The conservative political historian and founding National Affairs editor surveys a nation whose institutions are in crisis.
Continuing a project begun in 2016 with The Fractured Republic, Levin observes that contemporary Americans are “living through a social crisis,” one that manifests in gridlock, bitterness, and “a culture war that seems increasingly to be dividing us into two armed camps angrily confronting each other in every corner and crevice of American life.” It’s not so much that we’ve lost faith in and patience with people who disagree with us, writes the author, but that we’ve witnessed the disintegration of the institutions that sustained us: journalism, which tends to an urban elitism; education, which imposes orthodoxies of political correctness; and government, which has descended into a cesspool of do-nothingism. Even after Richard Nixon left office in disgrace, he observes, more than half of Americans “expressed confidence in the presidency”; the current figure has fallen to a third. As for Congress, only 11% of respondents think it’s doing anything positive—small wonder, Levin writes, since the members of that body “have come to understand themselves most fundamentally as players in a larger cultural ecosystem, the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience.” It is perhaps to the benefits of the elites—who, Levin writes, used to number different casts of characters: one for education, one for politics, one for media, and the like, but who now largely comprise a single body—that Americans are divided and that institutions are weak. The revival of the pure, original notion of what our institutions are meant to do—the judiciary being a rare but not wholly uncompromised exception—“is essential to the revival of legitimate authority,” the implication being that much present authority is not legitimate, and the charge falls on every citizen to do something about the mess by becoming active in reform.
A provocative, inspiring look at the underlying cause of our polarization and dysfunction.