“We Are All In Some Trouble Here”

I interviewed Yuval Levin for “The Long Game” podcast. This is the second time Yuval has come on the show. I think this episode has the richest material in it. I’m increasingly convinced that what Yuval is talking about — regarding a need to think institutionally and not just individualistically — is vital perspective for everyone.

Yuval is writing a book about how we can rebuild society, repair trust between one another, rejuvenate our communities, and restore hope and belonging to our lives.

“In our politics now we’re in a moment of tearing down,” Yuval said. “And we’re having debates about what to tear down. And you know, there is a time to tear down, as the good book says. But there’s also a time to build. And I think that this is a time to build.”

Recovering a way of viewing the world through the lens of institutions will help us do four things, he argues.

  1. Institutions empower us by constraining us.
  2. Institutions embody our ideals and so allow us to meaningfully devote ourselves to those ideals.
  3. Institutions make a claim to legitimate authority.
  4. Institutions satisfy our intense desire for membership and belonging.

Yuval gave three lectures at Princeton University earlier this year, and I was able to read the text of those lectures. You can watch video of Yuval’s lectures here.

One of my favorite passages from the lectures comes when Yuval talks about social media.

“Maybe it’s counterintuitive but form and structure can be essential for engagement and communication,” Yuval said. “We can see this, or the lack of it, in the realm of social media. Much of which is premised on the assumption that direct and unmediated interaction will bring us together. It hasn’t worked that way. Because social media doesn’t really mediate, it isn’t very social.”

During the last third of our conversation, I asked Yuval to explain what he meant in a particular paragraph, which led to a fascinating exchange about whether he was kicking poor people while they were down or not. I’ve thought about Yuval’s response several times in recent days when observing people who simply don’t have the same opportunities in life that I’ve been lucky to have.

I hope you listen to the whole episode.

— —

Jon: Because you say this, you say “One way to describe the vicious cycle of the last several decades is to say that America responded to a series of problems it faced at mid-century and into the 1970s by encouraging people to extend some deep reserves of built up national social capital” — alot of big words — “basically to expend those reserves on social and economic liberalism and individualism without thinking about how we built them up in the first place. That worked. It got us out of some deep funks. But now that those reserves are far more spent we face a new set of problems as a result. And the challenge we confront now is how to replenish social capital.” So, I’m curious what it means for us to have encouraged people to expend reserves of built up social capital?

Yuval: So in a way, that very dense little paragraph is a summary of-

Jon: There’s a lot going on.

Yuval: Is a summary of a book I wrote in 2016 called The Fractured Republic, which was really about this question of how we got here. And-

Jon: Who did the encouraging?

Yuval: Well I would say we all did. We encouraged ourselves in this way. The country found itself, after the end of the second World War, after a generation really of war and depression, two world wars and a depression, found itself very cohesive, very consolidated, but also very constrained. Constrained in cultural terms, constrained also in its identity and sense of itself.

There were good things about that constraint, but the United States came out of the second World War eager for liberation. We think of the 1960s as the liberal age, but in a lot of ways the 1950s and even the late ’40s, right after the war, you find Americans just looking for some liberation from the constraints of war and depression. And so the most popular books of the late 1940s were all about self-actualization, be yourself, let yourself be. Dr. Spock wrote his book about how raise kids in the first year of the baby boom, basically saying to parents “Let them be who they are.”

And “Be who you are” is really the motto of mid-century America. And that was a response to some very real needs, some of them social pressures of constraint. Some of them just much more straightforward. Our country needed to open up more opportunities for African Americans, for women, for minorities in general. And that was done by advancing an idea of liberation that was rooted in a kind of individualism. And it did a lot of good, but we also I think tried to address the problems created by that kind of individualism by pushing harder on individualism.

