Spotlight Exclusives

Rebuilding Institutions and Reviving the American Dream: A Conversation with Yuval Levin

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A major cause of our nation’s political divisions and cynicism about the future comes from a fracturing and loss of confidence in America’s basic institutions, from the church to the media to halls of Congress. That’s the premise of A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, the new book by Yuval Levin, the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. A member of the Domestic Policy staff under President George W. Bush, Levin also holds the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy at AEI and is the founding and current editor of National Affairs, a senior editor of The New Atlantis and a contributing editor to National Review. Levin recently spoke with Spotlight about his book; the conversation has edited for length and clarity.

First, congratulations on the success of the book. Tell us a little about the genesis of the book and how you decided to write it.

Yeah, thank you. This is a book about the social crisis that our society is living through and it came out of trying to understand the nature of the problems we face, which take on a variety of different forms in our politics, in our culture, and in the personal lives of a lot of Americans. It’s a set of problems that seem to be related to each other, but not in the most obvious ways. So, the book really tries to wrestle through some of the roots and sources of that and think about what might be done.

You end up focusing largely on institutions. Can you explain that? And how do you define an institution when it comes to our society today?

The term institution is obviously very broad, it’s a very fundamental idea. In the book, I define institutions as the durable forms of our common life, they’re the framework that shapes the structures of what we do together. I think it is important to think about institutions when we think about the problems we face because it’s easy to approach these kinds of challenges, like political polarization or the intense culture war we see on a lot of college campuses, or even the way that a lot of Americans individually feel alienated and isolated, in entirely individualistic terms. So, to think, maybe it’s just economic conditions driving them. Or, even just imagine American life as a big open space where there are a lot of individuals and they need help coming together. And so, we often end up talking about building bridges, breaking down walls. I think these kinds of concepts are helpful. but we fail to see that when Americans come together, it’s in structures, it’s in forms and organizations.  And if American life is a big open space, it’s not a space that is just full of individuals, it’s full of these structures. And these are institutions. They give shape to what we do together, they give us roles and parts to play in relation to each other. And I think it’s important to think of them as forms also, because ultimately, they are formative. They shape us, they shape our character, our behavior. They shape our souls. And if we really ask ourselves what’s wrong now, I think our loss of confidence in our institutions is really at the center of the story.

Give us an example of an institution that’s in crisis.

I think there are a lot. Some of the most obvious examples might be in our politics. Congress, for example, which is an essential institution in our system of government, has become intensely dysfunctional. And I think that’s happened exactly because the members of Congress no longer think of it as formative of their obligations and responsibilities. They think of it instead as performative, as a stage, a platform for them to stand on and be seen in our big political culture wars. So that members now run with an idea that what they’ll get out of Congress is a higher profile or a bigger following . . . or a better timeslot on cable news or talk radio. Rather than seeing people seeking a microphone to get power and then advance change, we find people now seeking power in order to get a microphone. And that kind of deformation makes it very hard for the institution to work and, just as importantly, it makes it very hard for the public to trust it. I think that’s a model of how many of our institutions have become deformed, when we’ve gone from thinking of them as formative to thinking of them as performative. You see that in the professions, in the media, in the academies, and to some respect it’s even in American religious life, where people look at institutions as something to stand on rather than understanding them as something to be formed and improved by. And that has a direct effect on our ability to trust our institutions. It undermines our capacity to take them seriously.

How does this impact lower-income communities in particular?

One of the things our institutions do for us, from the family to the church, all the way up to our national governing institutions, is they help us build social capital. By forming our relationships with other people, they help to give us a kind of shape in public, they help to give us networks and grooves and channels through which we can work together and empower ourselves. And that means that institutions are one of the primary ways in which we amass social capital. At this point in American life, when so many of our institutions have become expressive rather than formative, a lot of these institutions now are just ways to spend social capital rather than to amass it. And that can be great for people who have a lot of it, right?

People with a lot of power and privilege in our society might enjoy this situation. But it’s very bad for people who don’t have the social capital they need to thrive and function in our society. And that means that they in particular need our institutions. That can be hard to see in this moment, because our politics is in such a populist mood that we tend to think about institutions as serving the elite or as empowering the already powerful. And that’s ultimately just not so. The people who most need functional institutions in American life are the people who don’t have power and privilege and money. And helping them to see that, and helping all of us to see that, is one reason to think about the problems we have in institutional terms.

But in many cases, these are people talking about tearing institutions down rather than fixing them, right?

Exactly, because they have a sense that these dysfunctional institutions are, in some way, oppressive or corrupt. And there’s some truth to that of course. But the question is, what do we do about it? And the answer we’re inclined toward in our politics is to tear them down. This is a moment when we speak in the language of demolition – we want to drain the swamp, or clear the field, or tear down this or that and fight the establishment. I think it’s actually time that requires us to be building and rebuilding institutions, to understand that we need them, so that the fact that they’re in trouble means not that we should destroy them but that we should find ways to recover them. And that just does not come naturally to our culture at this moment.

If you look at the 2020 presidential race, at least at this point, both the leading candidates would be anti-institutionalists in President Trump and Senator Sanders.

Absolutely. I think they are both expressions of a kind of antinomian populism. You see it both on the left and the right and it takes somewhat different forms, but not that different. And the argument you get from both sides therefore is that our institutions are rigged against the public and we need to be liberated from them and tear them down. The fact is we ultimately need these institutions to function and so we need a political argument that helps us see how they might be recovered rather than how they can be overcome.  

How would you shape that argument?

It’s an argument that has to be rooted, first of all, in responsibility and a formative understanding of these institutions. It has to begin with people who have roles in all our different institutions and in one way or another we all have some roles, from family, community and educational institutions all the way up to our politics. Each of us would have to start by asking ourselves in important moments of decision: “Given the role that I have here, how do I need to act? Given that I am a parent or a neighbor or a vice principal of this school or a soldier or the president of the United States, how should I behave?” I think that is the great unasked question of our time and people who really drive us crazy in American seem like they never ask that question when they should. The people who we respect seem like they are always asking that question. And what it helps us do is to recover a sense of formative purpose of our institutions. If you think of the institutions that have not lost the public’s confidence, and the military is one obvious example, they tend to be institutions that are unabashedly formative, that take people and change them for the better. And that’s what helps us trust those institutions. It’s what our professions do, for people who are in them, by establishing rules and norms and guidelines. I think a recovery of our institutions would have to look more like that and a political argument for that recovery would . . . have to be an argument that takes seriously the responsibility of elites throughout our society to understand the roles they have.

What other lessons are there to be learned from the military, as an institution that has largely avoided this crisis?

One crucial important lesson is to understand the reason we trust core institutions is that they impose rules and standards on the people within them. We take that to be a way to produce reliable, responsible people. When somebody tells you they went to Harvard, you might think that is a smart person, not because they went to Harvard but because they got in, in a sense, it didn’t form them. When somebody tell you they went to the Naval Academy, you probably think, this is a very serious person and it’s precisely because the Navy made them so. That’s an institution we’re able to trust. Other institutions have the capacity to function this way. They can present themselves to the public as forming the people within them to carry out a crucial function in a responsible, reliable way. I think the lesson of the fact that the military is still as trusted as it is, is that we should expect that kind of formative experience from a lot of our other institutions like universities, civic institutions, our political culture, and the church. At this point, a lot of those institutions instead present themselves as enabling expression, as allowing people to express who they are rather than making them better.

How central is the media’s loss of public trust to the overall dynamic you describe in the book?

In one sense, the media is an example of how this kind of transformation can lead to a loss of trust. Journalism is a profession and the ways that professions build trust is by showing us that they do impose certain standards and rules on their practitioners. Journalism does do that. It has clear ethical guidelines, it has rules for how to track down facts, for how to tell fact from fiction. And when journalistic institutions impose that kind of standard, they at least can have some claim to the public’s trust. What we find in journalism is now is a lot of individual journalists taking themselves out of the institutions that have empowered them and standing on their own platform – on social media, sometimes on cable news – and expressing a mix of professional and personal opinion that makes it very difficult to know, what is the professional work product here and what is the personal view? And that undermine the public’s trust in institutions. There is no better way to shred confidence in journalism than to blur the line between the individual and the institution – to essentially leverage the authority of the institutions of journalism to build the brand of individual journalists.

How crucial are religious institutions when thinking about this?

I think it’s enormously crucial. Because when we think about what it means to be a formative institution, in a lot of ways the model for that is religious institutions, which are expressly formative, which exist to shape us, to mold our souls and transform them. And when those institutions also become expressive, when they become stages for political action and political virtue signaling, I think we lose the very model of what a formative institution looks like. But it also seems to me that a recovery would have to begin in religious institutions above all because those touch us directly, they’re places where it’s possible for us to take institutions as formative in a serious way. And the kind of devotion to institutions that allows people to take them seriously again just comes most naturally in our religious life.

So what’s the answer here? What should we as a society be looking to do in the years to come?

There certainly some needed institutional reforms in specific parts of our society, but I think it all has to begin with an understanding of the problem that drives each of us to try to change our behavior a little bit in relation to the institutions that we’re part of. It has to begin with a sense that we all are insiders somewhere and we need to look not only to be outsiders, commenting cynically on the failures of our culture, but to be insiders, doing something about the problem by asking ourselves, given the role I have here, what’s the right decision to make? If more of us ask that question of ourselves, the kind of bottom-up change that is the only way for this to begin, would have a shot. A change of attitude has got to be the first step.

Yuval Levin is Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies and the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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