Book Reviews

A Conservatism of Soft Edges

Yuval Levin gives us topsy-turvy history and glosses over many inconvenient facts. But these days, would that more conservatives were like him.

By Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract In The Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin • Basic Books • 2016 • 272 pages • $27.50

A generation ago, Republican leaders liked to assert that theirs was the “Party of Ideas.” Whether or not that made sense at the time, it isn’t a claim you hear much anymore. In the years running up to the 2016 election, Republicans in Congress specialized not in governing, but in making governance impossible. Instead of the Party of Ideas, they were the Party of No, reflexively opposing virtually all of President Obama’s policy initiatives while fixating on symbolic bills that had zero chance of becoming law, such as their 60-plus votes to raze the Affordable Care Act while putting nothing of substance in its place. Beyond Capitol Hill, Republican-allied activists and celebrities spent the Obama years mostly demonizing Democrats, gumming up the works of the federal government, and fomenting rage against our national political institutions—all with considerable success.

The startling ascendance of Donald Trump seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of the Republican Party’s claim to intellectual vibrancy. The least policy-oriented of all the GOP candidates, Trump combined muscular rhetoric with shifting, vague, and often-incoherent policy pronouncements. To Republicans who had hoped for refinement and reform of the GOP governing approach, Trump was a wrecking ball leaving crumbled doctrines in his wake. Indeed, one of the few sources of sustained opposition to Trump’s rise within the GOP was the loose assortment of prominent conservative thinkers who had spent the prior few years calling for a revitalized reform philosophy for the party. For thinkers ranging from Michael Gerson to William Kristol to Peter Wehner to Ross Douthat, Trump was seen as an unmitigated disaster. National Review devoted an entire issue to denouncing Trump. Dean of the intellectual right, George Will, went so far as to announce that he was leaving the Republican Party. Other conservative intellectuals spearheaded the “Never Trump” movement, which Trump rolled over without even a glance on his improbable road to the presidency.

The contempt of the conservative intelligentsia was hardly a surprise. Trump, after all, emphasized white nationalism at a time when many GOP-allied thinkers were calling for greater inclusiveness. Moreover, he upended the intellectual commitment to anti-government libertarianism and free trade that had previously defined the Republican brand (while still embracing minimal taxes, deregulation, and anti-Washington invective). In essence, Trump showed that those leading the conservative charge in the realm of ideas had few followers in the realm of electoral politics. In winning the nomination easily (and the election more dubiously), he drove home just how weak the intellectual movement to rethink core party precepts truly was.

Now, however, Republicans actually have to govern, and the GOP intelligentsia is discovering that philosophical ignorance may well be policymaking bliss—or at least good for stacking the executive branch with potential allies and passing Republican-crafted laws. A great many questions about Trump’s approach to policy remain. But the conservative intellectual class has suddenly found itself in a position where the party they seek to advise has broad latitude to carry out the agenda they have advocated for years.

And so the obvious question is: What is that agenda? Have Republican thinkers developed new approaches that take seriously the task of governance in the modern age? Will the rise of a “post-policy” President, ironically, allow for a Republican policy approach less fixated on shrinking government to a drown-able size by slashing taxes on the wealthy and more attentive to the middle class strains that Trump’s startling victory highlighted?

To answer these questions, there are few better thinkers to turn to than Yuval Levin, informal advisor of House Speaker Paul Ryan and “probably the most influential conservative intellectual of the Obama era,” according to New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait. Levin is editor of the journal National Affairs, which, under his leadership, has become the most interesting outlet for conservative policy ideas. His new book, The Fractured Republic, has been celebrated on the right as a compelling brief for a twenty-first century conservatism that offers serious answers to the great questions of our day. But, while it does deliver a message about contemporary conservatism, it is not, alas, the one that Levin intends.

