Americans have lost faith in our political and community institutions. Our leaders are increasingly performing for the crowd, rather than improving the institutions they inhabit. Eitan Hersch finds that Americans say they are spending time on politics, when they are just watching from the sidelines and commenting online. Yuval Levin finds that even those with power in Congress, universities, and media outlets are using our institutions as interchangeable platforms for publicity seeking, when they should be acting on their responsibilities. Both say it is time to stop pretending we are powerless and work to rebuild our institutions through painstaking local action.
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, building institutions, not hobbies. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossman. Americans have lost faith in our political and community institutions. And even our activists and leaders are increasingly engaged in performative public debate rather than action. But perhaps it’s time to reengage with our institutions and tone down the performances.
Today I talked to Eitan Hersh of Tufts University about his new book, Politics Is For Power. He finds that Americans say they are spending time on politics, when they’re just watching from the sidelines and commenting online. Making real change requires longterm action even if influencing national politics is your goal.
I also talked to Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute about his new book, A Time to Build. He finds that even those with power in Congress, universities and media outlets, are using them as interchangeable platforms for publicity seeking, when they should be acting on their responsibilities.
Hersh found that supposedly politically active Americans are mostly hobbyists, not seeking real influence. And he thinks that needs to change.
Eitan Hersh: The book, I think has four goals. The first is to try to look at a broad swath of political behavior, what we generally call political behavior from news consumption, partisan attitudes, activism, voting, and describes what people are doing when they’re doing those things. And that’s where I conclude basically that they are doing something that looks a lot more like a hobby than the pursuit of political power. So that’s goal one, describing that. And then goal two is why that’s bad. Goal three is why we do politics like that. And goal four is what the alternative is.
So I think [inaudible 00:01:55] be takeaways is that if you look at most people who are engaged in politics, this book is not about your average person. There are a bunch of political science books lamenting how unsophisticated or something that typical voter is. That’s not what this book is about. This book is about the people who take a lot of interest in politics. They’re spending a lot of time on it. They feel partisan feelings, they consume a lot of news, but they’re not doing anything that looks like politics, like having goals and strategies to influence the government.
So I think the big finding is that’s what most people are doing. And it’s an uncomfortable finding. Because a lot of people, I think wouldn’t except that. And so, one thing that I’ve tried to do in the book is describe what power seeking behavior actually looks like from the perspective of an ordinary person, to contrast with the data on how most of us are doing politics. And I think the other findings are a summary of research about why I think we should conclude that this behavior is not good.
Matt Grossmann: Many claim to spend two hours per day on politics, but they’re sideline fans, not really engaged. And that incentivizes politicians to play to the crowd.
Eitan Hersh: These people, the people I’m talking about who are spending two hours a day, the most extreme hobbyists are the ones who, they admit, 0% of their time is anything other than news consumption, sharing and arguing online and at the dinner table, thinking political thoughts. That’s it. That’s what politics is to them. And it’s interesting, because I think a lot of political scientists would call those people politically engaged. After all they know a lot of facts and they say they are interested. And by calling them a hobbyist, I’m saying, “You’re not actually engaged in politics at all. You’re engaged in politics like a sports fan who watches Sports Center is playing football. You’re not doing it.”
So why is this bad? There’s three reasons I point in the book why it’s bad. One is that, it’s just a waste of time for people who have some concern about where politics is or where it’s going. I think they might want to look at their own diet of politics and think, does this reflect my values?
Why it’s damaging, I think it’s in two fronts, right? One is, that when we do politics, that’s the way we’re learning the wrong information and practicing the wrong skills to actually engage in politics. So, I think there’s a lot of people out there who follow a lot of politics. And then if you were to ask them, if a neighbor was to ask them, “Hey Joe, you follow politics. I care a lot about,” I don’t know, any issue, climate change. “What should I know about going on, on policy about climate change in my town or my state?”
Eitan Hersh: And the hobbyist says, “Oh, you misunderstand, I follow politics deeply, but I don’t know anything about anything that would help you be a good citizen. I’m following the politics about the impeachment and the Mueller report and all this stuff that does not influence at all, my ability to engage with the government.” So that’s the sense that the hobbyists are learning the wrong information.
