Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, oil on canvas, 1836, Collection of The New-York Historical Society

Writing near the end of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed an apprehension that this new form of government in the United States might eventually yield to a new kind of despotism under which a central authority would minister to the wishes of the people while depriving them of the independence required for active citizenship. Tocqueville foresaw a “soft” despotism that, as he wrote, “does not break men’s will but softens, bends, and guides it; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd.” He feared that the democratic revolution in America might eventually produce a passive population that has traded its liberty and independence in exchange for comfort and security.

Americans across the political spectrum are caught in a “nostalgia trap.”

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs magazine and a widely cited author in his own right, dissents somewhat from Tocqueville’s prognosis in his insightful book-length essay The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism. Americans, he points out, far from being mired in comfortable passivity, are afflicted today by something far different: anger, discontent, and frustration with national politics and the performance of government at all levels. Public opinion polls and election campaigns—the rise of Donald Trump!—provide ample evidence of the public’s unease with the direction of the country and growing pessimism about the capacity of the federal government to address collective problems. Americans, as a man in a once-popular movie put it, “are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.” Yet there is little agreement across the political spectrum as to how we should understand this condition or what we might do about it. This, then, is the great value of Mr. Levin’s book: it cuts through the confusion of the present moment, explains how we got to where we are, and suggests some possible avenues out of the impasse.

The main problem, he argues, is that Americans across the political spectrum are caught in a “nostalgia trap.” They assess the current situation in terms of social and economic standards that were established in the immediate post-war decades. That was an unusual period when the American economy grew by 4 or 5 percent per year, American producers sent automobiles, steel, coal, and agricultural products around the world to economies still on their backs from the war, private sector unions negotiated good wages and benefits for workers, crime was falling, families and churches were strong, and there was little ideological distance between the two political parties. The post-war system “worked” in part because it was based upon a sense of shared values in regard to economic growth, hard work, family, and the role of government. It is little wonder, then, given our current situation, that Americans long for a return to the mix of dynamism and stability that characterized the post-war era.

As a consequence, the two political parties are exceptionally backward looking, albeit in quite different ways. Republicans and Democrats long to restore different elements of the post-war order. Liberals and Democrats, for example, wish to restore the corporatist economic structure of the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by powerful labor unions negotiating with corporate oligopolies, while also reigniting the spirit of liberation and rebellion that burned during the 1960s. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to assess the present in relation to recollections of the social stability and shared values of the 1950s and take their economic and political bearings from the 1980s when, under Ronald Reagan’s leadership, they restored the nation’s economic dynamism following the inflation and slow growth of the 1970s while presiding over a military build-up that helped to win the Cold War. Each side looks back to the post-war period as a kind of golden age and seeks to restore a piece of it without acknowledging how far away we have since moved from the conditions of that era.

Mr. Levin views the post-war era—roughly the period running from 1945 to the year 2000—as following a coherent trajectory that has left us in a situation in which it is impossible to put into place the grand designs of either liberals or conservatives. As he writes, “In our cultural, economic, political, and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at a cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.” This is what he means by the “fractured” republic. Over the course of these decades, Americans lived through a cultural revolution that promoted greater freedom and liberation from social norms and a market revolution that promoted dynamism and innovation while destroying the private sector unions and corporate oligopolies that dominated economic life from the 1940s to the 1980s. Conservative attempts to restore social consensus and liberal attempts to restore a managed economy are both bound to fail due to the liberating effects of these twin revolutions.

Neither of the parties has a solution to the problem.

Nevertheless, as he points out, the role of government in American life has continued to expand even as social life has become more fragmented and disorganized. Federal spending has grown year by year, federal regulations continue to accumulate, and federal tentacles now reach into just about every organization and institution in society, even now (in response to the Affordable Care Act) into religious institutions previously thought to be out of bounds for federal regulators. These two developments are in fact related because, as the author observes, “hyper-individualism and excessive centralization are not opposite inclinations but complementary impulses.” Tocqueville long ago observed that as government expands its reach, it crowds out the institutions of civil society—churches, community organizations, family, and neighborhood groups—and thus forces individuals to look to the state for support, thereby creating a vicious cycle through which the collapse of local institutions leads to calls for more government which in turn produces ever more fragmentation and dependency. Neither of the parties has a solution to the problem because neither can come to grips with the hyper-individualism and social fragmentation that are at the root of it.

Mr. Levin, a principled conservative, doubts that liberals have any practical remedies for the condition he describes because, as he says, they are locked into the idea that “the only genuine liberty is individual liberty and that the only legitimate authority is the authority of the national government.” For various ideological and historical reasons, they tend to see the mediating institutions of society—family, church, schools, and community—as potential threats to liberty that justify further interventions by federal authorities. We can see this in the ways in which the current administration tries to enforce civil rights regulations against schools and colleges and in the ways it stifles experimentation by the states in welfare and Medicaid programs. Yet, as he argues, the problems of our era grow precisely out of these impulses: the excessive centralization of political authority combined with the fragmenting consequences of hyper-individualism.

As a consequence of this, he thinks that conservatives are in a better position to win this debate because of their appreciation for the role that civic institutions can play in nurturing liberty and citizenship. In his view, the way forward in America is through the empowerment of the middle layers of society that stand between individuals and the national government. He sees the revitalization of these mediating structures—state and local governments, families, churches, and local voluntary associations—as a way of restraining the power of the federal government and of providing individuals with opportunities to exercise citizenship through participation in civic institutions. This is the traditional doctrine of “subsidiarity”—the idea that social problems should be addressed, to the degree possible, at the local level—but one that takes on greater urgency at a time when national authority has been extended to its limits and the national government is stalemated by partisan polarization. The way out of our impasse will thus be through a conservative agenda that emphasizes “modernization through subsidiarity, a revival of federalism, and a commitment to a robust pluralism of moral subcultures.”

This is an attractive agenda, and one with which all conservatives are likely to agree, but one wonders if it is sufficiently compelling to counter the powerful forces of centralization and individualism that the author identifies as the sources of our problems. The agenda is not new: conservatives have been speaking in terms of federalism and voluntarism for decades now. Richard Nixon pushed “fiscal federalism” and Ronald Reagan “the new federalism” with little if any success. Republicans have argued for decades that Medicaid, housing, and welfare programs should be “block granted” to the states to allow for greater local control and experimentation with new approaches. Robert Nisbet and Michael Novak were writing decades ago about the importance of mediating institutions. George H. W. Bush had his “thousand points of light” and George W. Bush his “compassionate conservatism.” One would be hard pressed to identify much effect either had in countering the centralizing trends of our time. The ideas are sound, but perhaps they need to be pushed with greater determination.

Conservatives have been speaking in terms of federalism and voluntarism for decades now.

Nor do we really know how to revitalize civic institutions once they have been weakened by decades of disuse. Many of these institutions developed spontaneously in response to community needs and out of a belief that local problems had to be addressed by voluntary community action. They have been displaced to a great degree by the introduction of federal funds, followed by federal regulations. Can we withdraw those funds and the regulations? That has always proved difficult to accomplish because too many people depend upon the funds. Moreover, it would defeat the purpose to look to national power to fund or otherwise strengthen local institutions.

We do not, in short, know how to get from where we are to where we must go. It is, admittedly, a difficult problem to crack, and for that reason Yuval Levin deserves great credit for opening up the discussion with this most illuminating essay.