Eloquent and restrained, The Fractured Republic nonetheless turns out to be long on rhetoric and short on substantive discussion of the inevitably thorny challenges of modern governance. Levin’s emphasis on decentralized responses to public problems holds out some promise of a bridge across today’s yawning ideological divide. Unfortunately, Levin doesn’t really try to build that bridge. He caricatures social and economic policies built or defended by Democrats while conveying his own alternatives in terms so vague they offer little footing for compromise or even comprehension.
He chastises his party for excessive fealty to its policies of the past, but never really articulates what a new GOP agenda would look like. Indeed, with his formulaic complaints of runaway federal spending, regulation, and centralization, he ends up endorsing a portrait of Republicans’ governing challenges not so different than those that have animated the party since Reagan. In its emphases as well as its omissions, Levin’s book suggests less a major repudiation of the embedded orthodoxies of the party than a rebranding and repackaging of policy commitments that have long characterized it—and now have a real chance of becoming law.

Levin’s book is grounded in a spirited attack on those, especially on the left, who indulge in nostalgia for an America that isn’t coming back. According to Levin, wistful politicians celebrate the more stable and equal society of 50 to 60 years ago without acknowledging that it represented a fleeting phase in the nation’s history. For Levin, industrialization, Depression, and global war created unprecedented national unity and cultural homogeneity that were bound to be transitory. Since that exceptional moment, we have witnessed an inexorable trend toward heightened differentiation and individualization, creating broad, irreversible distrust in national institutions.

Massive increases in health, education, and living standards, were the result of a much-expanded public sector, not markets acting alone.

To respond to this fragmentation, Levin embraces the idea of “subsidiarity.” Derived from Catholic teaching, subsidiarity endorses “the entrusting of power and authority to the lowest and least centralized institutions capable of using them well.” Levin sees this old principle as a modern means of adapting American governance to the “fractured” character of today’s republic. Levin’s subsidiarity would build on intermediary institutions that still have legitimacy (churches, community, local government), replacing federal policies he sees as outmoded. This approach, he argues, would fit with our traditions and institutions, and promises flexibility and experimentation.

There is much to admire in Levin’s gracefully written book. He rightly stresses that any governing philosophy must contend with heightened fragmentation and distrust, and his prescriptions have a refreshing air of modesty. He proposes not a “radical revolution in American life but an incremental revival.” Certainly subsidiarity is far more attractive than the hard-edged social Darwinism that has marked a party whose leaders, including Paul Ryan, often look toward Ayn Rand for inspiration. By today’s standards, Levin’s is a conservatism of soft edges.

Unfortunately, the softness too often stems from vagueness. One searches in vain for concrete discussion of how Levin’s philosophy translates into practice. To the question of what should be done, Levin repeatedly demurs. He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t think anyone else does either. “Experimentation is what you do when you do not know the answer,” he writes, “and when it comes to many of our biggest public problems today, we are lacking answers.”

At first, this stance is disarming. But as the book goes on, it begins to look more and more like intellectual evasion. Decentralization might be a promising blueprint for a modern conservatism. But surely we should ask to see a sketch of the building before we start construction. In Levin’s account, local control is seemingly always and in all ways good; while national policies are always and in all ways bad. But it does not take a very deep historical review to identify at least two obvious downsides to decentralization.

The first is the risk that devolving authority to localities can disenfranchise political minorities. This fear has been present since this country’s founding. James Madison—a hero of modern conservatives—pushed for a stronger central government in the Constitution partly on the grounds that an “extended Republic” would prevent locally dominant factions from oppressing minorities. The minority Madison had in mind was property holders. Yet, ironically, much of the successful resistance to his more centralized “Virginia Plan” came from slaveholders who feared their “property” might be jeopardized by a strong national government.

This unseemly motive for decentralization hardly disappeared after the founding, of course. Strikingly, Levin manages to present a case for weakening central authority without ever discussing the tight historical connection between appeals to local autonomy and institutionalized racism. His brief discussion of the 1960s manages to interpret the civil rights movement as “a powerful critique of the consensus politics of previous decades,” as if civil rights leaders were advocates of decentralized rule. Levin’s topsy-turvy account not only obfuscates the centrality of entrenched local white power in the Jim Crow South, but also ignores the fact that overturning segregation required the robust exercise of federal authority.

This is not merely a historical point. Levin lets pass the blatant contemporary efforts of Republican state leaders to disenfranchise minority groups through new voter restrictions, as well as the equally revealing rejection of expanded health-care access in GOP-dominated states with large minority populations. In fact, he focuses on the dangers of contemporary discrimination only once: to make the case that religious conservatives are now its victims.

