Thinking In Public

April 22, 2020

The Ties That Bind: A Conversation with Yuval Levin about the Crisis of American Institutions and What We Can Do about It

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Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline, theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Yuval Levin is the founder and editor of National Affairs. He's also the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. He serves as the Hertog Fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is also a senior editor for The New Atlantis and a contributing editor to National Review. He had previously served as a member of the White House Domestic Policy staff under President George W. Bush. He was executive director of the President's Council on Bioethics. He has also served as a staffer in Congress. His essays and articles have appeared in publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post.

 

He's the author of many books, including most recently, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. Dr. Yuval Levin, welcome to Thinking in Public. Dr. Levin, as you look at the series of books you have written, your intellectual project, I can see some very broad lines of a consistent interest, but they all appear to culminate in the most timely way. In the year 2020, in your newest book, A Time to Build, in which the subtitle of the book really tells the story from family and community, to Congress and the campus: how recommitting to our institutions can revive the American dream. You must feel like you were something as a prophet with that book coming out just as our institutions are being sorely tested in the context of a pandemic.

Yuval Levin:

Well, it certainly does feel like a moment where that question of the condition of our institutions is really front and center. And we're finding out now on the one hand the price we pay for letting some of these institutions fall into disuse and poor condition. But on the other hand, our capacity to rise, to mobilize, to reassert ourselves in the time of crisis. And I think we're going to learn an awful lot about the condition of American institutions from the governing institutions of our constitutional system, all the way to family and community, and religion in this period we're living through.

Albert Mohler:

Now, I think I've read virtually all your published works in series as they've come out. And thus, I can see, even in your last book, Fractured Republic, I can see where you are going as you're looking at a crisis in institutions. But this really is a more widespread problem than what most people would think of as institutions. They think of big business, higher education, hospitals. But at the fundamental of human society, you point to a far more basic definition of institution.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah, that's right. “Institutions” is such a broad term. And as you can imagine, once you start to look through the academic literature on a term like this and the historical literature, it's just vast, but I offer a pretty straightforward definition. By institutions, I mean, the durable forms of our social life, the shapes, the structures of what we do together, the ways in which we act in the world, not just as isolated individuals and not just as clumps of people, but as organizations, as structures of people working together toward a common end.

 

So, it's true that a company or a hospital, as you say, or school, is an institution. But the first institution of any society is the family. It is a structure of social organization that is there to reroute us, to give us a certain shape, and the family also lets us see that formation is absolutely essential to what institutions do. They shape us. They form our character, and they enable us to adapt ourselves to the needs of life in a complex free society. And ultimately, that's what we need out of institutions. So, when I talk about the state of our institutions, I really mean essentially, all of the things we do together in society, the ways in which we form together into societies. And that obviously opens a vista to very broad questions. And as you said, were the questions that have occupied me for a long time.

Albert Mohler:

In your book, you defined institutions as the durable forms of our common life, the frameworks and structures of what we do together. I so appreciate the fact you point to the family, and arguing an institutional order indeed as a Christian theologian, what I would argue is a creation order, makes the centrality, the essential institutional reality of the family prior to everything else. And that's a major part of my entire intellectual project for my entire adult life. And rooted in a consistent line of Western thinking that involves Jewish and Christian thinkers, Catholic and Protestant thinkers, and yet, at this point, it's now in such contested territory that to argue about the family in this way is now to enter into the context in which you admittedly wrote your book and also addressed your last book, and that is to a culture war.

 

But before we turn much further than that, I just want to point out that as you talk about institutions and you follow through crisis in various institutions, the bigger issue is, there's a lack of appreciation, even amongst many people who think of themselves as conservatives that nothing much can be conserved without institutions.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So, this is a conservative book, because my work is conservative work. But in a particular way, for me, the division between left and right starts with a basic difference of opinion about the character of the human person. I tend to think of the human person in a Jewish way, a Judaeo-Christian way, as fallen, as needing to be formed before we can be free, as imperfect and crooked. And the formation we require before we can really be citizens of a free society and decent people, is what our institutions are for. And again, that's why it starts with the family. That is the first and most formative of our institutions. 

