Should We Trust Our Institutions? with Yuval Levin
Yuval Levin: I'm Yuval Levin, and I choose Truth Over Tribe.
Patrick Miller: Are you tired of tribalism?
Speaker 3: I think a lot of what the left supports is satanic.
Speaker 4: The only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination.
Patrick Miller: Are you exhausted by the culture war?
Donald Trump: If they don't like it here, they can leave.
Hillary Clinton: You can put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.
Patrick Miller: Are you suspicious of those who say Jesus endorses their political party?
Speaker 8: Is it possible to be a good Christian, and also be a member of the Republican party, and the answer is absolutely not.
Speaker 9: From certainly a biblical standpoint, Christians could not vote democratic.
Patrick Miller: We trust the lamb, not the donkey, or the elephant.
Keith Simon: This is the podcast that's too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals.
Patrick Miller: I'm Patrick Miller.
Keith Simon: And I'm Keith Simon, and we choose Truth Over Tribe.
Patrick Miller: Do you? Americans don't trust the people in charge and to be frank, it's hard to blame them. It sure seems like the elite, the experts, the people in positions of power have let us down. Now, some of that lack of trust is undoubtedly rooted in our history. Our country was founded by overthrowing a king. Some of our lack of trust is due to the information revolution. In seconds, Google gives us access to information that only the elites used to have access to. But, in a lot of ways, our institutions have shown themselves to be unworthy of our trust. Americans feel betrayed by their institutions, whether it's the media, the church, the CDC, the police, the military, sports, universities, medical community, government, and the list goes on and on. The failure of our institutions has left us with a crisis of authority, and wondering if anyone knows what they're talking about. Is anyone willing to be honest and shoot straight with the American people? Is anyone willing to do the right thing today? I'm speaking with Yuval Levin, who is one of the most influential conservative intellectuals of our day. Yuval has a PhD from the University of Chicago. He's currently with the American Enterprise Institute and has written several books. My favorite is A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, which was published in January of 2020. Yuval will help us understand why we need institutions, why our institutions have failed us, and how we can repair them. Yuval Levin, welcome to Truth Over Tribe.
Yuval Levin: Thank you very much for having me.
Patrick Miller: A few days before we're having this conversation, and by the way, we're talking in early May, there was a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion, that was leaked to Politico and Politico then published it a couple days later, I think. Chief Justice Roberts confirmed that it was an accurate draft, in other words, it was an original that had been leaked, and this had to do with Roe versus Wade and potentially the court overturning it. By the time people are listening to this, maybe they will know what the court's decision is, as of this moment, we don't. I'm not so much interested in talking about that decision of Roe V Wade, but I am very interested in getting your opinion on how it all went down, because this leak obviously came from an insider to the court because they not only had access to the draft, but they also knew how all the judges were planning on voting, or at least that was what they claimed, and that's a pretty big breach of trust inside the court. SCOTUS blog, which does a great job of covering the court, says this in a tweet, it says," It's impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the justices and staff. This leak is the gravest most unforgivable sin." The Supreme Court is one of those institutions in America that still has some trust of the public. SCOTUS blog says it's going to affect the trust of the justices working together. I think it's also going to affect the trust the public has in the court. Can you help us just enter into this story? How do you see it and why is trust so important in how an institution works or how we view institutions?
Yuval Levin: Yeah, I think this is a fascinating way into that very crucial question, because oftentimes what trust really means, trust in an institution, is the belief that the institution somehow forms the people inside it to do their work reliably, to focus on their purpose, not to play an outside game. What you find happening in the court in this kind of situation is that someone who clearly has a role within the institution, maybe it's a law clerk, we don't know, but someone who has a job internally and a responsibility that comes with that job, and part of that responsibility is to maintain the confidentiality of the process so that the judges can make decisions in an organized way, that person instead, understanding themselves as playing a part in a larger outside show, in a larger culture war battle, in a larger political battle, and rather than asking themselves what is my role in this institution? That person asks themselves what role can I play on this institution? How can I have a bigger platform in the larger cultural debate by using the place I have here? In a way, in miniature, this is an example of something that is happening throughout our society, and you find, not only in politics, certainly in politics, a lot of members of Congress, for example, think of themselves first and foremost now, as standing on a stage called Congress, where they get to have a large audience to participate in the large debates that inaudible our culture. You find the same thing happening in major corporations, that instead of doing their own work or playing a part in that same set of cultural struggles, you find it happening in universities, you find it happen in some parts of American religion, and among the results of this is that it becomes very, very hard to trust these institutions, because trust is ultimately a function of restraint. You trust someone when you think they're functioning within boundaries, there are things they'd never do to you because of who they are and what they are. When you no longer can really be sure of that, when it's no longer clear that they're constrained by the boundaries that come with their place, with their institution, then they do become impossible to trust, and we all feel like we're out here on our own, and can't be part of anything larger than ourselves that's worthy of our confidence. That is an enormous problem that our society's dealing with now.
