In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, America enjoyed a sense of unity that was, if short-lived, a dramatic reminder that we are a single people with a strong and good national spirit.
Like so many of us, I was reminded of that spirit in what so far has been one of the most hopeful and unifying public moments of the American response to the pandemic, former President George W. Bush's recent eloquent and moving plea for unity.
But the reality today is so much different. This time around, we can't seem to put away partisan vituperation during the crisis itself. Our national politics seems as toxic as ever, our divisions more deeply rooted and widespread.
The tribalism into which nearly every public discussion degenerates now is not new to politics or to human nature. Our founders called it faction and saw it as a grave political threat. They devised a Constitution and a system of institutional checks and balances designed to mitigate and channel inveterate tribalistic tendencies.
But two further characteristics of our time exacerbate what the founders foresaw. The first is that we suffer from a kind of cultural and political amnesia, so that we no longer know or appreciate the origins or development of our political system that would allow for a sober assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Surveys of civics awareness indicate woeful ignorance, even among those educated at the most prestigious schools. The second is that ours is a time of what sociologist James Hunter has called a legitimation crisis for institutions — a crisis of trust and confidence. From journalism to all the branches of government, from schools to churches, ordinary citizens have lost faith in our institutions.
The expansion of venues for public criticism of institutions, especially in social media, and the 24-hour news cycle, combined with a number of spectacular moral failures of leaders of prominent institutions, have generated skepticism, if not despair. Leaders often substitute ambition, profit or political grandstanding for the hard, unromantic work of fulfilling the mission, and serving the constituencies, of whatever institution they lead.
To make matters worse, the most prominent contemporary political movements — on the progressive left and the populist right — are dismissive of institutions. The former sees institutions as bearers of oppressive practices, while the latter sees them as dominated by ideologically suspect experts. Lack of experience is now a boast of candidates for public office; similarly, journalists often substitute fame, ratings or the advancing of ideological goals for truth-telling. And seemingly everyone seeks the thrill of outsider denunciation.
In our time, participation in institutions is one of the great counters to the isolation and hostility that increasingly characterize our public life — or what passes as public life, conducted largely in the virtual world of social media. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin explains, institutions "offer us an edifying path to belonging, social status, and recognition; and they help to legitimate authority."
Levin's new book, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, echoes the writing of the great French commentator on America, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was both amazed and aghast at the restlessness of the American spirit, our insatiable pursuit of material well-being. The great counter to our maniacal emphasis on material success and our inveterate individualism was what Tocqueville called the arts of association, the joining together in public to accomplish goals that could not be achieved in isolation. Such arts led to the creation of a host of institutions, located between the individual and large, government entities.
One of the dangers of the economic impact of the pandemic is that there will be far fewer institutions between individuals and families, on the one hand, and large corporations and governments, on the other. The sense that our lives are controlled by large, impersonal forces beyond our influence was already present in American life before the pandemic. That is likely to grow, along with a sense of alienation and isolation.
Tocqueville thought that the shared building of institutions fostered a number of virtues: the habit of sacrificing short-term self-interest for long-term good; the fostering of the skills needed to build and sustain common enterprises; and the nourishing of civic friendship reaching across ideological divides.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it will now more than ever be a time to build up what we instead seem so eager to tear down.