 

What we require from institutions is formation for freedom, they shape us. There are certainly a lot of people in our society that think differently. They think the human person begins more or less perfect and free, and then comes to be oppressed and pressed down by various institutions.And what we need from politics in that view is liberation from our institutions, maybe the eradication of our institutions. A lot of what we think of as our culture wars are really about that question, about whether what we require from our society is formation fundamentally or liberation. And it seems to me that left and right differ about that in really profound ways. 

 

So, that question is about institutions, about what is the family for? What is the purpose of schooling? What role do religious institutions and civic institutions actually play? What is politics for? Those questions become intensely divisive questions, fundamental as they are, when society disagrees about the nature of the human person. And I think that's the condition we're living in. So, I think our culture wars runs very deep. And in that sense, this argument about how to think about our institutions and what to expect from them comes to be very important in understanding some of the biggest challenges we're facing as a society.

Albert Mohler:

There's so many things I want to trace out here with you, Dr. Levin. Let me just trace your life for just a moment, born in Israel, graduate of the American University, and then a PhD at the University of Chicago. It was there you came under the influence of one of my heroes, Dr. Leon Kass. And I see reframes of Dr. Kass in your work, but I want to ask a specific question as a theologian. To what degree is your understanding... and by the way, on page six of your book, you make a statement that I marked with many red lines.

 

The argument of this book is a conservative one of a particular sort. It begins from the premise that human beings are born as crooked creatures prone to waywardness and sin, that we therefore always require moral and social formation, and that such formation is what our institutions are for. Now, it would seem to me as a Christian theologian with tremendous admiration for Judaism, that that should be a central affirmation of Judaism, and it has been, and explains the humanly, at least, the persistence and existence, and survival of the Jewish people. How representative of American Judaism today is that affirmation?

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. I mean, you hit upon a complicated question and a difficult one, and a painful one for me, I would say. I mean, I certainly think that that is a fundamental Jewish teaching, a Judeo-Christian teaching in our society, and it is. Also, you point to my teacher, Leon Kass, who is a great thinker on these questions. And certainly, this book is very deeply shaped by his teaching and his way of thinking. And it seems to me that coming from the tradition that I come from, it would be natural to think of the human person in these terms.

 

But obviously, the culture wars that we're fighting in our society draw a dividing line within the Jewish community as they do in some respects within American Christianity, and not everybody agrees on this space of premise, I would say. I mean, I think for some people, the way of thinking about society is more informed by a political teaching and the teaching of modern progressivism than by what's fundamentally, I think, a religious and philosophical teaching and understanding of the truth about the human person that's rooted in the Jewish tradition.

 

And so certainly, I would say the majority of American Jews, at least given their political expression, seem to be on a different side of this question than I am. And maybe we disagree about what the tradition teaches but it certainly seems to me that beginning from the premise of human waywardness and neediness, would point you in the direction of an attitude about the role of institutions that have to put you on the side of these culture battles that I find myself on.

Albert Mohler:

Let's track that thought for just a few moments. By the way, I so enjoyed your book at many levels, and one of the reasons is I gave an address just almost exactly a year ago this week to a couple of thousand young evangelicals on the importance of institutions, and it's been a major project. And I used thoughts such as you quoted in your book and you evidently knew, and so many others. And that's part of the reason why I was so looking forward to seeing you to define institutions, because that's a very slippery project.

 

It reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart on pornography. I don't track and define it, but I know it when I see it, but we have to think about that. But also in the context of our cultural and ideological divisions, raises a very interesting question. You actually get to in a way that I haven't seen anyone else actually be brave enough to write about. And that is that when you look at the traditional left to right distinctions, at least at the level of the intimate institution, such as the family, it does appear and has appeared, especially in American public life since at least the '60s and '70s, that those on the more conservative side understand the essential value of and essential nature of.

 

And I mean, as essential, of the intimate structures, beginning with family and community. Whereas, the left isn't necessarily anti-institutional as it was described as being in the '60s, but actually, is committed to a different institution. And so, I think of Rudi Dutschke, the long march through the institutions. The left has its own institutional affirmations and institutional drives.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. I mean, I would say one of the core themes of this book is that we have gone through a transformation in our expectation of institutions, and that that's one of the reasons we've tended to lose confidence or trust in some of our core institutions. And I described that transformation as a move from thinking of institutions as formative, as shaping our souls, to thinking of institutions as performative, as platforms for us to stand on and express ourselves and be seen, and build a following or build a brand, we say now.