Patrick Miller: Ian Millhiser, who writes about the court for Vox, he was kind of representing the thought process, or at least what he thought was the thought process, of the person who leaked it. Again, as you and I are having this conversation, we have no idea who that is, and there's no need to speculate on it, but he said it's as if the person just said, F it, let's burn this place down. That seems to be the attitude that a lot of people have toward institutions, let's just burn it down, I'm more important than the institution, or this institution isn't serving the cause I want it to serve. One more thing along that line, and I want to get your thoughts on this attitude. I saw Yale Law School students were writing in chalk, outside their educational building, and they said, we are the law, not the court. There, that's that anti- institutionalism coming from the elite law school of our day. What do you think about these let it burn down, we're the law? How should we think about that? What does that tell us about our cultural moment?
Yuval Levin: I think one of the things that tells us is that people have lost sight of the importance of institutions in our society, of the role they have, and the reason why we need them, which ultimately involves, essentially protecting people who don't have a lot of power in society. Institutions are not the way that powerful people deploy their power, on the contrary in a free society like ours, they're precisely the way in which people who don't come in with a lot of power can be protected, can have their rights preserved, can have confidence that the process of law and the processes of democracy are working in ways that will ultimately serve the common good. Institutions are just the ways in which we function together, they're the forms of our common action, and to think that we don't need them is to think that we don't need common action, that we're just a bunch of individuals acting alone on the stage of our society. I say on the stage, because a lot of what we're seeing here is ultimately kind of performative, it's a way of trying to participate in the debate by displaying yourself, by elevating yourself, by building your own brand, and your own following. That's what you find in a lot of these institutional breakdowns, whoever it was who leaked this document, basically thought of themselves as an actor in the world, not through the institution of the Supreme Court that gave them this enormous opportunity to be part of its work, and presumably to advance their own career by playing that part, but instead thought of themselves as acting directly in a big national debate and thinking just as you quoted, who cares about the institution, burn it down. There's a goal here, and I'm here and I can advance that goal and I'm going to do it on my own. The fact is, our institutions often are invisible to us, and when they're working well, that's okay, we don't have to constantly think about them, it makes us feel free to think that we don't need them. But when they break down and we can't really see what they are, and what they do, it becomes impossible for us to think about how to fix the problems we have. I think in a lot of ways, that is the challenge that we now face, we have to think institutionally in order to overcome some of the enormous challenges our country faces, and that's not easy to do.
Patrick Miller: No, because people have lost trust, not just in government or media as institutions, but for example, I think the defund the police movement was an example of people losing trust in the police, or part of the anti- vaccine movement was a loss of trust in the medical institutions, the rising conspiracy theories, I think is another demonstration of the loss of trust in institutions. Let's start, if we can, with human nature, because that's in Time to Build, you touch on this, and there's a couple stories from history that I think set up the difference in human nature and how they respond to institutions that I'd like for you to talk about. The first story comes from Augustine and he dies in 450, he talks about going in one time as a young kid, he steals a pear and then reflecting back on it, he has this moment where he feels really guilty because of what he's done. He sees that he himself was the problem, and you compare that to Russo who's in the 1700s, and Russo has a similar story where he steals asparagus, I don't know who would ever want to steal an asparagus, but he does. He steals the asparagus and when he reflects back on it, he doesn't blame himself, he blames culture, blames society, blames those people who encouraged him to do it, or set them up to do it. Help us understand those two different perspectives and how they affect the way we think about institutions.