And so, the kind of self-destructive narcissism that inevitably follows from excessive hyper-individualism, the kind of narcissism of the hippies and so on, was answered by a counter-veiling narcissism. By obsessions about personal health. If you look in on the culture of 1970s it’s really interesting in that respect. But I think a way we tried to overcome some of the problems we had by spending social capital we had built up. By using the foundation built up over many decades of consolidation and cohesion and confidence and consensus. By using that to liberalize. To liberalize the economy and to liberalize the culture.

And, conservatives like the economic liberalization, liberals like the cultural liberalization, but it was all part of one big thing. I think where we find ourselves now is with a society that has liberalized a lot and that is finding that it’s hard to deal with the consequences, the downsides of all that, by further liberalization. Because we don’t have as much social capital. And a lot of Americans really lack social capital. That is, formation that allows them to interact well with one another. To benefit from the advantages of our society we need more formation. And that’s what institutions do. That’s why I’m focused on institutions now. Because ultimately the need we have is for a kind of personal formation that we can only get within functional, strong institutions.

Jon: Yeah, ’cause when you say social capital, I really only think about it in individualistic terms. And so I’m kind of-

Yuval: Yeah, but social capital is really connective. You know what I think about social capital? Social capital, I think, is a way to talk about warm things in cold terms. People who are not comfortable talking in religious terms and who are not comfortable talking in moral terms, they talk about social capital. But what is it really? It’s character formation that allows us to be responsible and effective in a free society. That’s what social capital allows for. It builds up habits and networks and grooves that let us connect with one another effectively. And a lot of that is done through formative institutions.

Jon: And how did we spend that? I mean, when I hear you say “We spent social capital” what does that mean?

Yuval: Well, so, it means telling everybody to be yourself but assuming that they’re gonna do it responsibly. Because they’ve been formed to do it responsibly in a society with a broad moral consensus. With an idea of individual responsibility that seemed like it was sort of in the water somehow. But it wasn’t in the water. It was conveyed through strong institutions.

The trouble is, the life of any society is generational. And after a couple of generations of understanding ourselves as fundamentally liberal, liberty oriented. And so not paying as much attention to that moral consensus, to religious institutions and traditions, to the cultural sources of responsibility. We need to remind ourselves about those again. And that to me is why it makes sense to try to encourage people to think in terms of institutions. To understand themselves through the sources of moral authority in society.

It’s a response to the particular kind of problem we have. And it’s a counter balancing, right? I’m not suggesting that this is all we need. Or that it would solve all our problems. Or, I’m certainly not suggesting that the liberalization and individualism of the last half century have been bad for us. I think in a lot of ways they’ve been very good for us. But they’ve left us with problems that we are finding it very hard to deal with. And I think part of the way to deal with them is to be reminded of what it is that institutions do for us and that moral formation does for us.

Jon: Well and also, somebody who hears you talk about social capital basically as having character and habits that help you succeed in life, somebody could hear that and say “Well you’re just throwing stones at poor people who are not socialized to succeed and don’t have opportunities.” But I would assume that all of your thinking about institutions and systems has actually liberalized you on issues of race and poverty.

Yuval: Yeah, I don’t think of this as throwing stones at all. I think that this is an area where our society has done a disservice to the most disadvantaged people. Because it’s easiest for the people who already have the most advantages in our society to function when our institutions are breaking down. The people who are most in need of functional institutions are people who don’t start out in life with a lot of advantages.

And I don’t think it’s their fault that they don’t start out with a lot of advantages. And I also don’t think that they’re in any way, that someone of a lower income is somehow less moral or lacking in the right kinds of habits. That’s not what I’m suggesting. We all need this. We all need this. It’s not as though what you have here is the upper strata of society looking at the lower and saying “Look how much trouble they’re in. How do we help them?”

We are all in some trouble here. And the social crisis we’re confronting in America, in different ways, reaches into every part of American life. But it certainly does the greatest disservice to the people who are already the least advantaged in our society. And so far from throwing stones, I think we need to be throwing life lines to each other. And that this is one way to think about how to do that.



There’s violence in the streets because Americans have forgotten how to solve problems.

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