The sense that they’re practicing the wrong skills is that, there’s a lot of good data suggesting, from social media companies themselves, that the things that get attention online are things that are outrageous, provocative, extreme, that kind of stuff. And one by one, in the stories I tell about these organizers, it’s pretty clear that the skills they need for building support for their views, is a different skill set. It’s about empathy and patience and respect and all that stuff.
And that’s not just to sound some warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s obvious to anyone who needs to get someone else to do something that they want them to do, that you have to meet those people where they are, and understand them and be empathetic to them. Whether you’re trying to get a politician to do what you want to do or your neighbor to vote, you cannot do that through anger and outrage. We all know that. And so we’re practicing the wrong skill set when we’re doing politics online.
There’s I think an argument that, not I think, there’s also an argument in the book that hobbyism negatively affects politicians and we incentivize them to behave badly against their interests and our interests. So there’s pretty clear data on this about fundraising. Politicians know that the way that they can raise a lot of money, particularly low dollar fund raising money, is to be very provocative. That’s why Donald Trump is the best low dollar fundraiser, because he knows how to make people feel satiated with that anger or outrage, such that they will click. And every politician from Barack Obama on have learned this lesson, that the more provocation they can put into their messaging, the more small dollar money they’ll raise.
And so we know that if we participate in politics like that, we’re going to click on something or share something that is most entertaining online, we are the ones that are making politicians act like that. So you watch a congressional hearing, and you see one after the other politicians basically trying to make a viral video of themselves through a C-SPAN clip.
Matt Grossmann: Levin sees the decline in public institutional faith as part of a broader social crisis.
Yuval Levin: This is really a book about the nature of the social crisis that we’re living through in America and its implications. It’s a crisis that expresses itself in a variety of ways across different facets of our society, and in intense polarization and dysfunction in our politics, alienation and anger in the culture. And really, in the personal lives of a lot of Americans, it takes the form of isolation, even despair, rising rates of suicide, opioid use, all these things seem to have some common roots, but the roots are not always obvious and the book really tries to think about some of the underlying causes of these problems and how they might be connected.
There are a lot of diagnoses of them, of course. Different people point to economic trends, or to failures of liberalism, or to trade or immigration, or racism or identity politics. And I do think all of these are part of the story, but that there is an important missing ingredient that has to do with a decline of trust in our institutions that’s rooted in a transformation of our institutions and of our expectations of them. And the book really tries to lay that out, arguing about what it really means to have lost faith in institutions, why we speak in that language about the problem we face, and what we could learn from that about the kinds of challenges we have and about how we can address them.
Matt Grossmann: He says elites are no longer using institutions to form and socialize us, but as vehicles for self-expression.
Yuval Levin: We find a lot of people within our major institutions now, acting as outsiders when they should be insiders, as observers or commentators or performers, rather than as actors with institutional roles. And so in a sense, the point is not that the media or education don’t shape us, it’s that the people that are engaged in them, the insiders in those institutions, are not themselves shaped by the contours and the ideals and the integrities of those institutions. Rather they use them as platforms to fight the bigger culture war.
And so in a sense, a lot of our different institutions seem to be engaged in the same thing, which is elevating people to express themselves on the few most divisive issues in our politics. And that’s how a lot of professionals use the platforms of their professions. It’s how a lot of politicians now use elected office. It’s how people in the media seem to use the institutions that they work in. We find that in the Academy, we find it in civic life. We find it in religious life, where certainly we’re supposed to be formed, but a lot of the institutions of American religion now are also being used as stages for political expression.
And so I think that pattern, that transformation of some core institutions from molds of character and behavior to platforms for expression, has degraded the integrity of our institutions has made them harder to trust. That doesn’t mean they’re not important. In some ways they remain as important as ever, but the role they play now, because it’s been deformed by this transformation, is less constructive. They’re less able to offer people ways of amassing social capital, of building connections and of being formed. And instead, they tend to exacerbate the problems that flood our politics.
Matt Grossmann: Even when institutions are failing, Levin says, we need to build and reform, not abandoned them.
