Liberal Democracy and the Unraveling of the Enlightenment Project
James Davison Hunter
We are delighted to reproduce this article by James Davison Hunter with the kind permission of The Hedgehog Review, in which it was first published in 2017.
Credit: Photo: WSJ
Liberal Democracy and the Unraveling of the Enlightenment Project
How do we make sense of our political moment?
There has been no dearth of commentary on the meaning of the 2016 American presidential election and its political aftermath. Pundits, scholars, and others have expressed alarm about the degree of fragmentation and polarization, the increase in vulgarity in political discourse and the loss of political civility, the weakening of traditional international alliances, the abuse of basic ethics in governing, and the resurgence of nativism, populism, isolationism, and nationalism, all of which could encourage authoritarian behavior among those in or seeking power. There are good reasons to be uneasy.
Yet beyond a pervasive sense of panic, one invariably encounters the belief that whatever problem we face, it is, in the end, fixable. Yes, our republic is deeply fractured and Washington is profoundly dysfunctional. Yes, there is a vast depletion of social capital. Yes, our public discourse is debased. Yes, for all of its power, late-modern capitalism has failed to maintain a steadily rising living standard for average people, making them fearful and politically angry. And yes, the culture of democracy, which has long been the glue holding Americans together, has begun to dissolve. But if we eschew the ideologies of left and right and focus instead on pragmatic solutions to core problems, we can find a way forward.
So, whether from the left, right, or center, the various analyses of contemporary political life unfailingly offer practical, sensible-sounding, step-by-step suggestions for fixing the problems: “If we just try harder, we can set things aright.” Such pragmatic optimism is, of course, a widely acknowledged American trait. As the historian Arthur Mann observed forty years ago, the people of the United States have long had confidence that American know-how can always convert problems into opportunities.
Nevertheless, while institutions tend to be stable and enduring, even as they evolve, no institution is permanent or indefinitely fixable. The question now is whether contemporary American democracy can even be fixed. What if the political problems we are rightly worried about are actually symptoms of a deeper problem for which there is no easy or obvious remedy?
These are necessarily historical questions. The democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America were largely products of the Enlightenment project, reflecting all of its highest ideals, contradictions, hopes, and inconsistencies. It underwrote the project of modern liberalism, which, for all of its flaws and failures, can still boast of some of the greatest achievements in human history. As the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, observed, democracy is the political form of the humane ideal.
Yet with the advantage of twenty-first-century hindsight, we can now see that the Enlightenment project has been unraveling for some time, and that what we are witnessing today are likely the political consequences of that unraveling. Any possibility of “fixing” what ails late-modern American democracy has to take the full measure of this transformation in the deep structures of American and Western political culture. While politics can give expression to and defend a particular social order, it cannot direct it. As Michael Oakeshott famously said, “Political activity may have given us Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, but it did not give us the contents of these documents, which came from a stratum of social thought far too deep to be influenced by the actions of politicians.”1
What I am driving at is made clearer by the distinction between the politics of culture and the culture of politics. The politics of culture refers to the contestation of power over cultural issues. This would include the mobilization of parties and rank-and-file support, the organization of leadership, the formation of special-interest coalitions, and the manipulation of public rhetoric on matters reflecting the symbols or ideals at the heart of a group’s collective identity. This is what most people think about when they use the term culture war. In this case, culture war is the accumulation of political conflicts over issues like abortion, gay rights, or federal funding of the humanities and arts. Though culture is implicated at every level, the politics of culture is primarily about politics.
The culture of politics, by contrast, refers to the symbolic environment in which political institutions are embedded and political action occurs. This symbolic environment is constituted by the basic frameworks of implicit meaning that make particular political arrangements understandable or incomprehensible, desirable or reprehensible. These frameworks constitute a culture’s “deep structure.” Absent a deep structure, certain political institutions and practices simply do not make any sense.
This distinction is essential to making sense of our political moment.
