Yuval Levin returns to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his new book, A Time to Build. He makes the case for rebuilding the key institutions of American life, which have changed from frameworks that molded our character to platforms that allow us to project ourselves.
Richard Reinsch: We’re talking with Yuval Levin about his new book, A Time To Build. I’m glad to welcome Yuval back to Liberty Law Talk. He has appeared on the show to discuss The Great Debate and The Fractured Republic. Maybe this book is the completion, it seems of a system, a tripartite system of books here. Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and is the Director of the Social Cultural & Constitutional Studies Project at the American Enterprise Institute. He also worked in the George W. Bush White House. Yuval, welcome back.
Yuval Levin: Thanks very much Richard.
Richard Reinsch: So the book, A Time To Build. Now I’ll read the full subtitle.
Yuval Levin: It’ll take a while.
Richard Reinsch: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Now that sort of answers this question, what are we supposed to build, Yuval?
Yuval Levin: So in a way the reason the book is called A Time To Build is because it feels a lot of the time like we are living in a moment that sees itself as a time to tear down. Our politics is really focused on the work of demolition, some of which is necessary work of demolition. But a sense that what’s required now is draining the swamp or clearing the field. And there is some of that necessary. But I think that we too rarely see that what we really need in this kind of moment is to build and rebuild institutions, there’s a lot of the social crisis that we’re living through in America is a function of weakened and deformed institutions. And that requires more than demolition, that really does require some construction.
Richard Reinsch: I want to read from the beginning of your book, page two, and maybe get your comment here because I thought it expresses well what you’re saying, “we are not only restless amid plenty” and I think that’s important. And it’s something as I’ve been engaging in this area of industrial policy, now here we are in the midst of economic plenty, in the midst of a growing economy for a decade and yet we’re sort of in this problem of deaths of despair, of opioid problems, of drug abuse, suicides of youths rising. You note that in the book and the question becomes, why are we in this situation? You go on to say:
[W]e are also awfully daunted by what on the surface seem like readily surmountable obstacles to our thriving together. This is in part because we underestimate our strengths, but we underestimate and misconstrue the problems we face. We lack the grammar and vocabulary to talk about what is breaking down so we can’t even begin to do something about it. We look for diagnoses in the realms made visible to us by our sciences of society, but the troubles we find there are not sufficient to justify our despondent mood. Something has gone wrong somewhere else in some invisible realm. And we have been straining to perceive and describe what it might be.
So what do you perceive?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I mean the book really begins with that kind of mystery where I think the reigning mood of our politics is darker than you would think it ought to be if you look at the normal measures of wellbeing, like economic wellbeing, and health and safety and the sorts of things that we might first look to if we want to ask ourselves, “Why do Americans feel as though things are going in the wrong direction?” And I think once you explore those, it looks like the problem is something that we don’t see so easily. And I turn to the question of institutions because I think institutions are a kind of invisible infrastructure that underlie our social life. They make it all possible, but one of the reasons that we enjoy our freedom, the way we do in our country is that we often don’t see institutions, don’t think about what it is they do, especially the formative work that they do.
And that’s great when they’re strong, it means that we feel even more free than we are. But when they break down, we have real trouble knowing where to go to fix things. And one of the things that this book tries to do is to make those institutions more visible, to articulate what it is they do, and therefore what might be going wrong in this moment in ways that are not obvious from the usual kinds of social science statistics and economic data.
Richard Reinsch: So what is an institution and why do they matter? Something you note in the book, I think was right on. Institutions are frequently depicted as our enemy, as things that constrain those things that we need to be redeemed from, to come out of and be who we are. So what are they and this isn’t really a political book. Maybe, we could say it’s a work of political thought, but it’s not really a political book, you’re talking about a lot of institutions. We’ll try and go through those in the interview.
Yuval Levin: I mean I think the resistance to institutions, the sense that we don’t need them is a long running thread in American social, cultural, and political life. American culture is rooted in a certain kind of individualistic protestantism that wants to deny the need for mediation and for formative institutions. But ultimately I’d describe institutions as the durable forms of our common life, the shapes, the structures of the things we do together. And we tend not to see them because we have a very individualistic understanding of ourselves, and our culture, and our society and institutions are not individualistic. They’re precisely the things we do together. And they’re the ways in which we give shape and form to what we do together. So they do become very difficult for us to see.