Yuval Levin: A lot of the divisions in our society, a lot of what we think of as the broadly speaking left, right divide, has to do with this difference about human nature. The basic difference is, do we understand the human person as starting out broken, fallen, sinful, in need of correction, however you want to think about it, ultimately needing to be formed before he or she can be ready to be a free person? Or do you think of the human person as born free, but constrained and oppressed by society and culture? If you think it's the first, if you think the human person begins fallen and needs to be shaped into a decent person, then we need institutions that are formative, we need institutions that will give us that shape and a lot of the institutions of our society exist for that purpose, from the family which is the most formative of all, to the school, the university, the church and synagogue, the workplace and the free economy, our political life, and a lot of cultural institutions are there to shape us so that we can be capable of being free citizens. If you think that the human person begins free, and ultimately would be free if not for the oppression of various kinds of social forces, then you look at the institutions as oppressors. You think that they are trying to compel us to do the bidding of others, they're trying to force us to conform, and we need to be liberated from them. Those two different starting points about human nature, therefore point to two very different attitudes about the institutions of society, where one side of our culture thinks that our attitude should be that we need to be liberated from the institutions, and the other thinks that we need to preserve the institutions that are formative of us in the right way. Very roughly speaking, those two sides are conservative and progressive, you might say, one thinks that our key task for the sake of the next generation is to conserve those institutions that work well to form and shape men and women. The other thinks that what we owe the next generation is liberation. Liberation, especially from powerful social institutions. Now the trouble is that each of them has some truth to it. I think that first vision of human nature is true, it's true to human nature, we are in fact the fallen creature, but there certainly are some institutions in our society that are oppressive, and that we do want to provide people with some freedom from. I think though that there are also many institutions in our society that are essentially formative and are absolutely necessary for us to be able to function as human beings. A lot of the fights we have, a lot of what we think of as the culture war, a lot of what we think of as our political debates, are actually about that fundamental difference of opinion. What do we need from our society? Do we need formation or do we need liberation?
Patrick Miller: Does that lead then, because you said that that generally falls along the conservative progressive accessive way of thinking about it. Does that end up with conservatives and progressives both making different critiques of institutions and what are those critiques that each side makes about institutions?
Yuval Levin: I think that's right. The core progressive critique of institutions is that they are oppressive, that they constrain the freedom of the individual, that they are ways of deploying power on behalf of people with power, at the expense of people without power. I think that is really central to the worldview of contemporary progressivism. Conservatives, when they're critical, and I should say when we're critical, because I am a conservative, when we're critical of institutions, it's often because we think they've been corrupted, that they've lost their core purpose and have been turned to a political cause that's not inherent to them, and that they're being used, in a sense, to deform rather than to properly form human beings and citizens. A lot of conservatives today make that kind of critique about our cultural institutions, about maybe increasingly about major corporations or the media, and we see them as being abused, as being used to deform our culture and society rather than form them properly. Those are very different critiques of our society's institutions, and I do think that at our best conservatives tend to appreciate the significance and the value of the institutions of our society and to protect them. But that's at our best, and we're not always at our best, and in a populous moment like this, conservatives very often are at least as hostile to our core institutions in the United States, as progressives are.
Patrick Miller: I want to get to why institutions are falling, and you mentioned it a little bit earlier in our conversation, that people are using institutions as platforms for their own notoriety, as opposed to, or their own agenda, as opposed to what they were created for, and that's kind of the formation. I have this quote, I thought it was really interesting, I'm a big baseball fan, Ryan Sandberg, who played second base for the Cubs, he's going into the hall of fame, and here's what he says in his hall of fame speech. He's talking about players and young players coming up and he says," they need to learn how to bunt, and hit and run, and turn to, and that that's more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera." I just think that's a great window into what you're talking about, because we all know when the red light's on, that's when I got to act cool, that's when I put on a show for the camera, for the audience, versus just the basic fundamentals of baseball. Help us understand this platform, and how we use it as a platform, and how that undermines the institution.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. I really love that quote, and I think that it speaks to a way of thinking that's really needed in a lot of our institutions. Ultimately, as I suggested before, what an institution really is, is a form of common action, it describes the ways in which people act together. It's because of our institutions that we're not just out there alone as individuals in society, we function as groups and we're not just a bunch of people in these groups, we're a group of people organized around a common purpose and that purpose, and that organization around it, gives each of us a role, a place, a relation to the others and a relation to the goal we have in common. If you think about, some institutions are really formal, a company, a school, some institutions are not so formal, but they're absolutely formative in the way we've been discussing. The family is the core institution of any society, you think about a profession, the rule of law as an institution, the way in which they're held together is that each of them gives the people within them, a particular role in relation to the aim they have in common. In a family, there is such a thing as a parent, and a child, and a grandparent, and uncle and an aunt, and each of them kind of has a sense of what their task is in relation to rearing the next generation, the core purpose of the family. Similarly, in a workplace, people have different roles, different jobs, and they understand how those relate to each other, and that allows them, in a moment of decision, to ask themselves, what's the role I have here as part of the larger purpose we're all serving. That means that institutions are not just social forms, forms of action, they're also formative, they shape our character, they shape our soul, they shape who we are, so that there is such a thing in the world as a person shaped to be, say, a lawyer or an accountant or a doctor, we can recognize that human type because of the set of institutions that form them. Part of what it means to recognize that human type is to recognize the ways in which they're bound by institutional responsibilities. That's really crucial to trust, I trust my accountant, for example, not because he just knows the tax laws better than I do, I hope that he does, but I trust my accountant because there's certain things that that person would never do. I trust a scientist because a scientist, ideally, isn't just going to say stuff, but is going to go through a process of verification, defined by the institutions that shape that person's work, and therefore what they say is somehow authoritative or somehow should have some hold on me. When they fail to do that, when they clearly just are saying stuff, it becomes much harder to trust science and to trust, not only them as individuals, but the institutions they're part of. That means that in order to sustain that trust, it's really crucial that people think about their role in the institution, and not just their own individual personal position, standing, following. So that just as in that quote, you have to think about what your job is in terms of advancing the interest of the team, and not just where's the camera so that I can be a celebrity. Now over and over in so many of our institutions, you find people who are just looking for that camera and trying to be a celebrity rather than thinking about their larger responsibility to the institution.
