In “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream,” Yuval Levin examines the ongoing failures of our institutions, which is shaping up to be a major threat to America’s welfare and security. As the editor of “National Affairs” and the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Levin is well-suited to address the concern. “A Time to Build” itself builds on Levin’s earlier book, “The Fractured Republic,” which looked at the broader divisions in American life since the mid-twentieth century.
Levin’s analysis is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of man’s fallen nature, straight out of the book of Genesis. He has a very old-testament view of man: “It begins from the premise that human beings are born as crooked creatures prone to waywardness and sin, that we therefore always require moral and social formation, and that such formation is what our institutions are for.”
Institutions thus perform an important task. They form the people within them by structuring us and forming our habits. Individuals, who have absorbed the ethic and ideals of the institution, Levin posits, are those inside the institute who have been properly formed. The institution shapes behavior and character, building integrity. In his very positive take on the word, “insiders” are those hard-working individuals who have been formed in character by their institutional experience.
The problem, at least according to Levin, is not merely that people have lost trust in institutions, but is how institutions have shifted from being primarily formative—molding the character of those who live and operate within them—to becoming a platform for individuals to call attention to themselves.
In “A Time to Build,” Levin examines the failings of a broad range of institutions. The three branches of our federal government, universities, and organized religions, are all briefly put under his very critical microscope. But for the most part, his analysis is very broad, leaving it to the reader to apply Levin’s analysis to one’s own organization.
What We Have Is a Failure of Leadership
In particular, I found that Levin’s insights about the failure of institutions are illustrated at the FBI, where I worked for 33 years. In defining an institution, he suggests that it must perform an important task. Certainly, the FBI does; enforcing the law.
He repeatedly stresses that the institution forms the people within it. It shapes behavior and character, building integrity. Certainly, the FBI did this under past directors. William Webster emphasized that “we must do what the people expect of us, but in the manner that the Constitution demands of us.” Louis Freeh emphasized, “the bright line” that could not be crossed into bad behavior. And even J. Edgar Hoover admonished “don’t embarrass the bureau” by your personal conduct.
Levin tells us that institutions were trusted in the past because people had absorbed their ethos. We trusted the FBI in the past because the people in the bureau were formed with integrity as a core value. We are now losing faith in the FBI, as we no longer believe that the people within it are trustworthy. All of this flowing from the behavior of FBI leadership in the Trump campaign investigation.
We first saw this with Peter Strzok, the FBI official who began the Trump campaign investigation “Crossfire Hurricane” on Sunday, July 31, 2016, when he both drafted and signed-out the EC (Electronic Communication) opening the case. Strzok then traveled to London, on August 1, to conduct the investigation about George Papadopoulos’ conversation with Alexander Downer. His activity violated numerous bureau norms and traditions. Lack of oversight, judgment, and reflection hardly begins to describe his behavior.
We then had Andy McCabe, the former FBI deputy director, who repeatedly engaged in deceit and deception. Shortly after being made acting director in May 2017, upon the firing of James Comey, McCabe ordered an investigation of Trump for obstruction of justice. He also ordered that the FBI directly investigate the president himself to determine if he had been working with the Russians against American interests. Other than the firing itself, McCabe offered no predicate for either of these investigative initiations, which was FBI procedure in the past, and is required by the attorney general guidelines.
The ultimate offender is Comey. The demonstrated abuse of power by Comey, McCabe, Strzok, and others has undermined public trust in the FBI. And a law enforcement agency in particular depends on public trust to be effective in a democracy.
Comey is also a prime example of a celebrity, who has used the institution as a stage to elevate himself. This phenomenon is a recurring theme in Levin’s narrative. As FBI director, Comey continually substituted his own moral interpretation over established norms and precedents. His virtual declination of prosecution in the Clinton email matter, usurping a prosecutor’s role, is a case in point. His management style was remote and detached. Those who worked with him at the bureau describe him as “floating above it all.”
The distinct previous guardrails of the bureau – especially the expected caution in starting political investigations and briefing Congress on sensitive investigations – were ignored by Comey. He never even briefed the Gang of Eight, during their quarterly meetings, about the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. When asked, during testimony on March 20, 2017, why Congress had never been briefed, he replied it was too “sensitive,” again substituting his own moral judgment for the rules and regulations. And he continues to promote his “holier than thou” celebrity.
Institutional dereliction, a theme of Levin’s, has occurred under recent FBI directors (Robert Mueller and Comey), who had not focused on forming trustworthy people. In the past, each new agent was provided a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution. They were encouraged to keep it with them, next to their heart, so they would not go wrong. New agents are no longer provided a copy of the Constitution. This is a small, but highly symbolic, example of this dereliction.
Levin provides examples of institutions, which try to mask the treachery of their people. The current FBI director, Chris Wray, does this when he hides behind the inspector general finding that opening the case against the Trump campaign met the “very low” legal bar, even though it was not the “right” thing to do. Wray’s continuing response that those involved in the abuses of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation are “no longer with us” seems to dodge the need for institutional reform.
Intellect Is No Substitute For Character
An entire chapter of this book is devoted to an examination of elites, who are often, but not always, synonymous with the “outsiders” who today use institutions as platforms for their own celebrity. Levin explores the old WASP elite, who were centered in the Northeast. This near-aristocracy was at the apex of American political, cultural, and economic life until the mid-twentieth century. Although some of them abused their positions, they did have a code of noblesse oblige, which was at least partly rooted in their realization that they were lucky to be born into this aristocracy.
Today’s elites are the meritocracy who have passed all the tests. They are – in Levin’s crisp telling – far more dangerous because they believe they have won their positions through merit, rather than luck. Levin observes the “new aristocracy is in some important respects less reticent about its own legitimacy” in that they believe that they possess power by right, rather than the privilege of the old WASP aristocracy. Because of this view, they tend to impose few restraints on their use of power and don’t have the code of conduct that the past aristocracy tried to uphold. This lack of restraint can be seen in the promiscuous “unmaskings,” which came to light in the Flynn matter.
Today’s meritocracy implicitly substitutes intellect for character. Often, they are the graduates of the elite schools who go on to use our institutions as platforms for their own celebrity. Comey and Mueller, certainly fit that description. Levin, in his analysis, contrasts those elitists with others who work their way up inside the institution, absorbing its values.
In the hopefully prescient conclusion to “A Time to Build,” Levin writes “Abuses of power….are beginning to compel some real moments of reckoning.” This is what we should hope for from leaders in the executive and legislative branches as they begin to reform our FBI.
Some may find Levin’s writing repetitious, but perhaps, like a good teacher, he needs to be. Ultimately, “A Time to Build” presents a brilliant analysis of a foundational issue facing society.