On November 1, we had our first meeting of the seminar on Institutional Irrationality. The discussion, which included Yuval Levin as a guest speaker, was fascinating. I did not catch all of it in my notes, because sometimes I was concentrating too hard to write stuff down. But here is what I took down/recalled.
I introduced the topic with a thought experiment. Imagine that 40 years ago you had showed me today’s information technology, and asked me to predict what public discourse and intellectual life would be like in 2021. I might have said, “Gosh! People will be carrying around mainframe computers in their pockets? And they will have information at their fingertips with Google and YouTube and Wikepedia? I predict that public discourse and intellectual life will be in a Golden Age! It will be like the Golden Age of Athens. Or the Scottish Enlightenment. Or the debates at the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist Papers.”
Instead, the low quality of public discourse led me in 2013 to write The Three Languages of Politics. Since then, things have gotten worse—much worse.
So I state this paradox: we are surrounded by intelligence and yet deluged with stupidity.
Yuval Levin said that he was never a believer that the Internet would improve politics. In “Politics After the Internet,” published in 2002, Levin wrote,
The Internet makes it easy to know more about whatever one is interested in, but by itself it does not change one's interests. Today, the people who actively participate in politics are those who are interested enough to do so. Information technologies will make it easier for these people to be involved, and will therefore likely make them even more so. For those people with little interest in politics, the Internet will make it easier for them to become more engaged in their own particular areas of interest, leaving them even less time for politics. The Internet does not simply offer us information, it offers us our choice of information. Most of us choose to become better informed about, and more active in, those areas that are already of interest to us. The Internet gives us the power to do more, but it does not of itself change what we want to do.
[We came back to the topic of political information and political engagement during the “reception” after the seminar. See below.]
Levin says that we are going through a period of fragmentation and decentralization. This makes central institutions weaker, and it makes them seem even weaker than they are. Fragmentation and decentralization are not unique in our history. On the contrary, the period after World War II was unusual in the extent to which society was cohesive, conformist, and ready to listen to and respect authority. Americans are typically not like this.
But we used to have differing realms of elites: politicians, business titans, academicians, journalists, and celebrities varied in their backgrounds, beliefs, and attitudes. Now, they all share the same class outlook. They are trained at the same universities, and in some respects they have become interchangeable.
The CEO of a shoe manufacturer in the 20th century would not have thought it important, or wise, to take a stand against a state’s Republican-passed election law. Now, taking such a stand has benefits that exceed the costs (Republicans will still buy the company’s shoes). And public figures increasingly want to stand on platforms and adopt postures.
Members of elites used to think in terms of institutional roles. A journalist was supposed to give the straight news. A corporate executive was supposed to focus on running the business. A Congressman was supposed to work on legislation. Now, everyone is focused on building a personal brand.
We saw during the pandemic that public health officials decided to use their positions to pursue political agendas. As the public observes this behavior among elites, it is natural that popular trust falls.
In Congress, the desire to build a personal brand means that members tolerate having little influence on public policy. Congress could exercise more power if members wanted to, but they don’t. They readily cede power to the executive branch. With the primary system, they win office by appealing to those in the narrow constituent base, which mostly wants them to hear them yell at the other side. Bargaining or compromising to get something done hurts you rather than helps you.
As transparency increases, people tend to focus on institutional failures. The success of Congress in passing bipartisan relief bills during the pandemic, for example, gets overlooked. People are surprised by flaws in institutions, now that they can see more of them. [I have a saying that “Anyone who is afraid of a big corporation has never worked for one.” From the inside, you can see all of the internal conflicts and dysfunction.]
I asked Yuval what has happened in the past two years that reinforces or modifies what he wrote in A Time to Build. He said that the behavior of public health officials in the pandemic reinforced the way that institutions no longer constrain elites, as those officials freely strayed into political issues that were not part of their remit. He said that he was surprised by the violence and disorder that emerged with the BLM riots and the January 6 event.
He said that if he were to write the book today, he would put more emphasis on the need for better institutional performance in order to restore trust in institutions. He noted that a reader of his book, and especially a reader of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge, might come away with the mistaken impression that the institutions were working fine but for the mistrust that has emerged.
In terms of the future, he said that he had more hopes: for local institutions to develop trust, rather than for Congress to fix itself; for institutions that are subject to competition than for institutions with less competition; and for new institutions to address contemporary problems rather than institutional innovation coming from within. He cited the universities started in the late 19th century (Chicago, Stanford) as examples. He said that “this is the moment to create new universities.” [This is one of many thoughts that could have stimulated an elaborate discussion, but instead it kind of slipped by.]
Levin said that he believes that academia is at the center of the problem. The other institutional failures reflect and radiate from academia. It used to be that while conservatives complained about radical professors, the universities themselves were more conservative and the radicals were on the outside. Today, the radicals are in charge.
Levin says that there is an ahistoricity in public discussions. I suggested that the Internet offers so much stimulation about the present that people don’t dwell on history and consequently don’t look far into the future.
Levin says that in journalism, outlets no longer seek a mass audience to which to sell advertising. Instead, they rely on loyal subscribers, and this makes them reluctant to print anything that those subscribers (or young staffers) don’t want to hear. To me, this sounded straight out of Andrey Mir’s Post-journalism.
During the “reception” after the seminar, we talked about Levin’s claim that high-information voters are driving polarization. Note that Richard Hanania’s essay for that day was entitled Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV.
But some of us preferred to talk about high-engagement voters rather than high-information voters. That is, they are emotionally caught up in supporting or opposing the Democrats’ “Build Back Better” legislation, but they do not know much about what is in it. Larry Summers in fact says that the tax provisions on net favor the rich, because few loopholes are closed while the State and Local Tax deduction (SALT) is restored.
Levin’s 2002 article predicted less engagement in politics as people focused instead on niche interests. Indeed, the Internet seems to have enhanced niche hobbies while reducing interests in generic forms of entertainment and community activity. But with one exception—politics. Many people seem very engaged in politics, to a degree and in a manner that is unhealthy. Perhaps the way things will ease up in the culture/political war is that people will lose interest in it.