The Question of the “Center”
In this light, one can see that however factionalized, any kind of meaningful democratic politics presupposes certain shared understandings and commitments that exist prior to political action. These may or may not represent a social or political consensus on a range of policy issues. More fundamentally, they define the arena in which legitimate political discourse and action take place. This shared cultural space can range widely. At one end of a continuum, it might include a binding consensus on certain ideals that define the identity and aspirations of the political regime. At the other end are agreements usually concerning the administrative processes and procedures that mediate political action. However thick or thin, the social and political solidarity upon which democratic life unfolds is formed through these agreements.
In America, this set of understandings and commitments held in common has been talked about in a variety of ways. In symbolic terms, it has been referred to as the “unum” of the national motto, E pluribus unum. In popular terms, it has been referred to as “the American dream.” In scholarly treatises, it has been framed as “the American creed,” America’s “civil religion,” its “public philosophy,” or its “vital center.” In legal-rational terms, it has been discussed in terms of the binding power of the Constitution.
In political theory, the question of the “center” or “unum” has been framed in terms of a perennial debate between the theoretical antinomies of foundationalism and proceduralism. Foundationalists, as a rule, argue that the legitimacy of any democratic regime depends upon a generally held commitment to a higher normative standard of justice or the common good that looms over the political process, policing its decisions and even its standards of reason. It is a thick prior consensus on the values and ideals of a shared way of life that is essential to a vibrant democracy. Proceduralists, by contrast, argue that there are no higher laws or transcendent values and that democratic order depends exclusively on recognition of the intrinsically rational character of a democratic process grounded in the presumption of rational outcomes. In social theorist Jürgen Habermas’s version, reason resides in the formal pragmatic conditions that facilitate deliberative politics.2
In truth, the opponents in the debate are much closer to each other than they imagine, and the supposedly clear lines of difference between foundationalism and proceduralism are deceptive. No one disputes that there have to be some shared understandings, some agreements. However thin or thick, those agreements and commitments provide a framework within which legitimate democratic power is contained and managed and form the cultural substructure of a democratic polity: a “center” that defines the boundaries of national identity, collective recognition, and individual right.
It is important to emphasize that the agreements upon which the deep cultural center of liberal democracy is based are fundamentally normative in character—and authoritatively so. When thick, the bonds people share are explicitly moral in nature. When thin, they are nonetheless capable of generating the moral.
The real debate between the foundationalists and the proceduralists is over how thick the agreements and commitments that underwrite a democracy need to be to sustain democracy and to make it vital. All of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were premised upon a commitment to a social order rooted in the accessibility and reasonableness of truth, the possibility of genuine human justice, the guarantee of individual freedom, and the protection of tolerance. But whose truth? Whose justice? Tolerance of whom? And where lay the boundaries between individual freedom and the public good?
Those questions have always been contested, but within an epistemological and ethical framework that constituted a legitimate authority for working through such conflict. Any legitimate exercise of political power has depended upon some shared authoritative institutions—elections, legislatures, courts—and undergirding these, some more-or-less authoritative values, standards, and narratives.
The efficacy of that authority is measured by the degree to which the claims made by those in power and the justifications given for the use of power are received as self-evidently real and true. When citizens regard the political system as legitimate, public and political stability follows. There may be irritability, complaint, and protest, but citizens will generally consent to and comply with decisions made. Things still get done. When citizens distrust their government, are cynical about their leaders’ motives, or feel alienated from the political system that rules them, it becomes difficult to address basic political problems, and conflict often ensues.
Only on the surface, then, is the question of the “center” or an “unum” a question of public opinion. At its deepest levels, it is a question of authority, and less formal authority than informal authority, less the formal structures of authority (although these matter greatly) than the framework of reality and moral good upon which those structures are based.
