Whatever one believes about the particular configuration of our political moment, it seems that we may be living through a historical inflection point—one that may have been in the works for a very long time, perhaps since the 1960s, but whose full consequences now seem impossible to defer much longer. In the past, such inflection points have been brought about by wars or economic crises. In this case, however, while the Great Recession of 2007–2008 surely played a catalyzing role, as have the numerous frustrations of post-9/11 American foreign policy, the motive forces at work have to do with weakness at the center of our culture. That weakness is expressed not only as political polarization, but as an accompanying loss of cultural cohesion, a steady decline in the vitality of civil society, a crumbling at the very core.
Such problems will not yield to quick fixes or magic bullets; they are the culmination of many years of erosion eating away at the foundations of Western liberal societies. As Yuval Levin observes in his crisply written and characteristically thoughtful book, A Time to Build, they reflect the triumph in the United States of a certain style of radical, antinomian individualism over all other ways of thinking about the human person, and a consequent disparagement of the many ways that we depend on social and communal bonds if we are to flourish as mature human beings.
Among the chief casualties of this way of thinking about ourselves have been our institutions, the whole range of those enduring social entities that are larger than ourselves. They range from the Boy Scouts to the local public schools to the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs to business corporations to the Harvards and Berkeleys to agencies of the United States government. Each has helped in some way to form our souls and provide an outlet for our productive energies. The gradual loss of these institutions as formative agents in our lives has led to much of the loneliness and alienation that seem suddenly so pervasive across the national landscape. It is Levin’s goal in this book to vindicate those institutions, recover their full meaning, and begin the process of restoring us to a healthier relation with them.
His book, then, is exploring a theme that is being sounded in a number of other recent volumes, such as Tim Carney’s Alienated America, Ben Sasse’s Them, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, among others. But its more sociological emphasis on the role of institutions, rather than relying on the vaguer if more emotionally compelling idea of community, sets it apart. This is an important distinction to keep in mind. When they are genuinely purpose-driven, as they are meant to be, institutions become active agents in the work of social integration, drawing otherwise disparate and alienated individuals into a web of meaningful shared experience.
It is worth recalling in this connection Putnam’s important work on cultural diversity, in which he reluctantly concluded that such diversity tends to correlate with social distrust and lack of social cohesion in the life of a community. Restoring the health of our institutions may be the best way to counter such potentially disintegrative influences and even turn them into sources of strength. One could look to the soul-shaping effects of our very diverse armed forces as a very successful example of just such institutional good effects.
As Levin asserts, that struggle will mean fighting a strong current of anti-institutionalism in American life that goes all the way back to the country’s earliest dissenting-Protestant roots. As a quibble, I would incline to a more communitarian reading of the Reformed Protestantism of the 17th and 18th century than Levin’s, but he certainly has an excellent case for his assertion by the time the mid-19th century rolls around. Consider these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, doyen of the antebellum New England intellectual elite, which express something close to the opposite of Levin’s thesis:
An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as Monarchism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called “the height of Rome”; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.
Such words not only bespoke a rather extreme version of the “great man” theory of history. They indirectly make light of the way institutions take on a life of their own larger than that of any leader. In fact, Emerson went a good deal beyond “making light” in the same essay, declaring that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” There you have a persisting American view: Individuals are a robust good, but institutions a conspiratorial bad at worst, the lengthened shadow of one man at best.
It is Levin’s formidable task to reverse this characteristically romantic American way of thinking. And not only that, but to do it at a time when so many of our institutions are in undeniably weak and compromised shape and poorly led by individuals who seem oblivious to those institutions’ foundational and avowed purposes. Levin not only needs to prove that we humans badly need institutions, the kind of institutions we have had in the past to serve as frameworks for our lives. He needs to demonstrate that we have no choice but to reform our existing institutions rather than seek to demolish them, as he fears the populist mood of the country might be hell-bent on doing. He does very well at the first task and makes a valiant if not entirely persuasive case for the second.
