Kickstarting Institutionalism in Order to Rebuild Society

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, Yuval Levin, Basic Books, 205 pages

“Greece is a stage, and every Greek is an actor,” wrote the Roman poet Juvenal, and so it is in the America, as depicted in Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build. As a leading conservative intellectual, Levin has a front-row seat to the deformed dramas playing out in our nation’s capital and beyond. And what he sees worries him, because not only do the leads not seem to know their parts—neither do we. Congressmen fail to act like they are in Congress, educators fail to educate, pastors betray the pastorate—and we feel like we are alone, fast losing faith in America’s institutions.

That word, institutions, does the heavy lifting in Levin’s book, helping us peer behind the curtains, so to speak, to better understand how the scripted reality drama that is this American life went so off the rails. Institutions are what Levin describes as the “durable forms of our common life,” which we see running in concentric circles outward from family, community, religion, education, work, and on to politics. These forms of association don’t only connect us; they shape us.

Which is why it should concern us that Americans have so quickly lost trust in these institutions. We are more likely to be wealthier, safer, and healthier than at any time in American history, yet somehow the stories that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells of our life together feel riddled with plot holes. (All the more so for life in a time of pandemic, but more on that later.) What of our “loneliness and isolation, mistrust and suspicion, alienation and polarization,” as Levin describes? What of the trust broken in a congregation by priests sexually abusing boys? We tend to blame these distempers and evils on the elites, who have most certainly failed us, yet somehow drowning them in our resentments never seems to cure our social ills. 

But we are nothing if not entertained. Would you like to have the number one podcast in the country? Get elected to Congress. There you may join that great chorus of pundits performing their outrage before breathless cable news audiences, acting as if they were outsiders to the very institution they were elected to serve. “They remain intensely ambitious, as politicians always are,” observes Levin, “but their ambition is for a prominent role in the cultural theater of our national politics, and they view the institution of Congress as a particularly prominent stage in that theater.” And you won’t want to miss Season Four of the Trump White House. 

Institutions are meant to be formative rather than performative, Levin explains. Political parties, for instance, have traditionally used their strength to privately mold their members into something resembling Republicans and Democrats. But there are cameras now, and they throw a harsh light on Congress’s “inner life” while luring the individual member into the cult of celebrity. No wonder there is so much partisan rancor. Much like social media and its own outrages, we hardly know what is public or private anymore.

Elsewhere, educational institutions are meant to offer some mix of skills, morals, and wisdom. Instead, they’ve become training grounds for a culture war weaponized by moral activism. In 1976, journalists were trusted by 72 percent of Americans. Now, shrunken to a coastal band of elites, they find themselves overwhelmingly distrusted and competing with de-institutionalized amateurs. Even the most basic of institutions, the family, has suffered from the decline of marriage rates and childbearing. For many, marriage unions today are simply another form of self-expression.

The chapters in A Time to Build read like nearly self-contained essays, unsurprisingly so as they draw on Levin’s 2018 lectures at Princeton. He weaves a thread of institutional breakdown and culture war through every tear in our social fabric so that we may see it fraying more clearly. It is almost too much to take in. A simpler book would have argued that everything is downstream of the culture war. But once you see America through the lens of institutions, you can’t unsee it.

As Robert Nisbet observed in 1975, we seem to be living in the twilight of Western history: “Processes of decline and erosion of institutions are more evident than those of genesis and development. Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people.” Vacuums are by their nature an absence of something, further straining our efforts to see what might be wrong in what Levin terms the “invisible realm” of institutions.

But crises have a way of undressing emperors. The rapid spread of a novel coronavirus from Wuhan to the world—and the blundering response by policymakers at its outset—seemed to reveal our institutions as uniquely incapable today. The health of our institutions is a matter of life and death now. And in a moment when “social distancing” is the watchword, we feel the loneliness and isolation endemic to our age of individualism. Technology may broker lost connections, but it also buffers us, providing light contact without the weight of intimacy.

As the Israeli politician Abba Eban concluded, “[m]en and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.” America’s great reserves are even now spinning up medical remedies and economic stimulus in the face of global pandemic. Levin’s central thesis—that “this is not a time for tearing down” but a “time to build”—is more relevant than ever. And as we witness the biggest disruption to America’s associational life in generations with the emptying of restaurants, bars, gyms, and every place of gathering, the call for social replenishment in its wake will rightly demand a lot from us and our elites.

This is where Levin gets personal, almost as a counselor. Institutions, after all, rest on individuals practicing virtue. It is not enough to call someone else toward duty and devotion or to handwave generally in the direction of reforming some philosophical notion of institutions. Rather, we should aim to kickstart virtuous cycles of personal responsibility that call us to ask ourselves, “What choices and behaviors are appropriate given my position?” For elites, this question will demand more and expect less of them.

Journalists, for instance, are likely called to shy away from celebrity and focus simply on being go-to sources for information. Members of Congress should take a cue from their younger colleagues not running for president—like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah or Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin—and prioritize becoming real institutionalists rather than cynical insiders masquerading as performative outsiders. Academia should, well, focus more on academics.

A Time to Build is literally a modest proposal. There’s no revolution here, just a call for rebuilding institutions with a “greater awareness of how integrity, trust, confidence, belonging, and meaning are established in our lives.” But such virtues are considered stuffy or even outright bad today, especially for elites. Institutionalism itself seems to run against the grain of America’s ethos of individual liberty, which is still present in how today’s political parties view institutions and is reinforced by our modern affluence. That makes Levin’s call to rebuild much harder than it seems, but no less necessary.

Yuval Levin narrates a new story: one of personal virtue and flourishing institutions working together in a “virtuous cycle” to form us for freedom. In this account, we also know the demands of our respective callings—and institutions beget virtue, themselves becoming worthy of trust. They stand in contrast to the “vicious cycles” we find ourselves stuck in today, full of institutional degradation and entertaining vice.

We know the status quo will not hold. Levin is a clear voice from another age, calling us forward to build our institutions anew.  

Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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