Almost four years ago in his book “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval analyzed what he called, in a brilliant phrase, America’s “politics of competing nostalgias.” Conservatives, he contended, long for a return to the cultural consolidation of the 1950s, when Americans participated in more or less the same customs and drew on the same values; liberals, meanwhile, seek to remake the economic consolidation of the ’50s, when tax rates, wages and job security all soared, however briefly. Neither of these historically abnormal states of affairs can be re-created, Mr. Levin insisted. Americans should instead find ways to foster both cultural integrity and economic stability nearer their homes—in their states and cities and local communities—which in turn means suppressing the tendency to nationalize every political question and cultural controversy.
“Fractured Republic” appeared in May of 2016. A few months later,
was elected president, largely in reaction to the progressive moral imperialism chronicled in Mr. Levin’s book. Since then, the trend toward treating all cultural disputes as political questions of national importance has intensified. Congressional races seldom hinge on the relocation of a military base or a federal environmental regulation—matters that affect particular people in particular areas—but whether the candidate aligns with or opposes the president. Meanwhile the hyperactive agitator Mr. Trump turns even minor cultural disputes into national controversies to which there are no solutions: kneeling NFL players, saying “Merry Christmas” and on and on. It’s as though all 320 million of us are living in the same neighborhood.
A Time to Build
By Yuval Levin
Basic, 241 pages, $28
In “A Time to Build,” his latest book, Mr. Levin moves from analyzing this unhappy trend to asking what’s behind it. Americans are wealthy but pessimistic, secure but perennially disgusted with their government. Our era, Mr. Levin writes, “has not been a time of cataclysm or disaster but of exhaustion and frustration. It has not been devoid of prosperity or opportunity, or of good news on many fronts; in fact, it feels peculiar in part because good news seems not to translate into confidence or hopefulness.” Why this lassitude? The right blames a collapse of religion and family and traditional morality; the left blames widening economic inequality.
Mr. Levin’s answer is at once simpler, more generous and more cogent. Americans, and especially those who write and lecture about our politics, “imagine American society as a vast open space filled with individuals” and that all we need is to break down walls and build relationships and connections. Social media, offering as it does a sphere of unmediated interaction between people who may have no other connection, is clearly built on this metaphor of social life. But an entire nation’s people cannot fruitfully relate to one another in that way. American social life is not an open plane at all, Mr. Levin contends, but crowded with institutions: families, religious bodies, schools, charities, workplaces, governments, agencies, professions. “We aren’t just loose individuals bumping into each other,” he writes. “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.”
The great problem with our social and political life, Mr. Levin believes, is that our institutions are weak. This observation is almost a cliché in analyses of American politics. Usually when a commentator says American institutions are weak, what follows are familiar recitations of Vietnam and Watergate and the public’s loss of confidence in the U.S. government, the decline of religious observance, growing distrust of the news media and so on. But an institution is weak not so much when the general public loses trust in it—though that is an effect—as when its members cease to take it seriously.
An institution, in Mr. Levin’s reckoning, is an organization that limits and molds its members for the accomplishment of socially important ends. From the presidency, Congress and the federal court system to higher education and the news media, he argues, America’s most important institutions have come to be thought of less as “molds” than as “platforms.” Their role, in the minds of the nation’s most influential people, is not formative but performative: They do not shape their members so much as give them a stage on which to act.
The obvious example is the presidency of Mr. Trump. Although his harshest critics wildly exaggerate the damage Mr. Trump has done to “democracy” and the rest, it’s true that he has not been shaped in any way by the institutions of American government and shows little interest in protecting and advancing the interests of the presidency as an institution. The presidency, for Mr. Trump, is a platform on which he performs. (Every four years during the presidential primaries, at least one candidate runs not to win but to gain fame and prestige:
this year. It’s not hard to believe Mr. Trump did this—and inadvertently won.)
Mr. Levin, though a conservative, is no fan of the 45th president, but he sees him as only the most apparent manifestation of a pervasive and debilitating phenomenon. Congress is conspicuously rife with the performative ethic. In recent decades members of the House and Senate have repeatedly yielded their institutions’ constitutionally granted powers to government agencies, including, bizarrely, executive agencies, preferring instead to use their positions as launching pads for careers as celebrity-politicos. Many have no regard for or interest in Congress as an institution. We have now reached the point at which some members of Congress are full-on social-media celebrities who exhibit an almost total ignorance of the U.S. Constitution and the functions of the federal government.
The courts are less beholden to the performative ethic of celebrity culture—Chief Justice
for example, has steadfastly resisted the introduction of television cameras into the courtroom—but American judges, too, exhibit signs of the celebrity urge. “A significant portion of the problem that has traditionally been described as judicial activism,” Mr. Levin writes, can be seen as the “transformation of institutions from molds to platforms.” Hence the grandstanding rulings and the decisions that further progressive-policy aims but bear no relationship to any statute.
Mr. Levin’s diagnosis of other institutions is equally trenchant. Conservatives like to complain, and not without reason, that most journalists subscribe furtively to a left-liberal political viewpoint. But the problem is better thought of as a failure to think and behave as members of an institution: Journalism exists to hold the powerful to account and to make the public aware of their decisions, but over time its foremost practitioners came to share the preconceptions of the nation’s wealthy elite and political powerbrokers and so “fell into the habit of applying their skepticism mostly toward critics of elite institutions and challengers to elite norms.” Many of today’s most esteemed journalists dart between employers and appear to spend most of their energies building social-media followings and heaping contempt on people they regard as gauche or retrogressive. The institutions, whether of the great media organizations or of journalism itself, mean little. What matters is the Twitter profile and attendant celebrity persona.
No institution is immune to the performative ethic. Universities are difficult to write about in this regard because it’s unclear what their underlying purpose is, but Mr. Levin distinguishes three functions American universities have served since the 17th century: to convey the skills necessary to find remunerative work, to give the student access to the finest thoughts and works of civilization, and to afford students a consciousness of the moral demands of a just society. This third justification, Mr. Levin thinks, has now turned into a preoccupation with left-wing campus activism, but it is in essence a manifestation of early American Puritanism shorn of biblical content, “at times almost literally the liturgy without the theology.”
There is something to that, for sure—American progressives borrow heavily on Christian ideas without knowing it—but I suspect today’s campus radicals get their ideas mainly from the soft-Marxian radicalism of their Boomer or Boomer-taught professors. Mr. Levin’s point is that university administrators, themselves members of America’s guilt-ridden and self-hating elite, find it expedient to indulge and elevate their campuses’ student-led moral protest movements at the expense of the other two aims of the university. Doing so has all but ruined the nation’s finest institutions of higher education, but at least their administrators can escape the dreaded charge of elitism and continue relishing their prestige.
Mr. Levin puts the choice starkly. We can go on “fighting abstract theoretical battles in the wide-open spaces of our political culture”—shouting at cable-news shows, tweeting into the ether—or we can address “concrete practical problems within institutions.” Institutions, when they aren’t mere tools, can get in the way. They’re an ill fit in an age of hyperindividualism. They limit our choices and determine our behavior. They offer dignity and belonging, but they demand commitments of time and labor and an aversion to gratuitous self-expression. Attending to our institutions may also turn our minds away from that vast open space of neverending controversy and rage.
—Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer at the Journal.
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