Patrick Miller: Well, you think about the person who leaked this document to Politico, this draft of Justice Alito's opinion, what they were doing is, instead of playing their role and people are speculating that it was a law clerk. Again, I have zero idea. But instead of saying, here's my role in the court, here's this valuable opportunity I've been given and I'm not a big deal, instead, I'm supposed to play a small role here, they became a big deal, put their own agenda above the needs of the institution and undermined the credibility of that institution. Then there, you're talking about playing for the camera and I can't help but think in 1979, I think that's when C- SPAN started to televise the House of Representatives, United States House of Representatives, and I think at the time it seemed like a good idea. We were going to have transparency, and I think instead what it has turned into is Congress people playing to the cameras. Recently, Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska, he said, hey, don't put cameras in the court, in the United States Supreme Court, because cameras in Congress have caused all kinds of jackassery. Help us understand what it looks like for a Congress person to use it as a platform. Do you have any specific examples that come to your mind, maybe that'll help us visualize what this looks like?
Yuval Levin: Yeah. Congress is really a great example of how this can happen to an institution, and ironically that statement by Ben Sasse went viral on YouTube, and even when you're trying to critique the way the institution has become just a platform for YouTube, you end up on YouTube. A lot of members of Congress now think about their role, their responsibility, their place in the institution, through a set of incentives that tells them that Congress is a particularly prominent platform for engagement in the culture war debates. Congress is a way to get more followers, it's a way to get a better time slot on cable news. In a sense, you run for office in order to have easier access to the cameras, rather than looking for the cameras so that you can be elected and then be a legislator. Congress has a way of thinking about an inside role for its members, passing legislation, arriving at deals and accommodations, that's what legislators do. But there's also an outside role, a way of using Congress as a way to speak to public debates, and get yourself a bigger following, and strengthen your brand, and a lot of members, especially younger members, now lean in that direction. You might think for example, about Matt Gaetz, the Republican from Florida or Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez the Democrat from New York, who seem to use their place in Congress as a way to become big cultural figures. Think about what they're doing as politicians, fundamentally in a cultural sense, rather than through the lens of the institution that they are part of. That makes it very difficult for Congress to function, to play its part in our system, and Congress's part is the central part in our system. Legislators really have to drive the agenda, and if instead they want to be commentators, then there isn't anyone to drive the agenda and that leaves a vacuum that's then filled by the president, and the administrative state, that's filled by the courts. It creates all kinds of problems that are ultimately a function of Congress declining and refusing to do its job. Now I do think that a lot of that is driven by an excess of transparency. Now you need some transparency in a public institution, you don't want decisions made behind closed doors in every instance, you don't want the smokey back rooms to be the place where everything happens, but there has to be some balance, like every good thing, transparency is only good up to a point. If you reach a point where there is nowhere to talk in private, there is nowhere to negotiate, there is nowhere to work that isn't ultimately a way of putting on a show, then it becomes extremely difficult for Congress to do its core job. If you think about it now, the big decisions get made in the leadership offices at midnight, before a government shutdown. A big part of the reason for that is that those are just among the very few places in Congress where there isn't a camera, and there isn't a microphone, and Congress has to think about how to create more spaces like that, where members can actually work together. They should then be held accountable for the decisions they make, but you can't bargain in public, there's no such thing, and if the job of Congress is at least to some extent to bargain, there have to be some spaces that are not on television.
Patrick Miller: Well, there really aren't many places that are private anymore, hard to have a private conversation. I think part of that is just because of the information revolution that we are in, where we have more access to more information immediately, than any time in history. To some extent, like you just said, transparency is a good thing, and I think when C- SPAN put cameras in there, when we put cameras in congressional hearings, when we've got more information about the way our government works, or the way our other institutions work, our first reaction is to say, great, they need that exposure, sunlight is the best disinfectant. But, it turns out that there are costs to having so much information. What are those costs? You said that one is that people in Congress can't bargain, they can't work through deals, compromise. Are there other costs to people having so much information?
