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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
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TWO DECADES AGO, AT THE TURN OF THE MILLENNIUM, MANY Americans had a sense that we were living at the dawn of a new age—a bright and forward-looking era marked by stable economic progress and crowned by technological breakthroughs that might both liberate and unify us. Our country had real problems, of course, and the day that was dawning would bring challenges of its own, but it seemed that something exciting was afoot.
By now, it has become unavoidably evident that our country has experienced the beginning of this new millennium less as a dawn than as a twilight age. This century has certainly seen its share of novel technologies and of political, cultural, and social innovations. But all of these have seemed somehow to strain us more than they enable us. In politics, economics, world affairs, culture, media, and many other arenas, we have tried to extend into a new era some of the arrangements devised to serve us well in the second half of the twentieth century, and have been left with the sense that they are overstretched—and therefore increasingly rigid and brittle. But we don’t yet know what might replace them.
The term “twilight age” has a particular meaning given by Robert Nisbet, one of the foremost American sociologists of the twentieth century. Writing in 1975, Nisbet offered this haunting description:
Periodically in Western history twilight ages make their appearance. Processes of decline and erosion of institutions are more evident than those of genesis and development. Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and of corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.1
It is hard to read these words without taking them as a prescient sketch of our own time.
Some of this has been a matter of perception, to be sure, and part of what confounds us is that we know our sullen mood is not entirely justified. Generally speaking, this era 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. What has really defined this twilight age has been a widespread failure to understand what is missing or what has gone wrong—a collapse of some of the preconditions for flourishing that we cannot quite explain to ourselves.
We are not only restless amid plenty, as Americans have always been. We 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 it is also because we underestimate and misconstrue some of the problems we face. We lack the grammar and vocabulary to talk about what is breaking down, and so cannot even begin to do something about it. We look for diagnoses in the realms made visible to us by our assorted 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.
This book is one such attempt to perceive and describe. It seeks some underlying causes of our unease and frustration—of the isolation that afflicts too many Americans, of the dysfunction that torments our politics, of the polarization that excessively sharpens both estrangement from some and affiliation with others, and of the resulting culture war that seems increasingly to be dividing us into two armed camps angrily confronting each other in every corner and crevice of American life. My goal is not to comprehensively explain all of these predicaments, needless to say. Nor is it even to outline the historical trajectory of our cultural evolution toward division and polarization—which others have done well in recent years, and which I have attempted in my own past writings too. Rather, the aim of this book is to highlight one particularly important cause that these distempers have in common—one that we tend to overlook.2
That cause is hiding in plain sight. Everybody knows that Americans have long been losing faith in institutions. That is a truism, if not a cliché. But what does it actually mean? Just what is an institution? What is involved in having faith in such a thing, and in losing that faith? And what is at stake? This book offers an inquiry into these questions, how they have played out in American life lately, and their implications for our future.
To describe this book as an inquiry is to say that it is moved by a set of questions more than by a set of answers. It is not a manifesto or a policy platform. It is more like a search for clues. And it is rooted in concern much more than in confidence.
That concern is a function of having witnessed the degradation of our common life in recent years from a peculiar vantage point. I am a scholar of politics and public policy at a think tank in Washington, DC, and the editor of a journal of political ideas. I have worked for a president of the United States, for a Speaker of the House of Representatives, and for various other politicians and policymakers. I labor these days among a group of analysts and activists who have been warning for most of this century that our politics has needed to turn its attention to the concerns of working families and insisting that there were constructive ways to do that. That perch has enabled me to witness close-up the deformations of our political life in this era: an extraordinary display of institutional failure and a kind of breakdown of social psychology that has spanned the ideological spectrum and transformed the political arena into a venue for a bitter and divisive culture war.
And that culture war has reached well beyond politics. In fact, it now pervades the arenas occupied by most of our core institutions, and it has been breaking down the barriers between them. It also utterly permeates the novel terrain of social media, which emerged in this century to great hopes that it might bring us together but has turned out to be an unparalleled setting for division and vitriol.
Looked at individually, each of these institutional breakdowns has the appearance of a failure of responsibility. Considered together, these failures must be seen as something more: a perverse distortion of what institutional responsibility means. As a practical matter, this has meant that the people atop one core institution after another—from our political and economic elites, to university administrators, to people with real power in the business and entertainment worlds, to too many religious leaders—have failed those who count on them and let our society down.
