The American right is in crisis. This year’s presidential race, however it turns out, has revealed deep fissures in the Republican coalition. A third to a half of Republican voters in state after state have given their backing to Donald Trump, a divisive demagogue whose case for himself has essentially nothing to do with conservatism. The rest of the party has been left baffled—wondering what has happened to the Republicans and where American politics might be headed.
To answer those questions, we need to see that they are not one and the same. The Trump phenomenon can help us to grasp what has happened but not what is coming next. Mr. Trump marks not the beginning of a new phase in American politics but the end of an old one—the exhaustion of a mid-20th-century model of national politics that can no longer meet the needs of 21st-century America. Mr. Trump disgorges an angry aggregation of failures and complaints, but he offers no solutions and no way forward.
Understanding the roots and appeal of his message can help us to understand how our politics has changed in recent decades. More important, it can help us to see what the constructive next phase of the American right could look like—a decentralizing conservatism of bottom-up solutions for our increasingly fragmented society.
Mr. Trump’s core message is often labeled as populist, but it would be better described as mournful or nostalgic. A populist argues that the people are being oppressed by the powerful. But Mr. Trump claims not that our elites or the “establishment” are too strong but that they are too weak—indeed, that the people who hold power and privilege in our leading institutions are pathetic losers and that, therefore, nothing in America works the way it used to and our country “doesn’t win anymore.”
This contention taps into a powerful, widely shared sense that the U.S. has lost ground—that we have fallen far and fast from a peak that many can still remember. 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.
Much of Mr. Trump’s appeal has to do with his even vaguer nostalgic message. He mentions no specific peak to recover and offers little in the way of a policy agenda; he just harks back to a lost American greatness and says that he alone can recapture it by reversing globalization, immigration and other modern trends. And in the process, by impugning Mexicans, Muslims and women, he embraces the ethnic or cultural animosities of some of those who most resent the ways America has changed. He has taken the logic of our nostalgic politics to its absurd conclusion.
In its less cartoonish forms, today’s nostalgia is understandable. 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.
All this has meant many gains for America: in national prosperity, personal liberty, cultural diversity, racial inclusion, technological innovation and more meaningful options and choices in every realm of life. But it has also meant a loss of faith in institutions, a loss of social order and structure, a loss of cultural cohesion, a loss of security and stability for many workers, and a loss of political and moral consensus. Those losses have piled up in ways that to some Americans now often seem to overwhelm the gains and have made 21st-century American politics distinctly backward-looking and morose.
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.
But a politics of angry lamentation, whatever visceral appeal it may have, cannot look forward. America cannot afford a competition of barren nostalgias. We need a politics that builds on our strengths to address our weaknesses.
The greatest challenges that America now confronts are the logical conclusions of the path of individualism and fracture, dissolution and liberation that we have traveled since the middle of the last century. And the greatest resources at our disposal for tackling those challenges are the products of our having traveled this path too. We face the problems of a fractured republic, and the solutions we pursue will need to call upon the strengths of a decentralized, diffuse, diverse, dynamic nation.
For all the GOP’s troubles, it will actually be easier for conservatives than for liberals to see their way toward such a forward-looking politics. For one thing, conservatives can much more clearly see the bankruptcy of a nostalgic politics. Many liberals still cling complacently to the anachronism of social democracy as their vision of the future.
Conservatives, especially after this year of pandemonium, can hardly be so smug about their own inherited agenda. But if conservatives can look past their own nostalgia, they will be well positioned to grasp the appeal of a politics of decentralization and diffusion, and thus to offer solutions suited to the society America has become.
Some traditional conservative priorities—especially an emphasis on economic growth—remain vital to any such forward-looking politics. But that can only be a start. Beyond growth, a modernized conservative policy agenda would seek to use the very diversity and fragmentation of 21st-century America to meet its challenges. By empowering problem-solvers throughout American society, rather than hoping that Washington will get things right, conservatives can bring to public policy the kind of dispersed, incremental, bottom-up approach to progress that increasingly pervades every other part of American life while reviving community and civil society to combat dislocation and isolation.
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.
A welfare system that could better address the problems of those left behind by the global economy or mired in intergenerational poverty wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic regime. Rather, it would empower local problem-solvers to mix resources, advice, experience and moral leadership in a continuing process of bottom-up experimentation. State and city welfare agencies will bring different tools to bear than religious charities, local employers or community groups—and all should be allowed to try. That is what you do when you don’t have all the answers.
A higher-education system geared to a 21st-century America wouldn’t reinforce a cycle of rising tuition and declining value with inflationary federal loans. Instead, it would open up accreditation to allow for more options, let students and parents have more information about outcomes and offer aid to the needy that rewarded high value, not high prices. Some schools (like Purdue University) are experimenting with new models of aid, and some states (like Texas) are leading the way toward lower-cost degrees. Conservatives should make it easier for others to follow.
The work of government more broadly—especially at the state and local levels, where most government happens—should abandon the model of the centralized, technocratic industrial economy in favor of today’s decentralized, consumer-driven, postindustrial economy, using public resources to encourage constructive experimentation with public services rather than to impose tired dogmas from above. Some forward-thinking state and local leaders, like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer,offer useful models of how competition between private and public service providers can improve both.
Such a modernized conservatism would also have much to offer to our troubled cultural debates. 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.
In the crisis of this election year, the right has been brought face-to-face with the bankruptcy of its version of nostalgic politics. The conservatism that follows Mr. Trump will need to confront the genuine public concerns into which he has tapped, about trade, downward social mobility and diminished opportunity. But conservatives will need to offer an approach far more constructive than Mr. Trump’s vulgar and abusive demagoguery.
Conservatives may not feel it just now, but they are actually equipped to take on that challenge, once they see it clearly. The right’s decentralizing mind-set, disposition toward community and innate skepticism of technocratic government will serve them well—and leave them far better equipped to address America’s modern problems than liberals who have yet to confront the exhaustion of their own political vision.
For the right, Mr. Trump marks the disastrous end of an era. But beyond the crisis that he embodies beckons the prospect of a revitalized conservatism and a revitalized America.
Mr. Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is adapted from “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism,” to be published in May by Basic Books.