Levin makes a very strong case that, as inherently flawed creatures who come into this world in a condition of extreme dependency, we human beings never cease to stand desperately in need of the multiple corrective measures that institutions—our families, our neighborhood associations, our churches and synagogues, and a multitude of enduring organizations of civil society and government, all the way up to the nation itself—administer to us. We need the influence of those institutions to help us grow into the fullness of our human potential, and we continue to need them to provide us with the constraints and taboos and guide rails that facilitate self-control and habituate us to a life of virtue.
We cannot accomplish any of this by ourselves. Institutions draw us out of our inherent narcissism and self-absorption into networks of mutuality and allegiance that humanize and deepen us. The deadness and vacancy you see in the eyes of those who spend too much of their lives in the caves of online culture are testimony to that need. An institution provides us with a concrete part to play within it, a part that is also an opportunity for us to serve others and be deserving of their mutual recognition and respect. “We fill roles,” Levin asserts, “we occupy places, we play parts defined by larger wholes, and that helps us understand our obligations and responsibilities, our privileges and benefits, our purposes and connections.”
The word formative is of central importance in Levin’s account. Every institution is formative in some way and shapes the souls of those who are a part of it, willy-nilly, whether it knows it or not. We do not think about this as much as we should, Levin argues, and much of the failure of our institutions arises out of that prior failure—the failure of institutions to remember what they are there for and be the particularly shaped entities they were made to be.
The examples of this failure provided here are manifold, ranging from the Catholic Church to the U.S. Congress, but a particularly revelatory example is our universities, a subject that he takes up in one of the strongest chapters in A Time to Build. By failing to be clear about the values on which they are founded, by failing to be the truth-seeking centers of intellectual freedom that they were created to be, our universities today fail to acknowledge their role in the formation of souls. Instead, they have become, at least at the most selective universities, little more than gatekeepers for the next generation of the ruling class.
The lost soul of our institutions seems to be traceable to a lost sense of the ends they were designed to serve, replaced in so many cases by a mere desire for institutional self-perpetuation, with leadership that, with a few honorable exceptions, is an embarrassment and a disgrace. The steady pattern of capitulation to campus agitators, even violent ones, and the recent scandals relating to college admissions, whether by bribery at USC or by blatant racial discrimination at Harvard, have only served to underscore the corruption of foundational ideals.
The recovery and sustenance of those proper ends are inseparable from the restoration of those forms that come to embody them. Here Levin most clearly breaks from the romantic cult of authenticity, arguing that in fact a greater degree of formality and formalism in our manners are more conducive to freedom—if a life of freedom is properly understood, not as a state of being born completely unencumbered, but as a life lived responsibly and judiciously within the framework of enduring institutions.
He cleverly contrasts the formative with the “performative”—the notion that, say, instead of going to college to be formed by the values of that institution, one instead goes to exploit the opportunities that a college affords to shine and show off the originality and brilliance of one’s already formed self. The movement from the formative to the performative is a move from “molds to platforms,” from institutions as shapers of souls to institutions as performance halls and gratifiers of egos. We regard the institutions through which we move not as loci for our affections and our loyalties but as places to pause along the road to something else, whose immediate utility to us is always the chief consideration in our dealings with it.
Like Timothy Carney, Levin is attuned to the problem of our meritocratic elites, whose ascendancy through the institutions of higher education marks one of the chief ways that the profound polarization of American culture has occurred. He understands and explains well the ways in which our meritocracy is proving to be self-perpetuating and is in danger of descending into a very expensive method of social sorting, in which educational values have taken a distant second place at best. It is increasingly easy to see why those Americans who are excluded from the magic circle of institutional sanctification resent those on the inside.
On the failures of Congress, of journalism, of experts, on the anti-institutional propensities of social media, and on our failure to commit ourselves to our own institutions—on all of these subjects and more, Levin is convincing and clear. But the question remains: What do we do when our institutions become too corrupted to deserve our commitment, let alone our affection? What do we do (for example) about public schools that chronically, and often drastically, underperform and that have proven immune to reform?
