By Yuval Levin
Our institutions lost the capacity to mold character and have become platforms for performance instead.
Americans are living through a social crisis. We can see that in everything from vicious partisan polarization to rampant culture-war resentments to the isolation, alienation and despair that have sent suicide rates climbing and driven an epidemic of opioid abuse. These dysfunctions appear to have common roots, but one symptom of the crisis is that we can’t quite seem to get a handle on just where those roots lie.
When we think about our problems, we tend to imagine our society as a vast open space filled with individuals who are having trouble linking hands. And so we talk about breaking down walls, building bridges, leveling playing fields or casting unifying narratives.
But what we are missing is not simply greater connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, purpose, concrete meaning and identity to the things we do together. If American life is a big open space, it is not a space filled with individuals. It is a space filled with these structures of social life — with institutions. And if we are too often failing to foster belonging, legitimacy and trust, what we are confronting is a failure of institutions.
This social crisis has followed upon a collapse of our confidence in institutions — public, private, civic and political. But we have not given enough thought to just what that loss of confidence entails and why it’s happening.
Each core institution performs an important task — educating children, enforcing the law, serving the poor, providing some service, meeting some need. And it does that by establishing a structure and process, a form, for combining people’s efforts toward accomplishing that task.
But as it does so, each institution also forms the people within it to carry out that task responsibly and reliably. It shapes behavior and character, fostering an ethic built around some idea of integrity. That’s why we trust the institution and the people who compose it.
We trust political institutions when they undertake a solemn obligation to the public interest and shape the people who populate them to do the same. We trust a business because it promises quality and reliability and rewards its workers when they deliver those. We trust a profession because it imposes standards and rules on its members intended to make them worthy of confidence. We trust the military because it values courage, honor and duty in carrying out the defense of the nation and forms human beings who do, too.
We lose faith in an institution when we no longer believe that it plays this ethical or formative role of teaching the people within it to be trustworthy. This can happen through simple corruption, when an institution’s attempts to be formative fail to overcome the vices of the people within it, and it instead masks their treachery — as when a bank cheats its customers, or a member of the clergy abuses a child.
That kind of gross abuse of power obviously undermines public trust in institutions. It is common in our time as in every time. But for that very reason, it doesn’t really explain the exceptional collapse of trust in American institutions in recent decades.
What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.
In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.
President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.
The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.
Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.
Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.
The few exceptions to the pattern of declining confidence in institutions tend to prove this rule. The military is the most conspicuous exception and also the most unabashedly formative of our national institutions — molding men and women who clearly take a standard of behavior and responsibility seriously. And that can help us see what we might do to help alleviate the social crisis we confront.
All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.
As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”
The people you most respect these days probably seem to ask that kind of question before they make important judgments. And the people who drive you crazy, who you think are part of the problem, are likely those who clearly fail to ask it when they should.
Asking such questions of ourselves would be a first step toward grasping our responsibilities, recovering the great diversity of interlocking purposes that our institutions ought to serve, and constraining elites and people in power so that the larger society can better trust them. It would not be a substitute for institutional reforms but a prerequisite for them.
And asking such questions is one thing we all can do to take on the complicated social crisis we are living through and begin to rebuild the bonds of trust essential for a free society.