Big Idea #1 of 3: Molds and Platforms

For the next three months, I'll share some theories about politics, society, and culture that have enriched a lot of my recent reading and thinking. This month: Yuval Levin's work on institutions

At the Naval Academy I had a professor named Stephen Wrage, who was part of the faculty group that mentored students wishing to pursue graduate education after commissioning.

One day during one of our group meetings we were discussing some current events. Suddenly Dr. Wrage stood up and wrote on a whiteboard the letters “OWITAI.” He turned dramatically towards us and intoned in his trademark baritone:

Of What Is This An Instance? That… [long pause] …is the question.”

He gave some more remarks on the phrase, the gist of which was this: when you’re reading the news, try to contextualize it. What are the connections between this news story and other news stories? How does it connect to patterns or trends from history? Is this event as unprecedented as it seems, or have similar things happened before?

Wrage’s question has stuck with me ever since, and I try to apply it when I’m reading the news or talking about current events.

Contextualization is a hard thing, a task that requires a high degree of self-awareness, nuance, and curiosity. Failed attempts can lead to spurious and offensive historical comparisons — just look at most casual efforts to link contemporary circumstances to Hitler and the Holocaust. If I’m learning about some history and I start thinking to myself, “this is exactly like what’s going on right now!” I try to restrain myself — or at least, not share those thoughts publicly. I believe claims about the present that rely on direct historical comparisons should always be relatively limited, heavily qualified, and soberly posited by those with some training in the field rather than by opportunistic TV hosts or meme creators.

On the other hand, I think contextualization is an important exercise in which we all can and should participate, even if we’re not always right. It teaches us to think more broadly about things, and to look beneath the surface at tides and currents that aren’t immediately visible. When we actively try to contextualize current events, it helps us move past reactions like, “what a horrible/cowardly/toxic politician!” or “I can’t believe something like this could happen!” and instead keep trying to learn more about why this person acts the way they do, or how something like this could in fact happen.

Eventually, with enough practice, it allows us to perceive news events as chapters in interconnected stories, stories enriched and informed by our own understandings of the world rather than by someone else’s cynical or agenda-driven narrative.

Over the next three months, I’ll be sharing three “big ideas” that come to mind whenever I am reading the news and ask myself, “of what is this an instance?”

In keeping with my wariness about historical comparisons, these ideas aren’t really from history — they’re more rooted in political science or philosophy. They’re models or frameworks for understanding the world, ones that ring particularly true to me. Several of my UChicago professors, the ones who taught analytical politics and statistics, liked to remind us that “all models are wrong, but some are helpful.” I don’t think any of these “big ideas” are all-encompassing or 100% accurate, but I do believe they’re really helpful for processing what’s going on in the world right now and I hope you find them interesting.

Big Idea #1: Institutions are trustworthy when they are seen as “formative.” Institutions lose trust and confidence when they are seen as “performative.”

Source: Dr. Yuval Levin, A Time to Build (April 2020)

Several weeks ago I wrote about A Time to Build for SEA STATE, the newsletter I publish with some other Navy/USMC junior officers. Here’s an excerpt from that review:

Most junior officers are likely familiar with annual surveys showing that the military retains an extraordinarily high level of public confidence in institutions, despite a precipitous decline in trust in most other civic institutions over the last several decades. Why is this the case? Academic research on the topic has shown that it’s due to a variety of complex factors — but according to political philosopher Yuval Levin in his book A Time To Build, one part of the story may be the way in which many important societal institutions have been transforming from “molds” into “platforms.”

By “molds,” Levin means institutions that are formative in nature. Because the military is still universally viewed as an organization that shapes or “molds” its members, transforming them from one kind of person (a recent high school graduate, for example) into a somewhat more disciplined, responsible, or even patriotic type of citizen, the public still sees ample reason to place its confidence in the military as a trustworthy institution.

In contrast, “platforms” are institutions that have come to act primarily as ways for individuals to seek attention, gain followers, or improve their personal brand, rather than being conformed to the patterns, needs, and goals of the institution itself. Instead of being formative in nature, these institutions have become performative.

Levin’s framework of “molds” and “platforms” applies to many institutions in society, but he devotes particular attention to the U.S. Congress, where he claims members and candidates are increasingly focused on promoting themselves and growing their bases of support. Instead of working for the constitutional goals and imperatives of Congress, many members simply use their congressional position as platforms from which to broadcast their views and gain influence, even at the expense of Congress as an institution. As the public observes this shift, they are more inclined to believe that members are acting self-interestedly rather than for the public well-being, leading to the current historic low levels of trust in Congress as an institution.

