Our institutions are in crisis.
It’s a common refrain, and polls show that public trust in every major institution has fallen sharply in recent decades. The response from many on both the left and right—from “drain the swamp” to Occupy Wall Street—is a populist anger that attempts to undermine and tear down our institutions.
In his latest book, A Time to Build, Yuval Levin argues that this is misguided. To heal our fractured culture, we need to reset and rebuild our institutions, not dismantle them. Levin argues for the social utility of institutions, asserting that healthy institutions “constrain and structure our activities; they embody our ideals in practice; they offer us an edifying path to belonging, social status, and recognition.” More than this, institutions give us something to devote ourselves to. At their best, our institutions inspire love and loyalty as they personify our deepest aspirations, providing us a path out of an often meaningless individualistic existence.
From Public Purpose to Personal Platform
But if institutions are so worthwhile, why is there such widespread mistrust in them? Levin places the blame squarely on our most prominent institutions, showing how the media, government, academia, the family, and the church have all been transformed from forgers of values to platforms for exhibitionism. For Levin, institutions, in large part, exist to form our habits, character, and expectations. They should mold and shape our behaviour so that the institution can appropriately carry out its purpose and serve the common good. Yet institutions are failing to fulfill this purpose. Social media has created incentives for institutional elites to use their institution’s credibility as leverage to build their own “platform” or “brand.” One way this manifests is with members using their institutional roles to perform for an outside audience. Take, for example, outspoken congresspersons Matt Gaetz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From different sides of the aisle, each has built their profile in part by attacking their own party leaders through social media. While acting as outsiders critiquing Congress, this has come at the expense of routine congressional work that depends on members such as them to act as legislators, not opponents undermining leadership. For each, this has paid huge dividends as their public profiles have increased. Yet these flamethrowers and others like them destabilize our legislative institutions. The gradual erosion of the integrity of the institution results in a community bereft of the safeguards and benefits that the institution was created to achieve.
This shift from form to platform also helps account for our current media environment. Aspiring reporters once spent years in apprentice-like roles before being trusted as journalists. Today, even the most established newsrooms abandon such expectations. To maintain market share, media outlets depend on journalists with large social-media audiences. Yet journalists have often built these audiences by taking hardline stances on polarizing issues. Many media outlets have responded by turning a blind eye to these breaches in journalistic standards because of their dependence on these high-profile reporters. According to Levin, this dependence suggests media institutions are too weak, exerting little influence over their members while the members themselves display little respect for the institutions. Instead of submitting to the newsroom’s standards, journalists now use the credibility of their affiliation with these cultural institutions as a platform to further boost their profiles. Activist styles of reporting are now so widespread that the media’s legitimacy is endangered.
This problem is not isolated to politics or journalism. In many spheres, from medicine to academia to business to sports to politics to religion, we find professionals using institutional and professional legitimacy to boost their brand. A culture of integrity that institutions once fostered by forming and shaping members for their purposes has been replaced by a culture of celebrity in which prominence and affirmation are the greatest aspiration.
Not Just an Elite Phenomenon
The social crisis we confront is not found only at our elite institutions. The most serious challenge we face is a social crisis as alienation and loneliness increase. To Levin, this in part reflects a failure of one of our oldest and most universal institutions, the church. Religious institutions have experienced a loss in public confidence, particularly America’s two largest religious groups: Catholicism and evangelicalism. Yet each has suffered a loss of confidence for different reasons. Catholicism’s resulted from a corrupt “insiderism” during the priest abuse scandal wherein insiders were protected at the expense of those the institution was supposed to serve. The church’s hierarchical structure meant this institutional failure was particularly debilitating as it deeply undermined institutional legitimacy.