Levin’s case also skips over the second major downside of decentralization—its potential inability to deal with pressing national problems. This risk, too, has been on vivid display throughout our history. Those who hum the catchy tunes of Hamilton tend to forget that its hero and his allies (including, at the crucial juncture, Madison) called for a stronger union because of the catastrophic failure of the nation’s first constitution, the radically decentralized Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, beggar-thy-neighbor policies and the unwillingness of states to contribute to public goods—from shared infrastructure to national defense to a viable monetary system—left the young nation at the brink of ruin. A strengthened national government saved the original fractured republic.

This concern also retains contemporary resonance. Levin sees the modern trend toward centralization as a historical anomaly. But to a substantial extent, it was a necessary and broadly effective response to the realities of a more complex, urban, and interdependent society. America’s much-expanded public sector helped usher in unprecedented economic development that massively increased the health, education, life expectancy, and living standards of citizens. These remarkable achievements were not the result of markets acting alone. They were the product of a “mixed economy” in which government overcame some of markets’ most serious shortcomings.

To Levin, however, these well-understood problems with unregulated markets barely merit acknowledgment. Levin never mentions that vital public goods (including, in the modern age, scientific research) require government support. Nor does he discuss the ways in which markets for such complex goods as health insurance and financial services are fraught with problems related to information asymmetries between buyers and sellers, which can lead to the exploitation of consumers and even the collapse of markets altogether. Perhaps most glaring, Levin never discusses the problem of “externalities”: when market transactions have large positive or negative effects on people not party to the transaction—such as the social benefits of education and the environmental costs of production. These external effects are pervasive in modern interdependent societies and give rise to some of the biggest challenges faced by them.
The most spectacular of such externalities is, of course, global warming. Levin says exactly zero about this existential threat or how a system prizing subsidiarity might tackle it. On its own, this might seem merely a lamentable concession to the topic’s taboo status in Republican discourse. But Levin also says nothing about the broader problem of environmental externalities—from air and water pollution to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria—that motivates so much policy discussion today. Nor does he discuss recent public health challenges, such as Zika, that have driven home just how crucial government action is to protect citizens and encourage investments in vital areas of research where profits are elusive.

Indeed, Levin says almost nothing about any recent example of market failure. About the late-2000s financial crisis, he provides the following interpretation:

Then came the economic cataclysm of 2007-2009, which followed yet another bubble—a mark perhaps of the frenzied and unstable nature of our postmodern prosperity. The culprit this time was a housing bubble that burst, unleashing a massive crisis in the financial sector.

That’s it. Levin has little apparent interest in considering the implications of a catastrophic event that continues to destabilize the world economy a decade later. To do so might require wrestling with the debilitating consequences of the three decades of financial deregulation that preceded the crash. It might even call into question the faith in markets’ inevitable efficiency that sparked that deregulation in the first place.

Mirroring Levin’s cavalier optimism about markets is an equally sweeping dismissal of the federal government. His Washington is a fossilized “liberal welfare state” where “statism,” “planning,” and “hyper-centralization” reign. The closest Levin comes to justifying these archaic descriptions is a summary assertion that leans on the work of Yale law professor Peter Schuck: “Almost no federal program could pass a cost-benefit analysis.” Given the widespread use of cost-benefit analysis in federal rule-making, this is a peculiar claim. Could it really be true that all the major initiatives of, say, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fail this standard? No, it couldn’t be.

Consider just two of countless counterexamples. Conservatives like to rail against the EPA, but the Clean Air Act has been a remarkable triumph, helping to remove 70 percent of major pollutants from our air since 1970. The EPA’s peer-reviewed cost-benefit test calculates that benefits outweigh costs by 30 to 1. Recent analysis suggests that cleaner air has added one to two years to American life expectancy since the early 1970s.

The contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, highlights a second example (even as it reminds us again of the potential risks of decentralization). Four decades ago, lead in gas and paint was a hidden poison that undermined the potential of millions of children. Overcoming powerful lobbies, the EPA began to phase out lead in gasoline in 1973, and the federal government banned lead paint in 1978. Efforts to remove lead from buildings and soil also intensified (though more should have been, and still must be, done).

