Yuval Levin, in his new book A Time to Build, writes about the crucial role the institutions of civil society play in molding Americans into productive participants in a self-governing republic. He reminds us that we are not radical individuals, but dependent from our earliest days upon family, civic groups, and other guiding institutions that shape our life, liberty, and identity. Alas, private institutions—ranging from universities to religion to professions—are now fading in their ability to reinforce individuals in constructive ways, and have lost the trust of the American people.
Levin’s definition of “institution” is broad, ranging from politics to professions to universities to social media to family to religions. He gives a compelling critique of these institutions, arguing their purpose is no longer formative but performative. They were once molds of their members’ personal character; now they are platforms for their leaders’ personal brands.
Levin’s chapter on meritocracy is a must-read. Brilliant, incisive, counter-intuitive, it highlights a consequence of our relentless focus on academic achievement: students at elite institutions have a powerful feeling of entitlement due to their academic success. That sense undermines institutions by encouraging leadership behavior that puts celebrity ahead of mission.
Levin is not simply a chronicler of decline. In the latter part of his book he calls on us to recommit to our institutions. It has taken centuries to build them, and they have done much good. Do we really think our society would be better off if we simply burned them to the ground? Levin lays out potential paths to renewal, particularly focusing on how elites can exercise authority more effectively within our institutions.
A Time to Build is what one has come to expect from Levin: a well-written, occasionally provocative, always thoughtful narrative told from the perspective of a traditional conservative commentator who has spent his career writing for and speaking with the political class in Washington, D.C. That perspective, however, is also the weakness of his book.
We are in the midst of a great political realignment such as occurs only every hundred years or so in America. When such a realignment occurs, institutions necessarily go through a process of creative destruction. Some are humbled or die. New ones arise from nothing to better serve societal needs.
This creative destruction is clearly visible in our current realignment, the Populist Reformation. Levin is deeply critical of today’s populist backlash against institutions. He calls this rebellion “fundamentally antinomian, mistrustful of authority, and cynical.”
That exposes Levin’s deep misunderstanding of today’s populism. It is not antinomian, it just wants laws to be made by legislatures, not executives, judges, or (worst of all) unaccountable bureaucrats. It is not mistrustful of all authority, just those authorities that have made themselves unaccountable to the very laws and bylaws they wield against others.
And it is not fundamentally cynical, just distrustful of elites with overgrown senses of entitlement and superiority.
Levin also misunderstands the culture war to which he frequently refers. He views the culture war as an epic struggle between partisans of the Left and Right that has knocked valuable institutions off the rails. Journalism, politics, academia, professional societies, religions: these institutions and others have been “deformed…into the contours of the broader culture war” to their detriment, and ours.
But institutions are not innocent bystanders in this war. They are the warriors. It is political parties, the media, corporations, and universities that have created, expanded, and sustained the culture war against tradition, evolved practice, received wisdom, and common sense. Today’s culture war is less a struggle between Left and Right than a war of Top against Bottom.
The last century saw a dramatic centralization of power in the United States. In 1910, 60 percent of government spending was local; a hundred years later that had fallen to 25 percent. The federal share of government spending doubled from 30 to 60 percent. Elites also centralized and homogenized businesses, nonprofits, religious groups, civic organizations, and other entities that previously had encapsulated a broad range of practices and points of view, and deep everyday experience.
Think small and local, and build fresh institutions that better address the problems bedeviling the middle of our society, rather than the luxury causes of our ruling classes.It is this centralization of power and its intolerance for multiple narratives that is the driver of today’s extreme polarization. Centralization turns every conflict into a winner-take-all death match. Instead of allowing live-and-let- live variety across a wide ecosystem of values and practice, every conflict requires all participants to pick a side: you’re with me or against me. Compromise becomes untenable, and we are left with a combination of gridlocked politics and frenzied Twitter mobs.Neither political party can resist the temptations of power. Examples abound of both Left and Right imposing their will on local communities and dissident viewpoints. Experience shows that everyone’s in favor of local control until they’re in control.
