The editor of the conservative publication National Affairs argues that the social crisis Americans confront is defined by a debilitating absence of forces that unite us and militate against alienation.
Why this lassitude? The right blames a collapse of religion and family and traditional morality; the left blames widening economic inequality. Mr. Levin’s answer is at once simpler, more generous and more cogent ... Mr. Levin’s diagnosis of other institutions is...trenchant ... Mr. Levin puts the choice starkly. We can go on 'fighting abstract theoretical battles in the wide-open spaces of our political culture'—shouting at cable-news shows, tweeting into the ether—or we can address “concrete practical problems within institutions.'
At a time when so many religious institutions are seen as hypocritical and corrupt, making a wholehearted, quasi-religious investment in secular institutions is a tall order. But Levin is undaunted ... I find this explanation less than fully persuasive, in part because Levin’s account of the sources of trust is incomplete...Good intentions are not enough, and neither is technical competence untethered from appropriate motives. A trustworthy institution needs both ... Another problem goes even deeper. The fact that an institution is formative says nothing about its ethical character. It may form us in positive ways, or it may deform us by stunting the development of our gifts and distorting our character in harmful ways. Employers may require employees to behave in ways they regard as demeaning or outright immoral. So may government leaders ... Despite these objections, which are not trivial, Levin’s core contention remains compelling.
The modesty of Levin’s proposals feels both refreshing and anticlimactic, and liberals are likely to find him too dismissive of the inequities that exist within institutions. Mainstream Republicans dismayed by the current state of their party, however, will savor this well-reasoned and hopeful study.