Imagine a soccer field, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggested in his 2011 book The Great Partnership, perched at the top of a steep mountain, open in all directions.
The players would run and kick gingerly, especially as they approached the edges of the pitch, out of justified concern that they or the ball could plunge down the mountainside. Any match taking place on the field would inherently be uneasy, tentative, and dangerous.
But now imagine that the players rigged a tall fence around the field, thus preventing any stray balls or players from a precipitous and fatal descent. True, in a formal sense, the match would be more constrained, given the enclosure ringing the pitch, but in all other ways, the players would feel freer and more confident to play the match at full speed, without hesitation.
To Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, the fence represents the role that religion plays in our lives, providing those wise restraints that liberate us. But more broadly, such boundaries serve as an excellent metaphor for institutions writ large, those frameworks that shape society and its members.
In a concise and convincing study of such institutions in the United States, Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute (where I am an adjunct fellow) finds that they’ve frayed beyond recognition in recent years, and that they—and we—are in desperate need of careful reupholstery.
Levin defines institutions as “the durable forms of our common life…the frameworks and structures of what we do together.”
“By giving shape to our experience of life in society,” Levin posits, “institutions give shape to our place in the world and to our understanding of its contours. They are at once constraining and enabling.”
That these institutions have atrophied in recent decades is beyond question; Levin quotes a legion of statistics confirming the trend. Levin locates the core of the problem in the disturbing trend 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.”
This characterization the president, who has never been formed by the political, military, or financial institutions that have shaped every single one of his predecessors. It also suits young congressional firebrands like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Matt Gaetz, who have appropriated their respective party mechanisms and deformed them for their own ends.
When institutions go from formative to performative, as Levin puts it, they’ve been corrupted from the inside-out.
Take Congress, for example. Currently enjoying approval levels among the American public rivaling those of Kim Jong Un and coronavirus, our legislators once were shaped by Congress’s long-prevailing norms of collaboration, professionalism, and service to the American people. But they’ve lately become little more than theatrical platforms, stages for shameless self-aggrandizement and vicious partisan denunciations.
As a remedy, Levin proposes that Congress conduct more of its business behind closed doors, away from the CSPAN cameras. While this suggestion cuts against notions of transparency, Levin persuasively contends that greater discretion will promote more candor and cooperation.
Similar contemporary challenges afflict the institution of professional journalism, in which public trust has reached all-time lows, partly because of partisan fragmentation and partly because of an erosion of journalist ethics. Levin urges media professionals to appreciate the gravity of the public’s skepticism of its integrity, to eschew the celebritization of popular press figures, and to unembarrassedly defend the elitism and status of their institution.
The academy, too, has suffered from a crisis of confidence, where the traditional balance between professional development, moral activism, and liberal education – which Levin identifies as the three core cultures of the university writ large – has listed sharply in a single direction. The “radical progressive egalitarianism” and group-identity monomania that have gripped campuses nationwide have come to dominate academic moral activism, which in turn has suffocated both the professional training and liberal instruction aspects of traditional academe.
But Levin contends that center-right campus activists err when they think they can counter the moral ferocity of this renewed leftist spirit with mere procedural arguments for free speech and open discussion, however powerful they may be. Instead, those seeking to restore balance and integrity on campus must “fight... for the properly formed and formative character of the institution” by aggressively promoting its critical professional development and liberal education functions.
Perhaps the most basic institution is the family, itself an amalgam of the institutions of marriage and parenthood, which, “because it unavoidably constrains personal choice and expressive individualism, has been turned into yet another arena for controversy in our multifront political and cultural struggle.” Similarly, the institution of religion, most prominently Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism, has suffered in contemporary American communal life not only because of external forces like a coarsening secular culture but also because of self-inflicted wounds, such as the Church’s sexual abuse scandal and a Trumpian god-cult among some Evangelicals.
Institutional decline appears among society’s elite as well, which has been warped by a sort of corruption. “Our meritocracy,” Levin contends, “is plainly rearranging itself into a more familiar aristocratic pattern, which leaves us less and less persuaded of its claim to legitimate authority” because it “substitutes intellect for character and efficiency for integrity.” The solution, of course, involves inverting this relationship and elevating within our elites the importance of old-fashioned virtues like honor and rectitude.
Some of Levin’s pieces don’t always fit well together, perhaps befitting a book that began as a collection of lectures. For instance, his excellent chapter on the perils of social media contain wise suggestions on how to balance the public and private aspects of our lives. But other than labeling social media an “anti-institution” and fretting over the performative instincts it stokes, Levin doesn’t fully explain the proper place of Facebook, Twitter, and the like in his taxonomy.
More broadly, amidst the global coronavirus pandemic and worldwide lockdowns of populations, social media and technological tools like Zoom teleconferencing software have become indispensable in fostering community and a sense of togetherness amongst otherwise isolated people. Levin cannot, of course, be faulted for not predicting the crisis, but some of the instruments he decries may in fact, at least in extreme situations, furnish some of the benefits generally provided by traditional institutions.
More importantly, Levin’s pro-elitism and anti-transparency prescriptions run sharply against the grain of contemporary sentiment. It’s difficult to envision the American public accepting his anti-democratic notions, especially as Millennials and Gen-Z’ers, awash as they are in egalitarianism and openness, come to dominate the American conversation. Indeed, Levin forthrightly acknowledges the challenges inherent to reviving institutionalism in a society increasingly evincing deep suspicion toward the supposed unfairness and closed-mindedness of The Establishment, embodied most succinctly by the catch-all epithet “institutional racism.”
But Levin refuses to shrink from these challenges, and neither should we. Rather than succumb to the deforming tendencies of modern life in Western societies, we should strive to recapture those formative virtues that shaped our institutions.
“That our institutions empower us by constraining us,” Levin concedes, “is often the hardest thing to accept about them” because “our freedom-loving nature chafes against such restrictions.” We innately resist such seemingly infantilizing constructs. But as Levin, Sacks and other scholars wisely counsel, it is precisely these restraints that make us free.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Israel and an adjunct fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.