When Institutions Are Used As Stages, People Lose Trust, Book Argues | KUNC

When Institutions Are Used As Stages, People Lose Trust, Book Argues

Jan 30, 2020
Originally published on January 30, 2020 5:52 am

Yuval Levin — director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs — says Americans are losing trust in institutions.

"We trust an institution when we think that it forms the people within it to be trustworthy — so that not only does it perform an important social function, educating children or making laws or any of the many, many goods and services that institutions provide for us, but it also at the same time provides an ethic that shapes the people within it to perform that service in a reliable, responsible way," Levin told NPR Wednesday.

He says that people should ask themselves: Given my role here, in this institution – which could be anything from the government to the military to family, marriage and professions — how should I behave?

His new book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, surfaces the problem, he says, to help find a path forward.

Interview Highlights

On the military as an exception

I think the military is the great exception to our loss of trust in institutions, because I think that it is still clear to us that the military is formative, that it shapes the people within it and takes one kind of human being and produces another. We've lost the sense that many of our other institutions do that, because I think in some respects we don't expect them to do that in the way we used to.

On using institutions as a platform

We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior, and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen. And so for one arena to another in American life, we see people using institutions as stages, as a way to raise their profile or build their brand. And those kinds of institutions become much harder to trust. ...

Politics is an easy example. So, think about Congress. Congress can be a very formative institution. It produces a kind of human person, a man or woman who is a member of Congress. But now Congress is very much a performative institution. Members think of it as a way to raise their profile, to get a better timeslot on cable news or talk radio or a bigger Twitter following. And they use Congress as a platform from which to comment on the culture, to comment on politics, to comment on Congress, rather than using the institution as a way to shape themselves to become more effective in our politics. ...You know, a lot of younger members of Congress are like this. So if you think about members who are, say, young, younger than 50 now, pretty much all of them in one way or another, think about the institution as a way to raise their profile. [Sen.] Ted Cruz, after every session of the impeachment trial that's going on now, hosts a podcast and goes out and comments on what he's just been engaged in doing. [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on the Democratic side, uses Congress as a way to become a figure in our culture. Now, this is crazy and it isn't useless, right? It's important for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture. But when it comes to replace their inside function, their function within the institution, it makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it.

On the possibility of being able to both learn from the institution and have a cultural profile

I think there are ways that institutions are unavoidably formative, but ultimately when members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for. And it's intended to create a venue for a kind of accommodation that, ultimately, the politics of a free society hasn't had to advance. That's just much harder to see when what happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.

On institutions having constraints

I think if you think about the transformation of our institutions through the kind of lens that I try to offer here, we should not have let ourselves be calmed by those kinds of assurances. President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. Every past president has either been a senior officer in the military or in most cases served in other elected office ... in a way that gave them a kind of understanding of the shape of the institution and of how it might mold them to be effective.

President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he's been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.

On demanding more

We can't stand and say, well, what do you expect? That's how people in power behave. Instead, we should say we expect a lot better than this. People in power owe us more than this....

I think that's one of the effects that Trumpism has had on our politics, is a lowering of expectations that makes it very hard for us to come back from the kinds of problems we've encountered in our politics. We have to be able to say people with power have certain obligations — and not just as outsiders watching people in power. All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that's our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. We each have to say, given my role here, what's my responsibility? I would bet you that the people who most drive you crazy in American life are people who are failing to ask that question when they obviously should. ...

As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you're part of seriously.

On trust in journalism

The power of journalism is that it offers us a process of verification and confirmation and affirmation that lets us believe what we're told. So the loss of trust in journalism, I think, has in part to do with a general collapse of trust and expertise. But it also has to do with the way that some professional journalists have allowed themselves to be pulled out of the institutions that empower them with that kind of trust and to stand on a platform on their own, building their own brands — on social media and on cable news — offering opinion in ways that are very hard to tell apart from the professional work they do, and making it hard for people to know if they should be trusted.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's trial puts American institutions on display. He has an institutional role to play as president, just as people like Adam Schiff or Mitch McConnell have institutional roles in Congress. Americans, over time, have lost faith in many institutions, from churches to schools to companies to the family.

The writer Yuval Levin sees that as a problem he would like to address. In a new book called "A Time To Build," Levin says institutions should mold our behavior, giving us guidelines for what to do.

YUVAL LEVIN: We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen. And so from one arena to another in American life, we see people using institutions as stages, as a way to raise their profile or build their brand. And those kinds of institutions become much harder to trust.

INSKEEP: Is there a particular ultimate example on your mind?

LEVIN: Politics is an easy example. So think about Congress. Congress can be a very formative institution. It produces a kind of human person. But now Congress is very much a performative institution. Members think of it as a way to raise their profile, to get a better timeslot on cable news or talk radio or a bigger Twitter following. And they use Congress as a platform from which to comment on the culture, to comment on politics, to comment on Congress rather than using the institution as a way to shape themselves to become more effective in our politics...

