Irrational Institutions #1
Featuring Yuval Levin
Imagine that 40 years ago you had showed me today’s information technology, and asked me to predict what public discourse and intellectual life would be like in 2021. I might have said, “Gosh! People will be carrying around mainframe computers in their pockets? And they will have information at their fingertips with Google and YouTube and Wikipedia? I predict that public discourse and intellectual life will be in a Golden Age! It will be like the Golden Age of Athens. Or the Scottish Enlightenment. Or the debates at the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers.”
Instead, the low quality of public discourse led me in 2013 to write The Three Languages of Politics. Since then, things have gotten worse—much worse.
So I state this paradox: we are surrounded by intelligence and yet deluged with stupidity.
In this post, I will aim to complement Arnold’s overview based on my own notes and reflections from the discussion. Participants (and anyone else interested in this topic) are welcome to add to this reflection series in the comments below.
Did the Good Old Days Exist?
It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether we are comparing our present troubles to an idealized past. Even with the challenges of the pandemic staring us in the face, it wasn’t long ago that unemployment was near all-time lows and surveyed life satisfaction at an all time high. Might we be misremembering the past and thus misperceiving the present?
During the Q&A, one participant asked whether our current distrust of institutions might simply be a function of increased transparency. With nearly 300 million Americans equipped to broadcast every failure or injustice on their smartphone might we be misdiagnosing the normal aches and pains of a large democracy as a full-scale societal breakdown?
Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public gives some credence to this argument by providing many examples of institutions that enjoyed public trust despite behaving in untrustworthy ways.
In his speech to the newspaper editors, [President Kennedy] denied what everyone knew to be true: that the [Bay of Pigs] invasion had been a US show from start to finish. He gave credit to “Cuban patriots” for the attack, and insisted they had secured nothing more substantial than good will from the US government. Having established American non-intervention in the affair, the rest of the president’s speech was a fairly hardline assertion of the right of his administration to intervene, if necessary, in the future, to meet its “primary obligations which are to the security of our Nation.”
At the press conference, a journalist asked whether, given the “propaganda lambasting” the country was taking because of the attack on Cuba, it would not be useful “for us to explore with you the real facts behind this, or our motivations.”
In spite of the botched invasion, Kennedy continued to enjoy the trust and respect of the public. A Gallup poll taken just weeks after the Bay of Pigs showed an 82% approval rating of the presidency and his Democratic Party expanded its dominance over both houses of Congress in the 1962 midterm elections. Neither the CIA, which had orchestrated the failure, nor the press, which failed to hold the administration accountable, suffered a hit to their respective reputations.
Today none of these institutions, from the Presidency on downward, would come away from such an event unscathed. Digital technology democratizes the power of the press and enables even unaffiliated outsiders to discredit the major players. In many ways, our societal dysfunction is “not getting worse, it’s getting filmed”.
But while the good old days may never have been what we remember them to be, very real problems remain in our hyper-informed age. Even in societies where only 1 in 10 people are dissatisfied, that 10% has the power to make a lot of noise. As long as our institutions are hyper-responsive to the loudest and most intolerant factions, our public life will remain chaotic and prone to irrational developments.
All the World’s a Stage
Yuval Levin described much of what goes on in Congress today as a kind of performance art. When a senator speaks at a committee hearing, he or she is not engaging other lawmakers in the room, only the camera recording the proceedings. Afterward, the senator’s team cuts up the footage into sound bites which then get distributed through television and social media. The most successful politicians are the ones who yell the same things in Congress that their constituents yell at their screens at home.
In an Op-Ed last year, Senator Ben Sasse spoke to this dysfunction while noting,
There’s one notable exception: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the majority of whose work is done in secret. Without posturing for cameras, Republicans and Democrats cooperate on some of America’s most complicated and urgent problems. Other committees could follow their example, while keeping transparency by making transcripts and real-time audio available to the public.
Yuval also sees excessive transparency as an impediment to meaningful political action, but is not hopeful about the prospects for Congressional reform. Current elected representatives are skilled at exploiting their office for personal celebrity and demonstrate little interest in legislating or governing.
What to Make of the Military?
In A Time to Build, Yuval points to the military as an example of a formal institution that has maintained public trust. From 1985 to 2019, respondents reporting high levels of trust actually rose from 61% to 73%—a clear outlier in both level and trend.1 He sees this as an instance of an institution shaping individuals into better versions of themselves by establishing clear expectations and honorable norms of conduct.
We trust the military because it values courage, honor, and duty in carrying out the defense of the nation, and forms men and women who do too.
But is this the crux of what is going on? One participant pointed out that military demographics are very different from those of other large institutions. Compared to new hires at say, The New York Times, military recruits are less affluent, more male, and less likely to have a college degree.2
Recruits are also drawn from a broader cross-section of America, with red states overrepresented relative to progressive strongholds.
These facts give me pause. If the military is succeeding mainly because of the demographics they attract rather than the training they provide, we should probably be less optimistic that our large institutions can right the ship on their own. By the time the incoming wave of hires arrives in our nations’ newsrooms, corporations, and governing halls it may already be too late.
What then can we do? One approach involves prioritizing university reform. Yuval emphasizes education as the biggest difference between military recruits and NYT staffers. Insofar as the military has moved in the direction of more woke institutions at all, it has come from the top-down as educated officers within the military establishment seek to unify around their increasingly homogeneous peers in other elite institutions.3 Perhaps a revitalized university system (or some alternative form of education at scale) can do a better job of preparing the workers and leaders of tomorrow.
While university reform is certainly important, it will not be sufficient in my view. Today’s college students seem less grounded and prepared from the very start of their degrees, and surely this contributes to the dysfunction we see on our nation’s campuses. We need to begin much sooner, with the institutions that organize and structure our relationship to the social world in our earliest stages of development.
Many local institutions play a role here, from public schools and boys & girls clubs to city governments and religious organizations. But the most fundamental is the family.
It is where we enter the world, literally where we alight when we depart the womb. It gives us our first impression of the world, and our first understanding of what it is all about. It then sees us through some of our most vulnerable years of life, taking us by the hand as we progress from the formless ignorance of the newborn through the formative innocence of early childhood to the fearful insecurities of juvenile transformations and hopefully, eventually, to a formed and mature adjusted posture in society.
Yuval Levin, A Time to Build
Like many of our other institutions, the American family is under immense strain. Decay in our home life is especially personal and painful, and as a result we often shy away from discussing it. Any attempt to fix or even diagnose family problems is prone to be perceived as a form of condemnation, and I grant there have been times this message has been cruelly or carelessly delivered.
But while the circumstances that necessitate our time to build are harrowing, it is ultimately a hopeful enterprise. We can begin to build wherever we are at.
Arnold summarizes Yuval’s insight in his overview:
“We used to have differing realms of elites: politicians, business titans, academicians, journalists, and celebrities varied in their backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes. Now, they all share the same class outlook. They are trained at the same universities, and in some respects they have become interchangeable.”