 

I think you'll see that very powerfully in our politics where members of Congress think of the institution as a place for them to stand and perform, and build a following, and get a social media following behind them. You see that somewhat in the presidency. You see it in the academy. You see it in the professions. I think there's also a way in which some of our thinking about family has been transformed in this way where before we think of family as formative of the soul, of the individual, formative of the rising generation, we think of it as expressive, as expressing a political attitude or a view about our notions of social progress or social justice.

 

And look, all those things matter. But ultimately, the family is the way we shape the rising generation. And we have to see first and foremost that it must play that role if it is to be the family. And so, I think that's one reason why some of our most contentious cultural battles end up being battles that are best understood through the lens of institutions, because we're really arguing about what the purpose of these things is. And so much of the cultural confusion we confront now and the cultural crisis we confront has to do with a loss of a clear sense of what it is that these institutions are supposed to be doing. And therefore, a loss of the ability to trust them, to count on them, to have confidence in them.

Albert Mohler:

I want to come back to what you indicted against performative politics, but I want to stick with the family here for a moment. I would argue that the worldview of ideological, philosophical, theological foundation for institutions begins in Genesis 1. And even in Genesis 1 of the dominion stewardship mandate, it implies government structures, community and all the rest. And then of course, you have the conjugal union of the man and the woman in marriage by the time you get to the end of Genesis 2. And so, that is, as we often say, it's pre-political. And I liked the way you said it, it's pre-everything.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

And so, there's a sense in which though I think many people who will believe themselves to be conservative think that there can be some cultural recovery, some institutional recovery at a level beyond the family. In other words, let's concede the family issue and try to establish institutional stability for the culture elsewhere. Now, I just believe that's a losing project. I mean, I'm not setting you up here. But I'll just say clearly, I think that's a doomed project from the beginning.

 

I understand it, but I don't believe that's possible. You're really sitting in your own commanding heights of American conservatism. How widespread do you think this affirmation of the family as pre-everything now is?

Yuval Levin:

Well, I think if you push people on what they think about the family, you would find that most conservatives probably do think that it is really central. But there's an enormous amount of wishful thinking about what we can do given the condition of our culture. I think there's a great desire to imagine that we can push back against some of the degradation of culture that we've seen without having to fight the uncomfortable battles we sometimes find ourselves in around family.

 

And look, I think that these things have to be fought in parallel with each other. There's work to be done that looks like political reform, that looks like cultural reform, reform of the academy, and other things, but I don't think there's any substitute for a recovery of the core ideal of the family. And I think of society as a set of concentric rings that emerges outward from family to community, and then to the economy, and then to the culture, and then to national identity and beyond it. And each ring exists to protect that, which is within it. And ultimately, the whole thing exists to enable the family to form the individual human being. And if we lose sight of the significance of that, then it's hard to see what the other battles are for.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, exactly. On page 142 of your book, you make the statement that many of the debates and controversies over the family, cohabitation, single parenthood or any of the other family formation controversies of recent decades, you say these, I quote, "Often caused us to perceive an emphasis on the forms of families as an effort to deny recognition and legitimacy to some individuals." I think there's a brilliant insight there. I think that also indicates a basic difference of opinion or understanding about what the family is to do. Because when you started out talking about the family in every turn, even in this conversation, you said it's primarily about the formation of individuals. But I think your statement in this book is extremely clarifying that to many people, the family instead, and with Anthony Kennedy, former Justice of the Supreme Court in this list, who sees the family or marriage as a matter of legitimation.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. Yeah, I think that's right. And even more legitimation, it's almost a form of self-expression. It's a way of saying who you are. And if you think about it, if you step back from a lot of our cultural battles and our political battles, there's a sense on the left that everything is about self-expression. That ultimately, the way to live is to show the world who you are. And I think much more important is to be formed into something better. And that basic difference about what we should be expecting over our cultural institutions and over our social life in general, in some ways, is the deepest difference between left and right.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I think it certainly is. And when you think about the cultural debates we have in the United States, they almost never get down to this level. It tends to be two worlds that don't really much collide. And to my frustration, I don't see many people identified as conservatives, making deeply conservative arguments in the public square on many of these issues.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. I mean, I think it becomes uncomfortable and difficult. And because we lack the vocabulary to articulate to the larger society what we're for, what we're defending, we find it difficult to engage in these arguments that end up pushing us back into just arguing what we're against. It's not what we're against that really matters, right? The no we want to say here and there is all a way of getting to a larger, broader, bigger yes.

