By Samuel P. Huntington
The general premise of “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” by Samuel P. Huntington, is that some eras in American politics can only be explained by the existence of “creedal passion periods” in which the American people become aware of a gap between American ideals (the American creed) and American institutions. Americans then depart from politics as usual to try to make their institutions more reflective of values of liberalism, democracy, and equality.
He begins the book by discussing prevalent academic frameworks for understanding American politics, including: progressive theory, which argues that the driving issue in politics is class conflict; consensus theory, which suggests that the U.S. doesn’t have significant class conflict, and is marked by a general consensus in society; and pluralist theory, which suggests that American politics is best understood as a completion among interest groups. He argues that progressive theory is wrong, because compared other nations, the U.S. has never had significant political class conflict. He argues that pluralist theory explains how American politics works much of the time, but doesn’t explain these ‘creedal passion’ periods. He believes that consensus theory is right in arguing that American s have a consensus on values, but that this doesn’t explain why political conflict still occurs. He argues that the politics is actually explained by a gap between ideals and institutions (the IvI gap). This creates a disharmonic system – one in which inequalities exist, but are not considered legitimate by society.
He goes on to argue that unlike other nations, the United States’ national identity is based on its national creed. Rather than a particular ethnicity, heritage, or other organic feature being used for national idenitity (as it may be in France, England, or other countries), Americanism is defined by belief in liberty, equality, democracy, and the rule of law under the constitution. (“To be an American is an ideal, while to be an Frenchman is a fact.”) He argues that this creed, developed early in American history, has had little modification over time, and is extremely widely embraced throughout the United States across various classes, ages, and ethnicities. This is the situation that allows people to argue that a government action in the U.S. may be “un-American” - since true American politics is an ideal, and is not just defined by whatever the government does.
Though the United States is united on these basic ideals, the effort to bring the political reality into accord with the ideals is a major force for political change and upheaval. This is in part because a distinctive aspect of the American Creed is its antigovernment character. The Constitution restrains government power through fundamental law. Liberalism calls for freedom from government control. Individualism is seen as the right of each person to act according to their own will and not be subject to external restraint. Egalitarianism rejects the idea that one person has the right to rule over another. Democracy involves popular control over government and responsiveness of government. Given these basic ideals, any attempt to get closer to American ideals will necessarily mean challenging and weakening the power of the government. This means that it will never be possible for America to fully get rid of the gap between ideals and institutions. When compared to other nations – both in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, he finds that these ideals are unique to culture of the United States.
There are multiple ways that Americans have coped with the gap between ideals and institutions over time, depending on the current intensity of their beliefs and their perception of the gap. If they have a high intensity of belief in the American ideals and a clear perception of the gap, they will choose moralism, and attempt to eliminate the gap. If they have a low intensity of belief, but a clear perception of the gap, they will choose cynicism, and tolerate the gap. With a high intensity of belief, but unclear perception of the gap, they will be hypocritical, and deny the gap. With a low intensity of belief and low perception of the gap, they will be complacent, and ignore the gap. He argues that all of these conditions exist in the U.S. at varying degrees at varying times. He believes there may be a cycle in which moralistic reform leads to an effort to eliminate the gap, but since this isn’t possible, the effort eventually runs out of steam and leads to cynicism, during with the gap is still perceived, but people don’t believe anything can be done to reduce it. Cyncism gives way to complacency, in which Americans try to live with the cognitive dissonance of the gap. Next is hypocrisy, in which Americans re-iterate their belief in the principles, but do not acknowledge the IvI gap. This eventually gives way to a renewed perception of the gap and a move to moralistic reform.
Huntington argues that there have been four major periods of creedal passion in American history: the American Revolution, the Jacksonian Era, the Progressive Era, and the protest, exposure, and reform of the 1960s and 1970s. In all of these eras, there was an atmosphere of discontent – government actions that may have been tolerated in the past were now noticed and denounced. The basic American political ideals were made central. He notes that it is interesting that none of these periods of upheaval are associated with new political ideas – only the re-affirmation of old ideas. In each era there is an attack on power and hierarchy – the British parliament during the Revolution, the Banks and corruption during the Jacksonian Era, Monopolies, trusts, and political machines during the Progressive Era, and the Presidency and the military-industrial complex during the 1960s and 70s. In each era there was an increase in political participation and organization as well as a growth in media and communication. The politics of exposure – just making facts available to the public – was prominent in each era. Interestingly there isn’t a pattern in the groups on each side of the arguments in each era – groups calling for change cut across social and economic barriers.
In each case, the ‘movement’ group appeals to American ideals and pushes for immediate action to bring American institutions into line with American ideals. Often the ‘establishment’ or opposition group, agrees with the ideals, but prefers a more incremental or gradual change in the American system – or takes a pragmatic view that things cannot be improved. In each of these eras, the ‘movement’ groups succeeded to varying degrees – breaking up monopolies, providing suffrage to women, abolishing slavery, providing civil rights to African-Americans, etc. However, moralistic reform does not last indefinitely, and not all of the reforms put into place last, and not all of them have the intended consequences.
Towards the end of the book, Huntington examines why creedal passion periods occur. Though he notes that creedal passion periods may be a rational response to abuses of power or other issues, or that they may be caused by exogenous events, such as rapid development, he doesn’t believe that these explanations are sufficient. He suggests that the creedal passion periods may be a cyclical feature of the American system, based on the moralism-cynicism-complacency-hypocrisy-moralism cycle mentioned earlier. Creedal passion periods seem to occur every 60 to 70 years.
Huntington devotes his penultimate chapter to a discussion of the 1960’s and 70’s, the most recent creedal passion period. He argues that in the 1950’s, the U.S. was in a state of complacency – Americans believed their government was living up to American ideals. In a 1960 poll, 85 percent of people said that their government and political institutions made them proud. There may have been a brief period of hypocrisy in the 1960’s, when American’s promoted their ideals in foreign policy, but did not acknowledge any gap in their domestic institutions. This quickly gave way to moralism as domestic issues such as the civil rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War became central. He gives examples of activists during this period appealing to American ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy. Later in this period, the dynamics of exposure began, as issues such as Watergate, the exposure of CIA domestic intelligence operations, and other government abuse came to the forefront. He explains that exposure didn’t come until late in the period, because protests began in response to public and obvious abuses, such as the lack of civil rights and the Vietnam War, and this led to the uncovering of hidden abuses. He adds that exposure eventually gave way to cynicism, eliminating the motivation for protest and exposure.
Huntington notes that a Rip Van Winkle that fell asleep in the late 1950s and awoke in the late 1970s might hardly believe that the intervening time had involved domestic upheaval, protest, war, men walking on the moon, and all of the other extraordinary events of that time. With the exception of the withdrawal from Vietnam and the creation of civil rights, the American system seemed much the same.
In his final chapter, Huntington discusses what this Ideal versus Institution gap means for the United States going forward. In general, he argues that the cycle is likely to continue. However, as increased development requires the existence of large, complex economic and political institutions, it will be harder for Americans to close the IvI gap without harming their ability to function efficiently in the increasingly complex world. He also notes that as the U.S. becomes more engaged internationally, it will have a trade off between supporting stronger institutions to give it more international reach and weaker institutions more in line with its ideals. He argues that America will need to strike a balance in pursuing their ideals at home and abroad, and in embracing development, but still working to reduce the IvI gap.
He closes the book with this: “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so far short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”