2/04/2020

He Tells Us It's the Institutions

"A number of questions arise at the outset of the book. Are contemporary problems unusual? Can these problems be traced to a decline of institutions? For that matter, what is the definition of an institution?

In answering the first question, Levin begins on page 2 with a long quotation from Robert Nisbet’s Twilight of Authority. Nisbet speaks darkly of “twilight ages… Processes of decline and erosion… a vacuum obtains in the moral order… Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective… degradation of values and of corruption of culture… estrangement from community.”

Levin wishes to borrow Nisbet’s rhetoric to describe our current predicament. But a careful reader will note that Twilight of Authority appeared in 1975, which is close to what Levin will later suggest was a high point for trust in American institutions. In that respect, the quotation subtly goes against Levin’s thesis that institutional decay is a distinctively contemporary phenomenon."