A Time to Build: From Family and the Community, to Congress and Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, by Yuval Levin (Basic Books, 256 pp., $28.00)
Among the many books offering diagnoses of America’s political and social divisions, Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build stands out for its modesty. Levin, the editor of National Affairs, argues that our national crisis is not primarily about liberalism, or populism, or polarization, but about the weakened condition of our institutions. Many Americans today take a dim view of their institutions—whether Congress and the presidency, journalism and the universities, or religion and the family. While Levin offers extensive evidence of corruption in these areas, he urges us to resist the temptation to give up on our institutions or denigrate them any further. Instead, he encourages us to do our part in attempting to revive them.
Levin reminds us that when institutions function properly, they are not platforms for personal advancement, but “molds”—“durable forms of our common life” that legitimately shape our words and actions. The truer we are to our institutional roles, the more those roles penetrate our consciousness: a judge, when she dons her robe and mounts her bench, is summoned by her institutional role to look on a promising but troubled young person with decidedly different eyes than those of a teacher at his whiteboard, a coach with his whistle, or a mother at her kitchen table. The institutions that we shape, shape us in turn.
Levin believes our institutions are failing us now because we often fail to see our need for such institutional formation. His modest defense of institutions therefore rests on the suggestion that Americans systematically misunderstand the source of their own discontent. We think that we’re right to distrust institutional authority, but in fact we yearn for an authority worthy of the name. We look with unrealistic hope to outsiders who promise dramatic change, when what we really want are leaders who can help us fulfill our desire for “belonging, confidence, and legitimacy.”
If Levin is correct about this failure of self-knowledge, remedying it will require rethinking some of our most common intuitions. In an individualistic culture, institutions often seem like relics of an oppressive past, pressuring those within them to live inauthentic lives. Their efforts to mold us grate against our individualist sensibilities.
As Levin points out, however, rejecting institutions’ formative role often fails to lead us to authentic individuality. When we display our unfettered selves, the poses we adopt are remarkably predictable: minor variations on the standard tropes of our unending culture war. Journalists, professors, and politicians who seek to distinguish themselves by breaking the molds of their professional formation often actually lose distinctiveness, as they join the battalions of ideological foot soldiers in the ongoing battle.
Most Americans are weary of this polarizing, soul-deadening dynamic. We want leaders who dedicate themselves to institutions: lawmakers who care about the law; journalists who care more about getting stories right than about posting hot takes on Twitter; professors who are unabashedly academic, right down to the elbow patches; religious leaders who emulate the life of the suffering servant they worship as their God.
As A Time to Build shows, if we want the institutions that so frequently disappoint us to recover their integrity, we will have to learn to think and live differently. Levin urges his readers—mostly institutionally credentialed elites—to start thinking of themselves as insiders, not outsiders. To embrace our institutions and the distinctive work they do. To think less about getting ahead, and more about what we can do to blunt the class warfare that sours our common life. And, in many cases, to endeavor to acquire the tactical boldness necessary to undertake a thoroughgoing reform of our institutions, which are riddled with the individualism that Levin identifies as the deepest source of our troubles.
Levin’s call for more “insiders,” and his assertion that we need “a modest change in our stance toward our country and the social crisis it confronts,” sets his book apart from more dramatic titles of recent years. Yet his tracing of our anti-institutionalism to our self-understanding, and his sketching of an alternative vision of how we might live, suggest a quiet radicalism. In Levin’s formulation, we find ourselves in a crisis of our own making: we’re falling apart because we have ceased to understand the purpose of the basic mechanisms that hold us together.
And behind this quiet radicalism lies something even more countercultural—an author who demonstrates, through his life and work, what it means to resist the anti-institutional temptation. For Levin doesn’t pretend to be an outsider, demanding that the walls come crumbling down. Nor does he panic over civilizational collapse. Instead, he worries properly, rolls up his sleeves, and puts his efforts to the slow and painstaking work of restoring a national edifice that remains, for all its fissures, a monumental achievement.