INSKEEP: Who are you talking about here?

LEVIN: ...To move legislation, change the law.

INSKEEP: Who are you talking about here?

LEVIN: Well, Ted Cruz, after every session of the impeachment trial that's going on now, hosts a podcast and goes out and comments on what he's just been engaged in doing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on the Democratic side, uses Congress as a way to become a figure in our culture.

Now, this isn't crazy. And it isn't useless, right? It's important for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture. But when it becomes to replace their inside function, their function within the institution, it makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it.

INSKEEP: There were people at the time of the election of President Trump who said, don't worry because he's moving into this institutional role of the presidency, which will constrain him. That was the prediction of some at the beginning.

LEVIN: Well, President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. Every past president has either been a senior officer in the military or, in most cases, served in other elected office...

INSKEEP: Senator, governor, any...

LEVIN: Yeah - in a way that gave them a kind of understanding of the shape of the institution and of how it might mold them to be effective. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he's been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.

So he'll tweet about the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice works for him. If he thought of himself as an insider rather than an outsider, he would be much more effective at having it do what it wants. And I think part of the problem we see - one way to frame it is that we see a lot of insiders now wishing they were outsiders and acting as though they were.

INSKEEP: You make an interesting observation here in that when we think about the loss of faith in institutions, I think of the average person on the street losing faith in the government. But you're writing here about people in the institutions who have lost faith in the institutions.

LEVIN: Yeah - and lost the sense that the purpose of those institutions is really to mold them, to give them a certain shape. I think once the insiders in an institution no longer think of themselves that way, it becomes impossible for people outside that institution to see it that way, and everybody loses respect for it.

INSKEEP: Are there examples in which we've been absolutely right to lose faith in institutions and perhaps their institutional strength was an illusion? An easy example would be the Catholic Church.

LEVIN: Yeah. Well, absolutely right is not quite the right way to think about it. I think we have to expect our institutions to be formative in an ethical way. The fact that people within an institution feel like they ought to be better than they are is not a failure of that institution. That's how it functions. The fact that it demands of them that they ask the fundamental question - given my role here, how should I behave? - that's how institutions make us better.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that if the Catholic Church responds to years and years and years and years of scandals over sexual abuse by saying, we have failed and we must improve, that is a sign of at least potential strength of the institution.

LEVIN: Exactly. We can't stand and say, well, what do you expect? That's how people in power behave. Instead, we should say, we expect a lot better than this. People in power owe us more than this.

INSKEEP: If you'll forgive me, I think that the - what do you expect? - phrase is exactly the rhetorical style of the president. Whatever you accuse me of doing, everybody does that. They've always done that. Obama did that. This is what he says again and again and again.

LEVIN: Absolutely. I think that's one of the effects that Trumpism has had on our politics is a lowering of expectations that makes it very hard for us to come back from the kinds of problems we've encountered in our politics. We have to be able to say people with power have certain obligations - and not just as outsiders watching people in power. All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that's our family, our community, our workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. We each have to say, given my role here, what's my responsibility?

INSKEEP: I'm thinking now, seriously, about the institution in which we are sitting, a news organization...

LEVIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...In which I have a particular institutional role - to be impartial and to listen and to learn and be rigorous and attack things that seem false. I may also have personal opinions, but that's not part of my institutional role. I'm supposed to leave that out.

LEVIN: Right.

INSKEEP: There are people who, as a matter of faith almost, don't believe in that separation anymore. The only thing they're interested in is my supposed bias. What do I do with that?

LEVIN: Yeah. I think that what you're pointing to here is the way in which professions are institutions. And what professions offer us as institutions is a framework - a set of ideals and principles and norms and rules - that help us trust people, that help us believe that some people have expertise in some areas while others don't.

So the loss of trust in journalism, I think, has in part to do with a general collapse of trust and expertise. But it also has to do with the way that some professional journalists have allowed themselves to be pulled out of the institutions that empower them with that kind of trust and to stand on a platform on their own, building their own brands on social media and on cable news, offering opinion in ways that are very hard to tell apart from the professional work they do and making it hard for people to know if they should be trusted.

INSKEEP: Aren't the incentives all in the other way?

LEVIN: That's the trouble. The incentives are very powerful in the other way in journalism, in politics, in a lot of the professional world, in the academy. And so really, in some ways, the purpose of writing a book like this is to surface that problem, to help us see institutions, understand what they are and recognize why those incentives are dangerous, right? And members of Congress could change the way Congress work. They could do it on their own, but they have to want to. And I think that's true in all of our institutions. And it means that, first of all, we have to see the problem in these terms.

INSKEEP: Yuval Levin is the author of "A Time To Build: From Family And Community To Congress And The Campus, How Recommitting To Our Institutions Can Revive The American Dream." Thank you.

LEVIN: Thanks very much.

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