But ultimately they’re central and unavoidable, they’re the ways that our social life actually happens. And so in a moment like this one, they seem to be in trouble. It’s particularly important to think about what they are, what they do, and the ways in which they offer us something that I think is ironic if not paradoxical, which is they offer us a liberating and empowering form of constraint. They give us specific roles in places. They tell us what to do and what not to do in those situations. And by doing that, they give us a kind of shape or form that lets us be effective in various ways in different parts of our lives. And it’s important to appreciate that because it doesn’t come easy in the language of our kind of easygoing individualism.
Richard Reinsch: So the institutions, they aim at practical results, consequences. And maybe we can get more specific here about the types of institutions, but there’s a form, there’s a purpose to the institutions themselves as to what they provide or I guess you’ve been sort of talking about that formation, restraint, integrity and purpose and those who participate in them. So that explains the situation we’re in now. The emptying out of that, how precisely?
Yuval Levin: I mean each institution, of course, in our society does something that we value, right? It might educate our children, or enforce the law, or protect the country, or just provide us with a good or a service that we value. But as it does that, each institution also forms the people within it to do that in a way that takes integrity seriously, that it follows a certain code and that therefore makes those people trustworthy as providers of that service for our society. And so to trust an institution is really to believe that, that institution fosters an internal ethic that makes the people trustworthy.
One of the things we do know about institutions now in American life is that we’re losing trust in them. There are decades of data that show us that American confidence in institutions has been declining, and I think the reason for that, or a core reason for that is that we’ve lost this sense that these institutions form people who are trustworthy. And that’s not just because of traditional kinds of corruption where there are always people who try to abuse institutional power. I think it’s also because of a different change that’s really at the heart of this book where our expectations of institutions have changed from thinking that they exist to form people to thinking that they exist to provide people with platforms, with a stage to shine and be seen with prominence and a high profile rather than with a particular kind of form that they have to be given through the institution.
So that if you look at our political institutions for example, Congress is a great example of this. A lot of members of Congress now basically think of Congress as a platform for themselves, as a way to get a better time slot on cable news, as a way to be heard on talk radio, as a way to get a bigger Twitter following, and what they do with that is a form of expression and particularly expression of frustration, even frustration with Congress. They don’t think of themselves as insiders operating within the institution and shaped by it, but as outsiders who are just particularly prominent commentators about the institution.
That’s how president Trump used the presidency. He will stand on top of it and yell about the government, even though he is the chief executive of the government. And once you notice that, you see it in a lot of our institutions where people who ought to be functioning like insiders are actually functioning like outsiders, and that makes those institutions very hard to trust and take seriously.
Richard Reinsch: You’ve run this analysis through politics, Congress most obviously. We talk a lot about that at Law & Liberty, the executive branch, journalism, education, legal professions, legal profession is one, but the professions generally. A question that I have for you, the molds and platforms, the institutions no longer mold us, shape us and just thinking about what you said about, in your chapter on education and universities. No one really thinks—outside of say maybe some of the great books colleges or some of our more religiously Orthodox campuses—that they’re supposed to shape you in some way. The university is there to give you a step up into the next realm of your life, or into a new class, or a profession or something like that.
Richard Reinsch: And that the contrast there would be, I thought Calvin Coolidge’s autobiographical account of his time at Amherst College where there was a definite formation process at work, theology, philosophy, history, and this sort of expectation of becoming a man of that college. So we’re not that far removed necessarily from what you’re describing, but we are far removed from it, it seems in the individualism, and the other side of that is the egalitarianism of our culture that we somehow see these things, a formation process really as a threat to us. I don’t know how one overcomes that other than just to say, “Wow, this is just really an unhappy situation.” Maybe I really should look to tradition and the formation across generations that an institution can embody.
