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The Democratic Temper

American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony
By Samuel P. Huntington
(Harvard University Press, 303 pp., $15)

This brilliant book should have been published a year ago. In the last days of the Carter Administration it did seem as if our political institutions suffered from a deepening erosion of authority. The leading exhibit was an enfeebled presidency whose decline had continued from the 1960s to the 1970s, regardless of party or person. Only last November Gerald Ford drew attention to the weakness of the office, calling it "imperiled not imperial." There was serious talk that constitutional reform was needed to restore the position of the presidency in government and politics. 

The times were in tune with Huntington's analysis. He sees the sixties and seventies--"the S&S Years," he calls them--as a phase of politics when Americans reasserted their democratic creed with a special intensity. These politics of "creedal passion," he argues, "necessarily made moralism and opposition the dominant theme. … Outrage and protest, together with their sometime children invective and violence, set the tone. …" As a result, "authority structures throughout society" were weakened, not least the presidency. Only "a complex and drawn-out process," Huntington concluded, could restore the effective power of that office. "Vigorous and responsible national leadership requires a network of petty tyrants. The protests, exposure, reforms and realignment of the S & S Years substantially shredded that network." Until it is restored, "the gap between the leadership that people desire and the leadership that the system permits will further discredit those in leadership positions and, in a vicious circle, make it still more difficult for them to act."

Persuasive a year ago, but the Reagan presidency makes one wonder. Ronald Reagan took office committed to reform on a vast scale and in complex detail. His victories over Congress have been stunning. He won them primarily because he caught the mood of the country in his campaign and has continued skillfully to express it in what he has said and done. It was not his party that won the election for him, but he who carried fellow partisans into office on his coattails. And before that he had similarly won the nomination not by the "peer review" of some national Republican elite, but by winning 60 percent of the vote in 32 primaries, many of which had been set up in response to the "creedal passion" of the S & S Years.

I do not mean to paint him as a rustic fellow, crying out to the people and looking down at his feet, like some latter-day sockless Jerry Simpson. But Ronald Reagan is something of a populist. And he has thereby restored authority to the presidency. Of course, his good fortune may not last. (Personally I cannot hope that it will; his priorities are not my priorities.) His political success to date, however, must make one ask whether the American democratic creed may not have a potential for generating authority that Huntington's account does not comprehend.

It is right to confront this book with the import of current events. Huntington has written a tract for the times, focusing on problems of the day and seeking guidance for the future. He addresses these contemporary concerns, moreover, with a masterly command of theory and history which will ensure his book an enduring place as a work of scholarship and which makes the most serious demands upon a critic.

At the start he deftly characterizes his conception of American politics by contrasting it with other leading interpretations. He agrees with the pluralists that group theory accurately describes the process during times of "normal" politics. These periods, however, are punctuated, he observes, by phases of passion, upheaval, and moral intensity that quite escape the explanatory power of pluralism. Nor is class conflict, as conceived by the Progressive historians or the Marxists, "the principal continuing cleavage." His position is closest to the consensus school, especially as represented by Louis Hartz. He rightly points out, however, that this approach fails to account for the intensity of feeling and reality of conflict that have marked our political life from time to time.

Accepting the fact of consensus, but emphasizing its concern not with the purposes of government, but with its processes, he postulates that our unmitigated democratic ideal must clash with the hierarchies of power that are unavoidable in any system of government. Neither element in this contradiction stands much chance of being changed. On the one hand, the democratic consensus provides no more footing for an aristocracy, a governing class, or an elite standing above the great body of the people. Huntington fully recognizes how foreign Toryism is to our tradition. On the other hand, he finds, government is necessarily hierarchical, a command-obedience relation in which some persons tell others what to do. Huntington's paradigm, in short, develops for America the operational consequences of that classic oxymoron, "self-government."

His historical thesis is that this gap between the ideal and the real causes continual tension and periodically erupts in a frenzy of reform when Americans try in vain to close the gap. In these periods of upheaval the main driving force is not a "rational response" to the abuse of power, nor the clash of class or economic interest, but the exigent ideal itself. The"moralism" that it engenders cannot succeed; hence, it cannot last and therefore will lapse into "cynicism," "complacency," or "hypocrisy," often in that order, so that one can usefully trace "a moralism-cynicism-complacency- hypocrisy cycle in American public consciousness." Conforming to a cyclical model, our politics has produced outbursts of "creedal passion" about every 60 years: the four periods being the Revolutionary, the Jacksonian, the Progressive, and the S&S Years of recent memory.