The military and the Congress are just a few of the institutions to which Dr. Levin applies the molds vs. platforms model. Universities, journalism, the church, professional sports, and even the nuclear family have been affected by the shift from “forming” towards “performing” as people within those institutions become more inclined to use them as vehicles for self-expression than to align their own attitudes and behavior with the goals of the group.

When I observe a supposedly formative institution become something that seems primarily performative, I have two initial reactions: 1) I question the importance of the institution’s existence, and 2) I feel distrust or disdain towards those who lead the institution. This has little to do with whether or not the institution personally benefits me or not, or whether I’m even really connected to it, and oftentimes I find that it happens without any active thought at all. So when we read or hear about plummeting trust in a public institution (i.e. not just Gallup polls, but also stories about young people leaving the church, or fewer people starting families, or the loss of faith in academic expertise conferred by universities) I am usually less curious about the effectiveness of the institution in achieving its stated goals than about whether the institution is actually perceived as shaping the behavior of its members.

Looking at this shift, it’s easy to blame the politicians, pastors, or journalists who we see as “performers,” who forsake any sense of personal responsibility for their own formation and behavior when they enter institutions like Congress, the church, or the news industry. Perhaps if our “elites” were just less selfish and self-promoting and more focused on the good of society, things would be better.

But it’s more difficult — and probably more important — to critique our own contradictory appetites: we want and trust strong, formative institutions, and yet we consistently elevate and reward those who entertain rather than edify us. We talk about how little faith we have in government, yet we elect folks to office who are more interested in becoming nationally famous and parroting internet slogans than in governing. We say we don’t trust the mainstream media because they’re too biased, but then we voluntarily give the most viewership to the rabid partisans who dominate the late hours on FOX News, CNN, and MSNBC or to the social media warrior-heroes of our respective tribal camps — people whose goal is clearly to preach ideologies or deliver smackdowns rather than to inform us about the world.

I agree with Dr. Levin’s conclusion that one way for us to rebuild strong institutions is to focus on smaller, local community organizations and to become personally invested in them rather than just behaving as spectators. We also need to be more self-aware about what kinds of institutions and leaders we are supporting and rewarding, and whether our affiliations and habits are actually shaping us into the people and citizens we want to be. In Dr. Levin’s words (204):

What I’m proposing here, in other words, is a modest change in our stance toward our country and the social crisis it confronts. Not a social revolution or a political transformation…just a greater awareness of how integrity, trust, confidence, and belonging, and meaning are established in our lives — and so a greater care about some habits we have gotten into that tend to cut us off from them.

I’m asking you to consider the problems we face in the context of institutions, and to talk about them and act toward them in that context. To act through institutions a bit more, not just atop or against or around them. And, in acting through them, to strengthen and reform them: not just to trust our institutions but to make them more trustworthy.

A Time to Build is available on Amazon here. Highly recommend it — you’ll gain much more from it than you did from my rambling commentary here. If you don’t have the bandwidth to read the whole book right now you can listen to Dr. Levin talk about it with Russell Moore, The Gospel Coalition, or the Bulwark podcast.

So that’s Big Idea #1. Not saying it’s one of the three most important ideas of all time, or of my life, just that it’s a framework I find myself thinking about a lot right now. I’ll share two more in July and August.

MW is still crushing her temporary assignment on the USS MISSOURI (SSN-780) — here’s a picture from the COMSUBPAC Facebook page of her boat pulling out for a recent underway!

From the FB caption: JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (June 3, 2021) -- The Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Missouri (SSN 780) departs Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for Exercise Agile Dagger 2021 (AD21). AD21 is a training exercise, with one-third of the Pacific Submarine Force getting underway, to assess warfighting readiness and build capacity for the joint force.

I only have about a month and a half left here in Charleston, if all goes according to plan. NPTU (Prototype) can be a pretty intense environment, complete with mandatory 12-hour work days and a rotating sleep schedule, but I’m learning a lot and sometimes it’s actually fun. Safe to say nuclear engineering is not the academic topic I love most, but learning it and operationalizing it in a hands-on leadership environment — and seeing us all get better at it — is really cool. In my class/crew there are only five officers and about 40-50 enlisted students, and it’s the first time in my training I’ve had the opportunity to stand watch and work side-by-side with enlisted sailors. That is by far the most rewarding aspect of the job right now.

Thanks for reading this newsletter! I’d love to hear from you if anything I wrote here provokes a thought or response.