Albert Mohler:

That's right.

Yuval Levin:

To saying yes to human flourishing, to saying yes to human thriving. And in order to do that, we have to have certain ideals and certain forms of the family, of community, of society. I think we've lost the knack for making it clearer to our neighbors what that big yes is all about.

Albert Mohler:

Now, a moment ago, you spoke of politics as performative, and that certainly is an indictment and a quite accurate indictment of the age. And not only do you illustrate that extremely well, but it helps to explain why politics just isn't working, to put it bluntly. And I think whether on the left or the right, you come to the conclusion it's not working. You talked about politics and performance, basically, especially elected officials no longer see themselves as stewards of a political institutional mission.

Albert Mohler:

But rather, as an opportunity to be a celebrity. You quote another one of my favorite authors, Daniel Boorstin, "Well-known for being well-known." We traded a statesmanship for a celebrity, and I often wonder if this is now a permanently toxic facet of American politics. You seem to believe that there can be some recovery here. Give me some hope.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. Well, I think that the relationship between politics and celebrity has become confused in a bizarre way where people used to seek a microphone in order to gain power and make a difference. Now, people seek power in order to gain a microphone and be heard, be seen, be followed, get a better time slot on cable news, get a bigger social media following. And if you look at the way that a lot of members of Congress behave now, it seems like that celebrity, that prominence is what they want out of Congress and what they're after.

 

Rather than seeing it as a way to channel their energies into legislation, into governing, we've seen that in several of our recent presidents, and not just the current one, but certainly also the current one, as an idea that what the president really is, is our leading political celebrity, the commentator in chief who speaks at the government more than for the government. And a part of that is that people now don't want to be seen as the insiders. Everybody wants to be an outsider. And so, people run for Congress. And then, the first thing they do is complain about Congress, and they keep doing it. So, that you find a senator who's been there for 35 years saying, "You wouldn't believe what happened in this place," and talking about his colleagues as if they're corrupt. Well, you're one of them and you're on the inside, not on the outside. What can you do? What are you trying to do? What do you want to do?

 

I think the way in which the institutions tended to shape their occupants now has been transformed, as I say, into a way of thinking about the institutions as just platforms for their occupants. And what's lost in the process of that, above all, is a sense of responsibility, a sense that what it means to be an elected official is to exercise power. And therefore, to have certain kinds of obligations and responsibilities. And a politics that lacks that is a politics that lacks legitimacy. And it's easy to see that we're living in a time when a lot of the American public thinks our politics lacks legitimacy. 

 

To push back against that would require a change of attitude, would require helping the people within our political institutions. Ask that core unasked question of American life now, which is, given my role here, how should I behave? Given that I am a President or a member of Congress, or a CEO, or a worker, or a pastor, or a congregant, or a neighbor, or a parent, given that, how should I behave? That question is what someone who takes an institution they are part of seriously would ask before making an important decision. And I would bet that the people who most drive you crazy now in American life are people who seem to just never ask that question when they should. And those people who we respect, who we regard highly, are people who seem to always ask that question in hard moments. If we start ourselves in our own lives asking that question more often, we can begin to make a difference there. 

 

So, I'm a conservative so I'm not an optimist. But I am hopeful. I do think that our dissatisfaction with the state of things is such that we may, in our own lives, begin to ask those kinds of questions more often, and we may start to expect other people in the institutions we're part of to ask those questions. And so, to demand that they do, and that's what a transformation would have to look like to start with.

Albert Mohler:

As I began this conversation, I mentioned that when most Americans think of institutions, they think of big institutions, institutions that call themselves institutions. But it's really important that we think about the even more fundamental, more primary institutions. But we do need to look at those big institutions and the formative power that they hold within our society, and what's going on in those institutional contexts.

