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On this MLK Day, after the recent dissentious election, you may be interested in reading The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin. Levin has ideas about how we can come together and mend what’s broken.
Levin says that over the past fifty or sixty years, we’ve grown more and more individualistic. Individualism, the privileging of one person over any group, has given us tremendous creativity, diversity, and tolerance, as well as individual freedom. On the other hand, individualism has done damage to what Levin calls the mediating structures of civic life: families, unions, churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations. These are all the institutions we have largely freed ourselves from; in doing so, we have weakened them; in some cases, beyond repair.
All the time, I see spouses who would rather get divorced than reconciled. Parents who would rather raise their children alone than compromise on parenting styles. Folks who don’t trust their public schools and enroll their kids in private. People who don’t feel safe living in the city, so they flee to the suburbs. Churchgoers who look for a new church because of a single point of contention with their old. Workers who feel they don’t need a union. Friendships ended because of a difference of opinion. Adult children who would rather have their own Thanksgiving dinner, than deal with the prejudices of their parents over the dinner table. Taken to the extreme many take it, individualism results in people who would rather leave than not get their way; folks whose answer to conflict is to avoid conflict and start again, anew, alone.
The consequence of all this individualism is that the institutions of marriage, parenthood, public education, cities, religion, unions, friendships, and family become damaged when people abandon them. Individuals end up standing isolated and alone. You have no spouse to hug you after a bad day, no other parent to fill in when you need help. The city infrastructure declines, no one but the affluent get educated, and churches close. All you have is friends who are just like you, if you have any at all. There’s no union to enforce your rights and no parents to bail you out. You have individuals standing unsupported before the majestic power of the one institution unaffected, the centralized State.
When only individuals and the State are healthy, everything that individuals can’t do has to be done by and through the State. It’s the only game in town. That’s why our politics have become so polarized, says Levin. The Right looks to the State to preserve “American Values” and the Left looks to the State to address economic inequities. Both find it necessary to take control of the State. Politics becomes a winner-take-all cage fight.
The trouble is, there’s so much that laws can’t fix. Most problems have to be addressed on a smaller and more relational scale. For example, having a black president did not prevent Ferguson and police shootings. We also need strong marriages, parents, schools, cities, churches, unions, friendships, and families. Levin says if we weren’t so individualistic, we would strengthen these mediation structures. He writes (p. 5):
The middle layers of society, where people see each other face to face, offer a middle ground between radical individualism and extreme centralization. Our political life need not consist of a recurring choice between having the federal government invade and occupy the middle layers of society or having isolated individuals break down the institutions that compose those layers. It can and should be an arena for attempting different ways of empowering those middle institutions to help our society confront its problems.
Levin, speaking to an entire nation, recommends a greater distribution of power, not to the people, but to the various coalitions they form. As someone who often speaks, not to a nation, but to individuals, I recommend that that, if you would rather not be so alone, you should submit yourself to the rigors of marriage, the teamwork of parenting, the wisdom of traditions, the moderating influence of diversity, collective bargaining, and respect prior generations. Be willing to confront conflicts, compromise, and work together before trying to do everything your way.
Levin and I agree on that; but there are a few things I believe he misses.
For one, while it’s true that some mediating structures, like labor unions and churches, are in decline, others are thriving. I’m thinking of business corporations. Some are doing better than others; but, as a class, corporations are a collective enterprise that are doing very well, indeed; sometimes to the point of rivaling the nation state in power, wealth, and influence.
From where I sit, it’s the insatiable demands these business corporations place on us that are sucking many of the other mediating structures dry. People work to the detriment of their families, their participation in other activities, and themselves. Churches, schools, medical centers, cities and other mediating structures all have to do things their way, the business corporation way, or it’s the highway for them. By that I mean, they have to run their institution like a business.
You could say that corporations act far more individualistically than individuals do, especially individuals who work in cubicles. Whenever a business ruins its relationship with its workforce with layoffs, its community with relocation, and the environment with pollution, just to save a few bucks, you could say it’s acting in an individualistic manner and not playing well with others.
Levin never talks about one mediating structure that is very near and dear to my heart: psychotherapy. Seeing a shrink can help you in much the same way that getting support and advice from friends, a spouse, parents, and clergy did in the past. Sixty years ago, the only people who went into therapy were the rich and the crazy; now it’s much more common. Why? Because psychotherapy, better than the alternatives, can be run like a business.
When you get right down to it, I just don’t agree that individuals are any more individualistic than they were sixty years ago. For instance, you might look at the divorce rate and say that marriage is in decline; but it ain’t so simple. Yes, there’s more divorce, but you are likely to expect more from your marriage than your grandparents ever did. If you’re not your spouse’s best friend, if you are not perfectly aligned in all you do, if you’re not having passionate sex all your life, you say there’s a problem. You will not say your marriage has been successful just because you’ve been together a long time, if you’ve have been miserable all the while.
People in the past may have been more willing to join civic organizations, play on teams, support labor unions, vote more consistently, live in cities, educate their children in public schools, frequent a pew in church, keep friends, remain married, respect their elders, and raise children in two parent households, but the relationships between your grandparents and the people they interacted with were more distant and circumscribed. People of today are much more informal and able to talk about their feelings with others than prior generations ever were. This, I believe indicates a stronger bond and a more diffuse boundary between individuals and the mediating structures. hardly what you would expect if you thought people were becoming more individualistic.
I found The Fractured Republic to be quite thought provoking, but I disagree with much of his argument. Yes, a lot of the problems of our fractured republic come from individualism, but it’s not the individualism of individuals; it’s the individualism of business corporations run amuck and behaving in an entirely self serving manner.