Why is our political culture so dysfunctional? Most people answer that question by pointing to some combination of destructive ideologies, partisan polarization, and incompetent leaders. But political theorist Dr. Yuval Levin has a different diagnosis. In his book A Time to Build, he argues that our current socio-political woes have their origin in a breakdown of American institutions, from Congress and the media to the academy and the family. The path to national renewal, he believes, lies in revitalizing these institutions.
In a recent interview, I asked Dr. Levin why he thinks institutional decay explains today’s political crises. “Institutional decay is upstream of polarization,” he said. The Left/Right divide has been part of our politics for some time and is not in and of itself unhealthy. But the fact that it now dominates every arena of our civic life, even institutions that should be apolitical, “suggests a weakening of those institutions and of their sense of purpose.”
Levin is particularly concerned with the rise of what he terms “performative culture.” Most of our institutions are designed to be formative, to mold their members into better, stronger citizens. When someone joins the military, for example, he expects to be brought into line with a system of external standards, to be shaped by the structures and traditions of the military. Only a few institutions, such as the entertainment industry, are fundamentally performative, built as a platform for members’ personal expression.
But in recent years, Americans have begun to treat every institution as primarily performative. State legislatures, universities, journalistic publications—all have become platforms for political punditry. Levin describes the negative consequences of this transition in his book:
One the one hand, people outside [a given institution] lose respect for the institution as they come to think of it mostly as a means for the personal promotion of those within. On the other hand, people within the institution forget the values of whatever constraints it might impose on them…. From one direction we find a loss of respect for authority, process, integrity, and expertise, and from the other a loss of responsibility, restraint and regard for a code of conduct. Each magnifies the other.
To push back against performative culture and reclaim our institutions, Levin recommends adopting “an institutional mindset.” I asked him what that might look like for a college student. “The challenge,” he answered, “often comes down to an unasked question, which is, ‘Given my role here, what should I be doing? …What is expected of me given the institutional responsibilities I have to other people?’” Students, Levin believes, can “recover their agency as citizens” by committing to their responsibilities as students and restraining their expressive political desires. “We each have some role to play, and it’s not just the role of the critic and the cynic and the commentator.”
In practice, performing that role can look as simple as allowing oneself to be formed by one’s school, church, or family. “To be a responsible person,” according to Levin, “is a kind of social achievement. We have to be formed into responsibility. And the institutions around us help to give us the shape of a responsible person.”
But our world is full of broken families, church corruption, and dysfunctional universities. How can we protect ourselves, I asked, from being deformed by institutions? Levin’s advice is to “look for institutions that mean something to you, that you care about, that you think are functioning well, that you think have your best interests at heart.” We all belong to multiple institutions, and we are free to choose where to place our loyalties. Levin believes we should place them wisely, in institutions that have integrity.
It is also possible, when circumstances require, to create new institutions. In founding the political journal National Affairs, Levin has done just that. The journal was formed in 2009 to provide a scholarly space for conservatives to “think out loud together” about contemporary political challenges––something that Levin believes did not exist at the time.
I asked him how he sees National Affairs as formative for its members. “It tries to give the conversation about public policy a certain character, a certain tenor,” Levin said. Its purpose is to cultivate “a realism that is not detached from idealism but moved by it.” National Affairs certainly contains a unique blend of theoretical and practical articles, and it exhibits a level of seriousness that is missing in much of the public policy world. If that was Levin’s goal, he has succeeded.
Overall, both National Affairs and A Time to Build are a breath of fresh air in today’s political arena, which is otherwise so rancorous and emotionally overwrought. If the way forward for our country lies in rescuing our institutions from performative culture, then it is comforting to know that there are scholars and intellectuals out there who are sincerely trying to fulfill their institutional roles with humility and integrity.
We may not have much cause for optimism at present––I was reminded in my interview that while “our potential [for renewal] is enormous, …potential by itself is not enough.” But Dr. Levin and his work are, if nothing else, a source of hope for the future. And that’s something.