I’ve mentioned before that Samuel P. Huntington’s American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony has had a tremendous impact on how I think about politics. The five ideas that form the basis of American politics—individualism, liberty, equality, democracy, and constitutionalism—and, especially the paradigm of political change proffered in the book, ground my understanding of American politics.
Huntington argues that Americans experience cognitive dissonance because the institutions of the society that they’ve created can never fully incorporate the five ideas, which are ideals. Fully incorporating the five ideas in the social institutions is impossible because of the inherent conflict among the five ideals. This impossibility does not prevent Americans from trying to achieve the ideal during certain periods of American history.
Huntington notes four responses to the gap between the ideal of incorporating all five ideas and the existing reality—what Huntington terms the IvI gap (Ideal versus Institutions gap) but what most people would simply call the discrepancy between an ideal and reality. The four responses depend on two variables: (1) the perception of the gap, which can be clear or unclear. That is, people either clearly see the gap or they do not; (2) the strength of the belief in the ideal, which can either be strong or weak. The combination of these two factors results in four responses: (1) moralism, which occurs when people clearly perceive the gap and strongly support the ideal. In this case, the response requires that people work to reform the institutions to make them more like the ideal; (2) cynicism, which occurs when people clearly perceive the gap but only weakly support the ideal. In this case, the response is tolerance of the gap and a feeling that the gap cannot be breeched; (3) complacency, which occurs when people neither clearly perceive the gap nor strongly believe in the ideal. In this case, the response is ignorance of the existence of the gap; and (4) hypocrisy, which occurs when people do not clearly perceive the gap but strongly believe in the ideal. In this case, the response involves a denial of the gap with a claim that America has achieved the ideal—all institutions fully incorporate the ideal. Huntington viewed American history as involving a cycle of responses that occurred every 50-60 years, starting with a period of moralism during the American Revolution. This was followed by cynicism, then complacency, then hypocrisy, and then, in the 1820-1830s, another period of moralism. The most recent period of moralism, when the book was written in the early 1980s, was the 1965-1975 decade. Huntington closes his book with one of my favorite quotes: “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so 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.” As Bill Clinton said when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, “My fellow Americans, I end tonight where it all began for me—I still believe in a place called Hope. God bless you, and God Bless America.”
So, two questions: (2) Where is America in the cycle of responses to the ideal versus reality gap? (2) What is ahead for America? In answer to the first question, Huntington notes that each period of moralism has occurred as people clearly perceive the gap, movements are born that offer reforms to current social institutions, people attempt to reform those institutions to move closer to the ideal. In each period of moralism, Huntington noted that America had a large youth population, had experienced a period of economic growth followed by a decline, had large disparities in wealth in American society, and produced leaders who pointed out the gap between the American ideal and America’s reality. In my opinion, we are currently in an early period of moralism.
In terms of what’s ahead for America, I see a period of challenges to our existing institutions, and in some ways, a challenge to the five ideas that constitute the ideal. During the campaign, President-elect Trump listed several priorities for his first 100 days as president. The list is long and includes some items that Congress has no interest in adopting, such as term limits for members of Congress. However, it also includes repealing the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), tax cuts that favor the wealthy, labeling China as a currency manipulator, and canceling payments to United Nations’ climate change programs. These policies may exacerbate the wealth and income gap and the progress made toward greater equality in the post-World War II era.
Just as disconcerting to many scholars and commentators are Trump’s challenges to American institutions and governing norms of American democracy. Professor Seth Masket proclaims the death of the norms that used to guide our democracy, citing norms such as “candidates might tacitly appeal for the support of bigots but wouldn’t echo, validate, or exacerbate those views.” Institutional failures have also been noted, such as the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump and the media’s failure to perform its role of as a “non-partisan arbiter of truth.” Two Harvard professors note the failure of both institutions and Trump’s threat to democracy.
Huntington feared that periods of moralism might threaten the institutions that protect our democracy because of the overly zealous attempt to achieve the ideal. Perhaps Trump and his supporters threaten not only the institutions but also the ideals themselves, especially liberty, equality, democracy, and constitutionalism. This places liberals, like me, in the somewhat odd position of defending institutions, which is usually the position of conservatives. So, I say, study the institutions that support our ideals of equality, liberty, democracy, and constitutionalism and be ready to defend them during the next four years. I know that I plan to do so.