Yuval Levin: Yeah. Sunshine is great disinfectant, but you can't just live on disinfectant. We also need to have some sources of confidence and trust, even in authority, and part of what happens when there's such a massive flow of information is that everybody feels like we know everything we need to know, if I need information I know where to find it. Ultimately expertise doesn't actually provide us with information, expertise provides us with judgment about the meaning of information, and when we all have access to everything, we feel like we don't need that judgment. I can go to the doctor and just show up on my phone why I think my symptoms are actually this thing and why I should get this drug and he should just sign it, right? The trouble is, the doctor actually knows more than I do about health, and what he knows is not just a bunch of information, but he's built up judgment, over time, about what to make of information, what to make of symptoms, what to make of what he sees in front of him, and we have to have some forms of expertise like that we can trust. On the one hand, what you lose with absolute transparency is the ability to negotiate, to bargain, and that's important in some places in our society, not everything works that way, but some things do. But on the other hand, we lose the capacity to trust expert judgment, now expert judgment is hard to trust because it's not always right, experts can be wrong, and we've seen that quite a lot in the last few years, in all sorts of ways. But at the same time we do need it, we do need to be able to look to people who have built up over time, a capacity to know what to make of the knowledge available to us in their particular realm. That means that we do have to believe that the institutions we look to, deploy processes, to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, to tell the difference between good and bad, that's what they're there for, and if we lose the ability to believe, to trust, that they do that well, then we've got nowhere to go. All the information in the world is not going to help us if we can't have reliable judgment.
Patrick Miller: It seems like every doctor will tell you that when someone comes to them, before they ever walk into their room, they've gone to Google first, and so they don't come asking what's wrong with me, they come saying, hey doctor, I think these three things might be wrong with me. Either they want medication, or they want something from the doctor based on what they know, and so you're telling me that my doctor knows more than Google, I think that's going to blow everybody's mind right here.
Yuval Levin: I think it's important to see that a lot of this is about a sense of proportion, if your elbow hurts and you put elbow pain into Google, Google's going to tell you all kinds of stuff, and at some level, somebody's got to say, well, I've seen this before, it's this and not that. That's more than just information.
Patrick Miller: Talking about the medical field, used to be, I believe, that the medical field, the medical establishment, the medical institution, however you want to think about it, had a ton of credibility, we really looked up to the medical field and respected them, they were doing their work based on data and the medical institution had trained them, and that we could trust that what they said, because this is how doctors and nurses and all of the people inside that medical establishment, this is how they behave, this is the values they have. But, on this side of COVID, it feels like the medical establishment has lost a lot of trust. Do you see that? Why do you think that's the case? People don't trust doctors anymore, they don't trust the CDC, they don't trust the National Institute of Health. These were big prestigious institutions that the whole country looked to, but not anymore.
Yuval Levin: I agree. I think a lot of that trust has been lost, and I think some of it was really squandered by the people within these institutions when they failed to explain to us the boundaries, the constraints, on their own knowledge and action. I think, again, the way we trust an institution is when it's clear to us that it sets boundaries on itself and within those boundaries it acts responsibly. That early in COVID our public health experts needed to say, look, there are things we know, and there are things we don't know, and in the spaces where we don't know, we're going to have to fill those with informed conjectures and here's how we're going about it. That's not the way that we were really approached by the public health bureaucracy in the United States, there were a lot of very confident things said where the confidence had not been earned, and they were right about many of those things, but they were also wrong about some of those things, and made it very difficult for us to ultimately tell the difference. The problem we face in American society is not just that people don't trust institutions, it's that a lot of our institutions are just less trustworthy than they should be. The work that has to be done is work within the institutions, not just ourselves trying to figure out how to become more trusting, and there's some of that work that needs doing, but also people within these institutions asking themselves, how do we restore and build public trust? I think the answer to that, very often, is about showing the country that these institutions form, and reward, and advance, trustworthy people, people who are reliable and responsible and not just trying to become big names and to advance themselves. I think in some ways, some of our public health institutions also failed because they politicized themselves, they played into various kinds of cultural war fights that were not about public health and where they should not have been playing a role. They should have just said, look, going out to a big protest is dangerous in a time when there's a virus spreading, you could still do it, but it's risky, and it's risky whether you're going to a protest against us or whether you're going to a protest against the police. It doesn't matter, it's the same thing. That's just not what a lot of our public health authorities said, and I think in the process, they just naturally made themselves more difficult to trust. Getting back from that requires really sticking to your work, that is staying in your lane, focusing on what your expertise really is, and being clear with the public about what the boundaries of it is, and these days it's hard to do.
