“I wish we lived in a place more like the America of yesteryear that only exists in the brains of us Republicans.” –Ned Flanders
Yuval Levin opens his new book with an accusation that bites: that the Baby Boomers have propagandized subsequent generations into accepting a version of history that has been “blinded by nostalgia.” Both sides of the political divide are guilty. The Left is nostalgic about the 1960s. The Right is nostalgic about the 1980s. Both sides are nostalgic about the 1950s, albeit for different reasons.
In all cases, the Baby Boomers are recalling personal memories that are central to their identities. “The trouble,” Levin writes, “is that it is not only the boomers themselves who think this way about America, but all of us, especially in politics,” which explains “why younger Americans so often find themselves reenacting memories they do not actually possess, and why our nation increasingly behaves like a retiree.”
“The spirit of nonconformity that had emerged at the end of World War II, which had morphed in the 1960s into an idealistic quest for self-actualization, had degenerated by the 1970s into a jaded and strident individualism. Rejection of authority had quickly become the reigning spirit of American culture.”
This process had its good side. The deconsolidation of America’s economy led to more competitive and innovative companies during the 1970s (think FedEx, the effort to break up AT&T, and the emergence of the IT industry). But the social capital that historically had made American communities work was taking the hits that would later be documented in Robert Putnam’s bookBowling Alone. …
For Levin, the Reagan years saw a modulation in the frenzy, but not reversals. Those same years should have revealed a truth had we not been blinded by nostalgia: America did not have the option of returning to its mid-century balance of social stability and cultural vitality.
The ideal of social democracy remains at the center of progressive American politics, as exemplified by Bernie Sanders’s plea that the United States become more like Europe. The reality is that the social-democratic model is now obsolete, for three reasons.
First, the social-democratic model “takes a degree of social cohesion for granted that is no longer realistic.” The traditional form of the safety net initially works in a society of stable families and tight-knit communities. But it undermines those very institutions, and now is increasing the estrangement of the most vulnerable Americans from mainstream life.
Second, “our welfare state also looks and functions like the institutions of a bygone age.” Private companies have had no choice but to become “nimbler and more responsive, customizable, and adaptable.” Public bureaucracies have not been required to be any of those things.
Third, “the social-democratic vision points back to a fundamentally anachronistic epistemology.” The Progressive movement was founded on the belief that experts could solve social problems and that they must be given freedom to work their magic independent of political interference. It was never a sound theory of knowledge — the range of public-policy issues that lend themselves to technocratic solutions was always narrow — but the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that still prevails in government is absurdly out of sync with the private sector’s use of dispersed knowledge and diverse consumer choices.
All of these are familiar talking points among conservative critics of social democracy. Levin’s argument is more ambitious: As of 2016, he says, the Left itself should jettison its attachment to social democracy, because it is now the horse and buggy of governing models. The Left can doubtless find some other model that will enrage the Right, but holding up Sweden and Denmark as exemplars is myopic. The Swedes and Danes themselves have long since abandoned Bernie Sanders’s version of the social-democratic model. So should American progressives.