Our culture has responded to these disappointments with understandable anger and resentment. The populism of this moment in our politics is fundamentally antinomian, mistrustful of authority, and cynical about all claims to integrity. It looks to ease our disappointments by tearing down the institutions that embody them. And so our common life has come to be overrun with demolition crews of various sorts, promising to knock down oppressive establishments, to clear weeds and drain swamps and end infestations. They draw our attention to what we have too much of, and so distract us from what we have too little of. Today’s populists have good reasons to be angry, but what they offer is insufficient.
Younger Americans have grown up bombarded with examples of institutional failure that tend to reinforce such attitudes. A country repeatedly disappointing itself is the only America they have known, and so they take it as a norm, not an exception. And now they see it culminating in a national politics that feels like a debauched rampage of alienation and dysfunction—depraved and degrading, corrupting everyone who goes near it, always finding surprising new ways to reach lower.
They are not happy about this, but their desire to overcome it expresses itself in various forms of rejection and dissent, rather than in a recommitment to the potential of our society and its institutions. Some are drawn to join the demolition crews, and those who are more naturally inclined to build are often left working without blueprints of what a more worthy alternative would look like. Their efforts are noble but unfocused and weak.
To do better, we will need to think about what we lack as well as what we want to rid ourselves of. And that means we will have to take up hard questions about the health and even the very purpose of the institutions of our society.
As we do that, we will repeatedly encounter a few threats to those institutions that are characteristic of our time, and that recur in one arena after another. We will find that the lure of cynical distance and of playing the outsider are deadly to the kind of renewal our society requires. We will notice that the culture of celebrity turns out again and again to be the enemy of a culture of integrity. We will see that our pervasive and polarized culture war is drowning our society in poisonous acrimony. And, perhaps above all, we will find that the people who occupy our institutions increasingly understand those institutions not as molds that ought to shape their behavior and character but as platforms that allow them greater individual exposure and enable them to hone their personal brands. A revitalization of a particular idea of what institutions are and do could be of help on all these fronts.
To warn of some dangers of our polarized age, however, is not to disclaim any party or point of view. I do not approach these questions as an outsider—and in truth no one does or could. I am a partisan myself. I’m a conservative, and I have spent my adult life articulating and advancing the ideals of the American Right. Like almost everybody on all sides, I am disappointed with my party these days, but I do not stand outside the fray. The inquiry I take up in this book is rooted in my conservative worldview, and while I try to love my party only a little more than it deserves (and am intensely critical of the leader it has chosen for itself these last few years), I have no doubt that what I offer here will be shaped, and at times also misshaped, by my deep-rooted views.3
The argument of this book is a conservative one of a particular sort. It begins from the premise that human beings are born as crooked creatures prone to waywardness and sin, that we therefore always require moral and social formation, and that such formation is what our institutions are for. This is, I think, a conservative premise without being a particularly partisan starting point. It is surely widely shared by readers elsewhere on the political spectrum, even if it is not what they emphasize. And because it is only the premise of an inquiry, it is a starting point for raising some questions and proposing some observations that might spark constructive responses, even from those who do not begin with my presuppositions and may not end up sharing my conclusions. My hope is that this book will leave you knowing not only more than you did when you started it but more than I did when I finished it—and that is likeliest to happen if we begin from different places.
Above all, though, I hope that what we learn together might move us to see that, while calling out the demolition crews may be an understandable response to the frustrations of our time, it is very far from enough. If we understand that a deformation of our expectations of institutions is at the core of our confusion and paralysis, we will grasp that we require a reformation of those institutions—and that this demands constructive work. Here, too, the words of Robert Nisbet in the mid-1970s can serve as something of a guide. “Just as twilight ages are a recurrent phenomenon of Western history,” Nisbet wrote, “so are ages of social replenishment, of reinvigoration of social roots. Human beings cannot long stand a vacuum of allegiance.”4
We are living in an era marked by a vacuum of allegiance. But the fact that we cannot long stand it does not tell us what to do. It is up to us to launch an age of social replenishment. That will require intellectual, cultural, political, spiritual, moral, and economic work. We each can have a part to play, if we want one. But, to begin, we have to see that such work is called for, and that it is not fundamentally a work of demolition.
For all our frustration and confusion, this is not a time for tearing down. It is a time to build.