 

Now, later in your book, you deal with higher education, and you've obviously given it a lot of thought. The way you layout your case with three different cultures on the American University campus, it's very perceptive. You, of course, spent a lot of time on a very elite American University campus. You are right now constantly in circles of conversation with people on those campuses. You write sensitively. In other words, you don't just enter this as an ID log. But you do very clearly understand that there's no consensus in higher education about what education is supposed to be in the first place.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah, I think that is the problem now. And so, in some ways, there's always been a debate within the university about the purpose of the university. And the three cultures you mentioned... I mean, I think there's always been an element of academic life that has thought the purpose of the academy is just to give people skills, to teach them what they need to work in the economy. There's always been an element that has said, "The purpose of the university is to shape the moral life of the larger society." That's not new. Although, the definition of moral life that's held by most academics I think has changed dramatically over the generations. But the idea that university plays a part in that has always been part of it, and there's always been an academic culture that says, "The purpose of the university is to seek the truth wherever it leads." But all of those have tended to agree that this has to be done by teaching and learning, that the purpose of the university is ultimately teaching and learning, opening our minds to the truth and pursuing it.

 

We are now in a place where a lot of people in the university start from a different assumption, which is that the purpose of the university consists in a political activism, to transform our society in the mold of a progressive sense of what justice looks like. And that teaching and learning might be incidental to that, it might not be, but that's not the purpose. And this is in line with a larger transformation of institutions I have been talking about here, which is, people have come to see the university not as a mold of character in mind but as a platform for political expression.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah.

Yuval Levin:

And what happens now in the university is so much like what happens in the media and in our cultural institutions. They're all just places to stand and yell about oppression. And look, sometimes we need to yell about oppression. But sometimes we also need a place to learn. Sometimes we also need a place to seek the truth. We need, say, newspapers. We need a culture. These institutions have different purposes. They're not all just arms of progressive politics. And when they become that as they have become, I think we face a real crisis in our society. We need universities. We need places that see it as their business to inculcate the rising generation in the fundamentals of Western civilization. And increasingly, we do not have that.

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. I mean, people are paying a ridiculous amount of money for the institution, the formation of character and a person, and that should take place in a college and university. But as you point out, most parents do so because they're basically looking for the fastest way to status for their children.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah.

Albert Mohler:

I'm going to come back to something you affirmed just in terms of the three purposes. But the purpose of moral formation, I just want to point out that that was at least the stated purpose of most of the venerable American institutions. Chicago came a little later after the rise of the modern university. But before that, when you had a university, not only the Ivy League, but most, both public and private institutions in the 19th century, the president tended to hold the position of professor of moral philosophy.

Yuval Levin:

That's right.

Albert Mohler:

And was more often than not, a clergyman, but that continued. And so, I just want to track this for a moment. I'm in a project right now, which I'm looking at the mission of higher education and trying to trace a circle that's come around. 

 

So, my argument is this, that up through say the 1950s and into the '60s, you had major Americans university presidents like Kingman Brewster at Yale, who made statements about the Yale man. What kind of 18-year-old was to come to Yale? And what would Yale trying to produce in a 22-year-old? And back then, again, it was addressed to young men. What is a Yale man? It was a moral statement. And now, we're back to moral statements. They're just very different moral statements. And in between, I'm looking at all these mission statements of universities and statements of university presidents, and they're overwhelmingly professional development and contribution to society and engineering.

 

In the '70s, you start to see all kinds of things with the space race and all the rest that were in the background. But now, I'm hearing this language and seeing it. You look at the website, a prestigious American university, and again, Yale's one I'm looking at pretty closely. It's back to the moral language. But now, it's the language of very progressivist, leftist moral revolution. But it's moral again, explicitly.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. I think that is a fascinating point and certainly strikes me as right. There's one way that conservatives tend to think about university activism that starts the story in the 1960s. As if the universities were always just practical-minded and then came the student activists and made them ideological. But as you say, universities, especially in America, but not only in America, the European University that began in the 12th and 13th centuries, was first and foremost, the school of theology.

Albert Mohler:

Exactly.

Yuval Levin:

And certainly, in the United States, the early universities were not only first and foremost, but essentially entirely, schools of theology and moral philosophy. And we've come to a place now where, again, they see their purpose as moral preaching. But then, morality at the core of them is very different and aligns with a progressive politics. I think it's important to understand because there's a tendency sometimes for us on the right who are critical of what's happening on the university campus, to imagine that the people we're arguing against are nihilists, that they are arguing against all morality, and that the campus activists today are not relativists.

Albert Mohler:

Not at all.

Yuval Levin:

Maybe they'd leave conservatives alone if they were relativists, right? But they're not. They're adamantly championing a moral vision that has a lot of problems, and they have to be answered in moral terms. Now, I actually think that this means that there's an opportunity for us to appeal to students, students who clearly want some vision of justice. They're getting one that I think is very shallow and misguided, and we have a better one to offer.