Yuval Levin: Well, I think that’s quite right. I mean the ways that a lot of these prominent institutions, including educational institutions, which are unavoidably formative in one way or another, the way they understand themselves is often much more expressive and performative. I think of a friend who had a daughter who was at the age of starting to apply to colleges and he showed me a brochure that she got from Brown, which at the very top said in big letters, be yourself. And that’s a strange way for a college to express to a potential student what it’s all about. I think that if you look to the exceptions when it comes to American trust in institutions, ask yourself, what are the institutions we do still have high regard for? This difference becomes even clearer because the most significant exception is the military, which is one institution that Americans have higher regard for now than they did two generations ago.
And the military is a formative institution. It is unabashedly formative. It takes a certain kind of human being and produces a different kind of human being who is more inclined to take seriously things like honor and duty and country and we value the military not only because it’s very good at protecting us from our enemies. We value the military because it produces trustworthy people and we end up trusting it for that reason.
A lot of our institutions could think of themselves that way and have reason to think of themselves that way, but very few of our institutions actually do think of themselves or present themselves that way to our larger society, and I think that does get to a kind of discomfort with the idea that we even require formation and formative institutions. You say this is not really a political book and I think that’s true, but it is a deeply conservative book in one sense that it assumes an idea of the human person as beginning in a very imperfect form and requiring formation to become really capable of the freedom that we in this free society exercise.
The idea of the human person at the heart of this argument is an imperfect fallen creature that requires formation. That’s not the idea of the human person at the heart of a lot of our popular culture now and of our elite culture. We think of the human person more as just requiring a platform, a way to be seen and heard, to have status, to be regarded. And if that’s what you think, then institutions really just ought to be platforms. But if you think we need formation, then a lot of our institutions need to rethink how, what kind of role they play in society.
Richard Reinsch: No, I mean there’s a sense in which in your book, I think I mentioned in the beginning, I think your book sort of is the triptych here of what you’ve been doing maybe the past decade because your first book, The Great Debate, the debate being between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine could evidence this in a foundational sense. Thomas Paine released the shackles of society and let men be free and see what great things they do. Edmund Burke, well, freedom to what end and freedom itself only matters through a process of what we’re describing here of formation and all of the ways in which the various parts of your civilization have contributed and embodied excellence about human nature. Do we form people well? And freedom becomes lovely.
And your book in a way could be, is very threatening if it’s described that way, because it does involve these qualities of moral judgment that we seem to be so afraid of now. We struggle even to have a language to describe this. And so this is a difficult thing you’re after in the book. However, some people might describe it as sort of a benign book and in that regard, but it’s not at all.
One of the things that’s interesting here as well, it seems, the American military, if you look at public opinion polling in the 1970s, not hard to understand, not nearly as highly regarded as it is now. And maybe coming out of Vietnam and things like this, but it recovers great credibility and is now the most trusted of our governing institutions in the country without parallel. Congress as you know is at 11%. The federal government, when they started asking these sorts of questions of trust and high regard, I think in the early 1970s, 1973, pretty high regard, that’s obviously declined dramatically. I don’t even try and suss out all of the reasons for that. But the military itself is an interesting case and even within higher education, the service academies. Somebody says they went to Harvard, you think, “Oh, you’re really smart. Good for you.” Somebody says they went to West Point and more, we think they’re smart but more qualities naturally flood into our mind about that person. So maybe talk about that.
Yuval Levin: And now I think part of the story here actually highlights the importance of thinking about where our starting point is for these trends. The story of American confidence in institutions is one kind of story, if you begin in the middle of the 20th century when Americans had very unusually high confidence in institutions coming out of World War II, after the depression and really several decades of national mobilization, there was an incredible confidence in governing institutions, operations, in the labor movements, and educational institutions.
That began to decline somewhat by the middle of the 1960s, from what we can tell, as you say Gallup really started measuring this in the early 1970s, and so part of this is actually a kind of normalization. I mean I think if you had checked in on the United States in the 19th century, you would probably not have found very high confidence in institutions, certainly not like the level that we found in the middle of the 20th century. But the most interesting story in this pattern which quickly went beyond normalization, I think to extremely low confidence in institutions. The interesting story is the military, which in the 1970s had unusually low public confidence and that’s partly because of Vietnam, I’m sure. And the sense that the military was part of this sort of complex that was being dishonest with the public.
