Basic Books, 2020, 205 pp., $28
The very long subtitle of Yuval Levin’s new book, A Time to Build, states the book’s main program clearly enough: “From family and community to Congress and the campus, how recommitting to our institutions can revive the American dream.” In our age of populist cynicism about institutional self-dealing, Levin, the editor of National Affairs who now calls the American Enterprise Institute his institutional home, offers an eloquent brief for the virtues of institutions. By regularizing the pursuit of social goods, institutions instruct us on how we can accomplish worthwhile goals in our lives. By stabilizing our place in the social world, they give us the courage to take risks. By exposing us to institutional memories, they help us understand how our forebears wrought lasting, worthwhile change. Most important to Levin, institutions shape those people willing to humble themselves in service of causes greater than themselves. Institutions “allow us to substitute character for calculation” and, in so doing, make us better people.
This last function is brought out by the book’s central image: Well-functioning institutions are molds, but dysfunctional institutions hollow themselves out and become mere platforms on which their members perform for other audiences. Rather than inculcating the virtues needed to sustain a prolonged and far-sighted pursuit of their particular goods, today’s institutions take their members as they come and offer them a megaphone—with full knowledge that many so empowered will turn around and denounce the institution. Levin convincingly uses this metaphor to diagnose what ails Congress, journalism, and elite American universities, among other institutions.
But we shouldn’t get too hung up on the idea that molds are good and platforms are bad; Levin would not deny that some institutions are well-designed as platforms, or that some institutions mold people in malign ways. His primary fear is that the elites who occupy our national stage are increasingly homogenized and all equally adrift in the stormy seas of culture war. They have rejected the particularistic virtues their institutions once instilled in favor of the naked pursuit of attention. The problem isn’t so much that they are performing, but that they are putting on a truly rotten show.
A large part of the problem is the demise of private spaces in which an institution’s members can confer with each other, free of all pretext, about how best to accommodate their conflicting priorities. As Erving Goffman famously explained in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, every sort of enterprise needs a back stage to complement its public-facing front stage, a place where “the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character.”
Levin worries that the late 20th-century mania for transparency has effectively collapsed the distinction between front stage and back stage. This destroys the members’ ability to build trust with each other, since they must remain permanently vigilant in assuming that all of their actions will be made manifest to everyone. Less obviously, it saps the front-stage performances of their vitality. With no back stage, there can be no proper practice or scripting. Everything turns into one giant scrum.
As Levin explains, populist distrust of institutions arose in response to sins of “insiderism,” in which inside players corruptly use an institution’s powers to serve their own personal ends rather than the institution’s underlying purpose. To counteract such opportunism, the public demands access to all of the institution’s processes. Sunlight will disinfect, they hope, and there is little awareness of any downside.
But in a wide variety of institutions, such “reforms” have created a “less familiar form of institutional deformation,” which Levin calls “outsiderism.” When institutions come to see public display of their own members as their main purpose, they lose out on the chance to shape character and build relationships behind the scenes. They don’t so much abuse the public’s trust as give up on the effort to render their members trustworthy.
This process is especially vivid in Levin’s description of the contemporary Congress. Challengers hoping to dislodge incumbents have always run against Washington and its corrupt ways. What is novel and distressing today is that, even after winning re-election multiple times, many members proceed as if denouncing Washington’s corruption is their highest priority: “They act like outsiders commenting on Congress, rather than like insiders participating in it.” This need to hold themselves aloof from the institution pervades all of their interactions, such that they regard their colleagues’ dislike for them as a vindication of their integrity. Needless to say, this isn’t a viable way to govern. But for members thoroughly infected by outsiderism, that isn’t important. Instead, they value their office precisely because it gives them a platform to denounce the institution.
With the current occupant of the Oval Office, Levin explains, this attitude has even managed to infect the presidency, which would seem to be the surest imaginable bastion of insiders. Unformed by any experience in politics or governing, what Donald Trump knows how to do is grab attention, and he has seen the presidency as first and foremost an opportunity to do so. That leads to the spectacle of the President of the United States, singular head of the Executive Branch and most powerful man in the world, taking to Twitter to complain about actions taken by his own subordinates. By playing “commentator in chief,” Trump neglects many of the managerial and legal tools available to him. But he also delights his followers, who can share in his sense of embattlement on a visceral level.
