Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Waiting for Humpty Dumpty

In modern politics, conservative people are usually accused of wanting to turn the historical clock back to some mythical time period when things were good for them or people like them. Conservative writer Yuval Levin, in his book The Fractured Republic, says there's some truth to the accusation. But rather than the 1950s or the 19th century or the dark ages as per some of the stupider and more shameful claims, Levin says the real time frame that a lot of conservative folks would like to reinstate is 1981.

And, he adds, more progressive people have their own nostalgia disorder, eyeing with fondness the mid-1960s as a time when the programs they favor began to take effect and make things better for many people -- before the eeeevil Richard Nixon took office and blew it all up. Levin admits his conservative viewpoint sees a lot more value in 1981 and a lot of wishful thinking in 1965. But he says that both groups are falling victim to a glaring mistaken assumption that makes what they want impossible. The right standard-bearer can't follow in Ronald Reagan's footsteps and supercharge our national economy like we saw in the 1980s. And the right mix of programs, policies and technocratic solutions won't lift poor people out of poverty, right historic wrongs and make the country the welfare state paradise so many people believe Norway to be.

The reason, Levin says, is that the middle of the 20th century saw a mix of technological advances and external challenges that brought a unity to American society that no longer exists and probably can't be recaptured. That time period shaped a generation whose members on both right and left wings look to it as an ideal to which the right person or policies could bring us. But the truth is that our society was in a fantastically balanced place between consolidation and decentralization that allowed us the best of both worlds; a sweet spot that is unlikely ever to happen again. The consolidation provided an economic engine that made things good for many people, even while it overlooked many others. The beginning decentralization crossed sociological boundaries to allow people more freedom and space to determine their own identities while removing the rationale for respecting any of society's older boundaries and customs that slowed self-discovery.

Nostalgia blinds both groups, Levin says. And when they fail to see that the circumstances of the 2010s are unlike 1965 or 1981, they aim for solutions that won't work today whether they worked in the preferred eras or not. Levin's own solutions try to recognize the needs seen by the architects of the 1960s Great Society as well as the failure of the federal government to be able to meet those needs -- something frequently pointed out by the crew running things in the 1980s.

He puts great store in the idea of "subsidiarity," a concept that basically says a need should be met by the most local level of government possible. City councils can't do much about hostile foreign powers, so we have a national defense headed up by nationally elected leaders. Sometimes those leaders aren't any better at international relations than the Ward 5 alderman, but that's their fault and the people who voted for them, not the fault of the concept. A federal fire department, on the other hand, with some kind of central dispatching station that responded to every call in the entire nation, would be ridiculous and lead to a lot of burned buildings and unrescued cats in trees.

Levin admits that subsidiarity is a conservative position and that his own philosophy as much as considered judgment leads him to favor it. He doesn't think he's wrong, but he knows it's possible. And subsidiarity as a concept has its own wrinkles that might need some working out. First of all, the more or less atomized society in which we now live needs to rediscover the idea of communities based on something more than "Everyone leaves everyone alone to do what they want and looks out for themselves first and foremost." But modern politics can't even seem to consider new ideas about how to handle today's problems in today's world. It fails because neither side will realize that, quite aside from the vitriol, childishness and arrogance their discourse displays, what they're really arguing about is what date the flux capacitor should show.

And time travel's not real.

No comments: