Thinking and Acting Institutionally in 2020

In an important update to Aristotelian political thought, Yuval Levin’s new book shows that the health of a modern society depends on the health of its social institutions, and that our social institutions today are not healthy. Part one of a two-part review essay.

Imagine two players in whatever your favorite sport might be. . . . Let us call them Barry and Cal. Barry is a flashy personality intent on breaking records and given to dramatic acts of self-expression. He revels in the spotlight. Cal by contrast is quieter and more steady, almost businesslike in his approach to the game. He seems generally unimpressed by the celebrity status his talent has produced. If we ask to whom or to what they hold themselves responsible, the answers in the end would be different. Barry sees himself as responsible to his fans, the record books, but ultimately to himself. Cal might express some similar views, but at the end of the day he would consider his ultimate obligation to be to the sport itself. . . . For Barry the game is a setting in which his athletic prowess is exercised and his accomplishments are recorded. For Cal, the game is that whole rich tradition of people and events that defines his appropriate performance. Where Barry sees a set of rules, Cal sees an ethos.

With this contrast of two entirely hypothetical sports legends, the late Hugh Heclo introduced his brilliant and underappreciated volume On Thinking Institutionally. Targeted at scholars, Heclo’s book sought to offer a theoretical framework within which to understand his simple and undeniable observation: not only in the world of sports but throughout American social and political life, “there is ample testimony that things have been moving in the direction of the Barrys of this world and away from the Cals.”

Yuval Levin has now written the follow-up that Heclo’s book deserves. Targeted at a wider and nonacademic readership—“a parent, a teacher, a police officer, a scientist, a senator, or a pastor”—A Time to Build is an “attempt to perceive and describe,” to “train our senses to perceive and grasp,” and to provide us “the grammar and vocabulary to talk about,” the same basic fact about American life that Heclo had observed. In Levin’s words, “the people who occupy our institutions increasingly understand those institutions not as molds that ought to shape their behavior and character but as platforms that allow them greater individual exposure and enable them to hone their personal brands.” We have met Barry, and he is us.

The first chapter’s opening sentence sets the tone for A Time to Build: “We Americans are living through a social crisis.” Levin’s is not the first book published since 2016 (nor even the tenth) that seeks to explain that crisis. But between this book and his previous The Fractured Republic, Levin has laid bare the roots of that crisis better than any author I know of. Anyone interested in understanding contemporary American politics and culture needs to read and reread both books.

Diagnosing Our Sickness

In Fractured Republic, Levin had surveyed the increased fragmentation and individualization of American common life since the 1960s. Like Tocqueville gazing at the wave of democratization sweeping through the Christian world of his day, Levin had concluded that we are dealing with a largely inevitable trend that prudent statesmen (especially conservatives) must adapt to rather than fight. That political diagnosis, with its accompanying prescriptions, was compelling. But it could have left some readers with the impression that, when we hear older conservatives lament all that we have lost since the ’60s, we ought primarily to blame the perpetually self-absorbed Boomers’ nostalgia for their own childhoods. If anyone did have that impression, Levin has now remedied it. A Time To Build diagnoses the collective sickness of soul that has inextricably accompanied our fifty-year trend toward fragmentation and individualization.

Levin assumes we are already basically aware of our country’s current “crisis of isolation, division, and cultural conflict,” which “shows itself in . . . alienation, failures of responsibility, and scarcities of belonging and solidarity,” and issues in a further “crisis of legitimacy” for the elites who appear to have gotten us into such a mess. We all recognize the symptoms; Levin wants to diagnose the disease. As it happens, a “key” element of this disease will turn out to be the same “short-termism” that makes it hard for us to “worry properly” about our long-term future. This book is an exercise in worrying properly.