But I do think that it’s also partially an explicit effort by the US military to present itself and its role in our society as more than just fighting wars effectively although that’s extremely important and is its job, but as forming people, as forming men and women who are distinct in American life for the ways in which they take seriously certain core ideals. The military presents itself that way, and it actually is that way, and the public confidence in it I think has risen tremendously for that reason as it has declined in a lot of other institutions that have presented themselves less that way and have come to understand themselves and to show themselves to the public much more as providing arenas for expression. The military has presented itself as providing an arena for formation and I think that tells us a lot about what we value by institutions.
Richard Reinsch: And not to keep on the military point. The United States Marine Corps as many have noted doesn’t fail to meet its recruiting goals. And is seen as the most rigorous in terms of physical training and preparation to enter that branch, which I’ve always thought stands out.
Higher education, I liked your analysis of what we might characterize as the Campus Wars. We’ve been talking some about higher education, and its role as an institution, and what makes it an institution. How should we think about higher education in America? I’m partial to the idea of removing the federal government almost entirely from its workings and trying to create a true market for higher education, which I think would make it a much more responsible set of organizations within higher education. You probably don’t disagree with that, but in the book you talk about more, more that needs to be done, and I also think we can get into your analysis of say the Campus Wars, which I think is also prescient.
Yuval Levin: In some ways the university is really at the center of this argument. It’s at the center of the book in a structural sense. The other chapters are kind of built around the question of the university, and I think it’s at the center of the culture war that is really at the heart of the transformation of our culture that the book tries to describe, the university that you would think is unavoidably a formative institution. It’s an educational institution. It’s essential to the character of our elite culture. It is where the American elite sends its children to be formed and shaped to take positions of significance in our society and the university is at the heart of the dysfunction and deformation that we find.
The question of how to understand that the formation though I think is a challenging question and the approach I take to it is not the approach that all of my friends on the right do. I think universities serve multiple ends unavoidably. They’ve always been home to, what I describe in the book, as basically three kinds of educational cultures. One is about professional development, about giving people the skills they need for the economy. Another is about a kind of culture of moral activism, even social activism, which is not new in the American academy. In some ways, that’s what Harvard and Yale were created for, first American university, and then a culture of liberal education, the truly traditional academic culture. All of them have existed in the American academy from the beginning and all of them have tended to function in different ways through teaching and learning. That’s what the university does. It’s about teaching and learning. I think what’s different now, it’s not that these cultures exist, but that they are very badly out of balance. The culture of moral or social activism has overtaken the ethic of the university, particularly because it dominates the thinking of university administrators, which is really where I think the crisis of the campus has been focused in the last decade and a half.
Not just that there are some professors who see their role as a kind of social activism on campus, but that, that’s how universities tend to understand themselves and govern themselves, and there’s a tremendous need for pushing back to make room both for liberal education, which I think is a central. And even just for traditional kinds of skills training which universities would form. I think the answer to that is not just arguing for free speech though. I’ve been concerned somewhat about the ways that we have tried to defend the culture of the university, have identified it with free speech. The university doesn’t exist for free speech.
Richard Reinsch: Or merely academic freedom.
Yuval Levin: Or merely academic freedom, exactly.
Richard Reinsch: Those are two formative things but there are purposes…
Yuval Levin: They’re necessary, right? They’re prerequisites, but they’re not the ultimate purpose of the university. They’re means, not ends, and I think we have to recover an idea of what the university is for, which is a formative idea. And so the argument that I’m making for what can be done about this, really called for pushing back against the culture of university administration in a way that tries to recover the ethic of the academy as a formative institution.
Richard Reinsch: So that does spark an obvious question. How should we judge higher education if it’s teaching and learning? Yet there is a vacuum there, you note that in the book. There’s a vacuum in our society. You quote Alan Jacobs, Jody Bottum is another thinker here, that what’s filling that vacuum is some Puritan inheritance divorced from traditional theological context, but now playing out most powerfully in the university of sinners, redemption, purity. You quote Alan Jacobs that the campus is the sanctuary, which is why we see speakers disinvited or shouted down because they are invaders of some kind, central invaders.