Huntington's analysis tells us a great deal about these four periods. One cannot fail, however, to be struck by the omissions. Where, for instance, are Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War? The terms "creedal passion" and "moralism" fit Lincoln's rhetoric, except for the overtone of disparagement they convey. It is so obvious as to be embarrassing to observe that Lincoln did say that he was trying to fulfill American ideals and that preserving the Union, freeing the slaves, and laying the foundations for a great era of nation-building were an enormous vindication of them.

Again, why does Huntington refuse the New Deal a place among his examples of "the politics of upheaval"? That, we may recall, is the title of Arthur Schlesinger's volume on the most productive years of Rooseveltian reform. Curiously, Huntington says that the New Deal was not a time of "creedal passion." Let me suggest the atmosphere of those years by recalling how in 1936 in his acceptance speech at Philadelphia FDR promised in hyperbole swollen and abrasive even by American standards that as 1776 had wiped out "political tyranny" so 1936 would bring "economic tyranny" to an end. The "economic royalist" metaphor that was launched into the political battle by this speech was not only moralistic adornment. It also expressed the emerging purpose of the New Deal to create a new balance of economic power by a series of massive structural reforms, as captured later on by John Kenneth Galbraith in his concept of "countervailing power." With that rhetoric moralizing these reforms, Roosevelt mobilized a coalition that dominated American politics for a generation.

No less startling are the omissions from Huntington's account of the period to which he gives the most attention. It was during the 1960s and 1970s that spending on social programs soared, a new kind of economic management was attempted, and the American welfare state really got under way--and, some say, out of control. Not to take up these big economic and social reforms is to pass over what many people would think were the most important developments in American politics in those years. But this neglect must be entirely intentional on Huntington's part. Why else should he call this period the S&S Years and never mention the Great Society or Lyndon Johnson?

Perhaps I am knocking down an open door. The omission of the achievements of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson would seem clearly to indicate that Huntington is not concerned with the politics of economic and social reform, but only with the politics of political reform. He never says this explicitly, but such a narrowing of the range of his paradigm improves its fit with his historical account.

I fear, however, that even this adaptation will not save the hypothesis. Huntington is overwhelmingly right to stress the continuing power of the idea that informed our beginnings. As those ideas, however, were concerned with the purpose of government as well as its process, so also has "creedal passion" mobilized support for economic and social as well as political reform. Lyndon Johnson's treatment of civil rights will focus my final difficulties with Huntington's approach.

Civil rights reform was an attack not only upon the denial of the right to vote, but also upon segregation, an economic and social condition. The "creedal passion" that informed this movement is bountifully illustrated by the rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson. Recall the fervor of the "We Shall Overcome" address to Congress. Or consider his address at Howard University in 1965 when he keynoted a new phase of the civil rights struggle by deploying the same metaphor of "the race of life" that Lincoln had used. Huntington can see in the civil rights movement, however, only "the politics of protest" which dominated the S & S Years. Indeed, he fixes on the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 as the start of the turmoil of those years whose "broadest, most pervasive and most fundamental consequence … was its impact on authority structures throughout American society."

Now it is true that prior to the civil rights movement, race had been a ground for authority in some substructures of American society and that the programs of the Great Society have gravely weakened, if they have not entirely demolished, that ground for command and obedience. Those programs, however, were not merely negations of racialist authority. As Lyndon Johnson said, they also were affirmative acts of national integration and, as he hoped, they have enabled black people to make giant strides toward entering the American mainstream. These outcomes deserve a more perspicacious evaluation than Huntington's dry comment of "no mean achievement."

As in the achievements of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, "creedal passion" may not only set the goals of reform; it may also mobilize the consent necessary to realize them. Huntington, however, sees in American ideals only a negation of authority--"the antipower ethic." Distrust is indeed one aspect of the democratic idea. But there is another aspect: the enormous affirmation of authority when government is seen to speak with the consent of the governed. Needless to say, the voice of the people will not be clear or unanimous. But it makes sense, for example, to examine empirically how far a President has a mandate from the voters or has caught the mood of the country. In the performance of that populistic conservative who is now our President and who--to my regret--is enjoying such great success in carrying out his radical reforms, we see how vastly such a mobilization of consent can increase the power of modern American government. It was not entirely bogus when recently President Reagan clothed his effort in these words from Tocqueville: "There is an amazing strength in the expression of the will of the people, and when it declares itself, even the imagination of those who wish to contest it is overawed."

Samuel H. Beer is Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University.