How did America get to this point? A Time to Build, by leading conservative intellectual Yuval Levin, goes a long way to explaining what has happened there, and in New Zealand, too, writes a former leader of the NZ National Party.
Yuval Levin used to be one of the most influential political theorists in the US Republican Party, but when they nominated Donald Trump as leader Levin warned his party that this would bring disaster. He then became a prominent voice in the outcast Never Trumpers. In early 2020 he published A Time to Build, his manifesto about what went wrong with American conservatism, and his nation’s wider political dysfunction, and how to fix it. I started reading it the day Donald Trump’s rioters invaded Capitol Hill, and it’s hard to think of a more prescient and timely book to help us understand what is happening in both the United States of America and New Zealand politics and culture right now.
Levin believes he is writing about the US in its twilight. That it is a nation, while prosperous, where Americans are frustrated, exhausted and isolated like never before as their institutions crumble. Right from the get go he speaks straight into the situation of the angry mob at Congress, as if he were a prophet of old describing “our unease and frustration – of the isolation that afflicts too many Americans, of the dysfunction that torments our politics, of the polarisation that excessively sharpens both estrangement from some and affiliation with others, and of the resulting culture war that seems increasingly to be dividing us into two armed camps angrily confronting each other in every corner and crevice of American life”.
Levin admits he won’t be able to explain all this – and, heck, isn’t there a lot that needs explaining – but will describe some of the underlying causes of what has taken his great country to this point.
And his key thesis is simple. Nations rely on institutions: political institutions, the public service, universities, companies, churches, families. These all have different roles and duties that serve the societies that encompass them. And part of their purpose is to mould the individuals that pass through them, imbuing them with values that ensure they serve their institution and community instead of just themselves.
But over time these institutions have weakened. Levin thinks there are many causes for this, but key among them are the changes in media technology, the rise of celebrity culture, identity politics, political polarisation.
He writes: “The people who occupy our institutions increasingly understand those institutions not as moulds that ought to shape their behavior and character but as platforms that allow them greater individual exposure and enable them to hone their personal brands.” The critical institutions that make society work no longer serve anyone except the narcissists who exploit them to promote themselves, which they do so by presenting themselves as outsiders critiquing the system, tearing everything down instead of building anything up.
In this critique one inevitably sees the Donald. It is significant to Levin that Trump is the first president of the US who never passed through a formative institution. He never served in the military or political office. Instead he was a reality TV star. A performer. Now the ultimate insider at the apex of political power, he nevertheless stokes protest through his personal brand and the angry army he’s mobilised against other branches of government. He does this as though he were an outsider with no other means to legitimately influence the system. He sees the presidency as smaller than himself and his own beliefs and brand, so that anything goes, including disputing an election and sending in his mob.
A Time to Build isn’t just about Trump though. He’s part of a wider malaise in government and politics, but also throughout society – whether in institutions such as journalism, the universities, the church, and even the family, we’ve seen the same story. Those institutions used selfishly rather than cherished with the devotion required to ensure the nation flourishes. And he sees the same pattern of performance rather than service in democratic politics, pointing to the celebrity socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who’s clearly different to Trump, but part of the same wider story.
As Levin states when describing the problems in congress as an institution: “many members of Congress have come to understand themselves most fundamentally as players in a large cultural ecosystem, the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience. Their incentives are rooted in that understanding of our politics and not really in legislating. They remain intensely ambitious, as politicians always are, but their ambition is for a prominent role in the cultural theatre of our national politics, and they view the institution of congress as a particularly prominent stage in that theatre – a way to raise their profiles, to become stars in the world of cable news or talk radio, to build bigger social media followings, and to establish themselves as celebrities.”
Levin admits that there were problems with the old, opaque institutions run by insiders. In the US this was the Wasps, who didn’t let in women, Catholics, other religions, not to mention ethnic minorities. This is a serious issue with “insiderism”. But there were codes and higher purposes than one’s own celebrity brand and position in the deteriorating culture war.
Indeed, Levin is certainly making a case for insiders in politics and a healthy distrust of outsiders, or Johnny-come-latelys, coming in to “drain the swamp”. While it might be alluring to get someone unsullied from the past, the dangers of politicians who haven’t been steeped in the traditions of the institutions they are joining is that they lead to weakened parties, “easily falling prey to individual politicians building their private brands and appealing to our authenticity”.
Levin wants the balance to fall back with the insiders who know what they’re doing, and who feel responsibility to the institutions and society they serve. It’s a depressing critique to be sure but one that, as this public intellectual unpacks it, is hard to disagree with.