So, that’s one way to think about higher education. And it seems to me that it loses in the end, although it can do a lot of damage in the meanwhile, the standard you’re proposing is, could you put something on that?
Yuval Levin: Part of what we’re seeing is filling a kind of spiritual vacuum and it wouldn’t be wrong really even to describe the culture of moral activism on campus as a kind of deformed puritanism. I think we’re wrong to think of it as fundamentally relativistic or nihilistic. It has elements of that and there are ways that a certain kind of radical egalitarianism points in those directions anyway, but I don’t think we should understand the Left on campus is fundamentally relativism. I think it is highly moralistic, but in a misguided way and we should see that as an opportunity.
I think there are a lot of students who are looking for a morally freighted way of understanding the good and the true and the beautiful in society. That says to me that they may be open for one thing, for some kind of religious conversion, but at the very least it means they could be open to liberal education presented to them as a way to pursue the truth as a way to understand justice, which after all is what liberal education is. I think this is a moment that begs for liberal education to present itself, not in defensive ways, not as struggling for its life against evil forces trying to crush it, but as the answer, as the solution to what these students are actually looking for in a way that would be much more constructive for them, much more appealing for them, and open up a lot more paths than the kind of social activism that they’re presented with.
And so I think this has to be a time when those of us who care about liberal education on campus make the case for it in inviting and appealing ways, but too often because that culture is under siege somewhat, the champions of liberal education seem alarmed, panicked, and frightened and that’s not as attractive as it might be. I think we should think about how to gain converts more than just how to defend territory.
Richard Reinsch: It seems most of the efforts at liberal education, I’ll say, properly understood, aren’t necessarily happening in the academy either. Summer programs, the students weekend programs, you’re involved in those, I’m involved in those and trying to bring to them sort of a nonideological approach to education. How one does that on campus with a more broad effect is hard to see. Humanities majors declining, I think one reason for that is students maybe look at that and say, “I don’t want any part of that,” but the other reason is practical. The cost of an education is so much, and you might as well major in business, something you think you could do something with, and I understand that as well. So definitely one’s work is big here.
Yuval Levin: I don’t think that there are easy solutions here and as I said, I think it’s understandable why the culture of liberal education is in a kind of defensive crouch. It is under assault and there’s not an easy way to regain the offensive here. Liberal education has never really owned the American academy. It’s always been a minority culture on campus and it’s going to remain so, but it doesn’t have to be quite as under siege as it is. And I think that that means for fighting for the culture of the university by using any leverage we might have over students and parents and trustees and outside forces that the universities will have to listen to ways of changing the culture of administration. But I don’t think we should be under the illusion that any of that will be easy. It is not at all easy to see the kind of cultural transformation that would have to happen.
Some of the response has to be from outside.
Richard Reinsch: Yeah, and requires a lot of different policy steps too.
Yuval Levin: I agree with that. I think the role that public policy plays now is basically counterproductive and has to be rethought.
Richard Reinsch: The biggest challenge to higher education, I think, is happening right now, which is the curve in enrollment. I read recently enrollment is down in higher ed since 2011, something like 11% to 12%, which is not insignificant if one thinks about the demographic challenges and how that will play out. But I think discussion of higher education may naturally bleed into a discussion about our elites, which is also a huge part of the contention in our society. For what you say about elites fits into this molds and platforms analysis. What is the crisis of the elites? Are our elites up to no good?
Yuval Levin: The book sort of ends with that question and views it through the lens of meritocracy, which is how we now think about the formation of elites in our society. We think about elites that way because the elites that produced our meritocracy, and that ran a lot of our institutions for a lot of American history came to be perceived and even to perceive itself as too exclusive, as making it too difficult for people to rise into elite positions in our society in various ways. And I think that was true, but when we think about it that way, it keeps us from seeing that there are really two ways that elites have to legitimate their power and position in democratic societies, in egalitarian societies.
One is about how people rise into the elite, but the second is about how elites use their power and use their positions and authority. And I think the problem we have today is much more about the second than about the first, and meritocracy contributes to that problem because it leaves our elites now thinking that their positions are earned, that their authority is legitimate by default because they’ve been selected into elite institutions of higher education in particular. And then I’ve had a kind of path to power in our society through that and an elite that doesn’t think it needs to be constrained is a very bad fit for a democratic society.
