Institutions and the Culture War in 2020

In order to alleviate our social crisis, we will need to improve the moral formation that our institutions provide their members. Yet the institutions best suited to lead in this task are those with a religious mission, which in turn are imperiled by the culture war that elite institutions are waging against them. The cause of institutionalism today therefore requires a forceful defense against the aggressions of the cultural Left. Part two of a two-part review essay.

Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build shows (as I wrote in yesterday’s essay) that to the extent there can be any solution to our current social crisis, it will require us to reform our social and political institutions in order to make them better capable of fulfilling their indispensable moral-formative function.

The good news here is that healthy institutions have never required their members to be fully conscious of the formative moral function that they serve. Only in a Simpsons mob would people consciously demand that others impose authoritative restraints on their demands, and only minors are compelled to enter formative institutions for the sake of formation itself. Outside of institutions aimed at forming minors (i.e., schools and families), an adult institution will primarily aim to achieve its “core goal”—winning wars, growing food, manufacturing cars, reporting the news, advancing scientific knowledge, writing laws—but, along the way, it will necessarily “also form people so they can carry out that task successfully, responsibly, and reliably.” Come for the paycheck, stay for the moral formation; or, as Aristotle might have said, institutions come into being for the sake of living but exist for the sake of living well.

The bad news is that all this means we are already being formed by our institutions, even and precisely when we do not think of them as formative. Levin highlights social media and the university as two very formative institutions for today’s elite culture: the former molds us by “encouraging the vices most dangerous to a free society,” while the latter “shapes the students who come under its influence . . . in ways that answer to the broader culture war.” This may be why Levin keeps recurring to the claim that we regard our institutions more as platforms than as molds. For the distinction does not describe the real character of different institutions so much as the different attitudes with which we approach them. You may consider Twitter to be your own personal platform, but Jack Dorsey is chuckling all the way to his vipassana tech-detoxes in Myanmar: he has molded millions of Americans to fit his own institution’s “core goal” better than Henry Ford ever managed to mold a few thousand employees in Detroit.

A Return to the Local

Levin’s book is a truly indispensable guide for any American who wants to think about how our institutions deform us and how they could better form us. Yet such a book cannot avoid giving a somewhat misleading impression. It is forced to concentrate on the institutions that any American reader can recognize: our national institutions, which as such are very elite institutions (the federal government, the national press, the academy). For the vast majority of us, such institutions will never be the “small ponds in which individual members can be big fish.” Each of us must therefore apply Levin’s approach in our own dealings with the actual institutions to which we each belong (or could belong), as he admonishes us to do.

Levin is a Burkean. It is no argument against his book to say that it reveals the unavoidable weaknesses of Burkeanism, the -ism opposed to all -isms. Burkeanism is an intellectual defense of institutions that work best when they need no such defense, an attempt to explain in generalities what can only be lived and experienced in particularities. Burke himself did not defend constitutionalism so much as the English constitution. When speaking to the French, Burke could do little more than encourage them to draw on their own tradition and not to jettison it recklessly.

Surely, in an age of much reckless tradition-jettisoning (often led by intellectuals), Burkeanism is a necessary intellectual counterweight. If it feels thin as an abstract theory, that is the point: its major theoretical claim is that abstract theory will always be too thin to sustain real human life. Levin can hardly tell us how to go about pouring ourselves into the specific, and for the most part local, institutions that we each know better than he does. He is therefore completely justified in simply urging each of us to focus on the limited but invaluable good that we can do for those institutions.

To what extent may we hope that such a turn to rebuilding institutions can offer any large-scale resolution to our social crisis? Levin does not answer this question directly, but he offers us plenty of reasons for pessimism on the national scale. I will concentrate for now on just one of those reasons: his account of the state of our culture war.

