The twenty-first century has been a time of transition in American life. In our economy, our culture, our politics, and throughout our society, longstanding norms seem to be breaking down. Times of uneasy transition are often characterized by a politics of nostalgia for the peak of the passing order, and ours most definitely is.
Some on the left and right alike understandably miss the growth and opportunity of American life in the decades after the Second World War—a dynamism seemingly lost in the 1970s but regained in the ’80s and ’90s, if in a more frantic and less broad and stable way. Every monthly unemployment report and quarterly growth projection is now trailed by anguished concern about when we will finally snap back to those patterns.
Some miss the relative social consensus and broadly shared values of those postwar years. The most important conservative book of the Obama era—Charles Murray’s Coming Apart—pines for that consensus and its breadth. For all its many virtues, Murray’s book takes America in 1963 as its standard and painstakingly quantifies our falling away from it along some key social indicators.
Some miss the way we used to think about the future in that half-century after the war. On the right, this often takes the form of Reagan nostalgia. Ronald Reagan believed the promise of postwar America could be realized without the expansion of the welfare state it had engendered, and his economic reforms brought back the roaring growth that had characterized that period and so helped extend the golden age awhile. On the left, this nostalgia takes the form of yearning for renewed faith in precisely the welfare-state liberalism Reagan opposed. The most important progressive book of the Obama era—Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America—argues for a recovery of the belief in that promise, even in the face of the undeniable costs it would entail and political difficulties it would confront. It seeks to salvage an old vision of the future.
Some, meanwhile, miss the seemingly harmonious politics of that era, in contrast to today’s polarization and supposed paralysis. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama looked longingly to a “time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.” Many older Washingtonians think this way of what has happened to our politics.
Much of this is false nostalgia, of course. This vision of the postwar era is not quite wrong, but it is grossly incomplete. The trends and attitudes it hearkens to really existed, but the story it tells leaves little room for the epic battles over communism, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, détente, Reaganomics, and countless other fronts; little room for the burning cities, the political assassinations, the campus radicalism, or the social breakdown of that time; and little room for the costly errors and colossal failures of the politics of quiet conversations.
But true or false, the sum of these related nostalgias of the left and right is almost the full sum of our politics today, and that is a serious problem. It causes us to think of the future in terms of what we stand to lose rather than where we are headed, and has left Americans unusually pessimistic and uneasy.
America’s postwar strength was a function of unrepeatable circumstances. Our global competitors had burned each other’s economies to the ground while ours had only grown stronger in the war years. And a generation of Americans was shaped by the Great Depression and the war to be unusually unified and unusually trusting in large institutions. That combination was hardly the American norm; it was an extremely unusual mix that we cannot recreate and should not want to. Yet that WWII generation and its children, the baby boomers, came to expect American life to work that way.
The biggest problem with our politics of nostalgia is its disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future. While we mourn the passing postwar order, we are missing some key things about the order now rising to replace it.
Perhaps the foremost trend our nostalgia keeps us from seeing is the vast decentralization of American life, which has characterized the early years of this century and looks only to grow. The postwar order was dominated by large institutions: big government, big business, big labor, big media, big universities, mass culture. But in every area of our national life—or at least every area except government—we are witnessing the replacement of large, centralized institutions by smaller, decentralized networks.
Younger Americans are growing up amid a profusion of options in every realm of life, with far more choice but far less predictability and security. Dynamism is increasingly driven not by economies of scale but by competitively-driven marginal improvements. Our culture is becoming a sea of subcultures. Sources of information, entertainment, and education are proliferating.
The near-total (and bipartisan) failure of our politics to confront these changes explains a lot of the dysfunction of our government today, and much of our frustration with it. Successful lives in the postwar era involved effectively navigating our large institutions and making the most of the benefits they offered. Success in the coming era will increasingly involve effectively navigating a profusion of smaller networks, and a government that wants to help people flourish will need to retool—focusing more on enabling bottom-up, incremental improvements and less on managing top-down, centralized systems. Both empowering individuals and offering them security will look rather different in this era.
This could be a boon for conservatives in some respects, as some of them already incline to a decentralized approach to policy, and a challenge for liberals who will need to think anew about how government might help the country thrive in this era. But neither liberals nor conservatives seem ready to face these changes. So the left always behaves as though it’s 1965 and the right as though it’s 1980.
On the cultural front, the tendency of decentralization to undermine all authoritative institutions will present more of a challenge for the right. Social conservatives are so far experiencing this transition as a loss of their dominant position in the culture. But they should see that this generally means not that their opponents are coming to dominate but that no one is. They should judge their prospects less in terms of their hold on our big institutions and more in terms of their success in forming a thriving and appealing subculture, or network of subcultures. Christianity has a great deal of experience in that difficult art, of course, but it is largely out of practice in our society.
Much the same is true for America more generally. Many economic, cultural, and political debates of the coming years will revolve around the promise and the dangers of decentralization. Americans have a lot of experience dealing with that promise and those dangers, but it is not the experience of the exceptional decades of the postwar era.
To regain our footing in the twenty-first century, we need to get over our blinding nostalgia for that unusual time.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.