Patrick Miller: Yeah. I agree so much with you that if the public health officials would've come out and said, here's what we know, here's what we don't know, then as data became available, they wouldn't have had to correct themselves, or be found out as having been wrong. They would've said, no, we told you up front, we didn't know how effective masking was going to be, and they would've been data driven instead of saying things that some people called noble lies, and when you get caught in a noble lie, I don't think most people think it's very noble. Or when we were told that being outside in public was very dangerous, people called off weddings, they weren't able to be in the hospital with their loved one who died, but then all of a sudden we had protests over the George Floyd killing, the murder of George Floyd, and nobody cared about that anymore. All of a sudden you could go out and do all that, and those same public health officials weren't sounding the alarm that they sounded that you couldn't go visit your grandma in the hospital as she died. You lose a lot of credibility really quickly, it takes forever to build trust and it takes like five minutes to lose it, that's the hard thing. Let's talk about the media, you can't talk about this without talking about the media, and there's a lot you could say about media bias, but I don't want to go down that road. Here's what I have found recently, and I was reading an article by Matt Taibbi and I thought this was super interesting, but he was just talking about how, when people are interviewed as experts on television, they are often told their former title, their former role, but not their current role. So Scott Gottlieb is introduced as the former director of the FDA, but you're not told he's on the Pfizer board, or Tom Daschel is introduced as the former Senate majority leader, but you're not told that he's now working for the insurance companies, or the CIA, former CIA director, or generals that they interview, they don't tell you that they work for Lockheed Martin or one of the other defense contractors. There was a Babylon Bee, everybody knows The Babylon Bee since it got kicked off Twitter and caused Elon Musk to buy it, right? Before, I don't know if anybody knew about it or not, but it had one of its spoof, kind of onion like headlines, and it said," Lockheed Martin CEO, tearfully urges U. S. to implement no fly zone in Ukraine." Why does the media, why are they so willing to forfeit their integrity? Why not just be upfront with who these people are, they have expertise, but they're also on the Pfizer board, or a defense contractor board. Why are people so quick to squander this? Do they not get it? Or they're smart people, they have to get it.
Yuval Levin: I think that some of the powerful incentives that confront political journalism have really changed in the course of the past quarter century or so, in ways that have to be understood when we talk about this question. The way in which journalism thinks about itself, is a lot like the way science thinks about itself. There's a process of verification, and because of that process, journalists can make a claim to people's trust. But over the last, at least 30 years now really, the economics of journalism has changed in a way that makes it much more difficult to appeal to a broad audience, which would be interested in that kind of broad appeal that says, this is just information we've checked. Changes in technology mean that newspapers, for example, now don't live off of classified ads, which need to reach the widest possible audience, they live off much more targeted advertising online, and they've got to be able to sell those advertisers a particular readership. They've also got a lot of competition for much more narrow casting, journalistic outfits, that reach a very particular audience. When you're dependent not on the size of your audience, that's what you're selling the advertiser, but rather the intensity of engagement, then you really need to keep your audience clinging on, you've got to keep their attention and you've got to be able to deliver them as promised to the advertiser. That means that the incentive that a lot of journalistic outfits face now, is to keep the partisan audience they have. They have to speak to a particular slice of America, and they've got to keep that slice happy, and that's a very dangerous set of incentives for journalism to have, so that whether it's on the right or the left, a lot of journalistic enterprises now have to provide people with the news that will essentially keep them happy, keep them watching, keep them engaged, maybe keep them angry. But the interest they have is less in providing them with the broadest possible swath of information, and more with providing them with what they want to hear, and that begins to become a very, very dangerous set of incentives. I think beyond that, they're also subject to the same incentives as everybody else, that is journalists are driven to build their own personal celebrity rather than to be understood as part of a large institution that can be relied upon, and so they use the fact that they work for the New York Times to become, themselves, a celebrity with a big following on Twitter or a cable news slot. Rather than work on behalf of the institution in a way that can make the work of that institution more trustworthy, they need to build their own name, to build their own brand, to build their own following, and again, you do that by creating an engaged, intensely attentive following, and that's done by giving people what they want rather than what they need.
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Patrick Miller: One of the scariest things happening right now is that I believe our government officials are undermining our country's trust in the elections, and I think it happens on both sides. If you go back to 2000 and Bush versus Gore, you have the hanging chads, the close election, the United States Supreme Court shutting down the Florida recount, and part of our country said, George W. Bush, he's not a legitimate president because of the way that election ended, then you had Obama and people accusing him of not being an American citizen. Where is this birth certificate? He's not legitimate. Then you had the first Trump election where you had people saying, look, he's not legitimate, because he's just a pawn of the Russians, the Russians put him in, this isn't a legitimate president. You have Stacey Abrams saying, she's the legitimate governor of Georgia, even though she lost by 50,000 votes. Then you have January 6th where president Trump is leading people to believe that the election was stolen from him, and we know of the insurrection that happened on January 6th. Then you had president Biden saying if his Voting Rights Bill did not go through, then the next election was going to be in doubt, we couldn't for sure trust it. We're going to end up in a country where people don't trust the election, then they don't trust that we have democratically elected leaders, that seems like it's going to get ugly.
