism and isolationism.
Both Clintonism and Reaganism, no doubt, needed updating. But the parties have gone further, essentially abandoning the two most compelling, successful governing visions of the last few decades. With the influence of Bernie Sanders and the success of Trump, American politics has launched into uncharted ideological waters.
The seas are pretty choppy. We are seeing the interplay of (1) fear caused by rapid economic change, (2) deep political polarization, (3) declining trust in almost all institutions and (4) strong resentment against political and economic elites. The result is a political atmosphere charged with radicalism and heavy with threats.
How in the world did we get to this state of disunion? One unexpected, compelling explanation comes from Yuval Levin, in his new book “The Fractured Republic.”
Levin faults a “perverse and excessive nostalgia” by baby boom politicians for America in the 1950s and 1960s. For liberals, this was a golden age of job security, growing wages, high tax rates and relative economic equality. For conservatives, it was a promised land of family stability, community strength and conservative social norms.
Levin describes this as a “consolidating America” in which industrialization, restricted immigration and the shocks of depression and war led to greater social, political and economic cohesion than America had ever seen.
But this postwar period was also an inflection point. The second half of the 20th century saw the “deconsolidation of America,” with growing social libertarianism, vastly expanded immigration, the globalization of labor markets, the growth of information technology and general abundance. These were centrifugal forces that made both our economy and culture far less cohesive and centralized.
Both right and left, in Levin’s account, miss the cohesion of mid-century America, and yet both are also relieved (in different ways) to be freed from those forces. “The right generally longs for cultural consolidation,” Levin told me, “but is glad for the economic deconsolidation. And the left longs for economic cohesion but is glad of the cultural liberation.”
Each side is convinced the other has achieved the greater victory and thus believes the country is going to hell.
This backward-looking approach has deformed American politics. “Because both parties are channeling that nostalgia,” argues Levin, “their objectives and priorities tend to be embodied less in concrete policy proposals and more in vague and aimless frustration, which often manifests itself as populist anger.”
Levin warns of a real risk: a kind of general deconsolidation that becomes extreme individualism, leaving men and women isolated, aimless and alone.
The answer, however, is not to recapture the culture and reimpose economic or social cohesion (which Levin regards as a hopeless task). It is to cultivate community in the space between the individual and the government. “The middle layers of society,” argues Levin, “where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization.”
Instead of desperately trying to go back in time to recover lost unity, Levin urges citizens to look forward — as well as downward, to improve the cultural patch around them.
This future orientation may seem like an odd message for a conservative — and it is all the more powerful for coming from one. The goal is not to make America great … again. It is to make America great in a distinctly 21st-century way.
Michael Gerson is a Washington Post columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.