In all of this, the difference between leaders and publics is important. Popular sovereignty, resting on the doctrine of consent, presupposes at least some shared values and a common narrative. It is only out of those values embedded in a common story that a common good is defined, a common good for which people are willing to endure sacrifice. Yet historically, it is the intellectual who articulates the reasons for granting or withholding legitimacy to the powers that be. Authority, as the historian John Patrick Diggins put it, represents the intellectual expression of power, and the problem of authority remains the problem of the men and women of ideas.3
The Enlightenment Project
It was, of course, the Enlightenment, broadly understood, that formed the cultural substructure of the democratic revolution. In America, the Enlightenment project was moderate, rather than radical, and not one thing but rather a cluster of embryonic, historically provisional, and sometimes inconsistent ideas and convictions. These drew from many and assorted sources, but, most prominently, from biblical, classical, and Whiggish tributaries that were synthesized philosophically, in large part, by the common-sense realists of the Scottish Enlightenment. Within that complex and fragile collection of beliefs we find the animating cultural logic of a new social and political order. A liberal and democratic regime, it celebrated above all the ideals of freedom, tolerance, and equality, providing a foundation upon which people and associations with different interests and vantage points could contest each other’s claims.4
The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project also provided the foundation of a form of authority to adjudicate disputes and dilemmas of every kind, the central ideas for collective identity, the boundaries by which claims and actions could be deemed legitimate or illegitimate, and the ground rules for political engagement. “Right Reason” would be the final arbiter of ethical and moral dilemmas.
John Locke was the key transitional theorist in the early development of this cultural logic. The ontological status of the rights and privileges that were at the basis of his conception of civil society derived not only from the traditions of natural law but from a Christian reading of the relationship of humankind to God. As Locke put it in his Two Treatises of Government,
The state of nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order, and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure. And being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us.5
Thus, equality, as the sociologist Adam Seligman put it, is not rooted in “a psychological, historical, or logical a priori but in a Christian, and more particularly Calvinist, vision of a community of individuals under God’s dominion.”6
For Locke, all authority in this world was derived ultimately from God. The different structures of political authority found in the world were all derived from the individual’s own executive and legislative authority in the state of nature, which individuals held in their “capacity of agents of God.” Instead of a community of saints, there was a community of individualized moral agents pursuing the social good in conformity to the “will of God.”
By the eighteenth century, according to Seligman’s account, the transcendent aspects of the Lockean vision were being replaced by the ideas of moral sentiments and natural sympathy (reason and the passions) as the source of the moral order.7 In an intellectual climate defined by deism, the transcendent grounding of the social order had lost credibility. Now, the dictates of “Right Reason” were understood to be in accord with the laws of nature. As such, Reason embodied universal principles that were valid for all people at all times. The universality of Reason would bridge the distinction between private and public, between the individual and the collective, between egoism and altruism, between the ever-perplexing relationship of personal interests and the social good. How so?
In terms of the private interests of individuals, Reason offered certain universally applicable rules of conduct. By following these rules, the individual would be able to ascertain his or her own benefit. Among these benefits, the three most important for the working of society were the stability of possessions, their transfer by consent, and the fulfillment of promises. Whatever else the rules of Reason might mean and whatever else they might accomplish, individuals would follow these rules if only to maximize their self-interest.
Reason both governed the passions and guided them toward the public good. For some, Reason brought us to a true understanding of the providential designs for the world. For others, Reason was itself an element of the natural affections, the combined effect of which always led to mutuality and cooperation. Reason was thought to be the source of our common and inalienable rights—the rights to freedom, equality, and justice. Reason and nature made these rights, and the ideals they represented, coherent to all men and provided the means by which they could be achieved.
The fragile synthesis of the Reformed and Enlightenment traditions depended upon a shared epistemology of transcendence. As a concept and even as a felt reality, transcendence was capacious enough to absorb many views, opinions, and traditions. As such, it provided a common framework for understanding the significance of the individual in the world, offered a common grammar for recognizing the natural affections and moral sentiments shared by all humanity, grounded Reason within nature (which was read by Calvinists as expressive of the will of God), and universalized the principles and ideals to which Reason pointed. Though plagued by internal contradictions, this was a transcendent moral order that embraced both individual and collective spheres equally and reconciled one to the other. The seeds of social solidarity could be found in human sentiments, the public good within private interests, the universal within the individual.