Yuval Levin: We fail to see what institutions really do for us. It’s certainly true that we feel like we have more information about the ways they’re failing or that they strike us as hypocritical or as irresponsible, but we don’t see that the response to that can’t just be to burn them down, or drain the swamp. We need these institutions precisely because they form us, they enable us to amass social capital and various other kinds of essential capital for success in American life.
And so, saying that we’ve lost our trust in them is not enough. We have to find ways to make them more trustworthy again. The argument of the book is certainly not just that we should trust our institutions, it’s that we should work to make them more trustworthy. And it seems to me that that does mean a kind of recommitment by all of us in the various institutions in which we are insiders.
And so I would say that there are ways in which some of the decline of trust in institutions from its heights in the middle of the 20th century has been healthy for us. In a democratic society, we shouldn’t just trust people with authority and power. And the America of the immediate post World War II era, had extremely high confidence in institutions. I think it would be easy to argue that it was too high. But the ways in which we dealt with that have come with trade offs and we have reached a point where the challenge we face is not that we have corrupt institutions that are too strong, but rather that all of our institutions are too weak. And we have to find ways to have recourse to them again, by strengthening them, by reforming them, by recommitting to them, by rethinking our understanding of the roles they play in our lives.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh agrees that we need institutions even if they had problematic histories. Otherwise you leave them to the extremists.
Eitan Hersh: We have no choice, that’s how I see it. I mean, it’s true that religious and political institutions have historically, sometimes has been really bad and corrupting and evil and awful, and they’ve also sometimes been great. And if you need community to get something done and in collective action, which is what mass politics is you do, then you have no choice. You have to accept the burdens of that power can be abused, so that you are able to use it for good. And if you’re not, if you’re just like, “No, it’s too dirty,” or, “There’s too many risks.” Or it’s just sort of a pain to be in a real life community of people or a hassle or you don’t like people, then I think the message of the book is, okay, just know who’s doing it instead of you. Obviously it’s people who you like less than you like yourself.
And so, that’s why I give some of these extreme examples in the book, like the KKK offering opioid addicts help in 2018 election to build support. They’re not going around saying or just saying, “Here’s why white nationalism is great.” They’re going around saying, “Let me help you through your addiction.” And if the main party is wanting to have their role in politics be like, “Oh, let’s not have it be personal [inaudible 00:13:46] relationships. Let’s talk about our big plans for government that we hope to somehow magically get through the government.” Then, I think they’re going to lose to more extreme voices who are willing to dirty their hands in politics, because they understand the trade offs between power and the risks that power entails.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh is trying to change activists and thinks it’s too easy to blame elites.
Eitan Hersh: My target audience is the person who’s not an elite, who’s an ordinary person who cares about politics and isn’t doing anything. And in the book, I very deliberately stay away from any recommendations basically about what policies should be changed. In part, because I think a lot of the college educated, sophisticated consumers of political information, are always looking for excuses about how everyone but them is to blame. So, they blame gerrymandering and Citizens United and corruption and all sorts of … and elites basically, for screwing up the system. And their role is just to feel good about themselves for knowing that. And I just think that’s a cop out from the perspective of an individual engaged citizen who, I think has some responsibility and a role to play in their community.
So, I don’t think that the elite story is wrong, I just think that, what’s the path out of it? And I think there’s obviously some discussion of elites in my book for [inaudible 00:00:15:17]. And I wrote about rich people like a Howard Schultz, who could use their money to effectively build power. So it’s not just about an ordinary citizen on their couch could change their behaviors, everyone can. But I think there’s a lot of behavioral, psychological changes that we can make that are actually a lot easier to make, than what are often pie in the sky reforms.
Matt Grossmann: But Levin says elites share the same problem. All of us should recognize our own responsibilities, not pretend to be outsiders.
Yuval Levin: It seems to me that we’ve got to see that it is essential in our society, that the people who operate in our institutions function as insiders, understand that they have responsibilities, and that those responsibilities are defined by institutional roles so that in key moments of decision, we ask ourselves, “Given the role I have here, how should I behave?” And the people who strike us now as at the heart of the problem our country faces, it seems to me are often people who don’t ask that question, who don’t ask, “Given that I’m the president, what’s a responsible way to behave here? Given that I’m a member of Congress, given that I’m a CEO or a teacher or a soldier, what’s the right way to behave here?”
