According to Levin, the great conceptual barrier to reforming and modernizing American politics is baby boomer nostalgia for the 20th-century Golden Age of their memories. He writes:
Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.
What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunctionâ€”in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classesâ€”that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.
As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant costâ€”including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choiceâ€”that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced â€œthe belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.â€
Americaâ€™s political, social, and economic life of the last half-century has been a working-out of that beliefâ€”thus, the Fractured Republic. The inability of the U.S. political class, now dominated by boomers, to deal with the consequences prevents them from coming to terms with realities of the 21st-century world. We are stuck in what Levin describes as a â€œpolitics of dueling nostalgias.â€
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