The problem, then, isn’t that public-facing performances are happening. Especially in the political world, speaking to the public will always be a core institutional function. The problem is that the performances are more like tantrums—unbecoming, undignified, stultifying, and enflaming. Well-scripted politics sometimes takes on Shakespearian or operatic qualities; it can faithfully represent social struggles and thereby give us traction over them. But our politics today is as formulaic, boring, and juvenile as a bad reality television show.
Nor is it just politics. Levin’s deepest concern, which he registers repeatedly, is that nearly all of our most prominent national institutions have been homogenized into “interchangeable stages for the same kind of cultural psychodrama.” In one of the book’s best lines, he explains:
It isn’t quite that the culture of one institution has invaded others as that the boundaries and distinctions have broken down and everyone, inside and outside, is participating in the same obnoxious quarrel.
The problem with this quarrel isn’t just that it is obnoxious, but that it focuses people on just those questions that are impossible to resolve. Within the abstract realm of kulturkampf, citizens with radically different ideas of citizenship find it impossible to reconcile with each other. If we instead focus on how to best serve the particular missions of the legislature, the serious news outfit, the scientific community, the church, or the university, we can figure out practical accommodations and make our way. But because our current elite seems so insistent on litigating huge questions of identity and historic oppression through whatever institutional post they occupy, it can sometimes feel that there is no refuge for those who would simply prefer to focus on other matters. Corporate bureaucrats schooled in the peculiar manners of this elite by university administrators ensure that every enterprise pays obeisance. If once you could safely toil in relative obscurity as a county clerk or a sports writer, today there is no opting out.
That raises the specter of a monopolar social power—which political theorists have for centuries warned is the greatest danger to liberty. James Madison’s Federalist (No. 10) is the foremost American statement of the idea that social forces are least threatening when they are most plural. And Levin’s hero, Alexis de Tocqueville, issued a clear warning of the danger of a democratic culture that flattened all difference in the name of equality, leaving no space for dissent in its wake. But there is also a strong continental tradition of warning against the consolidation of elites rooted in the works of Machiavelli, and updated by the Italian elite theorist Gaetano Mosca. Mosca warned that, regardless of formal or constitutional rights, the only real protection for freedom comes from power clashing with opposing power.
Doesn’t the culture war, so clearly bipolar rather than monopolar, afford some such protection? As Levin tells it, the struggle itself has become our tyrant, and we ought to be capable of stepping far enough back from our own sympathies in that struggle to see how cruel a master it has become. The historian and critic Louis Menand observed that, while Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as implacable enemies, on a deeper level they were a kind of yin and yang whose prominence was inextricably interlinked. Whoever seems to have the upper hand in their struggle, and the broader one which they caricatured, the real losers are those of us who wish the show would go away.
Are things really so bad? Are the leaders in every field really so homogenized and culture-war obsessed? After all, a very different complaint we often hear about modern life is that too many endeavors are siloed and over-specialized, such that they become incomprehensible to outsiders. Levin periodically concedes that American civil society still has plenty of variety in it, that our institutional landscape is far from flattened out as yet. But he is concerned that as people make their way into our national-level conversation, they almost invariably give up whatever institutional values they may have brought with them and give themselves over to the insipid celebrity mud-fight. And so part of Levin’s purpose, which unfolds in the second half of the book, is to issue an indictment of Internet Age celebrity.
Levin cites Daniel Boorstin’s definition of celebrity as “a person known for being well-known.” That doesn’t seem entirely fair. I, too, have been exasperated at how readily fame has acquired currency in national politics, such that serious people give real thought to presidential bids by Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, or The Rock, while Kanye’s even-more-famous wife can seamlessly claim a share of the constitutional pardon power. But none of these people can be accused of being famous only for being famous. They’ve all acquired legions of fans because they are, each in their own way, talented entertainers. As is our President.
Chief among Levin’s institutionalist contributions, though, is to remind us that notoriety and prominence are not the same thing (notwithstanding the intentions of those who market “The Notorious RBG,” now available as an action figure). That is not obvious to many of the people flourishing in our current environment.