A CRISIS OF DISSOLUTION
THE MISSING LINKS
WE AMERICANS ARE LIVING THROUGH A SOCIAL CRISIS. This is a straightforward fact, and easy to see. And yet part of this crisis, one of its symptoms, is that we can’t seem to get a handle on just what it is that’s wrong. It’s sometimes even hard to tell whether the rage, foreboding, and despair that so often shape the national mood now are themselves the essence of the problem or are marks of a deeper dysfunction.
That mood is hard to miss. In our public life, it presents itself in bitter divisions, intractable frustrations, and an explosion of populist anger that crosses many demographic and partisan categories and seems to paralyze our system of government even as it energizes our politics. That anger has intensified with every recent national election, and it looks likely to transform our political priorities and expectations in some enduring ways.
In the realm of culture, too, frustration and hostility predominate, as various forms of identity politics, on both the Left and the Right, undermine the foundations of unity. Even our ability to carry on frank conversations has been degraded lately by a loss of trust and common ground. People often behave as though they cannot hold a set of facts and premises in common. In many cultural venues, professional settings, and academic environments, resentment and aggrievement seem to boil just under the surface, and some basic norms of open inquiry and mutual respect are under threat as a result.
But it’s worse than that, because the problem is not just about how we talk to each other or take up public problems. The crisis is evident not only in our political and cultural interactions but in the personal lives of countless Americans, for whom hopelessness or alienation descends into outright despair. Although in some ways it is easier than ever to be in touch with others, ours is an era of unusual isolation and solitude. Generally speaking, American adults have fewer close friends, spend less time with others, and feel more disconnected today than they did a generation or two ago. And although it is easier than ever to be exposed to and informed by a wide range of views, Americans increasingly live in cultural and political bubbles, hearing only affirmations and elucidations of what they already believe.1
The effects of such isolation on our souls are hard to characterize, but they show up in a variety of distressing ways. Suicide rates have increased by almost 30 percent over the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase has been particularly steep in rural America and along the so-called Rust Belt, which runs from parts of Appalachia to the upper Midwest. In the very same regions, life expectancy has actually been going down. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University have attributed this decline to what they call “deaths of despair,” linked to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide. This trend has been significant enough to drive the overall life expectancy of Americans down slightly in the past few years—the first sustained decline since the period from 1915 to 1918, when the First World War and a global flu pandemic killed untold millions.2
In many communities, these trends have been embodied in particular by an epidemic of opioid abuse that has laid bare an underlying scourge of isolation, desperation, and misery. About seventy thousand Americans died from overdoses of opioids in 2018. Many more live each day under the burden of addiction to these drugs. Opioids are used to dull pain, not to sharpen experience: they are sought as an escape from suffering.3
When you step back and listen, an awful lot of what’s distinct about this moment in America seems like a reaction to a certain kind of suffering—a response to being left behind, disrespected, robbed of dignity and hope.
But why? None of us wants to look at suffering, breakdown, frustration, and anxiety and say we don’t understand their origins. We often talk as though the reasons why our social fabric has grown so frayed are obvious. But what if they aren’t?
Traditional economic concerns, a first resort for many social analysts, simply don’t provide a sufficient explanation. Yes, we experienced a severe recession in 2007 and 2008, and the economy has been relatively sluggish for much of this century. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, it would have been easy to say that the economic decline and the social breakdown were conjoined. But the trends then separated for an extended period, as the economy improved while isolation, drug use, political alienation, and other indicators of our broad social crisis did not. We have now actually been living through one of the longest economic expansions of the modern era. Even if that period of growth is now ending, the fact remains that it has persisted through this time of increasing political and cultural frustration. Unemployment has been very low, even in those regions where the social crisis seems to be most acute. Inflation is low too, as are interest rates, loan-default rates, and most other traditional economic warning signs.
