Political nostalgia

One of the fascinating things about American political culture is the sense that both parties believe that America’s postwar growth and international strength is the natural order of things. Yuval Levin expressed this well in an essay at First Things:

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.

I think that the first two paragraphs are right on target. The next paragraph describes what the nostalgia prevents us from seeing:

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.

The way that Levin develops this point is worth thinking about, as is Alan Jacobs’ brief note of criticism that “Levin is confusing the appearance (decentralization) with the reality (increasing consolidation of data in the hands of a few powerhouse organizations)” like “TimeWarner, Comcast, Microsoft, Google, Apple.”

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