Americans are living through a social crisis. Populist firebrands – on left and right alike – propose to address the crisis through acts of tearing down. They describe themselves as destroying oppressive establishments, clearing weeds, draining swamps. But, as acclaimed conservative intellectual Yuval Levin argues, this is a misguided prescription, rooted in a defective diagnosis. The social crisis we confront is defined not by an oppressive presence but by a debilitating absence of forces that unite us and militate against alienation.
Both Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly respond to crisis by threatening to dismantle institutions that they perceive as belonging to their political opponents. Both sides have turned “institution” into a pejorative. Levin argues that this is misguided – this is not a time to tear down, he says, but rather to build and rebuild by committing ourselves to the institutions around us and strengthening their capacity to shape and unite us. Institutions – from the military to churches to families and universities – give us the forms we require to be free. They give us a sense of community, shared identity and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.
What we perceive as a social crisis, Levin argues, is really an institutional crisis. By rebuilding and restoring collective trust in our institutions, we rebuild and restore trust in society.