It invites the kind of resistance, frustration, and ultimately populism that we’ve seen, and I think it deserves that response. Our elites in fact don’t think enough about how to constrain themselves in ways that could make it clear to the larger society that they’re playing a legitimate and valuable role. And I think institutions have an enormous role to play in that because our elite institutions can constrain our elites in ways that put them to use for the larger society. That’s what the professions do. That’s what political and cultural institutions do when they’re functioning well.
But if we understand our institutions as performative, as just platforms for people to stand and shine on, then they don’t really function to constrain our elites. They just display our elites and increase the frustration of the larger society with them. I think part of the solution to this part of the problem our country confronts is an idea of institutionalism that requires much more constraint and formation, that requires people to understand themselves as needing to prove that they operate by some standard of integrity and public service and that would require a real cultural change in a lot of our elite institutions.
Richard Reinsch: But I think they would take on your position, say, “No, no, we’re doing that. We’re showing how we serve, how we’ve been formed, and how we’re restrained with all of our wealth, power, and intellect. That’s our commitment to social justice. That’s our moral capital.” That’s what these leading C-suite executives saying, “we’re not beholden to the shareholders but to our stakeholders.” Which would include the working class, which would include the environment, all of these sorts of considerations, much broader sets of considerations that make us better companies, universities similarly, leading law firms. You note that and these quotations of with the legal cases they take on in their pro bono efforts, isn’t that their justification? But as you and I would say, I think, persuasively, that’s a problem, too.
Yuval Levin: I think that the way that they would make that case, points exactly to the expressive understanding of institutions that dominates now in our culture, which is to say exactly by describing themselves as advancing an idea of a virtue or responsibility, that’s basically about expressing the right opinions rather than as existing in order to constrain people with power and put them to use in public service. It seems to me that the solution they offer is an example of the problem and what the elite professions do for example, think about the legal profession. The legal profession ought to be a great way to constrain elites because it literally puts people with training and power in the service of other members of our society as agents, as counsel.
But if we think of the legal profession instead as advancing a social revolution as existing to transform our society in light of progressive ideals, then that institution does not constrain our elites, it empowers them, it helps them feel better about themselves, but it doesn’t give the rest of society the sense that people with power are also held to certain standards of responsibility. That’s what our elite institutions could do and should do. But very often when they’re pressed on that point, as you say, they just say, “Well, we’re well-intentioned. We’re expressing the right opinions, we’re advancing right ideas. So don’t worry about it.”
Richard Reinsch: Incredibly self-serving forms of action that morally emboldened people as well. I think I’ve seen that from firsthand experience. Okay, so putting all of this in a explosive cocktail mix is social media. You have a great chapter, I think, and I told you that before the interview started on social media. I think as people read it, they’ll recognize maybe their own actions on social media in it, but a larger role, that you note is how expectations for social media, which I never bought, you probably never bought either. That it would bring us together and make us better and more communicative of information, et cetera.
That hasn’t really proven to be true, and I think most people now agree with you, even though everybody still rushes to engage in it, and Facebook and Twitter are leading companies on the stock exchange, et cetera. But social media has led to, fueled, it seems, this decline in institutions. Talk about your critique.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, social media in a sense are native 21st century institutions, so that they arose in this period when what we expect of institutions is to serve as platforms and to display rather than form and the social media institutions, our platforms, I mean we call them platforms. So that’s what they are, they are places where we can stand and be seen and they encourage a kind of a culture of exhibitionism. They turn us all into our own paparazzi. We hound ourselves for photographs, robbing ourselves of privacy for the sake of exposure. It’s a very bizarre kind of thing when you step back and think about it.
But I think more important than that, they come to substitute for what we understand to be the place of our social lives. A set of habits and practices that really aren’t particularly social and that aren’t formative of suitable sort of social habits and norms. And ultimately social media exacerbates these problems in other institutions. The name of the chapter in the book on social media is the informality machine. They serve to take forms out of the ways in which our other institutions operate. So if you think about, for example, how social media interacts with political journalism, which we talked about before, journalism is trusted to the extent that people think that it imposes some standards on the people who practice it, that it requires people to be edited, and to some standards of verification, and various kinds of layers of confirmation.