While not all of the book is applicable to New Zealand circumstances, and I certainly don’t believe in our smaller, more intimate democracy we have it as bad as the United States, some of it resonates deeply even here at the corner of the world. Even the title – A Time to Build – piqued my interest as a senior National Party MP. That’s the phase National is in after a devastating election loss in October, and Trump has been bad for the Conservative cause internationally, turning off the middle, giving us all, unfairly, a bad name.
I think the National Party should heed some of Levin’s messages on institutions, which, yes, include political parties. He speaks of “insiderism” where there are gross abuses of power within an organisation and exclusivity at the expense of others. But it’s his critique of “outsiderism” that I recognise: “institutions that fail to form men and women of integrity because they fail even to see such formation as their purpose. Rather than contain and shape individuals, these institutions seem to exist to display individuals – to give them prominence and gain them notice without stamping them with a particular character, a distinct set of obligations or responsibilities, or an ethic that comes with constraints.”
This to me clearly speaks of the MPs we in National lost to scandals in the last term. National failed to inculcate these MPs with our values and purposes as a party, which was more than them and their careers and egos. But Prime Minister Ardern doesn’t get off scot-free either. In failing to discipline a number of MPs over the last term she was perhaps falling into a similar trap, set for another day when her successes aren’t quite so shiny.
Whatever the political party, Levin’s solution is good old-fashioned teamwork and dedication to the cause higher than oneself. Not just the party’s objectives and purposes in purely partisan terms, though they are important, but the integrity of it over time, so one is, for example, reluctantly prepared to whistle-blow on bad behaviour as one sees it.
We also can’t go past Levin’s worries about celebrity politics. Allied to the move from mould to platform, free from the shackles of institutional constraints, is the rise of the celebrity politician. Trump is an extreme case. But we have a PM, by no means anything like a Trumpian maverick, but happy nevertheless to be on the cover of Vogue, and, if we are honest, assiduous in crafting and controlling her image. This didn’t start with her, of course: New Zealand politicians have been courting celebrity status for some time now, often at the eager behest of the media.
And that brings us to our friends, the journalists, also key protagonists in this horror show. They, Levin argues, must be much more suspicious of the celebrity factor and not just in the politicians. The trend is for journalists to also promote themselves over the institution they are in, which has led to concerns over journalistic integrity: “Journalists should be particularly careful to avoid the culture of individual celebrity… which is the very opposite of the culture of institutional integrity. Too often now, prominent political reporters in particular can be found engaged in never-ending, loose, unstructured form of conversational commentary on television, on Twitter, and elsewhere…”
It’s not this bad in New Zealand by any stretch, and I acknowledge the stresses of the modern media environment on all media forms. That said, the call by Levin, which is so clear for politicians and parties, acts as a warning for media as well. A reminder to put the wider cause and the institutions, their rules and norms, ahead of oneself.
A related point to close on is one I feel is certainly present in our country. The problems we have in our body politic are not fundamentally ideological, but more social psychology. We aren’t generally arguing about public policy any more (as we should be!) because we aren’t talking public policy that much “except to the degree that various general categories of policy ideas (like ‘a tax cut’…) serve as totems for tribal affiliations.” Instead, we are increasingly caught up in the celebrity, the dysfunction, the polarisation, the culture war.
As opposition leader – once upon a time – I can see myself in this and plead guilty to an extent. I certainly opposed a capital gains tax for policy reasons. But I also knew the totemic and emotive strength of the issue to connect and motivate voters. It wasn’t rocket science why I directed everyone in the National Party to focus on nothing else for months and months and it worked, for a time. Is it too much to ask that in 2021 we may actually see substantive policy debate from the major parties on, say, housing or climate change. As some might say National signals to its base on the RMA, so too does Labour with a climate emergency without substantive policy behind it.
Levin’s solution to institutional decline is a focus on rebuilding them. That each of us should ask ourselves, “given my role in this institution – my family, or church, or marriage or profession – how should I behave?” That it is incumbent upon us to recommit to our institutions and their values, rather than ourselves. I fear as a lifelong realist the ship may have already sailed. Forces beyond us from Zuckerberg to reality TV are hard to turn around. King Canute couldn’t stop the tide and I worry we can’t either.
But that doesn’t mean doing nothing. In National we must unite our party around our common goals and policy purposes in another great institution, parliament, for New Zealand’s sake. For all New Zealanders, whether Nat or not, it means doing the same in the entities you give a damn about. Not being able to solve everything (or even much) doesn’t mean doing nothing.
A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream is published by Basic Books and available to order from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.