18.5.16

RECLAIMING THE MEDIATING INSTITUTIONS

There's a lengthy Yuval Levin meditation in The Wall Street Journal, "The Next Conservative Movement," which addresses the way in which the old saecular order fractures, and the major political parties are inadequate instruments for dealing with the fracture.  He starts with a consideration of what A Good Polity looked like.  That is, why did an America That Worked come apart?  And why are the major parties still haunted by those days?
Both Democrats and Republicans often appeal to such a sense of loss. For Democrats, the peak came in the 1960s, when cultural liberalization seemed to coexist with a highly regulated economy. For Republicans, it came in the 1980s, when economic liberalization was accompanied by a resurgence of national pride and a renewed emphasis on family values. By now, American politics is largely organized around these related modes of nostalgia, and the two parties address voters as if it were always 1965 or 1981.
That's all familiar turf. The appeal of the Civil Rights movement was that of removing legal impedimenta preventing people, on the basis of race, from participating in the fruits of victory. The Best and The Brightest thought there were enough fruits to create a Great Society at home and contain Communism abroad.  It takes more space than I want to devote to detailing the ways The Best and The Brightest messed up, but mess up they did, and the appeal of the Reagan years to Republicans is in the partial rolling back of the administrative state, plus the laughing of the Soviet Union into oblivion.

What follows, though, is the generational morphology in two paragraphs.  Victory produces a social order that is settled enough for now, but there is no such thing, particularly where emergence is concerned, as settled for all time.  (There's probably something for Hegel scholars to chew on in there, but that's why we have philosophy departments.)
The America that our exhausted, wistful politics so misses, the nation as it first emerged from the Great Depression and World War II and evolved from there, was (at least for its white citizens) exceptionally unified and cohesive. It had an extraordinary confidence in large institutions—in the ability of big government, big labor and big business to work together to meet national needs. Its cultural life was dominated by a broad traditionalist moral consensus that celebrated two-parent families with children born into wedlock and frowned on divorce and abortion. And in the wake of a world war in which most potential competitors had burned each other’s productive capacities to the ground, the U.S. utterly dominated the global economy, offering opportunity to workers of all stripes.

But almost immediately after the war, that consolidated nation began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting. During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the culture liberalized, the economy was deregulated to keep up with rising competitors, and an exceptional midcentury elite consensus in politics gave way to renewed divisions. In time, this fracturing of consensus grew from diffusion into polarization—of political views, economic opportunities, incomes, family patterns and ways of life. We have grown less conformist but more fragmented, more diverse but less unified, more dynamic but less secure.
Freedom is like that.  Plus, part of the victory dividend resource curse was the expectation, irrespective of your political stance, that the objective conditions for continued prosperity would always be with us.  We see that in the pop-culture treatment, early in the Reagan years, of former hippies entering middle age as yuppies.  It's more subtle than that, as there were more young people who had a bourgeois bent, despite all the efforts of the academic culture of the era to make bourgeois a dirty word, than there were smelly hippies, but yes, the hippies and the long-haired radicals had the idea there would be enough of the productive economy to sustain them once they got bored with their crusades.  Thus we find ourselves here.
Conservatives and liberals stress different facets of these changes. Liberals treasure the social liberation and growing cultural diversity of the past half-century but lament the economic dislocation, the loss of social solidarity and the rise in inequality. Conservatives celebrate the economic liberalization and dynamism but lament the social instability, moral disorder, cultural breakdown and weakening of fundamental institutions and traditions. Part of Mr. Trump’s appeal has been that he basically laments it all—and thus unites the anxieties of those who see no real upside for themselves in the evolution of modern America.
Thus, the cultural and institutional conflicts.  There's a tradition in political economy, dating back to the brains trust that claimed to have ameliorated the Depression and then managed the mobilization for victory, of relying on Governance By Wise Experts.  Adherents of that tradition call themselves Democrats.  The Republicans find themselves in a more difficult position, as the last time their party was in a position to manage a saecular crisis was in the 1860s.  Governance by Wise Experts brought us the Anaconda Plan, emancipation, the Pacific Railroad, and more than a little rent-seeking.  Currently, their message of Government Failure resonates, but during a saecular crisis, Governance that Does Something matters.  Emergence is desirable, but emergence is a hard sell, particularly against a narrative that Four of Five Experts Know What's Good For You.
In health care, for instance, the old progressive approach has been to centralize decision-making so that consolidated expertise could direct our immense health-care system more efficiently. Obamacare, like Medicare and Medicaid before it, embodies this approach—and demonstrates its failings. The new conservative approach would liberate insurers and providers to offer many different models of coverage and care, empower consumers to choose (including through financial assistance to those unable to afford insurance) and let their choices matter—making the system more efficient from the bottom up.