Yuval Levin: Absolutely. I think that's the right way to describe the problem, which is the biggest threat to the integrity of our elections at this point, is the fact that that integrity is constantly under attack by public officials. As a matter of fact, when you look at the system, if what you're looking for is a system that allows both access and security, that lets a lot more people vote, as many as possible, and that minimizes fraud, we have a very good election system in America. Our system works well, it worked well under very difficult circumstances in 2020. It's much easier to vote everywhere in America than it was even 20 years ago, for all kinds of technological reasons, but also the rules have been changed in such ways it gives people more options, more time, and we have very little fraud, not zero, but very little and elections are not swayed by fraud in any meaningful way. Yet both parties, in one way or another, are telling their voters not to trust the system, are telling their voters that the system is under attack by the other party, and that unless our favored laws are passed, whether that's in the states for Republicans or in Washington for the Democrats, then the system is unreliable and you shouldn't trust it. The fact is the system is reliable and you should trust it, and we should begin from that place and then think about ways that it might be improved. But instead we begin from a place that says, if the other guys get their way, or if I don't get my way, then the system can't be trusted. We've now had a president, after losing an election, tell the country that it was a fraud, which it was not, and we have his successor saying to the country, if we don't pass these laws to reform our election system, you can't trust the next election. That is just an absolute travesty of the responsibility of the chief executive, it's a tremendously dangerous attack on the system, and in order for our democracy to work, for any of our debates to matter, we have to believe that when we vote, that vote is counted, and the result is a function of how we voted as a country. That is true, that is happening, and so these attacks on the integrity of the system are at the core of why people are losing trust. In a sense, the debate about election integrity is the biggest danger to election integrity, and we've got to back off of that and let people see that to begin with, the system works, even if there are ways to improve it.
Patrick Miller: Let's talk for a second about how we can repair the damage that has been done to our institutions. I got to quote here from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this is 1969, Nixon had just been elected, but hadn't taken office yet, now Moynihan eventually went on to be a Senator from New York. But, at this point, he is writing a memo to what would soon be president Nixon, and he said this, he said," in one form or another, all of the major domestic problems facing you, derived from the erosion of the authority of the institutions of American society." Now this is 1969, this is a mysterious process of which the most that can be said is that once it starts, it tends not to stop, once you start losing trust in the credibility and authority of institutions, it tends not to stop. Now, we've seen that play out because in the last, well, since'69, we've seen our institutions lose authority. How do we stop that? How do we repair? How do we rebuild the trust in our institutions? Or is that a losing battle, and we've got to figure out a different plan.
Yuval Levin: I think it's not impossible, but it's extremely difficult, and the reason is that ultimately the way to build trust requires acknowledging that the loss of trust is the fault of the people within the institution, and in that sense is the fault of all of us. All of us have some role to play in some significant set of institutions in our society, whether that's at the local level, where we are, where we live our lives, whether it's in the economy where we work, whether it's, if we're involved in politics, or in public life in some way. We all have to begin by asking the question that is now too often left unasked in American life, and the question is simple, it's just, given my role here, how should I behave? Given that I'm a citizen or a voter or a public official or an employer or a worker, a pastor, or a congregant, given that I'm a parent or a neighbor, how should I behave? Not just, what do I want, not just, do I want to be seen by other people, but given the role I've got, what should I be doing? If more of us asked those kinds of questions, then the institutions that we are part of could be trusted more. If we demanded that our leaders ask that question of themselves, then the institutions that govern our country could be trusted more. If you think about the people who most drive you crazy now in American life, who seem really to be part of the problem, there are people who very often fail to ask that basic question and they leave us asking how could that person have done that? How could the president have acted that way? How could the CEO of that company have thought that was a good idea? The fact is, they just didn't think that way, they didn't ask themselves, given my responsibilities, what should I do? The people we most trust now in American life, and most look up to, are people who seem to ask that question naturally, who behave responsibly because they understand that it's about more than themselves, and that it's not themselves who's the big deal, but that thing they're part of that they're allowing to be important in society. So that at one level, the answer starts with us, and it is possible to rebuild trust, but that's good news and bad news, because that really requires a very widespread reawakening of responsibility, which has to be a cultural movement, and that's no easy thing.
Patrick Miller: It seems like there are some structural issues involved as well.
Yuval Levin: Absolutely.