I think asking that question, which is fundamentally an insider’s question, doesn’t come naturally to us. There’s always some resistance to this in the American character. But I think that in this moment in particular, we all incline to want to understand ourselves as outsiders. We have only criticism to offer, but no power. And it’s not true. So it becomes a problem when people who actually are insiders, like the president, like a member of Congress, like people with responsibilities in corporate America or in the academy or in American religion behave as though they’re just commentators with criticisms to offer instead of seeing that it’s up to them how these institutions function.
Matt Grossmann: Even Congress is now just another publicity seeking venture even for those with real power to influence laws.
Yuval Levin: So if you run for Congress in order to have a cultural platform, then it seems to me you’re setting yourself up for failure for one thing, but also you’re setting Congress up for failure. We see this problem of a kind of transformation from formative to performative with really a particular clarity when it comes to Congress.
I would say it used to be that people would seek a microphone in order to gain access to political power that they could then use to advance some change in society. At this point, it looks more like people seek political power to gain access to a microphone, which they then use to elevate themselves to be heard, to be seen, to build a social media following, or get a better slot on cable news or talk radio. And that is an abuse of the institution of the Congress. To think that it is there to serve as a platform is to fail to see that it has a role to play in our system of government.
And ultimately if the way in which members of Congress understand the purpose of their being in the institution is fundamentally performative, is all about leaving the Senate impeachment trial to go and host a podcast about the Senate impeachment trial as Ted Cruz has done every day of the trial, then it seems to me that you’ve made yourself incapable of being effective as a legislator. And more than that, you’ve made the legislature much less capable of being effective. And these institutions have important roles to play. So we can’t just see them as stages for political entertainment.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh was inspired by stories of successful political action.
Eitan Hersh: In my opinion, the best part of the book is these stories in the book of how people in very different settings, from ages like age 19, 20, all the way to 98 are doing politics in ways that I think are valuable and they’re seeing results from it.
This older man, 98 years old who controlled the thousand votes, you can see it in the data. You see his precinct has two or three times the voting rates of the precincts around it. You see that everyone votes the same way. You see that the politicians come and drive him to the grocery store and shovel his walk. And you see, from the stories I tell, the method he used. So to me that’s really concrete. And I do talk a little bit about my own personal experience, which I was initially hesitant to do that.
I see that experience as basically how can I replicate? But I think to the best of the folks doing this. I really only decided to do tell my own part of that story, which is not a big part of the book, but it’s a small part of the book. And I wanted to do it because for one thing I wanted to convey to the reader that I understand their excuses because they’re my excuses too. I definitely understand what it’s like to be a political hobbyist and all the reasons why it’s hard to get off your couch. And I wanted to convey that.
I also wanted to convey what I thought is to a lay reader the beauty of politics done in a real way. The audience for this book is twofold. I mean I think it’s the political hobbyist, is the person who spends all this time on politics. I think they are probably a little melancholy about it. They know that they’re not doing anything. They don’t know if they have a role to play other than as an onlooker. So I want this book to say you do have a role to play and here’s how other people play that role.
Matt Grossmann: He says machine like politics without the corruption has advantages.
Eitan Hersh: I guess I’m trying to bring back a non-corrupt version of machine politics. A machine oftentimes just like a group of people who are better organized than you are, who you don’t like. When I describe this 98-year-old man who controls a thousand votes and they say he has a machine and he’s a boss. And then the story of this man is that he, like his community has real issues. They are a community of elderly refugees who have issues related to transportation, just getting around town, and they have issues related to national immigration policy. And this guy organized them so they all vote together and they all vote his way. And he does that not through any kind of corrupt practice other than building rapport. You might call that a machine, but that is how political power works.
So I want people to see why that is both normal and good. It’s not a dirty form of politics. I also in the book as you know, offer some, I would say stronger proposals for parties to engage in the provision of goods and services in exchange for building rapport with voters. One example I have is local and state party committees offering elder care and childcare on emergency basis to folks as a way to convey in the most material immediate way possible that they care about voters and that they’re there to serve them.
