In his 1975 book, Twilight of Authority, renowned sociologist Robert Nisbet warned of “twilight ages,” periods in western history marked by the “decline and erosion of institutions” and an “[i]ndividualism reveal[ed]…less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance.” Nisbet also noted of these twilight ages that “[t]he sense of estrangement from community is strong.”
Former Bush administration staffer and founding editor of National Affairs Yuval Levin borrows Nisbet’s imagery in his new book A Time to Build: From Family to Community, to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. According to Levin, although at the beginning of the millennium America seemed poised for a vibrant renewal, the past two decades have been more akin to one of Nisbet’s “twilight ages.” This is especially true regarding America’s many floundering institutions.
Our society’s growing mistrust of institutions over the last half century is well documented and has accelerated over the last 20 years. Levin traces the history of polling on Americans’ trust in institutions from the 1970s through today, noting the gradual decline at the end of 20th century and steep dive that has occurred in the first two decades of this century.
From Formative to Performative
The problem, at least according to Levin, is not merely that people have lost trust in institutions, but how institutions have shifted from being primarily formative—molding the character of those who live and operate within them—to performative. Institutions have become a platform for individuals to hold the attention of audiences and build one’s brand.
This is perhaps Levin’s most prescient point. Levin, who is regarded as one of the right’s most engaging and persuasive intellects, successfully reveals how our tired institutions have been remade in the image of the platform economy. This is in one sense a natural, albeit, dangerous reality. “Social media…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,” writes Levin.
To fully unpack the negative consequences of institutions gone performative, Levin looks at the quintessential failed institution: Congress. The Senate and the House are meant to wield far more power than they can currently muster and have been wracked by a “shortage of institutional ambition.” Furthermore, Levin contends that with no space for deliberation in our age of hyper-transparency, new congressmen and -women lack the opportunity to be formed by the institution and instead begin performing in America’s around the clock political theater from the day they are elected.
A case in point is first-term Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC’s constant quest for national attention at the expense of legislating pretty well sums up Congress today, and why the beleaguered institution enjoys a dismal approval rating that fluctuates between 15-30 percent.
A similar problem has emerged in the journalism industry, an institution that has been ravaged as much as it has been shaped by the platform economy. This has led to blurred lines between journalism and activism. As Levin puts it, “the web and social media have turned the work of journalism into a means of self-expression.”
What’s more is that various news agencies, in an attempt to get their hands on as significant a percentage of audience share as possible, frequently lean into and cover the “culture war” from a decidedly left or right perspective. Within this reality, it is no wonder trust in news media has plummeted from 72 percent in 1976 to 32 percent in 2018.
To combat the decline of America’s institutions and thus begin a dawn of social replenishment, Levin sounds a call to make institutions great again, or at least make them matter again. He argues that we need to build new locally focused civic enterprises. Furthermore, those in roles of responsibility in various institutions, from Congress to churches, need to be more inclined to ask themselves a too-ignored question: “Given my position [in this institution] how should I behave?”
Finally, Levin argues that, while libertarians and progressives view liberation as man’s greatest need, it is really formation that is most important. An awareness of that reality and how integrity, trust, belonging, and meaning are established in our lives—via institutions—should compel Americans of every stripe to recommit to thinking institutionally.
While there is much to like in A Time to Build, there are several key places Levin either goes too far or doesn’t go far enough. Take, for example, the institution of the family. Levin rightly identifies the family as the most important institution in any society and highlights how demoralizingly low it has sunk in ours.
Currently, four out of ten American children are born out of wedlock, divorce is still a plague upon our houses, and the welfare state has depopulated the family. Yet Levin still tries to force his institutions-have-mutated-from-molds-to-platforms formula onto the family, where it clearly does not fit.
Furthermore, Levin’s call to think institutionally is issued only to individuals. Nowhere in the book does he call for existing institutions to exercise their power to create an atmosphere where all institutions could thrive. Congress, for example, could do more to regulate the tech industry, whose platforms have greatly contributed to the decline of institutions over the last 20 years.
This somewhat is ironic, as Levin does a masterful job of outlining social media’s sinister effects on our institutions. Yet Levin is only willing to consider the issues facing platform technologies within a personal responsibility framework. If our public discourse is mediated by platforms who seek to monetize that discourse, there will necessarily be tension.
Levin highlights that tension, but does not go far enough in calling for its removal or at least its reconfiguration. One could argue that as long as platforms rule our economy and culture, they will be the modus operandi of our institutions and this means Levin’s proposed remedies could prove ineffectual.
Still, A Time to Build is a success because of Levin’s ability to clearly and articulately identify how the “platformification” of our culture, institutions, indeed of our very lives is at the heart of America’s current twilight age. The book is also a natural follow up to his 2017 book, The Fractured Republic, where Levin argued persuasively for subsidiarity and giving more responsibility to America’s mediating institutions.
Both books establish Levin as one of America’s foremost advocates for institutions. While A Time to Build would have been more helpful if it spent more time on identifying fixes to the family as a way to initiate an age of social replenishment, there is little doubt that a turn from platforms back to molds would strengthen our institutions and begin to mend the social fabric of America.