And then you have prominent political journalists standing on their own, on a platform on Twitter, and just expressing their views and mixing it with what seems like reporting and effectively deep professionalizing themselves in an ongoing way on Twitter. There’s a way in which that’s what social media does for all of us in all kinds of ways. It robs us of the forms that makes it possible for us to know who to trust, and what to believe, and what to take seriously, and makes it very difficult for our society to address the kinds of problems that arise out of our other institutions.
Richard Reinsch: Yeah, It’s interesting, social media, it can be your own highlight reel where you’re always posting the best things about yourself to others. And it can also be this place where you show the worst part of yourself to others.
Yuval Levin: That’s right. It confuses us about what’s public and what’s private, right? And you never quite know if you’re talking to your friends or you’re talking to the whole world. And so people do and say things on social media that would just never happen in the everyday world. And you stand there, your jaw drops and you think, “How could this person have done that?” But the form of the interaction encourage it.
Richard Reinsch: There’s a case for not everything being made public, certainly not in real time, but also you get into these moments and you see people, you can tell they go on a three-hour extended discussion on social media and what’s driving that is anger, adrenaline, passion. But this has all been, this is transformed, it seems to me transformed maybe to much of a word. It’s changed the nature of political discourse in this country. And arguably Twitter helps get Donald Trump elected. It’s hard for me to see him doing the things he did without Twitter and being able to speak directly to so many people. Many would say that’s a good thing. I think it’s more mixed, but Twitter certainly never came along thinking it was going to get Donald Trump elected. But it did, I think.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I mean, Twitter itself, it’s much smaller than Facebook say. But I think because of the role that it plays in our elite culture in particular really has been just transformative of some facets of our public life. And it’s had an enormous effect on politics, changing the basic nature of the discourse, the basic culture. And doing it in a way that by robbing at forms makes it extremely difficult for politics to be substantive, for people to think before they speak, the kinds of things that are just essential for a democratic politics to function well and to rise above the lowest possible level. And so my view of Twitter is just not mixed. I mean, I think it has been a disaster.
Richard Reinsch: You’re not on Twitter, are you?
Yuval Levin: I’m not. No, no.
Richard Reinsch: Yeah. That’s interesting. I’ve noticed you’re not on Twitter and I’ve thought… John Podhoretz had a great piece in the New York Post talking about his Twitter life, because he was always on Twitter, constantly. I mean, I remember he would appear every time I opened my feed and then he disappeared and now I know why. He recognized a need to step back. But also if we put this all together, it’s not just the case, I don’t think, and I don’t think you’re saying social media destroyed institutions. It does come along at a time when they’re very weak, I think. And if we put together your analysis, you talk about, you say on page 15, “if the absence we are experiencing looks like isolation, mistrust and alienation then it is also a shortage of belonging, confidence and legitimacy.” So we would have lonely, angry people at times, disconnected at times, not seeing themselves belonging to something. Bam, Twitter!
Yuval Levin: No, exactly. I don’t blame it for these problems, but I think that it’s made them worse in ways that we couldn’t possibly have imagined when this got started.
Richard Reinsch: So here at the end, I want to go through one more very important institution in American life and then also get into your case for commitment, religion and institutions. Talk about how you see it. You discuss at length Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but also what’s missing here, not necessarily from your analysis, but missing is the collapse of mainline Protestantism, which the repercussions for that, as Jody Bottum again has noted, are tremendous.
Yuval Levin: I think that’s absolutely right and that’s about more than the religion story in America. I think the case that Jody Bottum has made is very persuasive in helping us see the decline of many of our other institutions too, in that the sort of framework, the core moral consensus that had held them together in a lot of ways became dramatically weaker and was replaced by this different attitude about what institutions do. In talking about religion, the book focuses on Catholics and evangelicals basically because those are the two largest religious groups in our society. I think that the patterns we find exist in many other religious denominations too. They certainly exist in the world that I know best of American Judaism, and I think part of what you find is the same kind of transformation of institutions that ought to be formative, that ought to be changing souls and changing hearts instead becoming performative, becoming just another stage for people to demonstrate that they have the approved kinds of virtue and for people to make political arguments and culture war arguments.