 

It seems to me that there is an openness now among the rising generation of college students and openness to religion, to conversion, and openness to a more traditional and older idea of justice in the West that we under-appreciate because we think that these young students hate their inheritance, that they come in as soldiers of the left. But I don't think that's necessarily true. I think they come in seeking some ideal of justice and they're only offered one on the university campus.

Albert Mohler:

Right.

Yuval Levin:

And that suggests that there's an opening for us to engage the university with confidence and to engage it in an effort to convert and to persuade, and not just to try to defend what little space we have with arguments about free speech. Free speech is very important but it's not enough, and it's not the purpose of the university.

Albert Mohler:

Well, one of the consistent themes of conservative thought has been the responsibility of conservatives to be there, continuing an argument, when the other side comes back to it. And so, that's one sense in which there might be some hope that the left running out. I mean, the people I see on American university campuses who are the most afraid right now aren't the administrators. They're gung-ho. And it's not the students, although you do speak of their fear of getting out of line, but it's the old liberal faculty.

 

The people who were on the left in the '80s, in the '90s, they are now part of the problem in the view of many of their younger colleagues and even college administrators. You may have seen a pretty significant study that came out indicating that of all the political hotspots on the campus, the student development administrator staff turns out to be the most leftist committed, and they basically have control over more of students' lives than do professors in the classroom, truth be told.

Yuval Levin:

Yeah. Yeah, I think a lot of the degradation of campus life in the past two years has been about administrators, much more than about professors. There's a sense now that political progressivism is a mode of administration, is a way of using power on campus. And I think that is done much more to distort campus life than just the political leanings of the professoriate, which are nothing new.

Albert Mohler:

I was born in 1959 and came of age intellectually, and with a lot of urgency. I was an incredibly inquisitive... an intellectually-troubled teenager. I'm raised in a conservative evangelical home. I was confronted with teachers first in high school and then in college who were a part of what Paul Hollander would call, the adversary culture. I mean, they just saw as their first responsibility to disabuse conservative students of all their affections and truths, claims, et cetera. First of all, as a Christian, I'm looking where my home is in Christian theology. And thankfully, that was accessible to me, and people intervened in my life in a wonderfully helpful way, which explains why I'm sitting where I'm sitting today. 

 

But politically, as a 16-year-old, I just discovered National Review magazine, which I think probably the Owen Foundation or someone have been paying to put in high school libraries. I was the only kid who read National Review. But through that, I got to so many different people, and I mean the books are there in the library. No one was reading them. And so, I didn't have to fight to check them out. And I got to Edmund Burke. And if there's any one word I would use to describe my political parentage, it would be Burkean. And that's why by the way, I so enjoyed your book, The Great Debate, which is a rare argument, which is historically credible. But also very relevant to today, the subhead of this book: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. In an address you gave last year at a conference on national conservatism, you spoke of Burke and the nation. Can you just speak of what you see as the future of conservatism in the United States and how that fits into your larger project in this most recent book?

Yuval Levin:

Well, Burkean is certainly how I would describe myself too. And what that really means to me is a disposition towards political and social life that begins in that place where I started at the beginning of our conversation, which is that we are fallen and broken, and we need formation. And we need to regard the examples of successful and functional social order around us as precious things to be preserved. That's what conservatives want to conserve, because we think that it's not easy to achieve that durable moral order.

 

And those institutions that keep the world from falling into disorder are the inheritance that we have to protect and cherish. And based on that, but starting from that premise, you build out a political viewpoint that has a very high regard for our inheritance intuitions that believes that the wisdom of a society is knowledge, is contained in its social institutions and traditions, not contained in the minds of technocrats at the center. And so, it makes you skeptical of big blunt applications of political power and more inclined to think that politics will work well when it channels broadly dispersed knowledge, it gives people choices and options, and respects their freedom. Those are the sources of my politics. And I think that's what conservativism ultimately is. We're in a time now when consumers are really arguing with each other about what it means to be a conservative.

 

I think some of the factions of the right, people who emphasize economics first, people who emphasize the social and the moral first as I do, are a little bit at each other's throats. But I tend to think that ultimately, these factions belong together, that the coalition of the right makes sense. There are a lot of tensions within it. There really are tensions between economic libertarianism and social conservatism, but that both share a humility about human knowledge and power that ultimately is how we approach politics.And that politics is about building coalitions. And so, we have to get better at working with each other and constructing those overarching coalitions that can let us approach the public with something attractive to offer.