These quiet efforts had a revolutionary impact. In the late 1970s, almost 90 percent of children aged one through five had lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter. Today less than 1 percent do. The improvements were greatest for poor and minority children. This extraordinary decline meant measurably higher IQs, increased economic opportunity, and, quite likely, considerably lower rates of crime and teenage pregnancy. The benefits have been staggering: by one careful estimate, $210 billion in extra earning potential alone for each year’s new babies who now avoid toxic lead exposure.
Government’s role in promoting economic development is hardly limited to protecting public health. Public policies also helped create the transportation and communications infrastructure necessary for productive markets; brought historically disadvantaged groups into the mainstream and thereby encouraged greater opportunity and growth; and established rules and protections that reduced the economic and environmental dislocations caused by unregulated markets. Public-sector investments played an essential role in boosting the productive capacities of workers and the progress of science—the cornerstones of long-term growth.

The role of government in fostering science and education (and ensuring their rewards are broadly distributed) is arguably more important today than ever. In recent decades, returns to advanced education have increased dramatically. At the same time, more and more of the nation’s most innovative companies and productive workers have been located in so-called innovation hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York. Indeed, the widening chasm between these booming urban areas and the declining regions of the country is among the major factors that fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

You might think someone adamant about moving past nostalgia would have something important to say about these trends. But beyond noting that “conservatives need to put greater emphasis on education and skills” (well, yes), Levin mostly gives the topic a pass. So far as we can tell, Levin sees sharply rising inequality as reflecting the same impersonal forces he links to increased individualism and distrust. Perhaps that’s why he decries the left’s “bizarre obsession with the super-rich.” In his account, the wealthy are simply the beneficiaries of inexorable trends that have created a more dynamic economy.

But there’s a reason so many analysts focus on what is happening at the top. Most of today’s biggest economic winners are corporate and financial executives. Moreover, increasing evidence suggests that a major source of their fortunes is what economists call “rents”—above-market returns reflecting market or political power. Indeed, contrary to Levin’s narrative of fragmentation, major sectors of the economy (finance, telecommunications, health care) have come to be dominated by fewer, but ever-growing, giant firms. At the same time, these incumbents have also gained greater capacity to translate their profits into political sway through lobbying, campaign spending, and other activities.

Like the growing prominence of innovation hubs, these developments also suggest the continuing need for robust government. After all, the expansion of American public authority was not just a response to market failures. It was also a response to efforts by corporations and the wealthy to suppress private competition and shape public policy. The passage of laws discouraging market concentration, encouraging labor unions, and discouraging the translation of money into power were meant to address this fundamental challenge. Yet Levin seems as unconcerned about influence buying as he is about market failures. At one point, he warns of “crony capitalism,” but, like many conservatives, appears to see this as yet another argument for hamstringing government even further.

Levin’s “subsidiarity” would sharply reduce government’s capacity to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

The truth is that many rich and powerful interests have long fought to achieve that result, and are now closer than they have been since before FDR’s election to advancing that ambition. In practice, Levin’s “subsidiarity” would sharply reduce government’s capacity to protect consumers, workers, and the environment. Levin doesn’t say what federal policies he would like to jettison. But he casts doubt on the legitimacy of the entire wave of initiatives enacted between 1964 and 1975—“an intense spurt of government activism that our constitutional architecture was not designed to permit.” That bipartisan spurt brought about not only Medicare and Medicaid, but also fundamental civil rights legislation, as well as most modern environmental and consumer protections. Scaling back these policies would, therefore, be a “radical revolution,” and not an “incremental revival.”

“Subsidiarity” would also accelerate the trend toward increased inequality, making it even easier for the wealthy and for corporations to limit their taxes and throw poor local communities and states back on their own meager resources. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for many conservatives in Washington, this effect is a feature, not a bug. Despite Levin’s insistence that we need to think anew, the basic model of turning federal programs into block grants of various kinds, with limited restrictions on local officials and declining federal funding over time, has been a mainstay of GOP policy since at least Ronald Reagan. Block grants were the cornerstone of Republican welfare reform in 1996 (real federal funding for TANF has since dropped 30 percent). They have been a key feature of Paul Ryan’s recent budgets, which would cut trillions in federal spending by giving Medicaid and SNAP the same treatment.