The Nature of the Culture War

As Levin observes, the administrators of at least elite colleges and universities are increasingly turning their own institutions into “arenas for aggression” by “the party of the cultural Left.” These institutions indeed act as molds, forming their graduates to “carry those [cultural] expectations with them into the other elite institutions they come to inhabit,” from media outlets to large corporations. When he begins to describe the content of this culture war that our elite institutions have been prosecuting with growing aggression, Levin becomes uncharacteristically circumlocutory. He does say that the culture war has centered around a question about “the form of the family.” As a social conservative, he would evidently like to lament the fact that “the model of the traditional family” based on heterosexual marriage is no longer a “general norm,” but his reticence appears to come from his awareness that today such heteronormativity is often “perceived . . . as an effort to deny recognition and legitimacy to some individuals.”

To be blunter than Levin is here, the culture war has been fought over the continued advance of the sexual revolution, which (in the words of his Fractured Republic) “was surely the most culturally transformative of all the waves of change, liberation, and individualism that swept over American life in the postwar era.” What A Time to Build does say is that the spiritual illness diagnosed throughout this book is both the cause and the effect of a dramatic weakening in the most formative of our formative institutions. Americans increasingly understand even their own family as a mere platform for their “individual identities, preferences, and priorities” rather than as the prime locus of their most sacred, unchosen, and formative obligations.

This “diminished sense of the family as a formative and authoritative institution leaves us less prepared to approach other institutions with a disposition to be formed by them.” More bluntly, every one of our decaying social institutions is populated by the children of broken homes. This is where Levin almost begins to sound like Mary Eberstadt, suggesting that the social crisis his book seeks to explain must be traced in no small part to the Left’s victories in the culture wars over sexual morality. But Levin’s continued reticence on this point may be due to his wish to make an argument that can be persuasive to a wide range of readers, “whatever one thinks about same-sex marriage, the rise of cohabitation, single parenthood, or any of the other family-formation controversies of recent decades.”

Levin also mentions that “the question at the heart of some of our most divisive cultural conflicts has been whether institutions that embody the religious convictions of their members, leaders, or owners will be permitted to embody those convictions when they are not shared by our society’s cultural elites.” If I may be blunt once more, the question was and remains whether Biblical sexual morality—which once played a large role in defining the American family as the “formative and authoritative institution” it was—should be publicly treated as anything but the vicious bigotry that the cultural Left since the sixties has been constantly saying it is.

There is, at any rate, no mistaking where Levin stands in this debate over religious liberty. The Left’s attack on religiously conservative institutions “now threatens the integrity of these essential forms of association, just when that integrity is most badly needed.” For “a recovery of institutional responsibility throughout our society would need to involve a kind of devotion, even submission, to institutional formation that is simply most likely to emerge from our experience of religious formation.” Religious conviction alone is insufficient to provide such a moral formation except insofar as it embeds us in a concrete, “morally cohesive and formative community,” with “healthy institutions” that work roughly like secular institutions and serve more than narrowly religious purposes, as Levin argues persuasively (citing Robert Nisbet).

Why would the cultural Left, including many sincere communitarians who ought to be sympathetic to Levin’s entire argument about institutions, be so hostile to the very communities that offer the strongest prospect of an escape from our cultural crisis? Presumably because the mere existence of those religious communities is “perceived,” correctly, “as an effort to deny recognition and legitimacy to some individuals” or to their choices.

The Future of the Culture War

Levin is the rare D.C. resident willing to say publicly that “our religious institutions are most important . . . not because they are useful in addressing public problems and meeting public needs, although they are,” but “because they offer us access to the fullest truth about our world.” This truth must include the truth about human sexuality and its proper uses. The “core goal” of our religious institutions will always include the proclamation of that and other truths to a world that is never quite prepared to hear them. But today our elite class—thanks to the highly successful molding efforts of universities, media, and other elite institutions—has reached an unheard-of level of hostility toward the truth that the Bible teaches about human sexuality. And I would venture to say that it is precisely because everyone is still (on some level) aware of the crucial formative or molding function of schools, families, businesses, and other institutions, that the Left wants to take those institutions out of the hands of bigots: to commandeer those institutions where possible, and failing that, to burn them to the ground.

