The choice is not between a Spartan communitarianism or Brook Farm-style collectivism, and contemporary liberalism.
Few public intellectuals are more committed to healing our nation’s wounds than Yuval Levin. A patriot with a deep sense of public responsibility and humility, he seeks a knife-edged path that might lead us out of our earthquake partisan conditions. His A Time to Build is an attempt to find common ground between America’s Left and Right. Perhaps, he hopes, no matter what the differences, partisans can rally around the idea that we need institutions to better our common life and politics.
In a sense, Levin’s book is “deeply conservative,” because it is based on the assumption that nature poses challenges more than it provides answers: man is not naturally good or perfectible. Man’s ineradicable factiousness or sinfulness cannot be cured, but effective institutions can ameliorate the latent causes of faction. Levin has nothing to do with liberation theories that presume human perfectibility. The Left has been compromising the old institutions of American life, from our families to our constitutional bodies to our universities based, apparently, on assumptions of human perfection. Our populist right, in Levin’s retelling, is hell-bent on willy-nilly destroying everything that the Left has built without replacing them with anything. It seems Levin strikes a statesmanlike pose, akin to Solon, when he seeks to convince each side in our partisan disputes that it is time to build new institutions.
Levin describes the importance of institutions clearly and succinctly. Stable, healthy or “worthwhile” institutions give us a sense of our roles; they answer the question, in Levin’s words, “how shall I act here, given my position?” They connect people to long term projects. They “embody our ideas, allowing us to meaningfully devote ourselves to them.” They structure thinking and “give us something to love.” They “shape our minds as they shape our character.” Within institutions, people practice “the virtues of loyalty, solidarity, and fidelity,” and institutions help us in “managing egos, settling disputes, prioritizing different people’s preferences and points of view, and paving paths to forgiveness.”
Yet ambiguities cloud Levin’s analysis. Do we, in the wake of the changes of the last sixty years, have weak institutions or bad institutions? When our institutions are “flagging and degraded” they “fail to form us, or they deform us.” Which is it?
The old Congress of Sam Rayburn or Joe Cannon is gone, but has it been replaced with a non-institution or a strong institution with different ways? The old presidency of U.S Grant and Dwight Eisenhower is gone, but has it been replaced with non-institutional platform or with an institutionalized “rhetorical” presidency where the incumbent spends most of his time going public? The old university of Robert Maynard Hutchins, friendly to genuine liberal learning, is gone, but has it been replaced with a non-institution without a formative project or with an even stronger institution with different emphases? The old family and sexual regime of Ozzie and Harriet is gone, but has it been replaced with different set of practices or no set practices? The old newspaper is gone, but is the social media that replaces it formative or not? Is the medium the message or just a medium? The old apolitical WASP churches-as-social-clubs are gone, but have they been replaced with churches that do not know what they are doing or with churches that have a different idea of what they are doing?
Levin’s book shows, against the main thrust of his argument that we have weak institutions, that our new institutions do indeed shape us. Sometimes, like Congress and the presidency, they have become platform institutions, encouraging, to use former Speaker Rayburn’s distinction, “show horses” instead of “work horses.” Sometimes, like on the university, they have become very different institutions, but much more uniform in their norms, policies, ways of thinking, political aspirations, and curricula. The family is another example of a very different institution or, rather, two very different institutions now exist among a majority of the population—one where marriage is a simulacrum of what it once was, and one where enduring marriages fail to form and where people design their lives and expectations accordingly.
The question, it seems, is not “do we have institutions that form us?” We do. The more needful question is: do the new institutions that are forming us secure liberty to ourselves and our posterity, or are they compromising self-government and liberal character? Since Levin merely sees our institutions as weak, he does not address the more controversial challenge involved in distinguishing between good and bad institutions.
Levin says it is “a time to build.” What should we build? We should build institutions, of course. But what kind of institutions? For what ends? Levin knows that not just any institution would do: yet he refrains from explicitly describing the institutions that it is now time to build. To what kinds of institutions should Americans recommit themselves in order to revive the American Dream? What new forms must we create to weather our conditions?
Levin grasps the pitfalls of purely formal and social science analysis.
It is easy to fall into talking about institutions in terms of organizational categories and pure structural analyses. But often what matters most about them is what that sort of thinking leaves out: their mission, their ethic, their ends, their ideals. They are more than organizations. They embody our aspirations.
A thousand times true! The reader then can be excused for expecting an analysis of mission, ethics, ends, and ideals of good institutions from Levin. Regrettably, such an analysis is a casualty of Levin’s argument that our institutions are weak instead of bad or corrupt. This omission follows from the fact that Levin frames A Time to Build inside the universe of social science, instead of statesmanship.
His modest solution is for citizens “to act through institutions a bit more” after thinking long and hard about “how to use our time and energy, how to pursue our goals, how to judge success and failure, how to identify ourselves when people ask us who we are, how to measure our responsibilities.” This repeats the same formalism with which Levin diagnoses our problems on the level of remedy. Little beyond “building,” on his account, defines our goals, measures our responsibilities, or judges our successes.
This leaves one more ambiguity. Who is to build institutions? Presumably we all should be building them. I want to say, “sign me up.” Will members of today’s Left participate in building new institutions, flush as they are in building their own? Will they join in moving the universities away from imperial identity politics? Will they advocate for stronger marriages and more power to parents or churches that have robust protections? Would they revitalize our political institutions through moving power away from the bureaucracy? Levin’s laudable goal—his statesmanlike goal—is to establish a better society with social peace through these new institutions. Yet he seems preternaturally unable to see that the Left may not want such a peace or is not a fit peace partner. If it is not, then it cannot be a time to simply build—some more radical renovation is also in order.
Let me illustrate with a somewhat unfair jibe. A Bernie Sanders campaign worker was recently caught on camera defending the idea that gulags should be introduced into America for political conservatives. While Levin would no doubt find this proposal troubling, one has to admire the Sandernista—he knows that it is “a time to build.”
People on the Left listen to Levin, to his great credit. Perhaps the social bonds in America are so frayed that only such a formal proposal as this could gain a hearing, especially on the Left. Thus Levin’s statesmanship.
Is it enough? The Left has been building for sixty years. No stable common ground has been found as they march through our institutions creating new, ever more radical and unhealthy ones. Perhaps the string has run out on continuing to seek such common ground. Perhaps it is a time for statesmen to repeal and replace.