Ryan has recently scrapped much of his Rand-inspired rhetoric, apologizing for dividing the country between “makers” and “takers.” He now embraces Levin’s kinder, gentler language of decentralization, where flexibility and customization can allow more humane and individualized responses to poverty. Yet if the rationale has shifted, the policies have not. Ryan still supports huge tax cuts for the rich, accompanied by a dramatic scaling back of the social programs that assist less affluent Americans. If Levin has qualms about these radically inegalitarian proposals, he never lets on.

Of course, Levin’s intervention didn’t have the intended impact. If Marco Rubio or John Kasich had been elected President, Levin’s theme of shifting power back to communities could have gained considerable traction in the White House. Levin consistently opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016, and he has expressed strong skepticism about his positions since then. Yet Levin also now enjoys the ear of the most powerful man on Capitol Hill, Paul Ryan—whose recent rhetoric has sounded awfully like Levin’s eloquent rationale for dismantling a half-century of federal policy.

In his writings about Trump since November 2016, Levin has diagnosed his victory mostly as a signal about where Republican base voters are, rather than a call for a new policy approach. Certainly, Levin’s book provides limited basis for understanding Trump’s rise. Though he emphasizes the collapse of faith in national political institutions, such processes are, in his account, completely impersonal. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and Mitch McConnell go unmentioned, along with the GOP’s destructive politics of attacks on the ability of government to accomplish even its most basic goals. Levin looks around and sees an emergent conservatism of constructive experimentation. In the real world of American politics, what now passes for the Republican establishment scurries for cover as the forces they have stoked for decades finally turn on them.

The Fractured Republic is the work of a serious thinker and elegant writer that usefully challenges the received beliefs of both liberals and conservatives. Yet, because Levin doesn’t adequately reckon with the costs and dangers of political decentralization, he misses opportunities for a serious dialogue across the political divide. How do we govern an increasingly heterogeneous society? How do we turn our growing diversity and federalism’s potential for dispersed experimentation into virtues, without running afoul of decentralization’s well-known liabilities—liabilities that growing economic disparities among regions are only intensifying? Nowhere does Levin address these challenges.

A promising place to find common ground would be a push to strengthen markets where they can work well but are currently blocked by archaic licensing rules, local zoning restrictions, or the increasingly anti-competitive behavior of huge firms. Yet many modern problems cannot be addressed at the local level, and even reforms that seek to nurture decentralized markets will require the effective exercise of political authority to break up concentrations of market power, address side-effects, and stand up to powerful economic interests. As Levin argues, markets are remarkable institutions for eliciting and responding to decentralized information. But achieving these benefits often requires government action. The pro-market position with regard to climate change or Wall Street speculation isn’t letting the private sector rip. It’s requiring that private market actors take into account the cost to society of carbon emissions or systemic risk. Only government can ensure that they do that. Failure to recognize these realities reflects the continuing unwillingness of the most thoughtful people associated with the Republican Party to come to grips with the real costs of the right’s relentless attacks on government.

Needless to say, a balanced approach to policy reform that carefully weighs the advantages and limitations of decentralization is not in the offing. What will emerge from the tangle of forces now ascendant in Washington remains anyone’s guess, but it certainly does not bear well. The Administration’s chaotic start (and the placement of many prominent House conservatives within its upper ranks) suggests that Ryan’s team will play a central role in fashioning the domestic policy agenda. It would be encouraging to say that Levin advances a new conservative philosophy, one that is up to the task of governing a complex and interdependent world. Tragically, what is on offer is a new packaging for standard caricatures of government along with the GOP’s time-worn proposals to eviscerate regulations to protect workers, consumers, and the environment, while slashing public spending along with taxes on the rich. When conservative intellectuals finish wringing their hands at an America that is increasingly cynical about institutions and increasingly tempted by answers that are easy rather than correct, they might want to hold up a mirror.

Jacob Hacker & Paul Pierson are the authors of  American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. Jacob Hacker is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale University. Paul Pierson is the John Gross Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

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