What do we do about powerful and prestigious journalistic outlets whose ideological biases are as blatant and extreme as those evinced by the New York Times in its fraudulent 1619 Project? What do we do when we can no longer trust our own Federal Bureau of Investigation to confine itself to the lawful execution of its duties? What do we do about public officials who consistently enrich themselves and their children by peddling influence and using their “insider” status to violate the public trust at every turn? What do faithful Catholics do when their Church’s hierarchy shows itself to be indifferent at best, and opposed at worst, again and again, to the reforms that the Church so desperately needs?
Levin acknowledges these things, often vividly, but it seems to me that in the end he fails to give them sufficient weight. His book concludes with a chapter that I find both genuinely moving and unconvincing, since it is really an exhortation to each and every one of us, as individuals, to recommit ourselves to our institutions, since that is the only way the institutions can improve. And there is much truth to that. But it is also true that, to ring a change on Edmund Burke, to make us trust our institutions, our institutions ought to be trustworthy.
The point can arrive with any institution, as with a building in disrepair, when demolition, or at least condemnation of the property, is the most logical solution. The point can arrive when it is asking too much to ask men and women to believe in institutions that have failed them so many times, and whose leaders, while grandly “accepting total responsibility” for these failures, never seem to be held accountable for them.
Levin is loath to encourage us to take that route, and he is entirely convincing regarding the folly of burning down the house without securing an alternative residence first and weighing the trade-offs inherent in moving from one to the other.
But surely the populist mood of so much of the country—and the world—is more than just understandable. The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency would almost certainly never have occurred had the institutional Republican Party been more respectful of the Tea Party rebellion and not treated it as a pestilence to be suppressed at all cost—as if the problems that gave rise to it were passing tempers that would fade away in time. This was a colossal mistake and missed opportunity.
So A Time to Build is right in its emphasis on constructiveness, and consistently admirable in its sanity and prudential wisdom. Levin has proven himself to be one of our most reliably judicious political observers, and he can generally be counted on to take the longer view of things, never losing his head in the passions of the moment. That is a quality especially to be valued in the present moment, in which the appeal of overheated and apocalyptic thinking seems to be on the upswing, and ad hominem abusiveness and gutter vulgarity are taken as indicators of the courage and sincerity of one’s views. Levin never stoops to such things himself, and one turns with a sense of relief to his sensible and lucid prose, as to a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Reading him on these subjects is itself a civilizing experience, offering a glimpse of our social life as it could be lived, if we could calm our restless romantic selves down long enough to give it a try.
Levin is right to emphasize that demolition is generally not a good option. It would be lazy and feckless, and ultimately delusionary and self-destructive, for us to give up comprehensively on all the institutional framework that we have around us. But this book would be even better if it emphasized two other things. First, a powerful step toward restoration of trust in our institutions will come if we work to make those institutions more accountable. Leaders who abuse our trust should be held to account; they should lose their jobs and be punished for their misdeeds. The public wants and needs to see this punishment taking place. Part of our present predicament stems from the fact that this almost never happens. It needs to start happening as soon as possible. When it does, the public’s attitudes will change as well.
Second, much of the constructive task ahead of us is going to involve the creation of new institutions—a panoply of entirely new kinds of schools, for example, and new ways of thinking about educating Americans for economic opportunity—and bypassing the influence of the dysfunctional ones we already have. The pluralism and inventiveness of American life is one of its enduring assets, and we need to encourage it and draw on it, not least in the arena of institutional creativity.
We will need to be discerning about what to keep and what to dispense with, what to trust and what not to trust. Renovation is not always possible, or desirable. There may be ways, too, in which the institutions we have are already too large and unwieldy to admit of renewal, and we need to reconsider devolutions of scale that enhance our capacity for self-rule. But that is a subject for another book, one I suspect (and hope) that Yuval Levin will soon be writing.
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