The benefits of this period of modest growth have accrued unevenly across our society, but all parts of the income scale have seen improvements in this century. It’s not that inequality and slow growth have not posed problems, only that they are nowhere near sufficient to explain the crisis that confronts us.4
Some other familiar measures of well-being, both absolute and relative, also fail to offer sufficient explanations. Crime is down, and we are safer than we have been in many decades. Some demographic groups have seen their health decline a little in this century, although in general Americans are healthier. But even those declines don’t come close to explaining the source of people’s anxiety (and as noted above, they actually seem to be symptoms as much as causes of a crisis of isolation and despair).5
In fact, some observers have argued that the frustration and anxiety that seem to overwhelm us are rooted in imaginary grievances and are themselves the problem. Harvard’s Steven Pinker takes the complaints that roil our social life to be just irritable gestures of self-indulgent ingratitude. In a recent book, he reviews mountains of data on wealth, health, safety, and choice and concludes that populist outrage on all sides of our politics is detached from reality. And it is dangerous too, he says. “Indiscriminate pessimism can lead to fatalism: to wondering why we should throw time and money at a hopeless cause. And it can lead to radicalism: to calls to smash the machine, drain the swamp or empower a charismatic tyrant.”6
But surely it is unreasonable to suggest that public frustration is just a kind of self-delusion—especially frustration that runs this deep and has revealed itself in such a broad range of symptoms. Pinker’s happy data are not wrong, and neither are the economic statistics. But if these don’t explain the reigning sentiments of our time, we should ask ourselves what such indicators might ignore, and what signs we might be missing.
In considering this question, we should be careful to distinguish causes from symptoms. When a patient presents at a doctor’s office complaining of fatigue, the doctor doesn’t just prescribe more sleep, though that might be part of the treatment. The doctor also considers, for instance, whether the patient might be lacking in iron. That kind of deficiency is not obvious directly from the symptom, but it can become apparent through a broader knowledge of the human organism.
We can say something similar here. The massive social crisis we confront—whether it’s evident as populism or polarization or resentment or mistrust or a soul-crushing despair—clearly requires some direct responses. To treat it seriously, political leaders must listen to what people are asking for and help them get it. Our populist politics should not be ignored or wished away. And it is right that populism should reorder the nation’s priorities some. But this explosion of frustration and resentment might also suggest that our society is in need of something it lacks but isn’t asking for—and that the causes of our distemper run deeper than the symptoms. That is a challenge in a democracy. It is a challenge that requires us to consider what we know about the complex social organism that is a free society and not just what we hear each other saying in frustration.
So what do we lack but are not asking for? How would we even look for such an absence? We might begin by asking ourselves some questions: What does the missing thing look like? What is the nature of the deficiency we feel? What would it take to fill the gap? These kinds of questions begin to gesture toward a different sort of diagnosis. If the absence we are experiencing looks like isolation, mistrust, and alienation, then it is also a shortage of belonging, confidence, and legitimacy.
If that’s the case, then it shouldn’t surprise us that our traditional measures of wealth and health and personal freedom aren’t raising alarms. These indicators, important as they are, assess our welfare individually. But we generally don’t experience well-being alone. Flourishing happens in the joints of society—and this is also where the deepest sort of trouble shows itself.
In other words, many of our struggles seem rooted in relational problems. Loneliness and isolation, mistrust and suspicion, alienation and polarization—these are the characteristic maladies of this era. But because they are failures of sociality, they too often fall into the blind spots of our individualist culture.
This crisis of connectedness has been described in a variety of ways. A number of analysts across the political spectrum have argued that it must be ultimately philosophical or metaphysical—essentially that contemporary liberalism is so committed to the ideal of individual liberation that it lacks the conceptual framework to articulate ideals of solidarity or even of community. We depend on these deeper social foundations and yet we lack the tools to maintain or reconstruct them, and we have lost the words with which to speak about what we owe each other.7
Some, mostly on the Right, have suggested that at the core of the crisis is a collapse of family and religion—and that without these preconditions for individual flourishing we are uprooted and adrift. This would suggest our social crisis is a breakdown of tradition and moral order. Others, largely on the Left, have argued that, although simple economic measures of well-being cannot show us what is wrong, the trouble is still fundamentally material—that contemporary capitalism elevates the interests of the wealthiest above the rest, exacerbating inequality to the point that it becomes impossible for people to feel and function like equal parts of a greater whole.8
These sorts of diagnoses are all reasonably plausible, and they are also closer to each other than they sometimes seem. They treat the human person as embedded in a larger whole—be it metaphysical, moral, social, or economic—and they grasp that what is wrong has to do with the ways in which we now live out that embeddedness.
