Book Review: What “A Time to Build” can Teach Young Conservatives


Thursday, December 15, 2022

“The demolition crews have for too long been allowed to define the spirit of this era in America. But where we’re headed will be up to the builders and rebuilders. And that is what we each should seek to be.”

Those are the closing lines of Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build, his 2020 book detailing how the failure of our institutions has brought about America’s social crises. Levin breaks down how a shift from formative institutions to performative ones—from molds to platforms—has caused a crisis of legitimacy in America. The messages Levin conveys hold ever true as the conservative movement finds itself in flux. For young conservatives in particular, the lessons it holds are worth contemplating as we look to the future of our movement and our country.

The first institution Levin analyzes is arguably the institution in most need of reform: Congress. Levin does not mince words in his analysis: “the primary reason for [Congress’] dysfunction may be the worst news of all; Congress is weak because its members want it to be weak. Their behavior and priorities reflect a peculiar lack of institutional ambition.” Rather than seeing themselves as members formed by the larger institution, members of congress see themselves as actors upon a stage. From Marjorie Taylor Greene, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Matt Gaetz, and Ilhan Omar, the obvious truth of this statement is plain to see. From radical floor speeches, made-for-TV committee confrontations, and adept social media presences, many of our elected officials would rather perform for the audience than allow the institution to form their behaviors in a productive way. Fixing this problem means electing people who do not seek notoriety, but results. Young conservatives would be wise to listen if our movement has any hope of succeeding in the future. Congress needs reform badly, and it begins with electing members who are willing to commit to it.

Another pressing issue in American society is the bias of our major news institutions. Levin explains that this, too, is in part a product of this mold-to-platform transformation that has happened. He describes the problems of American journalism as such: as the media markets have diversified, and journalists become more self-expressive, these journalists have developed individual platforms and personas. They are no longer molded by the strict codes of conduct that used to govern our media institutions. Journalists, commentators, and pundits now develop personal brands to build on, and in some cases, use to attack the very institutions they work for. Our trust in these institutions is low because the people who work in them are now more committed to themselves than the institutions. If we want to rebuild trust in the media, those of us who engage in it should remember that they don’t write for self-aggrandizement, but rather, for a higher cause in pursuit of a higher conservative truth.

The last portion of the book reviewed is an institution that affects many young conservatives: the college campus. Levin finds the most compelling examples of a lack of institutional responsibility. He describes the culture of universities in three broad categories: “a culture of professional development, a culture of moral activism, and a culture of liberal education.” He describes the current crisis of university life as an outgrowth of “overgrown moral activism”—in layman’s terms, as a result of a hard-left agenda that dominates campus’ everywhere. This has driven academic freedom and diversity, and any conservative presence in academia, to new lows. This decline has spilled over into other fields as well. Much of what we consider our “elite” institutions have embraced this new orthodoxy. The solution for young conservatives, however, is not to react negatively. Levin encourages those on campus to reject the sort of provocateur, troll model many of us are familiar with. Instead, young conservatives should embrace serious conservative thought with real arguments.

It is no secret that the conservative movement, and our country overall, is in crisis. If we are to have any hope of solving these crises, of putting conservatism and the nation back on the right paths, it will require not only new ideas but new ways of thinking about those ideas. A core aspect of conservatism is preserving and reforming institutions that have gone astray, and that reform will require us to think institutionally, not individually. It demands that, in this new age of social media, self-celebrity, and an increasing desire to burn everything down, we think of ourselves not as actors on a stage but as pillars of some larger apparatus. That is, working towards rebuilding what we’ve lost and building something new. If we can do that, we may find the answers to the problems we face today.

Scott Howard is a junior political science major at the University of Florida. His other work can be found on Substack, where he writes the newsletter The Conservative Muse.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Scott Howard

Scott Howard is a junior political science major at the University of Florida. His other work can be found on Substack, where he writes the newsletter The Conservative Muse.

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