However, more recently, evangelical Protestants have faced a corrosive “outsiderism” where a failure of structure and accountability have undermined institutional authority. To Levin, Protestantism’s strength is its ability to empower leaders to mediate between God and believers rather than authoritative structures. This fosters a certain authenticity and egalitarianism that makes it particularly inviting. These strengths, however, make these churches vulnerable to being turned into platforms in the culture war. This problem became prominent with the election of Donald Trump. Going beyond pragmatic justifications for allying with a morally flawed but politically useful candidate, many evangelical leaders made theologically puzzling comments, such as Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr.’s equating of Trump with Israel’s King David, to rationalize their support. For Levin this is particularly discouraging because, in this cultural moment, the church offers a path for building meaningful community and escaping the never-ending culture wars. Yet the weakening of these institutions’ legitimacy has limited their ability to do so.
Hope for Improvement?
As a whole, Levin offers a masterful explanation of the problems with our institutions in the twenty-first century. One cannot help but feel a sense of hopelessness at the prospects for improvement. Take, for example, the university system, the foremost sorting device of cultural elites. Levin articulates how a culture of moral activism has gone from a fringe counterculture to our top universities’ dominant culture. Even many administrators now embrace such values, using their authority to enforce codes of elite orthodoxy. Students are now graduating and expecting their employers to have similar policies. Thus, this philosophy is now advancing into corporate America as business managers seek to accommodate their credentialed young employees. Levin’s concern here, though, is not with this culture per se but with its sheer dominance that crowds out opposing viewpoints.
Levin seems unsure of how to resolve this, however, merely recommending critics of campus moralists provide a winsome counterexample to attract allies in reclaiming the university as a place for a truly liberal education. This, at best, will only lead to small pockets of change and is unlikely to restore the university as a place where truth is sought and ideas contested. His other suggestions for institutional renewal are likewise insufficient. For instance, his recommendations for renewing the evangelical church seem superficial. Levin suggests churches adopt a modernized version of Benedict’s Rule that includes habits like daily prayer and Sabbath rest to combat temptations to celebrity. While such prescriptions are worthwhile and likely to yield benefits, it is these evangelical churches’ weak structures and high visibility that, as Levin acknowledges, make them most susceptible to attracting attention seekers desiring to boost their ego. Such institutions are thus the least likely to adopt practices requiring a sublimation of the self. Without meaningful reform here or a movement toward denominationalism, change seems doubtful.
This is the book’s predicament. When reading, it is apparent change will have to come from the top. Levin seems aware of this. He criticizes institutional leaders who have used their institutions as personal platforms to build their own brand, contributing to the collapse of institutional trust. He suggests institutional leaders embrace this failing and seek to restore institutional trust. To do so, leaders need to take more seriously the institution’s boundaries and submit to its formative function, devoting and committing themselves to their institution’s particular ideals and values. To accomplish this, Levin suggests we reconsider the meritocratic system commonly used to select institutional leaders. While Levin does not eschew the importance of skill or efficiency, he does advocate that greater attention be given to character and virtue in leadership selection. If this were done, then leaders focused on institutional integrity, not self-promotion, would be more commonplace and institutional trust could be more readily restored.
But why should elites change the system when they thrive within it? Levin never really answers this, but, when considered, it highlights the unlikeliness of change. Economically, our top institutions are doing well: University endowments and political donations are at record levels, media companies have found working business models for the internet age, and megachurches are still megachurches. Even in the case of the notorious Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty University is now the world’s largest provider of online education, thanks in no small part to free advertising from his media exploits. Changes in the incentives for elites—only hinted at in A Time to Build—are needed in order for the system to change. While Levin proposes worthwhile suggestions such as campaign finance reform or greater emphasis on professionalization, to me, these ideas seem unlikely to get to the root of the problem. Levin’s unsatisfactory proposals imply that the problems with our most important cultural institutions are deeper and more pervasive than even Levin’s gloomy diagnosis suggests.
Yet A Time to Build concludes with a word of encouragement. Our job is not to fix everything. Instead, we simply need to focus on the local institutions within our sphere of influence. We each have institutions in our lives—work, family, church—that all need devoted institutionalists. The need today is for persons committed to the great work of building them up, leading them wisely and for the greater good. In doing so, each of us can play a small but necessary part in healing our fractured culture.