And is that corrupt? No, as far as I know, depending on the state, it’s legal, and parties should do it. Or we should experiment with doing it and see how it goes. And I think we can do that in a way that isn’t corrupt and dirty.
Matt Grossmann: Levin agrees that the nationalization of our political concerns reduces opportunities for building social capital locally.
Yuval Levin: The idea that our concerns are national is a kind of luxury, right? It’s an attitude that you can have if you have a lot of social capital to work with in our society. And the kinds of problems that can only be addressed locally aren’t really problems for you. And you have the luxury to think about big abstract, national cultural questions.
The challenge we have now is that we have a huge array of options for people who have a lot of social capital to spend. We don’t have as many options as we should for people who need to amass to build social capital. And that’s part of what institutions do for us. They give us the shape, the structure, the habits, the networks that ultimately are social capital.
So we’re in a situation where the decline of local and interpersonal institutions exacerbates the difference between people with a lot of social capital and people with not a lot of it, provides more opportunities to spend it, but not enough opportunities to amass it, and I don’t think that’s a good thing at all. So I simply wouldn’t say that our concerns actually are more national. I think that people who have the luxury to have national level concerns have more and more power in our culture. But that’s more a problem than a solution.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh says you can usually act locally even on national issues.
Eitan Hersh: A lot of people who I guess have it’s national issues that motivate them in the sense that like, I don’t know, the environment is I guess a national or international issue. On the left people are really particularly concerned about racial equality. Folks are interested on the right and on left, but I think especially on the right on business development. I mean, it’s not like those are local issues, but they all have local manifestations. So if you care about those issues, there’s a lot of ways you can channel that energy into your state and local jurisdictions. I mean, even in the most liberal or most conservative state, there’s a lot of opportunity to move on those issues. So if you care about them, do it.
And the thing is everyone knows that it’s harder to engage in this … in politics in a real way than in a kind of a symbolic way. So I imagine a lot of parents who send their children on these climate marches to say, we want the UN to do this, we want the president to do that, and they let their kids miss school for that. But how many of those parents are going to let their kids miss school to go to their own town and champion the actual painful economic changes that are going to be required for their own town to commit to real change on the climate? It’s harder. People disagree with one another.
Matt Grossmann: He acknowledges that social movements can start online or via protests, but they need to build on that within person action.
Eitan Hersh: A protest is often the beginning of if it’s done strategically, a protest might raise awareness for an issue that there wasn’t enough attention to before. So I think Black Lives Matter is in that camp. Black Lives Matter, both real in-person protests that showed people really concerned about these issues and then magnified online drew attention to these issues that maybe for a lot of people they didn’t know about before. But that is just step one.
I mean, I think this is where there’s a hobbyism problem, right? It’s like the catharsis that you get, the short-term gratification that you get from sharing or liking something about something like Black Lives Matter is not doing the thing itself. That addressing an issue like that requires local police reform, requires real people to actually do something that’s hard, which is engage in tough conversations in their communities.
I know in my own town, which is a sort of a well-to-do white liberal town, if you look at … if you talk to police officers or something about disproportionate calls on African-Americans, a lot of those start with phone calls to the police department from white residents saying, “Hey, there’s someone here who shouldn’t be here.” So a conflict that’s about the police is also about a whole neighborhood and a whole community of people who are influencing what those police to do. So if you care about that issue, then the awareness that’s being raised online is similar to the awareness that might be raised through a protest, which is a good first step to solving some pressing problem.
But I think a lot of times we treat those hashtag campaigns or even a big in-person campaign like the Women’s March as the end, that it’s that expression of anger or passion or a brief fleeting community feeling as like, “We did it.” But like that’s just, in real politics that’s just the beginning.
Matt Grossmann: He says you need a long-term view to build power, one he sees as lacking.
Eitan Hersh: Our timeframe is totally worked in short-term and there’s been some good writing on this kind of short-termism. But I use this example sometimes of, imagine investing time and effort into getting a 25-year-old kid fresh out of law school to be a county judge so that maybe in 30 years that person can go to the Supreme Court and overturn Roe V Wade. If your reaction to the first stage of that is like, “County judge? That sounds like a lame thing to pay attention to,” then you don’t have this long-term view of political power that I think is necessary.