This synthesis represented a radical departure from traditional providentialist accounts of the ancien régime in which all authority in public and private life was mediated by the ritual practices, hierarchical structures, and institutional processes of Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism. This was a new model of the moral order in which authority was now grounded in a society of individuals (the meaning of popular sovereignty) who, in principle, shared the moral ties of sentiments and sympathy as well as a vision of universal truths. This applied as much to the strident Calvinist whose individuality (his life and conscience) was defined in an unmediated relationship to God as it did to the most skeptical freethinking deist, whose individuality was measured by the dictates of conscience and Right Reason. Not only was the status of the individual transformed by imbuing him or her with a new autonomy and agency, but the nature of the ties between individuals, that is, the nature of society itself, was also transformed. These ties were no longer defined by an ascriptive membership defined by geography, family, and the faith one was born into (as they had been in the ancien régime), but by the ties of moral sentiment, reason, and the common, though voluntary, belief in shared ideals.
This new kind of moral order was not a spineless civil religion based on a least-common-denominator faith arrived at through compromise for the purposes of political legitimacy. It was a synthesis informed by rich traditions of thought and practice. Drawing as much from the Bible as from the philosophical traditions of natural law and owing as much to Revelation as to Reason, this synthesis provided the framework for the emergence of democratic life in America that was quite different from anything seen before. What also made it singular was that this synthesis was broad enough and inclusive enough that nearly everyone—from the privileged and powerful to the impoverished, from every faith tradition to deism to no faith at all—could read himself or herself into it. While the class, ethnic, and faith factions that constituted American pluralism could remain separated by their own interests and sense of superiority over others, they were nevertheless brought together in its common language and symbolism.
It was in America that this unique and fragile configuration of the cultural logic of the Enlightenment was institutionalized. When Henry Steele Commager gave his 2000 book The Empire of Reason the subtitle How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment, he may have overstated the case, but the point had ample merit. Self-consciousness of something new against the backdrop of an old world was pervasive. The motto on the Great Seal of the United States, Novus ordo seclorum (“A new order of the ages”), gave expression to a widely shared sensibility that marked the beginning of the new era in the human drama.
Americans hadn’t inherited the traditional preconditions of nationhood—they didn’t possess a common language, common legends, common rituals or traditions, a common church, or even a bounded territory. Rather, they asserted a national identity rooted in a public philosophy. As Richard Hofstadter famously observed, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”8 The French immigrant and agriculturalist Crèvecoeur described the American as “a new man, who acts upon new principles…new ideas…new opinions.”9 Indeed, at least compared to the Old World—and however imperfectly—America stood for political freedom, equality before the law, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and popular sovereignty through representative government.
The Enlightenment project also found fertile soil in America because of the vitality of popular religion not only in the exiled Puritan communities of colonial New England but in the various communities of ascetic Protestantism that predominated throughout the colonies in the eighteenth century and in the new republic in the first half of the nineteenth century. Though the political philosophy of the founders was post-Lockean, large swaths of the American people were still operating within the providentialist sensibilities of the Lockean world. Thus, within the habitus of these faith communities, authority in worldly affairs, no less than in the churches they inhabited, largely remained rooted in a particular model of communal identity based on covenantal commitments to church, community, and nation.10
No one would make the case that a thick conception of moral and political authority, and, upon that, a consensus of constitutive ideas and ideals, would alone provide the solidarity upon which the experiment in democracy could be sustained. From the outset, the founders were skeptical of that. Early in his life, for example, John Adams held out the hope that America would be a “Republic of Virtue,” a nation in which the baser tendencies of humankind could be tempered by the higher ideals of virtue, benevolence, and duty. But after the Revolution, he realized that neither the people nor their leadership “could be trusted as guardians of the republic.”11 Elites were driven by ambition, the masses were driven by their appetites, all were guided by self-interest, and none possessed the virtue for self-rule. As Adams put it in a letter to Jefferson in 1781, “I have been long settled in my opinion, that neither Philosophy, nor Religion, nor Morality, nor Wisdom, nor Intellect, will ever govern nations or Parties, against their Vanity, Pride, Resentment or Revenge, or their Avarice or Ambition. Nothing but Force and Power and Strength can restrain them.”12 In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton echoed the point. “Why has government been instituted at all?” he asked. “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.”13 Adams and Hamilton were right—a common agreement upon institutional procedures and constraints through a dispersion of powers would have to do its work.