Levin quotes a telling example. When asked if he was worried about becoming known for the wrong sort of thing, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) candidly answered: “What’s the difference? People have to know who you are and what you’re doing if your opinions are going to matter.” This answer is rich in outsiderism; it is obvious to Gaetz that the “people” who need to know him in order for him to have real influence are those who book spots on Fox News, rather than his colleagues in the House of Representatives. In fairness, this is a mode of thinking that predates Twitter or Fox News. Newt Gingrich rose to power in part by pioneering the art of provocative minute-long speeches on C-SPAN. His trolling was virtuosic enough to provoke a direct confrontation with Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1984, which redounded very much to the backbencher’s advantage.
Back in 2000, the omnivorous Tyler Cowen managed a qualified endorsement of our mass culture’s fixation on fame. His What Price Fame? concedes that fame and merit will go their separate ways but argues that society nevertheless benefits, because the desire for fame elicits so many extraordinary efforts in nearly every field. At the same time, Cowen thought that fame would effectively hem in the famous, especially politicians, who are “held closely in thrall to the wishes of voters through the media.”
Two decades later, Levin would surely reply that the media’s ability to restrain rather than amplify the caprice of the famous looks doubtful. The New York Times is no longer, in the popular mind, an imposing Gray Lady; instead, it is a holding pen for a few hundred self-promoting Twitter personalities, few of whom shy away from ostentatiously choosing sides. Even if the news desk maintains high standards of care for its published articles, the institutional credibility that it once enjoyed is dead, incapable of surviving its writers’ incessant professions of righteous indignation on social media. The same is sometimes true of the scientific community. Peer-reviewed journals lose their mystique when all the writers and peer-reviewers are parading their biases in real time. Institutions used to carefully regulate how and when their members interfaced with the broader public, but now they can’t resist going after the clicks that controversialists alone can bring. Far from urging care in making public statements, many of them actively encourage a constant stream of attention-seeking. (“Reticent” is one of Levin’s favorite words of praise, and too few people earn it today.)
If absolute celebrity tends to corrupt absolutely, Levin fears that the semi-celebrity on offer from social media will semi-corrupt the rest of us. Sometimes it does so by pulling us into the main current of the culture war in pursuit of virality. But even if we avoid this, Levin worries:
Mediating our social lives through information and entertainment platforms suggests we understand our social lives as forms of mutual entertainment and information. And the more of our social lives that we launder through such platforms, the more this peculiar understanding of sociality becomes the truth.
Levin’s insistence on treating social networks as platforms rather than institutions is a bit frustrating here, since it seems clear that he is concerned precisely about the way they are molding their users. The problem isn’t that they leave us to simply present ourselves as we are, but rather that they train us to be click junkies, the better to keep our “friends” on their sites earning advertising dollars.
Levin thinks that the kind of reward that online “likes” offer is thin gruel indeed, but he recognizes that people are turning to it because they lack opportunities for more meaningful recognition. His paradigm of the right kind of prominence is the well-attended retirement party, where people are honored for their actual contributions to a particular institution, including their participation in the group’s social and moral life. When we feel ourselves making such contributions and getting appreciated for them, it bolsters our morale in ways that radiate throughout the other activities in our lives.
Levin is both depressed about the current state of things and hopeful about the potential for a correction. He can be hopeful because he believes there are as many ways to rebel against our current miserable national conversation as there are institutions. People must simply learn that the ideals pursued by particular institutions can be realized only through tending to the internal life of the institutions. Very Online Yelling about how important they are won’t do the trick.
Nor will assembling “the best people” and getting out of their way. Too many modern institutions “demand too little of the people they empower, because they expect too much of them,” Levin sagely observes. Institutions structure and constrain, which chafes at those meritocratic superstars who think that all they need to do to better the world is to shine their brilliance upon it. But, properly understood, it is exactly the structures and constraints that enable great deeds and great sustained enterprises.
What Levin’s book does not offer is a how-to manual for institutions that commit to fulfilling this structuring role. His aim is to induce a consciousness shift, so that his readers begin to think about repairing institutions that disappoint them rather than indulging their natural impulse to denounce them or tear them down. At that point, he must leave it to people who know the institutions to figure out what works. Such is the lot of the reformer who eschews “isms” and genuinely believes in decentralization. It remains to each of us to drop out of the celebrity circus, tune in to the institutions dedicated to the goods we care for, and build up.