You find that all kinds of different institutions in our society that have different purposes, and different roles, and should have different cultures just become interchangeable stages in arenas for this kind of expression of cultural and political views so that what happens at the New York Times just isn’t very different from what happens at an elite college. They’re both just places to yell about oppression, and in American religion some of this happens on the Right where you find institutions that become just places to express the views of a political sect rather than the views of religious tradition.
And the effect of that combined with certain kinds of celebrity culture that also is an acid poured onto our institutions is to leave us without the kind of formation that these core institutions can offer us at their best. I don’t want to paint too grim a picture of American life. This book is actually ultimately a hopeful book, but I think that the kinds of problems we’re living with become much clearer and sharper when we see them through this sort of institutional lens.
Richard Reinsch: I was evangelical Protestant, now I’m Roman Catholic. Evangelical Protestantism, it seems to me reading your book, is a pretty thin group, we think a lot about politics, and just looking around me in the suburbs of Indianapolis, evangelical Protestant churches are full not just on Sunday, but throughout the week. They’re offering a lot to people, it seems to me.
Yuval Levin: Absolutely.
Richard Reinsch: And I’ve experienced that. Catholicism, well known betrayal and mistrust, which I’ve also lived with now for over a decade. And also there’s another part of Catholicism too, which is a lack of confidence, I think even in itself as an institution, apart from just the sexual scandals. But it seems to me the collapse of Mainline Protestantism is so large within American religious life, Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism really can’t, maybe they can’t take that on, but it’s going to take a long time and involves a lot of things.
But this is crucial too because how does one reach those who are alienated, Tocqueville features into your book. He has a way of describing religion being sort of one of these pre-liberal institutions that helps us think not only about our liberty, but also about its use, or using it well, and both emboldening it, but also limiting it. And that crucial factor missing is huge and gets replaced by other things.
Yuval Levin: And in an institutional sense, it helps us grasp that we require formation, that we need that, both from religion and from other institutions, and seeing that I think is key to any path forward for us from these particular kinds of problems that our society faces now. So that I think American religion has an absolutely central role to play in any recovery along these lines.
Richard Reinsch: So the case for commitment. Because that in itself is the long patient work, it seems to me, it also seems to me building institutions is inherently a work of elites at a basic level also, but I’ll let you maybe end with that.
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think that’s true in some ways, but we all have a role to play in some set of institutions. Some people have roles to play in elite institutions or in national institutions. Some people have roles to play in the institutions right around them, in local institutions, whether that’s educational, or work, or religion, or family, community, and civic life. It seems to me that the first step toward a recovery, if the problem is roughly along the lines that I’ve described it. It’s for us to try to think of ourselves through the lens of these institutions a little more, to ask the question that is really the great unasked question of American life right now, which is given my role here, how should I behave? Given that I am a member of Congress, or a CEO, or a worker, or a member of the clergy, or a congregant, or a parent, or a neighbor, or the vice principal of this elementary school. What should I do in this situation?
I think the people who we look up to in our lives are people who seem to ask that question before they make important judgments. The people who drive us crazy in America, who we think are part of the problem are people who seem to never ask that question when they should so that we could each begin by trying to force ourselves to think that way when we have to make decisions. That’s a small step but if we each take that small step, then I think we could really make some progress on these problems. And beyond that, there’s a real need for institutional reform.
And the book tries in different ways by thinking about the different institutions that it takes up to suggest some ways that the incentives that confront people in these different institutions could be changed. That the way we think about the purpose of these institutions could be clearer. But that kind of institutional reform requires first recognizing the problem in these terms and requires us really to see the need to think institutionally in different parts of our lives. And so I think it really does begin with a change of attitude. And ultimately the book is hopeful that this can happen because I think people do see the problem and there aren’t very many people who are just happy with the status quo, but it’s no easy thing and it will require a real cultural change that can only happen over time and from the bottom up.