But although these ideas are helpful, they all share a definition of connectedness that still seems lacking. All essentially envision a kind of formless connection—people who are linked in principle or interacting one by one. They imagine American society as a vast open space filled with individuals—and so they call for ways of helping these people to link hands, be closer together, and share experiences and ideals.
This is the reigning, if generally implicit, metaphor of American social life. It accords with the individualism of our time even when it argues for community, and it feeds the sense that what we lack are connections and relationships. Thus we talk about breaking down walls or building bridges or casting a unifying vision to strengthen our society. We hope that social media might bind us together this way, or that the ideals of our politics will give us the conceptual framework for cohesion, or that our moral and religious traditions will reinvigorate our sense of solidarity, or that by narrowing the differences between rich and poor we will make our society more whole.
There is great appeal in this idea and in these different calls for solidarity. But something crucial is still lacking in this vision of connectedness. There is a missing step between joining together and recovering belonging, trust, and legitimacy. Formless connectivity does not get you there.
What we are missing, although we too rarely put it this way, is not simply connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, place, and purpose to the things we do together.
If American life is a big open space, it is not a space filled with individuals. It is a space filled with these structures of social life. It is a space filled with institutions. If we are too often failing to find belonging, legitimacy, and trust in our common life, then perhaps we are confronting not a failure of connection but a failure of institutions. Institutions do much more than connect us. Understanding our social crisis in terms of what they are and what they do could help us to see that crisis in a new light.
SO JUST WHAT IS AN INSTITUTION? THAT QUESTION HAS ACTUALLY been the focus of increasing attention in the social sciences of late. The last several decades have seen the emergence of a so-called new institutionalism in a number of fields, most notably sociology, economics, and political science. Taking distinct but related approaches, scholars in these fields have come to put the study of institutional behavior and decision-making at the center of their work. But they have not agreed on the precise meaning of the term.9
The breadth of the concept is evident in the range of definitions different scholars have offered. In his groundbreaking book On Thinking Institutionally
- "A Time to Build is exactly what America needs right now. A moving call to recommit to the great project of our common life. And from Yuval Levin, one of the most thoughtful and pertinent of our public intellectuals, who writes like a dream if dreams were always clear. What an encouraging book this is, and what an important one."—Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal
- "As Yuval Levin writes in his profound forthcoming book, A Time to Build, Trump is an example of a person who wasn't formed by an institution. He is self-created and self-enclosed. He governs as a perpetual outsider, tweeting insults to members of his own cabinet. At its best, the impeachment process is an attempt to protect our institutions from his inability to obey the rules."—David Brooks, New York Times
- "A provocative, inspiring look at the underlying cause of our polarization and dysfunction."—Kirkus
- "In his excellent forthcoming book A Time to Build, Yuval Levin discusses how we've degraded our institutions by not letting them shape and constrain us, but instead using them as mere platforms."—Rich Lowry, National Review
- "A Time to Build diagnoses the decline of institutions as the source of many social ills, including loneliness and despair, that have been attributed to other causes."—Mona Charen, National Review
- "Crisply written and characteristically thoughtful..."—Commentary
- "Mainstream Republicans dismayed by the current state of their party...will savor this well-reasoned and hopeful study."—Publishers Weekly
- "In a political moment focused only on tearing down, Yuval Levin shows the necessity and the promise of institution-building. This book is an essential starting point toward an American renewal."—Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska)
- "Yuval Levin stands athwart the wrecking ball of anger that is smashing a democracy in desperate need of rebuilding and repair. A Time to Build sets forth an ambitious blueprint for how Americans can work together to strengthen broken institutions we cannot live without."—Bruce Reed, chief of staff to former Vice President Joe Biden
- "There is a great deal of ruin in our society. Yuval Levin does not shrink from taking the full measure of our woes. But his counsel is not despair. This perceptive and important book sets an agenda for renewing the institutions we need in order to live and flourish together as Americans."—R.R. Reno, editor of First Thing
- "In A Time to Build, one of the few mildly optimistic political books to come out in this winter of depressing ones, the conservative scholar (and editor of National Affairs) Yuval Levin argues for ... a comprehensive recommitment to American institutions - families and churches, academia and government - as an alternative to the current tendency to use them instrumentally, as a platform for partisan ambitions and personal desires."—Ross Douthat, New York Times
- "The most thoughtful conservative theorist of his generation..."—Washington Post
- On Sale
- Jan 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Basic Books