The more centralized the decision-making, the greater the battle. In the biggest melees of the culture war—abortion and gay marriage—a handful of judges intervened in ongoing, messy, deliberative processes and imposed uniform, universal outcomes on all communities. Debate on matters at the very heart of our most important institutions—marriage and family—was squelched. The resulting conflicts may appear to be clashes between Left and Right when viewed from the Beltway, but in Flyover Country they feel like unelected Americans at the Top imposing their will on folks at the Middle and Bottom, on topics with deep moral and practical dimensions.
Reframing the culture war as a struggle between Top and Bottom— between large, centralized, monocultured institutions and small, local, varied ones—exposes Levin’s errors about populists and institutions. Populists are not anti-institutional; they simply believe some institutions are more important than others. They want to give priority to small institutions like marriage, family, neighborhood groups, churches, and family businesses.
Populists have come to realize that large institutions—federal and state bureaucracies, big corporations, mega-media, national professional associations, universities—are a mortal threat to the small institutions they know and love, the institutions that shaped us, the institutions that are woven into our identity. And they will strike back at large institutions to protect the small ones.
Donald Trump was not the cause of this; he was simply the weapon at hand when the battle was joined.
Levin focuses on social media as an anti-institutional force. By connecting people directly and giving them the freedom to communicate in new ways, it has disrupted, and in some cases, destroyed large narrative-generating institutions like journalism, publishing companies, Hollywood, academia, think tanks, and so on. Broadly, Internet transactions have upended retail, transportation, and other sectors of American society.
When the Information Revolution began toward the end of the twentieth century, there was hope it would allow small players to compete with big ones. Rather than rely upon an editor in New York to decide what you should know, you could read Blogger, Drudge, or Wikipedia. If you wanted to buy organic toothpaste or hemp sandals, you could find a small merchant and order online.
Fast forward to today and the feel is very different. We now have a handful of huge companies and centralized states that dominate the Internet. Authoritarian countries like China and Russia have throttled the flow of information within, and sometimes outside, their borders. In important information industries, dominant mega-companies exercise near monopolies. What is particularly scary about these new forces, Levin suggests, is that they “plainly encourage the vices most dangerous to a free society.” Pro-social institutions soften humanity’s worst instincts, and shape us in more virtuous ways. Today’s powerful new Internet institutions are doing little of that.
The institutions best positioned to protect us against the destructive influences of new information technology happen to be the smallest ones—family, faith groups, community organizations, and social and business entrepreneurs who create healthy alternatives. Alas, these vital institutions are under assault from big, elite institutions that, rightly, should be subordinate to them: the googleplex, mass media, academia, big business, and the state.
The defeat of small and local by large and centralized institutions annihilates an invaluable principle Americans have relied upon from our beginning—the principle of subsidiarity. That is the idea that decisions should be made as close
to the people as possible. The American Revolution celebrated subsidiarity. The Progressive movement extended it into new venues. And subsidiarity animates today’s Populist Reformation.
Subsidiarity is a principle that is missing from Levin’s call for a recommitment to institutions. If we apply it in the future as we should, institutions that are large and condescending will shrivel. Elites occupying those institutions might view that as decay, but to the rest of us it will look like a restoration of balance between Top and Bottom.
Levin is right that it is time to recommit to institutions that support and shape individual character, and that this will restore national health. But the manipulating institutions that have concentrated power, wealth, and social influence among a frightfully thin slice of American elites over recent decades we can do without. It is our foundational institutions—family, faith, neighborhood, charities, small enterprises, voluntary associations—that need bolstering.
Philanthropy—at its best—is medicine for what ails our society. And as with physicians, the first rule of philanthropists should be “Do no harm.” At a time when many large institutions are undermining our self-governing republic, protecting and reinforcing those institutions will do more harm than good.
We need a reformation, and philanthropists can and should fuel it. They must do so by engaging at the local level with social startups rather than chasing the twin mirages of large “scale” and global “impact.”
Intimate, person-to-person, local-oriented philanthropy is harder than just writing a check to an established high-profile institution. But that is the work that desperately needs to be done. At a time when many large-scale institutions are broken beyond repair, philanthropists should move their investments to new places, think small and local, take risks, salvage the best old institutions, and build fresh ones that better address the problems bedeviling the massive middle of our society, rather than the luxury causes of our ruling class.
It is indeed a time to build.
From the ground up.