In his latest book, Yuval Levin presents irrefutable evidence of America’s weakening attachment to its core institutions of family, community, voluntary associations, religions, and political parties. His goal, however, is to move beyond today’s ideological culture war and show how commitment to institutions puts us on an edifying path to belonging, social status, personal integrity, and even love.

A Time to Build: From Family and Community, to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, by Yuval Levin (256 pages, Basic Books, 2020)

The American Enterprise Institute’s director of social and cultural studies is among the most serious intellectuals on the Right today.

Still, Yuval Levin has set a very high bar for himself in his new book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community, to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.

Dr. Levin presents irrefutable evidence of America’s weakening attachment to its core institutions of family, community, voluntary associations, religions, political parties, and even business, court, media, and educational institutes. These have become platforms for individuals to perform, to display themselves rather than for molding individuals into socially useful participant members. Indeed, leaders manipulate their institutions to promote their individual selfish ends, fundamentally undermining their institution’s larger social functions.

Dr. Levin’s goal is to move beyond today’s ideological culture war where the Left constantly reminds us of the numerous “injustices we have ignored,” the ones we have committed against America’s minorities throughout our history. The Right counters by emphasizing that any such faults are vastly overweighed by America’s actual experience and institutions, “including its pre-liberal religious and moral traditions, rule of law, markets and pluralism,” which have made the U.S. the world’s most successful nation.

He considers this argument “a failure to grasp what the other side is getting at,” arguing “past one another,” each believing the opposition is “offering an immoral and irresponsible answer.” He insists there are issues where “one side simply must learn something from the other” such as on race where the Right must better grasp the Left’s criticisms, and on America’s social and political institutions where the Left must concede the great good they have produced relative to the rest of the world.

That leaders have turned against their own institutions is Dr. Levin’s most insightful contribution. The examples of political, clergy, and business corruption are obvious reasons for the loss of trust in institutions. But Dr. Levin emphasizes the new “deformation” today where organizations “exist to display individuals,” as platforms to promote themselves in the mass and social media rather than to lead their institutions and those that work for them. Seeking personal glory outside “robs an institution of its essential inner life” so that it cannot operate in private to make difficult decisions, producing disrespect for all by all, inside and outside.

Celebrity-driven demands for democratization and “openness” lead the peoples’ representatives to run against Congress rather than governing responsibly in the old quiet but effective strong-committee institutional way, losing any “inner life” and the ability to get things done. Presidents run against the Executive Branch too, often against their own appointees and always against the bureaucracy. Courts are claimed to be partisan only in “exceptional cases,” but the exceptional cases have multiplied and, certainly, the nation is as divided or more over its major decisions as those of the other institutions. Since the 1970s the same emphasis has produced open primaries and restricted funding that have transformed political parties from the dominant democratic participant institution to just one of many powerful political action committees.

The nation’s professional institutions have been deformed too. Lawyers, physicians, nurses, teachers, and scientists still learn institutional specialized knowledge and service ethics but with modern media openness, they have become defensive against those who can now challenge their professional judgement. Journalism is not normally considered a profession and until recently was not. But after adopting rigorous standards following World War II, today it is staffed with university “educated cultural elites” likewise subject to and resentful of outside criticism. In 1976 Gallup found 72% of the public supportive of the media but only 32% with confidence in it today, with the other degreed professions undergoing similar declines in popular support.

Over the past half century, these universities formed “America’s elite culture, which today is largely a progressive-liberal one,” with a quarter of professors right-of-center in 1968 but by 1999 only 12% were, and by 2018 Republicans were only 4% of historians, 3% of sociologists, and 2% of literature professors. Contrary to Right criticism, however, this culture was anything but nihilist. Dr. Levin perceptively sees that today we are actually “living in an era of purification on campus.” He notes that Harvard and Yale were founded as “conservatories for Puritan orthodoxy” and that a “moral aim remains a driving purpose of American higher education.” Progressive-liberal social activism has become “the official code of university life” creating students dedicated to a new secular progressive purification of morality and an “aggressive exclusion” of heretics who deviate from the orthodoxy, which beliefs they take to the larger world as they enter business and the professions.

At the same time, the traditional social institutions wither. Almost all seem to agree the family sets the basic roles for the critical job of producing and forming the next generation, with roles for spouses, parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives. Today four in ten children come into the world with only one parent, there are fewer marriages and fewer children, and society is left to pick up the pieces of the weakened families. Trust in religion and church attendance are down to historically low levels too in an institution historically essential for promoting deeper meaning and compassion for a society. These and other civic institutions have been replaced by a welfare state meant to meet these needs but actually promotes dependency among its clients and loss of social function for important excluded or dependent local community associations.

Dr. Levin’s path to renewal is a social commitment to institutions by turning leaders and participants from critics to insiders “willing to be shaped by the responsibilities that come with” membership. Americans resist restrictions on their freedom and fear abuses by powerful leaders. However, the benefits of such grants of authority are that they structure our activities within our own moral ideals, which help legitimize them and offer an edifying path to belonging, social status, personal integrity, and even love. Such strong institutions can then protect their members and society to provide a stable foundation for long-term risk-taking and success.

The only alternative to rebuilding these institutions is today’s hollow celebrity culture, with its cynicism, irresponsibility, illegitimacy, and self-promoting outsiderism. Elites are necessary for social life and someone must be at the top. The question is what kind of elites. The old WASP elite did have integrity sufficient to build America although it had major faults too, especially against racial and non-Protestant minorities. Yet, it was open enough to end slavery, to begin basing elite status on merit with SAT tests in the 1920s that expanded admission to Catholics and Jews, and a bit later to Asians, and later still at least partially to women, blacks, and Hispanics.

But no solution is perfect. Selection of leaders on merit by definition restricts leadership to those with intellectual skills where these elite parents naturally pass access to higher education to their children. In 1945, 45% of admissions to selective universities was from those whose parents had attended such institutions, while that has risen to 65% today. The existence of leaders is not the fundamental problem, however. It is the quality of those leaders and this requires “a different standard of merit.” Progressives (and Libertarians) assume intelligence and leadership success prove worth but Western tradition has had a more skeptical view that assumes a fallen humanity requires character and virtue as necessary for true leadership merit. What our institutions need today are insiders of all types who are trustworthy.

At one point, Dr. Levin concedes “This may seem like a hopelessly earnest way to think about” institutions. With all of Levin’s openness in reaching out to the Left, the first review by one of the most reasonable of the moderate Left, specifically criticized Dr. Levin’s defense of family roles as the “family arrangements of the 1950s” which were “stultifying and unfair” to women.[*] The Left reformers of the family were actually owed a debt of gratitude, he claimed, since those who have accepted the new Left-defined family roles now have stronger families and those rejecting them have “weakened” families. The critic concedes we need both “the right’s concern about character and the left’s concern about fairness” but he chides Dr. Levin that “good intentions” are “not enough” in the face of the true dangers of private corruption and government incompetence.

So we remain still talking past one another, with Dr. Levin surely well aware that this is often the cost of aiming so high in the midst of a cultural crisis.

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[*] William Galston, “A call to restore America’s institutions, and to let them restore us,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2020.

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