Shakespeare suggested in “As You Like It” that “all the world’s a stage.” Now, 400 years later, our constitutional system faces threats from political “actors” who are treating the Bard’s words too literally.
That’s one key takeaway from Yuval Levin’s recent speech in Raleigh for the John Locke Foundation. Editor of the journal National Affairs, Levin is also author of recent books on our “fractured republic” and on the “great debate” between radical disciples of Thomas Paine and conservative followers of Edmund Burke.
Levin’s latest project focuses on the health of American institutions. His diagnosis: Many of them are failing.
“We don’t trust any of our major institutions,” Levin told his Raleigh audience on March 26. “Trust in government as a whole and in its different branches at the national level has been plummeting now for decades and is extremely low. But trust in the professions — in doctors and lawyers and accountants and teachers — is also way down.”
These and other institutions no longer play their traditional roles. “An institution gives structure to the ways we live together,” Levin explained. “Generally speaking, institutions work to accomplish some socially important task — educating the young, or making laws, or defending the country, or helping the poor, or producing some good or service. And they work to do it by establishing a structure and a process — a form — for combining people’s efforts toward accomplishing that goal.”
An institution helps “form” people, Levin added. “It creates an ethic that defines how people go about their common work,” he said. “And, in turn, that shapes their behavior, even their character.”
In the past, institutions tended to earn our trust. “We trust an institution because it seems to have an ethic that makes the people within it trustworthy,” Levin explained.
Now that trust has eroded. “They no longer work as if their purpose is to shape the people inside them to be reliable and responsible and trustworthy,” Levin said.
Levin sees a transformation in the way we think about institutions. “We’ve moved — very roughly speaking — from thinking about institutions as molds that shape and form people’s characters and habits toward seeing institutions as platforms that allow people to perform for a wider audience.”
The transformation generates negative consequences. “When we don’t think of our institutions as formative, but rather as performative, when the presidency and Congress are just stages for individual performance art … they become harder to trust,” Levin contends. “They aren’t asking for our trust. They’re only asking for our attention.”
“It would be strange to trust a platform, and we don’t,” he adds.
Picture a politician as a performer, and the current president might come to mind. Levin agrees that Donald Trump’s administration has demonstrated his interest in something other than the traditional institutional role of the American presidency.
Trump’s supporters and critics make a mistake when they assume he ran for president to pursue a fairly standard set of policy goals. “His ambition seems to have been something like a desire to put himself at the center of our national consciousness,” Levin says of Trump. “In a sense, what he wanted most — and what some of his more peculiar choices and actions are directed toward achieving — is to be at the center of our attention.”
The presidency follows Trump’s previous role as “a kind of performer, basically playing the part of a successful real-estate developer in American popular culture,” Levin said. “He entered politics, in certain respects, as another performance in that role. He was elevated to the presidency thanks to his enormous success in that performance.”
Trump is not alone. His immediate predecessor exhibited similar signs of treating the presidency as a performance, Levin argues.
Nor is the president the only current political actor who has bypassed his institution’s traditional role. “Many members of Congress have come to view the institution as a kind of platform for themselves, as a way to raise their profile, as a way to become celebrities in the world of cable news or talk radio,” Levin said. “What’s lost in the process is the capacity to legislate.”
Not even the courts have escaped this institutional change. One need only read the flowery language of an opinion authored by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to sense the degree to which performance has taken hold within the judicial branch.
“This increasingly performative approach to governing ends up taking the form of a shortage of appropriate constitutional ambition,” Levin concludes about the three branches of federal government. “The system is set up to find balance by counterbalancing ambition against ambition. But if different actors in the system are not trying to do their jobs, then the system as a whole falls badly out of whack.”
In a conversation for Carolina Journal Radio, Levin offered suggestions for addressing the problem. “I think what is required is some recovery of institutional ambition,” he said. “Frankly, the only way for that to happen is for the people who occupy these positions to want it to happen.”
“That means making the case for why a member of Congress needs to see a stronger Congress as serving his own ambition and political interests, why a president ought to see being the chief executive as the way to becoming an important figure in American life and American history, why a judge should see actually interpreting the law as the way to become important and play the role they’re supposed to play.”
Recognizing the negative shift from formative to performative institutions marks the first step toward making a change.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.