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The Fractured Republic
'It's morning in America.' Every political hobbyist knows Ronald Reagan's famous television advertisement from his 1984 re-election campaign. Powerful, evocative, brilliant, it features soft-focused sunlit images of a country setting off for work, celebrating a wedding and staring misty eyed as the Stars and Stripes climbs the flagpole.
So it's interesting that when we recall it, we make a subtle error. Reagan's slogan was not 'It's morning in America'. It was: 'It's morning again in America.' And the missing word is important.
One good thing that might emerge from Trump's rout of traditional American conservatives is that it could prompt new thought on the centre-right, from which this country can benefit, too. And the first sign of that is Yuval Levin's book The Fractured Republic.
The core of Levin's argument is this: the great failing of American politics, on the right and the left, is its nostalgia. Politicians promise that they can find the way back. Back to mid-century America where there were plentiful jobs providing incomes with which to support families that stayed together; a time when the country was strong and unified, and when there was freedom and a culture of respect.
There are two things wrong with this promise. The first is that there was plenty that was wrong with mid-century America. For African-Americans, for example, or gay people, or women. America has changed partly because it moved away from a conformity and illiberalism that many found stultifying, to an era of selfexpression and individual fulfilment.
Levin argues that this rose-tinted view of a bygone era exists because the baby boomer view of history has been triumphant. Born in 1950, the boomer sees that decade as one of innocence and comfort. The teenage 1960s are viewed as one of rebellion and cultural awareness, the 1970s as the years when idealism gave way to grim reality. In the 1980s the boomers settled down to family life and began to understand their parents' point of view. And in the 1990s they became comfortable and confident.
So what now? By the middle of this decade, hitting retirement age, there is a degree of disappointment about the past and some apprehension of the future. The culture seems a bit bewildering, different, disorientating. Will their children and grandchildren enjoy the security they did?
To such people the nostalgia is politically powerful because they share it. And such has been the cultural success of the baby boomers, such is the power of the image, that the nostalgia is shared also by people who are pining for something they never experienced in the first place.
Yet the second thing wrong with the promise of a return to midcentury America is that it is impossible. America emerged from the war greatly strengthened economically in relation to its competitors and at the end of a long period of centralisation and consolidation.
Slowly, the country began to change, becoming more socially diverse, less culturally conformist and more economically efficient as it faced challenges from recovering economies abroad. This change took place in a country that was fundamentally strong, ordered and prosperous. America was able to liberalise, compete and allow the expression of individual differences without feeling disorderly or fractured.
The mid-century mix felt right but the mix wasn't permanent. It couldn't be. The country was in transition. Now it is more diverse and liberal but less cohesive and less like a community. It also feels a better place in which to be a consumer but a worse one in which to be a worker.
And America can't go back. None of us can. This is the central message of Levin's book, not just for Americans but for Britons too.
To promise, as Donald Trump does, to 'make America great again', is to suggest the country can move forward by going backwards. The American left is even more powerfully nostalgic. Fascinatingly, Hillary Clinton chose to attack Trump's slogan with an advert pointing out that 'Trump made his shirts in Bangladesh, his ties in China and his suits in Mexico. In fact, the real Donald Trump outsourced his products and jobs to 12 different countries.'
To suggest to voters that it is viable for America to go back to a time when production was not outsourced to countries with cheaper labour is utterly bogus. No wonder people lose faith with politicians arguing over which promise they will be allowed not to deliver. Ronald Reagan won re-election thanks to a misty-eyed view of America's past
The British debate is nostalgic, too. In response to Jeremy Corbyn's retro chic, Owen Smith's videos feature Aneurin Bevan, Clement Attlee and Barbara Castle.
The successful campaign slogan in the European referendum promised to 'take back control', suggesting the recovery of a far greater degree of control than an integrated international economy will allow, in or out of the EU. And Theresa May will have to work hard to ensure her message is forward and not backward looking.
She has set herself the noble task of ensuring that hard-working people are supported in the struggle to get by. Yet the forces that exert pressure on real incomes and social stability aren't going to stop exerting that pressure. Globalisation means specialisation. It means economies such as ours, to be successful at all, will reward highvalue, high-skilled labour, and people without those skills and value will struggle. Automation accelerates these trends. So does (to indigenous lowpaid workers) immigration. So does our growing power as consumers. None of this is going to stop.
Levin correctly argues that the first step to sanity is understanding this. Specialisation will bring with it income inequality and hollow out the middle. The problem can only be ameliorated by reducing incomes at the top. The real task is to improve the quality and spread of education and to ensure social mobility.
While, to my taste at least, rather undercooking what central government can do (in providing healthcare, for instance), Levin makes a strong pitch to decentralise government and support the sort of community organisations that can strengthen local ties, bring social stability and respond to welfare needs in a flexible way that reflects how diverse societies have become.
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