Or consider primary and secondary education, where the old progressive model was the universal public-school system—offering one product to all and administering it in as centralized a way as public opinion would permit. The new conservative approach would instead direct its resources to let parents make choices for their children and allow the education system to take shape around their priorities and preferences.

As these examples suggest, such a bottom-up approach has long been championed by conservatives in some arenas, albeit with limited success against an entrenched progressive welfare state. But as the old progressive model exhausts itself, a new conservative approach can make its case more boldly—both in familiar arenas and in new ones, from welfare to higher education to local public administration and more.
The way to make progress, however, will be for adherents of evolutionary stable strategies to adhere to each other, and to refuse to associate with, or to marginalize, practitioners of dysfunction.
In an increasingly fractured society, moral traditionalists should emphasize building cohesive and attractive subcultures, rather than struggling for dominance of the increasingly weakened institutions of the mainstream culture. While some national political battles, especially about religious liberty, will remain essential to preserve the space for moral traditionalism to thrive, social conservatives must increasingly focus on how best to fill that space in their own communities. That is how a traditionalist moral minority can thrive in a diverse America—by offering itself not as a path back to an old consensus that no longer exists but as an attractive, vibrant alternative to the demoralizing chaos of the permissive society.

Indeed, the revival of the mediating institutions of community life is essential to a modernizing conservatism. These institutions—from families to churches to civic and fraternal associations and labor and business groups—can help balance dynamism with cohesion and let citizens live out their freedom in practice. They can keep our diversity from devolving into atomism or dangerous cultural, racial and ethnic Balkanization. And they can help us to use our multiplicity to address our modern challenges.
Those hundred flowers might already be blooming, in obscure places and out of view of the addled mainstream press.  Writing in The American Conservative, Matthew Loftus extends Mr Levin's argument.
If we are to find a solution to the problem that Donald Trump has exposed—the cultural and economic evisceration of the working class, particularly the white working class—we cannot simply ask how to magically prescribe jobs. We have to ask how public goods and virtuous behavior come to be. And that must always bring us back to community, and to whether our cities and towns are organized in ways that make us good neighbors.

Conservative discourse has of late found itself unable to describe how virtue is formed, even as it presupposes that virtue and the institutions that form it are necessary for any meaningful political order. We can bluster on about the role of faith, family, virtue, self-discipline, and community in maintaining economic and social flourishing, but then we actually give very little regard to such institutions when we talk as though people would abandon them all for $185 a month and some food stamps.
People do abandon life management skills. The availability of a welfare check and an EBT card might contribute to that behavior. An intellectual ethos that's down for transgressiveness rips away any residual sense of propriety that people might otherwise have.
Talking about personal character and cultural decay as black boxes from which spring forth either virtue or victimhood is a lazy habit of thought that has no place in conservative discourse; discipline is always imposed by someone or something, and while deprivation is often a means of discipline, it is hardly the most useful or most prescient one. Relationships discipline as well as support, and good behavior often comes from good neighbors.
Yes, when the village has the redeeming features of the hippie commune and the trailer park, bad stuff happens to people who might otherwise not be well equipped to cope.
If we are going to invoke the value of virtue and refuse to accept anyone’s learned helplessness, then we must also count the cost of inculcating self-discipline and refuse to throw our own hands up when compassion and justice require difficult choices from us.
I've been fighting it out on this line for over a decade.  Hope and Change appear to be eight lost years as far as fixing the international or the domestic saecular challenges.

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