 

 I am ultimately hopeful for the right in America. I think this country inclines to see the insights that cause, at least me, to be a conservative. But we've lost our way a bit as the left has, and I think we're at the end of a phase in American politics, and the next phase is only now taking shape. And so, that requires engagement. It requires focusing on the issues that divide us and on the challenges that confront the country. And that's the everyday work I do, is to take next caller on the right, and it's moved by that hope.

Albert Mohler:

There's so many things I'd want to talk about, but I appreciate your answer to that question. By the way, the first attraction I had to Burke was the fact that when he spoke of... and I think I may have read a column by Russell Kirk in which he mentioned the little platoons, and I didn't know anything. I was a teenager. I didn't know anything, but I just went to read Burke. And then, what actually captivated me first was his essay on the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. And that just reached the heart and mind of a teenage kid to think, even what I think is aesthetically pleasing, isn't first of all about me. There's a reason why I find this aesthetically attractive. There's a reason why I was aesthetically starved. Why did I so enjoy an art museum? Why did this animate me so? And I love Burke's careful thinking. And, again, I've got three shelves of works vying about him, because I'm going to continue our conversation.

 

And I really appreciate it so much, your latest book, because I felt like I was picking up on that conversation. One very testy point in your book I wanted to press you on as we come to a conclusion here, because you talk about moving beyond meritocracy. And if there is a standard leftist critique of conservatism, is that conservatism establishes privileged hierarchies that don't deserve the influence and the power. And so, the answer, especially the American answer for all of my lifetime, was that meritocracy. It's equality of opportunity, and so you earn it. You earn it with your SIT. You earn it with your grades. You earn it. But as you point out, there's a lack of confidence in that. And so, the meritocratic elite is just another elite. So, where do we go from here?

Yuval Levin:

Well, the challenge with meritocracy is that it represents a way of thinking about what an elite owes the larger society. But it's all about what it takes to enter that elite and how to make that more fair, and that's important. But there's another facet to what an elite owes to a larger society, which is, how is that elite held responsible? And how does it exercise the power that it's given by the larger society in a responsible way? And I think meritocracy is very bad at answering that question, because it tells our elites that they have the power they have by their own merit, that they earned it by getting into college, by passing tests. 

 

Another way to think about what we can expect of our elites would be much more institution-minded that says, "You earned your power by playing your role properly in these institutions, by abiding by the rules of your professions, by meeting the needs of your constituents, by living up to the obligations you have as elites in the society. By mediating those through institutions, by channeling them through institutions, we can help people understand what we should expect from people with power or privilege in our society." And so, I think what can follow meritocracy wouldn't replace meritocracy. We still would want access to our elite educational institutions to be based on fair criteria to the extent it can be. But we also would want to demand that people with power in our various social and political, and cultural institutions be answerable to the standards of those institutions.

 

And in part, that means asking that question I was mentioning before. Given my role here, how should I behave? We should demand the people with power in our society ask that question, but they not see the roles they have is just ways to promote themselves, to build their own brand, that they see them as ways to serve the larger society, and a stronger and more confident sense of what our institutions are for is essential to that way of thinking. So, that's the way in which the argument of a book like this tries to help us see forward from where our meritocracy has gotten us.

Albert Mohler:

Dr. Levin, I so appreciate your work, your most recent book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. I'm an original subscriber to National Affairs, and I appreciate the fact that you're editor of that journal, and your work with AEI, The American Enterprise Institute. I know that by the time this book is being discussed between us today, you're already at work on the next one. Can you tell us where your project is taking you next?

Yuval Levin:

Well, I'm thinking about some particular institutions. And I think my next book may well be a short agnostic history of Congress, but it's only at the very beginning. So, we'll see where it goes.

Albert Mohler:

Dr. Yuval Levin, thank you so much for joining me today, for Thinking in Public.

Yuval Levin:

Thank you. I really appreciate this.

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks again to my guest, Yuval Levin, for thinking with me today. I really enjoyed the conversation about institutions, our larger culture, our hopes and our concerns as we look to the present and to the future. If you enjoy today's episode of Thinking in Public, you can find over 100 more of these conversations at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.

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