Levin also assumes we are familiar with the populist and seemingly “antinomian” response to our crisis that “looks to ease our disappointments by tearing down the institutions that embody them.” Levin shows real sympathy for such demolitional populism, which is perhaps why he devotes this entire book to rebutting it. He clearly worries that young readers, especially his fellow conservatives, might otherwise be too influenced by those who argue that our way of life has “failed” (!), and hence find themselves “drawn to join the demolition crews” that “have for too long been allowed to define the spirit of this era in America.” The book’s unwritten subtitle is, of course, Not a Time to Tear Down. Levin simultaneously attacks both the optimism that keeps trying to tell us we never had it so good, and the pessimism that fails to realize how much worse things could still get. He wants us to understand that our institutions are crumbling so that we can get down to the work of rebuilding them.

Aristotelian Social Philosophy for Today

Levin wears his erudition lightly, only occasionally mentioning the philosophical “vision of the human person” that constantly informs his diagnostic work. That vision will be familiar to readers of Public Discourse.

Levin “assumes that each of us is born deficient but capable of moral improvement, that such improvement happens soul by soul and so cannot be circumvented by social or political transformation, and that this improvement—the formation of character and virtue—is the foremost work of our society in every generation. . . . This work is the essential, defining purpose of our institutions, which must therefore be fundamentally formative.” We all “need to be formed for freedom,” even though we would always “prefer to think we don’t.” Absent such lifelong moral formation, “we are always at risk of being betrayed by our own impulses.” You do not actually need anyone’s help “to make you more like you already are.” Instead, we all need “to realize the world is not all about us” and to be continually shaped by experiences that “we would never have known to want.”

Levin claims that “paraphrasing Aristotle” is “more or less my only marketable skill.” (Evidently he has been away from the University of Chicago long enough to have intended this as a modest statement; I hope my fellow academic political theorists will join me in giving him a pass under the old rule of it’s-not-arrogant-if-it’s-true.) For Aristotle, the city itself was to be the primary source of the lifelong moral formation needed by human beings as such. The central and groundbreaking insight of Levin’s book is that, under modern conditions, the primary source of this formation must instead be subnational structures called “institutions.” By institutions he simply means “the durable forms of our common life,” “the frameworks and structures of what we do together.” They include the institutions of government proper, as well as families, corporations, clubs, trade unions, political parties, churches, and even professions such as law or medicine.

For reasons that Aristotle would have recognized, we today need these institutions to provide us with “small ponds in which individual members can be big fish,” where “we can be known and appreciated, we can be missed when we are absent,” can be “loved for [our] virtues, and not just noticed but recognized.” Through such “relationships of commitment, obligation, and responsibility,” we become embedded in a “framework of praise and blame, norms and habits, expectations and peer pressure” that “helps to organize our own internal life, our thinking,” and so gives structure to our whole moral lives. A few of these formative institutions are directly controlled by government: public schools, the military, and our legislative, executive, and judicial bodies themselves. The rest of our social institutions are obviously affected enormously by various government policies. But any attempt to recover an Aristotelian approach to modern politics must incorporate Levin’s fundamental insight that today, “the city and the soul come to shape each other” only through the mediation of directly interpersonal institutions, most of which are nongovernmental.

Institutions As Molds

According to the recurring theme of Levin’s book, we ought (like Cal) to view our institutions as molds, rather than (like Barry) as mere platforms. Levin makes the “molds” metaphor do good work. He writes:

We pour ourselves into our family, our community, our church, our work, or our school, and in so doing we begin to take the institution’s shape. . . . We aren’t just loose individuals bumping into each other. We fill roles, 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.

Institutions “form us by constraining us,” forcing us “to ask not just ‘What do I want?’ but ‘How shall I act here, given my position?’” They thus exercise over us, in effect, the moral “authority” that “our liberal culture is loath to admit” that human beings need, but to which the only real-world alternatives are anarchy or degraded misery.

Levin’s book is (perhaps?) not intended primarily as an intervention in our debates over liberal theory, but it is one nonetheless. As he mentions in passing, our liberal “theories of ourselves” have never accurately described what has always made American society work. They could appear to do so only as long as our society still took for granted all the authoritative moral institutions that those theories could never account for.

