May 19th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The real cost of institutionalised child care

EDITORIAL AGL dismisses $250m bid for Liddell Power Station

GENDER POLITICS As Queensland transgenders birth certificates, 300 women quit UK Labour Party

CANBERRA OBSERVED No pressure on Malcolm to call election this year

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Can Greens regenerate, or are they mulch?

POLITICS Conservative shift in the Victorian Liberal Party

OPINION No fairytale ending from the Land of a Fair Go

LAW REFORM The Nordic Model: proven to curtail sex trafficking

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Committal hearing dismisses main serious charges against Cardinal Pell

GENDER AND ETHICS Transgenderism and the dissolution of identity

PHILOSOPHY The supercharged cheetah

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One Belt, One Road: China's new empire


MUSIC Business as usual: The sweet tinkle of falling coins

CINEMA Avengers: Last Flag Flying and Infinity War

BOOK REVIEW A hungry beast that ate up 4 million lives

BOOK REVIEW Skewed analysis of republic in crisis



CANBERRA OBSERVED Bill Shorten's Budget-Reply speech: for what ails you

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

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Skewed analysis of republic in crisis

News Weekly, May 19, 2018

THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism

by Yuval Levin

Basic Books, New York
Hardcover: 249 pages
Price: AUD$39.99

Reviewed by Colin Teese

The Fractured Republic is a difficult work to review. The author’s concept of “fracture” is different from any conventional understanding of that term as it refers to current problems confronting the United States.

Is the U.S. is coming apart at the seams? Is it no longer governable? Are its institutions malfunctioning or, worse, so corrupted by special influences as to be no longer capable of serving the wider purposes for which they were created? Many believe that this is so.

Bodies created for the purpose of protecting consumers, for example, are actually working to ensure that consumer interests are deliberately not protected. Many more examples could be cited. But these are not Levin’s concerns.

His “fracturing” regards what he believes to be any kind of consensus about how to proceed towards the complete recognition of “modern individualism”. One might legitimately ask, whether it is possible ever to reconcile a social contract with the kind of individualism in the Republican Party, even its moderate wing. Levin labours diligently, but barely comes close to resolving that dilemma.

He makes no secret of the fact that he is a conservative Republican. But he is not, at least in his own view, an ideologue. In terms of understanding his book, nothing is lost by taking him at his word. His basic proposition is that America is fractured because it is no longer able to decide whether it should proceed on the basis of nostalgia (a word constantly coming up in the book) for what he thinks progressives regard as the glory days of the mid-20th century. Levin is in no doubt that they were not in any sense glorious; left unstated is the implication that, even if they were, there is every reason for Americans to turn their backs on them.

Primarily, because the dominating influence of government interference in those times crushed individual freedom. The mid-20th century was what he called a period of consolidation: necessary, but now past. There can be no going back.

The U.S. today confronts the challenge of somehow uniting in diversity, because one of the foundations of individualism is diversity. Levin offers no convincing account of how to achieve this, given the difficulty of reconciling individualism and unity without massive concessions on both sides. His prescriptions don’t seem to allow for this necessity.

Along the way he makes some interesting comments on the differences between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives, he believes, are skeptical about the degree to which humans can be expected to behave well; progressives believe more in the inherent goodness of humans.

Levin argues the case for small government, in the context of promoting greater individual freedom. He is, however, on less firm ground when he links it with decentralisation of power. There is indeed evidence of a movement away from centralised power taking hold in Europe; probably the same is true for the U.S. But the trend is, from this reviewer’s perspective, less associated with a thirst for individual freedom, than with a belief that central governments are more likely to serve the needs of the powerful at the expense of ordinary people.

The glaring fault in the Levin analysis is that it totally ignores the role personal wealth plays in the capacity of individuals to enjoy freedom of choice. Americans believe in certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it is impossible to fully enjoy these rights without reliable access to a measure of material wealth. Those denied that access, for whatever reasons, are precluded from fully participating in the other freedoms. It is hardly surprising that, in present circumstances, the U.S. is finding it difficult to deliver. Levin makes no concession to this reality.

The second missing element in his analysis is an important corollary. Levin makes no reference to the corruption of U.S. politics and the courts in the service of special interests. In particular, the gerrymandering of electorates, actions aimed at preventing certain groups from voting, and the stacking of U.S. courts with economically conservative judges.

Setting aside these countervailing considerations, it is possible to be persuaded by Levin’s perfectly reasonable case for the conservative Republican position.

Similarly, a progressive might make a persuasive case in support of the progressive position by failing to mention any of the issues that deny the validity of that case. Isn’t that, after all, a useful definition of politics in action?

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