The other hand is that I think in the stories of the book, you see these people who pretty quickly, maybe over a few years figured out how to build rapport in their communities so that they could influence votes and they figured out, “Oh what’s the path to bringing 50 people together to attend a meeting and lobby the government?” Or, “How do I get 50 people in my neighborhood to vote a certain way?” It’s not that hard to do if you try, and you actually get a surprisingly large amount of power very quickly by doing it.
There’s another example that’s not from the book but an example I like, which is that I took students in a civics program I was running last summer to a zoning board meeting. And they saw this woman there who she kind of like once a week, spends her life once a week attending the zoning board meeting. And this story is interesting because she’s sort of a thorn in the side of developers. She’s there. She’s learned all the rules. She knows how to gum up the system. I can’t remember the issue she cared about, but things related to density and the environment and all that. And she goes there.
And when me and my students are there, we see one of the developers come up and say, “I have an announcement to make. I agree with Susan for the first time.” And the whole zoning board laughs and they’re all like kind of in it together that it’s funny that this one time the developer agrees with this woman. And I think it took some … I think there was an aha moment for my students in this room who saw this and were like, “Interesting, this person a lot of us would at first think of as a kind of a crazy person, like who would spend a night of their lives once a week in a zoning board room.” But then they change. And like, “Wow. Like while we’re watching Netflix, she even by herself has amassed like a pretty serious amount of information and power about how to influence something she cares about.” And it’s not that hard, but it takes us not demeaning activism and engagement as something beneath us, but seeing why that is actually a way to channel values and action.
Matt Grossmann: For Levin political institutions are only one form of institutional failure. Take the media. We’ve gained diversity from fragmentation, but reporters have also lost their authority.
Yuval Levin: My basic view is that things in America are always getting better and worse at the same time. And that’s the hardest thing really to accept and grasp about American life, is that there’s not a single direction we can either be for it or against it. It’s all trade offs. And we have to think about how to address the problems we have while making the most of the advantages and benefits we have.
So there’s no question that the fragmentation of the media has contributed to a greater variety of viewpoints, and that that’s on the whole a good thing, but it’s a trade off. And what we’ve lost in the trade in this case is something like professionalism and the authority that it brings, which is in this case to say we’ve lost something like a reliable way to distinguish truth from falsehood in a lot of the media environment.
I take up the media in the course of a chapter in this book about the professions as institutions. And what the professions do really is they enable us through professional forms and processes and standards and practices to distinguish reliable from unreliable claims to expertise and authority. And the deep professionalization of the American media has certainly made it harder to judge those kinds of claims now. And that deep professionalization is not just a function of fragmentation or of having more outlets out there. A lot of political journalists, for example, willfully routinely remove themselves from the structures of editing and verification that are built up around them within the institutions they work in, and just put themselves on their own out there on a platform, on Twitter or on cable news, blurring the line between their work and their opinions in ways that can’t help but undermine the authority of their profession. They do it because it is a way to build their brand and to build prominence and to be recognized individually, but that comes at a cost.
I think it comes at a very great cost in the case of the media, and we have to be aware of that cost. I don’t think that that means we can go back to or would want to go back to a media environment where everything is driven by a few newspapers and three major broadcast networks. But it seems to me that it does mean that we have to build institutional structures suited to this reality that can allow us to have a greater sense of the difference between reliable and unreliable sources of information.
Matt Grossmann: The university administration is also accepting competing claims for making their campuses about self-expression over learning.
Yuval Levin: There is a way in which the attitudes that outsiders have about the academy are determined at this point by, let’s say a few viral outliers, but I think that there also is a real challenge, a real crisis of the academy. Which has to do not so much with violent protest against speakers, that happens, but it doesn’t happen that often. And it seems to me that it happens less often now than even a few years ago. But I do think that there’s a way that the culture of campus administration, of university administrators, has been transformed by a kind of ethic of social activism that does deform the purpose of the university, which ultimately is the pursuit of knowledge through teaching and learning. Universities have always had multiple aims and multiple cultures within them.
