Monday, July 24, 2017

Samuel Huntington Anticipated the Current Political & Intellectual Battles

To understand our current turmoil, the most relevant of Huntington’s books is not “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996) or even “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” (2004), whose fans reportedly include self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer. It is the lesser-known and remarkably prescient “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” published 36 years ago.

In that work, Huntington points to the gap between the values of the American creed — liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism — and the government’s efforts to live up to those values as the central tension of American life. “At times, this dissonance is latent; at other times, when creedal passion runs high, it is brutally manifest, and at such times, the promise of American politics becomes its central agony.”

Whether debating health care, taxes, immigration or war, Americans invariably invoke the founding values to challenge perceived injustices. Reforms cannot merely be necessary or sensible; they must be articulated and defended in terms of the creed. This is why Trump’s opponents attack his policies by declaring not only that they are wrong but that “that’s not who we are.” As Huntington puts it, “Americans divide most sharply over what brings them together.”

The book looks back to the Revolutionary War, the Jacksonian age, the Progressive era and the 1960s as moments of high creedal passions, and Huntington’s descriptions capture America today. In such moments, he writes, discontent is widespread, and authority and expertise are questioned; traditional values of liberty, individualism, equality and popular control of government dominate public debates; politics is characterized by high polarization and constant protest; hostility toward power, wealth and inequality grows intense; social movements focused on causes such as women’s rights and criminal justice flourish; and new forms of media emerge devoted to advocacy and adversarial journalism.

Huntington even predicts the timing of America’s next fight: “If the periodicity of the past prevails,” he writes, “a major sustained creedal passion period will occur in the second and third decades of the twenty-first century.”

We’re right on schedule.

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