Today, those institutions can no longer be taken for granted. In fact, Levin argues that “at the heart of our broader social crisis” is “the weakness of our institutions—from the family on up through the national government, with much in between.” He points out that, by most easily measurable criteria, our country faced much greater challenges in the thirties or late sixties: what is new today is not the strength of our common challenges but only our collective weakness in confronting them, which in turn can be traced to the weakness of our formative institutions. “Breaking away from institutional commitments can seem like liberation, but it more often feels like isolation—cold and lonely and pointless, devoid of love and loyalty,” like too much of American life today.

Breaking the Cycle of Institutional Decline

The bulk of the book is taken up in a deeply insightful diagnosis of several paradigmatic American institutions. Levin shows how most of them (Congress, the press, the university, the family, Evangelical churches) have noticeably suffered as the Barrys within them have displaced the Cals, while some other institutions have contributed to that very displacement by either their failures (political parties, Catholic churches) or their successes (tech companies). It is no accident, he argues, that Americans today show a famously waning confidence in most of our institutions—with the rule-proving exception of the military, “the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions.” For we have confidence in any institution only to the extent that we trust it to form its members, to instill in them the habits of institution-specific integrity: to produce the loyal soldier, the dependable company man, the sincerely inquiring professor, the faithful pastor, the reliable public servant, the honest reporter.

Americans today have more and more trouble expecting our institutions to be such molds of character. This makes it harder for institutions to act as those molds, which in turn makes it even harder for us to expect them to do so. Levin proposes that we attack this vicious cycle at both ends. On the one hand, we must “consciously change our attitudes about the institutions we are part of.” “We don’t have to figure out how everyone might do this; we just have to do it ourselves. You and I.” More precisely, we should do this for the institutions that we do find to be worthy of our respect and devotion, of which Levin reasonably asserts that most of us are still in contact with at least one.

On the other hand, because of that vicious cycle, we obviously cannot simply “make people trust the institutions we have as they are.” Instead we need to “make those institutions more trustworthy,” “reforming [them] to better form us.” Such concrete reforms will have to be led by people who have already undergone the “transformation of attitudes” that Levin calls for, and will be easier to undertake the more widely that transformation has spread. But to repeat, reforms in our institutions must be the cause as well as the effect of a change in our attitude toward them. This book’s most important aim therefore appears to be educating the leaders who, liberated from the blindnesses of our modern liberal intellectual culture, can reform our various institutions in light of the moral and civic function that most of their fellow members will continue to have trouble describing.

This elite-focused aim of Levin’s book is sometimes obscured by his habit of speaking as if the main problem with our institutions were our own attitude towards them, which has shifted “from thinking of institutions as molds . . . toward seeing them as platforms” (emphasis mine). This could make it sound like our task is simply to persuade every American of the argument of this book. The challenge facing us is in fact both more and less than that, as Levin also makes clear. Not everyone needs to understand institutions, but for those who do, understanding them is only the first step toward reforming them. The real problem facing our country is that our institutions are somehow in practice being “transformed from molds to platforms,” or more precisely, that they function as if their goal were “to let [their members] be who they are, rather than to make them who they ought to be.” Our “attitude” toward institutions is dangerous only to the extent that it contributes to this more fundamental problem of their failure in practice.

Levin emphasizes this point by rounding off his diagnoses of each institution with a brief but suggestive illustration of the kind of concrete reforms that ought to “begin” from awareness of the problems he has just diagnosed. The main point of his book is clearly to raise that awareness, so that in light of it, the leaders of our specific institutions can reform them to make them better molds of character. Levin does not pretend this task will be easy, but he rightly identifies it as “among our highest and most pressing civic callings.”

In tomorrow’s essay I will discuss one of the principal obstacles to that task as it now confronts us.

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