Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic brings a new and illuminating framework to understanding our state of political affairs.
Both parties are engaged in political nostalgia. The Democrats see the good old days as 1965 and the Great Society and the Republicans see the good old days as 1980 and the Reagan years. But both periods were products of their time and not replicable in our current period.
Liberals look at the post WWII period with its high taxes, strong unions, and lower inequality with fondness. We were still able to have a growing economy, but this is correlation and not causation. We were able to thrive with these progressive goals because the war had devastated all of our global competition while the rebuilding world demanded our products. This condition no longer exists. In the 1970’s when the foreign manufacturers had caught up we faced a serious reckoning.
We had sacrificed a dynamic economy for heavy central control and equality. The rise of the Reagan Republicans reversed that. Through deregulation and lower taxes they sought greater economic dynamism even if greater inequality came with it. I have questioned many of the claims that the growing inequality was as dramatic as some stats claim. It is more difficult to measure than most realize.
The unified will of the progressives in the first half of the 20th century gave way to a surge in individualism in the post war baby boomer generation that lead to the Reagan revolution. There is a paradox Levin notes that greater centralization begat greater individualism. The local institutions suffered, but new micro networks emerged that mitigated the isolation that some believed would ensue. The rise of the internet and social networks has generated new frontiers of common interests and borderless communities.
While the voters trusted the government to solve the problems of the Great Depression which they attributed to the private sector (wrongly in some opinions), the inflation of the 1970’s destroyed faith in government institutions which also fed the rise of Reagan. The rise of individualism and the loss of faith in the government institutions drove the last quarter of the 20th century. The Democrats came around to the changes with the New Democrats of Bill Clinton.
The age of Obama has sought to restore the central powers of the older progressives but still face the individualism that remains. The intensity of our political discourse is the result and appears to be evolving into a new political era.