In the book, I try to break this down into three competing academic cultures. A culture of professional development, which is really about giving people the skills they need to work in the modern economy. Culture of moral activism, which is about bringing the larger society to repent of its sins and also kind of affirming the ethic of the elite in our society. And a culture of liberal education. None of these is new. I don’t think social activism started in the 1960s in the American Academy. In some ways our first universities, Harvard and Yale, were founded as Puritan conservatories, precisely to drive the larger society to repent of its sins and reform itself. This has always been part of the Academy in America.
But it does seem to me that we’re in a moment now when the people who administer universities see a certain kind of social justice mode of activism as an effective way to enforce order in the university. And that this has led to some peculiar deformations both making it very hard for people with dissenting views to make their home on campus and in some ways just making it difficult to see that the purpose of the institution is ultimately educational, is ultimately the pursuit of knowledge. I think conservatives have reacted to that in some ways that have been more constructive than others. I don’t think that the case for free speech, for example, is the right way to think about how to argue for the proper ethic of the university.
Free speech is basically an argument for a performative space. It just says, give us our protected space where we can say and do whatever crazy thing we want. That isn’t actually the argument I think that conservatives want to make about the university. Case in defense of the Academy as a place of learning and pursuing knowledge could be very attractive as a way to push back against some of the excesses of today’s activist culture on campus. But it’s not quite where we are. And I do think that those, as you say, viral outliers have distorted our understanding some of what the actual problem might be on campus.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh agrees that universities have bought into a hobbyist view of politics.
Eitan Hersh: I think political science, as a discipline, probably more than maybe sociology or economics has taken this view that hobbyist politics is politics. Like, at a university, we might sponsor some pundit to talk to the students about their worst stories from the White House or whatever, universities like thrive on these kinds of events, which I think are not very useful. I think better is the university setting and we have this certainly in my university that’s actually training people for leadership and community engagement. But I think the first set of stuff, the intrigue about primaries or about this or that person from political past who comes tell their war stories.
I just think that’s kind of useless. So that it’s possible students can emerge from a four-year education and know a lot about polling or something like that, and not a lot about community leadership. So not a lot about collective action, not a lot about how to solve political problems themselves. So I do think that’s a that’s a fair critique of universities.
Matt Grossmann: But he sees hobbyism as a particular problem for liberals, who are less likely to have people rely on them at places like church.
Eitan Hersh: The distance that the left has from institutions in the community, and churches are just the most obvious example of this, is going to be an ongoing problem. I mean, as we see, there’s like a really increasing relationship with religious tendance and being republican. And so republicans are going to be just more practiced at being in a place where people are depending on their presence. I think there’s a class of people and I see this a lot among, I think, my students and my friends who no one is relying on them. Like they’re not in a community of mutual aid and support. So I think that, that is really not likely to result in political power.
Matt Grossmann: Levin also sees political and religious trends toward individualism going too far.
We do certainly have a powerful individualist streak in the American character and we’ve always had some resistance to institutions. I think that is rooted in some religious views. Our culture is rooted in a certain kind of dissenting Protestantism, which is always resisted institutional mediation. And so that is part of our character. It does seem to me that in the wake of post World War II America which had become enormously trusting in of its institutions and highly cohesive self-confident, even just the fall back to normal was always going to feel like a big drop.
Yuval Levin: But I think we’re in a place now where that individualism has taken us to access, and that we have become too mistrusting of core institutions that ultimately we have to take seriously if our society is going to function. So the desire to have the benefits of strong institutions without the responsibilities, without the obligations, is an irresponsible desire. It’s ultimately unserious. And we have to see that in order to gain those benefits, we do have to take the responsibilities seriously.
Matt Grossmann: But he sees signs of future progress and Americans desire for reform.
Yuval Levin: I think some of the very dissatisfaction with the state of our institutions that we experience should give us cause for hope that those could be reformed, that we could answer that dissatisfaction not just by expressing frustration, but by actually taking some action to strengthen our institutions and improve their condition. So that even where we see people who are most dissatisfied with our society, the people who are most driven to populism in our politics or those who believe that our systems and institutions are rigged against them. Those are the people who are looking for improvement, who are looking for ways to strengthen failing institutions. Rather than just offer them ways to express their frustration, I think we should look to offer people ways to improve things, roles to play, constructive models of engagement and civic action.
