The Philosophic Root of Contemporary American Anti-Institutionalism


Expressive Individualism
Social Trust
The Self
Alexis de Tocqueville
Hugh Heclo
Yuval Levin
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Institutional Distrust

How to Cite

The Philosophic Root of Contemporary American Anti-Institutionalism. (2024). The Political Science Reviewer, 48(1), 272-292.


American social trust has been collapsing for several decades now. This crisis of distrust affects not only individuals but the institutions of our society.  Yet, it is rather unclear from the scholarly literature where this distrust in institutions arises.  This essay begins with a consideration of what is an institution and then articulates a definition of institutions as “social forms” or “molds” for individual behavior.   The essay then moves to analyze three influential explanatory arguments for American distrust of institutions—Hugh Heclo’s argument from “performance-based distrust,” Yuval Levin’s argument about the rise of “performative institutions,” and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s argument that distrust arises from growing political polarization.  The analysis of this essay finds elements of truth in each of these theories but sees the deeper causation in Tocqueville’s notion of individualism.  The final part of the essay argues that the root of American anti-institutionalism is philosophical.  That is, an evolving understanding of the human person—a philosophical anthropology which I and others call expressive individualism—is the key to understanding American institutional distrust and disengagement.  I conclude with a Tocquevillian reflection on how individualism has led Americans out the doors of our social, political, and religious institutions.