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'A Time To Build' Author On Restoring Faith In U.S. Institutions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's is no way around it - we live in a divided country. It is a division marked by deep mistrust in one another and in American institutions. And while the country's current president did not create that division, he has certainly stoked it, describing his critics as enemies and demeaning them in myriad ways, including their intelligence, appearance and patriotism.

Now, in the weeks leading up to this year's Election Day, we heard from a variety of people working to heal divisions in different communities. But now we want to turn our attention to restoring faith in institutions. Here to talk about that is someone who's thought a lot about this, Yuval Levin.

He is the director of Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. That's a conservative-leaning think tank. He also served as a member of the White House domestic policy staff under President George W. Bush. His most recent book is "A Time To Build: From Family And Community To Congress And The Campus, How Recommitting To Our Institutions Can Revive The American Dream."

Yuval Levin, thank you so much for joining us.

YUVAL LEVIN: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So on Election Day, you wrote a piece in The New York Times about the deep problems facing the country. And you wrote, quote, "our deepest problems aren't really amenable to resolution by a president. These problems have been adding up to something of a social crisis evident not only in the breakdown of our political culture, but also in the isolation and despair that have driven up suicide and opioid abuse rates" - end quote. Could you just tell us what you mean by that and why you say these problems aren't really amenable to executive leadership?

LEVIN: The kinds of challenges we face now, because they are about trust and solidarity, because they are about failures of affiliation of people in different parts of our society feeling like they're not part of the whole of that society, feeling like it isn't here for them, but for other people - there's really only so much that any president can do about that.

Obviously, things can be better and worse with different kinds of leadership. But ultimately, the problems have more to do with what we might think of as institutional and communal challenges. And so to think about how to solve them, it's better to start from the bottom up than from the top down.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about what is your sort of evidence for this or what leads you to that conclusion because I think many people would make an argument that there are system issues here that are directly related to leadership. I mean, we are in the middle of a public health crisis, and...

LEVIN: Yes.

MARTIN: A lot of people are experiencing, you know, isolation and disruption in their lives that they were not previous to this, in part because of the way leaders have handled this problem.

LEVIN: Yeah. I think there's no question that that's true. And we've seen some tremendous failures of leadership in the last few years. But when you look at them and think about what they are, they turn out, I think, to embody a kind of failure that you actually find in a lot of other institutions, which is basically a failure of responsibility and especially of interpersonal responsibility - a failure to say, I have a role in this institution, in this situation. And given that role, what should I be doing?

So much of what President Trump has failed to do, it seems to me, has been a failure just to ask himself, what is the president's role here? You find the same thing with members of Congress who rather than think, what is my role as a legislator, strive to play a role in something more like the theater of our national politics. They want to be commentators from the outside rather than actors on the inside.

The same is true of the president. He's looking to tweet as though he were an outsider complaining about our government rather than to think, first and foremost, I'm the responsible person here.

MARTIN: What - do you remember what led you to this insight, this kind of framework that we've started thinking of institutions not as something we contribute to, but rather are a platform for ourselves? What - do you remember what led you to that?

LEVIN: The insight really came from spending a lot of time with members of Congress. Members of Congress in both parties mean well. They want to do their job well. They're a little - at this point a little confused about what that job is.

And I think a lot of them on both sides of our politics see their role as channeling the frustration of their voters, as speaking for those voters. And so where people might once have thought about running for Congress in terms of seeking a microphone in order to get power or to advance change, now, at least implicitly, a lot of people think about it in terms of seeking power in order to get a microphone to be heard in the public debate.

And that's a peculiar way of thinking about what it means to run for office. But I think it's extraordinarily common now, especially among younger politicians. And it suggests a sense of what the institution is and does that's much more like a platform than a mold.

MARTIN: I take your point, but I think perhaps - just going back to members of Congress, and you specifically pointed to some of the younger members of Congress - I think they might say that because they are new, because they are younger, cultural currency is their only leverage - that they do have larger aims, but the way to achieve those aims is to harness cultural currency. What's wrong with that?

LEVIN: I think they're responding to a process that's been going on in Congress for a long time. But that process is the problem, and they should be working to solve it.

MARTIN: I'm still sort of struggling for, like, how do we get there at a point where many people believe that it is their fellow citizens who are engaging in this behavior - demeaning them, you know, treating them as if they are the enemy? Why is it that...

LEVIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...For people who are progressives, people who are members of minority groups who feel like they've spent the last four years being demeaned and treated as, you know, less than - and they look at that, and they say, well, why is this my problem now? Like, what should I be doing?

And on the other hand, for people who say - feel like their norms have been abused, that they feel that their contributions to America have been overlooked, and they feel like they finally are kind of back on top, like, why should they give up the ghost, right? You see my point?

LEVIN: The question is, where do we start, right? How do we break into that cycle that just seems like it feeds on itself and gives us no room to advance any change? And I think the answer has to be that we start where we are. We start where we are by embodying a better way, by thinking about, how do we solve this problem right in front of us together?

That can be political. Local politics tends to work a lot better than national politics. It can also be social and communal. It can be a religious community or civil society coming together and saying, we can do something about this little piece of this. And larger solutions to those larger problems have to be built up of these smaller steps. We can't expect our national politics to rescue us in some way. We're just not in a place where electing just the right person will get this settled.

MARTIN: That's Yuval Levin. He is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. And he's the author most recently of "A Time To Build: From Family And Community To Congress And The Campus, How Recommitting To Our Institutions Can Revive The American Dream."

Yuval Levin, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

LEVIN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIAN HILL'S "DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.