America has definitely faced moments like this before, and we’ve responded to them with some period of institution building that tries to address problems in concrete ways. I think it’s time for such a moment now. That’s ultimately why the book is called A Time to Build. I think it’s that kind of time.
Matt Grossmann: Hersh says the Obama and Trump era show that momentary political upsurges don’t last, and he sees it as particularly bleak for Democrats.
Eitan Hersh: Look back from the Democrats perspective to 2008. They had all these people that were super jazzed about Obama, they donate, they go on buses, they vote at higher rates, people are excited. And then as soon as Democrats get this massive power, massive control of the federal government, filibuster-proof control of the Senate, everyone just sits home. They’re just like, okay, I guess we did it. And now turnout rates, particularly among young people, plummet in 2010. You have these town hall meetings that are focused on the main policy goal that Obama articulated about health care. Democrats don’t show up.
In my own home state of Massachusetts, there is this critical moment in the Senate race replacing Ted Kennedy where a Republican won and took away the Democrats, filibuster-proof control the Senate. Turnout just plummeted from 2008, particularly among the most democratic areas. So, if you’re engaged in politics just on this short-term basis, then that’s what you get. You get like, okay, when the winds at your back and it’s fun, when there’s a Sunday march on a nice day or when there’s like a fun candidate, then you’re all in. But like the second the chips are down, you’re out. I think that what I’m trying to argue through the stories of these organizers is that the resilient political communities, the people who are like up or down a minute because other people are depending on me to be in it, those are the ones that can sustain energy in the downtimes.
I recently wrote about this parallel with religion, and I talked about churchgoers who don’t like Trump, but even though they don’t like him, they still vote for him, in part because they’re in a community of people who are there every week. They get their cues not from what’s happening in the national drama, but they get their cues from their neighbors and fellow congregants who they trust. That’s a much different form of politics. I mean, people think of the 2018 election as this super high turnout for Democrats. It was also a super high turnout year for Republicans really, really high turnout for Republicans too. And that’s in a year where Trump’s not that popular and they still get out. I think Democrats if they are not in real, permanent communities, they have a problem here because it’s only when things are exciting and nationalized and the winds at their back that they’re willing to do some of this.
Matt Grossmann: Levin ends the book with a critique of meritocracy. It’s worked on its own terms, but it hasn’t helped legitimate elites. That requires better leadership.
Yuval Levin: I don’t think meritocracy has been entirely a failure. In some respects, I think that word fail is in its diagnosis of the problem. In the prescription it offers, given its diagnosis, it’s done pretty well. The diagnosis is our elite institutions are legitimate because they are too hard to enter. They’re too selective and in ways that are unfair. And the kind of wasp establishment America was too closed to people from other backgrounds. To women, to racial minority, to religious minorities. I think that was true and that the reforms that happened needed to happen. The trouble is that in a democratic society, I think elites need to legitimate themselves not just by opening up the paths upward in the life of that society, but also by showing the people with power and privilege exercise them responsibly.
Meritocracy doesn’t pretend to do that, but it tend to persuade us that we shouldn’t worry about it. That the only legitimacy problem has to do with whether the doors are open wide enough. But I think there’s actually a more profound legitimacy problem that is at the heart of contemporary populism, which says not that too few people can get into Yale, but that the people who get into Yale then exercise enormous power in our society without nearly enough restraints and responsibility. And meritocracy doesn’t really offer an answer to that.
Yuval Levin: And in fact, it tends to distract us from that problem by suggesting that our elites are legitimate, they pass the test, they’ve proven their worth. And so they don’t need to worry as much about holding themselves up to tests of character and responsibility and commitment in public service. In that respect, I think we need to think beyond meritocracy and see that the problem isn’t just about who can rise, but about what people in power do, and what obligations and responsibilities they think they have.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Yuval Levin and Eitan Hersh for joining me. Please check out Politics Is for Power and A Time to Build and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Shealah Craighead [Public domain]