Patrick Miller: If we could pull cameras out of Congress, if we could slow down the information revolution so that there were some private spaces to negotiate so that we didn't confuse facts with wisdom. There's some structural things that I don't think that we're ever going to get back, like the genie's not going to get back in the bottle. I guess the best we can do is what you said, is take personal responsibility about the institutions we're in. One more thing about that, is that it feels like the cultural war is so divisive that as soon as an institution gets brought into the culture war, then automatically it loses trust of at least one side, if not both sides. I think of the medical establishment and Dr. Fauci and Dr. Burke standing next to president Trump, who was obviously a polarizing figure, and as soon as they did that, it seems like the battle was lost. By the way, I think there's lots of blame to share among those two, but it also seems like there was something that was immediately lost because they were going to be sucked into the culture war. Is there a way for our institutions to stay out of the culture war or is that impossible? Is that important? What do you think?
Yuval Levin: I think they have to want to, they ultimately have to decide that there's a limit to what they do, that they do some things, but not everything. They have to decide that, we here do public health, we don't do politics, or we make sneakers, we are not involved in your state's decision about voting rights. That kind of decision is increasingly difficult to make because these different institutions are under enormous pressure to show that they're on the right side of some question that matters to their own employees, or to the public around them, or to the larger culture. In order to recognize that they need to resist that pressure, they have to see what's at stake, and ultimately what's at stake really is the capacity of our society to remain a free and diverse country, to allow people who disagree with each other in all kinds of ways, to nonetheless agree in other ways and live together, and have a lot of shared commitments and common loves, and a kind of neighborly affection for one another. That just isn't possible if we're going to be at war with each other in every corner and crevice of American life. The stakes of these decisions to jump into politics all the time are very high, but I think they're not obvious. To me, the source of hope is ultimately actually rooted in the fact that a lot of people recognize that this situation is untenable. There are not a lot of Americans who would say on these fronts, that things are going great, we should just keep doing what we're doing. Given that we recognize that, there's an openness to thinking, what could we do differently? How could the rules be different around social media, or the structure of an institution like Congress? What could we be doing differently in this company or in this community? The answers to those questions are not yet on the tips of our tongues as Americans, but I think the questions increasingly are, and that is a start.
Patrick Miller: Yeah, I think it is a good start. I think of the owner of Coinbase and I don't know his name right now, but when his employees were demanding more political action, he said, whoa, stop, time out, we're not going to be into that, we're just going to say in our lane, do our thing, and you can advocate for whatever positions you want on your own time, but here at work we're going to do what brings us together and our jobs. If you don't like that, totally fine, we'll give you a very generous severance package and help you find another job. If I remember right, maybe 5 or 10% of the employees did, and now everybody's saying, but this is a much better work environment, so maybe people can see that there is a path forward, that you don't have to get sucked into every drama that is on the news and the current events of the day. I really appreciate you being with us. I've recommended Time to Build to tons of people and I've read it twice, and I would probably benefit from reading it again. Where can people find your other work? Are you active on social media? What?
Yuval Levin: Well, I'm not really active on social media, no, for some of the reasons we've talked about, frankly. But, I'm a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, aei. org, you can look me up and everything that I write is ultimately going to end up there.
Patrick Miller: You're not on social media because you think that it plays into this performance culture.
Yuval Levin: Yeah. I think it makes it very difficult to do the kind of work I want to do, which is ultimately scholarship about the condition of our society. Social media draws you into debates in the worst possible way, it makes you your worst self, and I think to the extent that it's possible to be involved in the public debate without doing it in that way, would be better served, and so that's what I try to do in my own life.
Patrick Miller: You don't want to be famous?
Yuval Levin: Ah, I wouldn't be so famous anyway, so I'm probably not missing much.
Patrick Miller: I appreciate your time, thanks so much.
Yuval Levin: Thank you very much.
Patrick Miller: Thanks for listening. If you found this podcast helpful, make sure to subscribe and leave a review.
Keith Simon: And make sure it's at least five stars
Patrick Miller: Stop, no, just be honest. Reviews help other people find us.
Keith Simon: Okay. Okay. At the very least you can share today's episode, maybe put it on your social, your favorite text chain.
Patrick Miller: And if you didn't like this episode, awesome. Tell us why you disagree on Twitter @ truthovertribe_. We might even share your thoughts in an upcoming newsletter.
In such a polarizing climate, trusting our leaders and institutions has become difficult. Many feel repeatedly failed by institutions, leaving a crisis in authority. So, where do we go from here? This week, Keith sits down with one of today's most influential conservative intellectuals, Yuval Levin, to find out. Yuval is the Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of several books, including "A Time to Build," which speaks to this issue. Learn why he believes that repairing our trust in institutions is the start to reviving the American dream.
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