I therefore do not find it reassuring when Levin, in recommending his book to left-of-center readers, points out that his basically conservative vision of the human person (“prone to waywardness and sin,” “always requiring moral and social formation” by institutions) “is surely widely shared by readers elsewhere on the political spectrum.” It is all to the good that in many areas outside of sexual morality, Americans on Left and Right can still find much overlap in our respective understandings of the “waywardness and sin” that institutions should hold us back from. But within a reasonably functioning political community, it turns out to be hard to sidestep fundamental differences over sexual morality. Precisely to the extent that our next Democratic president (whenever we have one) shares Levin’s view of the human importance of formative institutions, his or her administration will be working around the clock to destroy the same institutions that Levin rightly says offer the best hope for our country’s future.

This is why Levin can say both that his vision of the human person is “widely shared” and, later on, that it is “now very controversial.” It is controversial insofar as “both the libertarian and progressive ideals of freedom”—which are mere branches of the common “liberal ideal of freedom [that] has often been at the core of our political imagination,” at any rate since the 1960s—“assume a human person already fully formed, requiring only liberation from oppression of various sorts to be free.” “The assault upon formative institutions in our time has everything to do with” this controversy over what it means to be free and what it means to be a human being. It is the deepest reason “why we find battles raging around every one of the core formative institutions of our society.” At the same time, because reality has a social-conservative bias, liberals and progressives are constantly driven to act in ways that reveal the poverty of their own theories, even or especially in their institutional efforts to advance those theories. But this does not mean that any of Levin’s left-of-center admirers will switch sides on Masterpiece Cakeshop after reading this book, nor does he claim that they will.

The Right and the Culture War

Perhaps, then, Levin ought to be a bit more generous to the populist conservatism that is, as I mentioned yesterday, one of his book’s main targets. The question of how to respond to the growing and frightening bloodlust of the cultural Left is (I believe) the biggest question dividing the intellectual Right these days. This much we should be able to agree on: Levin’s book could receive on both sides of our culture war the wide hearing it deserves, and could educate a new generation of institutionally-minded leaders, yet the cause it advances would still be largely doomed unless we also find concrete means of forcefully checking the cultural Left’s political and legal aggressions. Otherwise, those aggressions will destroy the very institutions that best promote Levin’s correct understanding of full human formation and flourishing. We may and must debate the concrete means to do this, but it is hard to see how those means could avoid some alliance with the populist “demolition crews” against whom Levin (understandably) warns us.

In his careful avoidance of the rhetoric usually employed by partisans in our culture war, Levin should probably be called Lincolnian. He is a partisan and never pretends not to be. But he values the preservation of our common institutions even more highly than he does any immediate victory in the fights we wage within those institutions. This is because, like Lincoln, Levin correctly sees that those institutions are in the long run necessary to the survival of the very moral cause that animates his side of our culture wars. Yet since Lincoln’s opponents did not share his own commitment to our institutions, Lincoln’s transpartisan partisanship arguably turned out to be most valuable to the nation only after blood had been spilled and reconciliation was required. I would think very differently about our own culture wars if I thought they posed any serious risk of bloodshed. As it is, it seems to me that any decent reconciliation will require the currently winning side to be halted in its advance.

As a work of social philosophy, A Time to Build is at the very top of its field. It is absolutely indispensable for understanding our current moment and its larger context, and it is not intended as a guide to immediate political or legal action. Nonetheless, much of this book’s argument is framed as an effort to find some areas of truce in the American culture wars. I will therefore suggest that according to Levin’s own description of our situation, the conservative side of our culture wars may today require the spirit less of Lincoln than of Thaddeus Stevens: the spirit of fully partisan partisans, who concede to their opponents no more than what the rule of law forces them to concede, and who show their opponents’ position only as much respect as it deserves.

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