That said, no one would dispute how important the ideas of freedom, equality, and tolerance at the heart of the Enlightenment conception of civil society would continue to be for national identity and purpose. For ordinary Americans, this was the meaning of the American dream: The freedom, equality of opportunity, and high valuation of diligent effort and talent that it offered meant that someone could start from almost anywhere and become anything. It was a narrative that made sense of sacrifice, self-denial, hard work, and a willingness to play by the rules. Intellectually and ideologically, as Arthur Mann wrote, “the United States has been the land of the enduring Enlightenment.”14
Enduring, yes, but far from static.
In the Face of Failure
The copious bloodshed of two world wars and the enslavement and annihilation of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, not to mention the imprisonment of millions of dissidents in the Gulag, brought home the epic failure of the Enlightenment project to deliver on its claims of a just, tolerant, and humane social order rooted in “Reason.” This was not just a realization by the post-Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School. Intellectuals of wide-ranging political commitments came to this recognition.
As Hannah Arendt observed, the moral and political authority of the Enlightenment project and the Western tradition more extensively was simply too frail to counter the challenge of totalitarianism.15 The remnants of ascetic Protestantism, not to mention Christianity more broadly, as well as the Jewish faith, continued to endure over generations in the personal lives of individuals and the bounded lives of local communities, but as a cultural logic of the public sphere, these attenuated faith traditions were mostly discredited intellectually and marginalized culturally. Their conceptions of the good and the just became associated not with a healthy morality but with small-minded and mean-spirited moralism; their conceptions of legitimate authority, with authoritarianism. As to reason, for all of the remarkable discoveries of science, science itself failed spectacularly to deliver a grounding for a common ethics and everyday morality. Neither faith nor reason, nor their early Enlightenment synthesis, could make sense of the horrors of two world wars or the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation. Neither faith nor reason could resolve the concrete political questions made pressing by the advance of modernity: Who can enjoy the benefits of freedom? Equality for whom? What are the limits of tolerance? And, hovering above all the others, On what grounds do we reconcile various personal and private interests with the public good?
What followed were successive attempts to rework the Enlightenment project for a world it no longer accounted for and for which it had less and less credibility. On what foundation could cultural and civic authority be established? On what grounds could any solidarity in a contentious, fragmented population be found? On what basis could civil society, upon which democratic life is built, be renewed?
Among intellectuals and other elites, attempts to hold to a thicker conception of civil society ranged widely. Even before the totalitarian challenges of the twentieth century, Americans from Walt Whitman to John Dewey sought to refashion the American creed through a secular romanticism.16 No less than the most ardent of patriots, they viewed America as an exceptional nation, not least in its potential for fraternity, love of neighbor, and social justice. But they sought to ground its exceptionalism in what America was by itself, rather than in reference to any transcendent authority. To search for its ideals of justice, equality, and fraternity in the authority of God or Reason was, in effect, a quest for a certainty that did not exist. Like the idea of an antecedent universal truth, authority was not something given to consciousness, but was, rather, produced by the human mind in interaction with others. America’s civil religion was America itself.
For the progressive journalist Walter Lippmann, writing in the mid-twentieth century, the vitality of democracy depended upon the explicit renewal of the “public philosophy” that undergirded it. For Lippmann, “public philosophy” was just another label for the natural law tradition that posits a rational order to the universe “upon which all rational men of good will, when fully informed, will tend to agree.” What makes it “natural,” he wrote, is that it “can be discovered by any rational mind.” “Rational procedure is the ark of the covenant of the public philosophy.” Though its roots are classical, it is a tradition that has been revived through the ages, most recently in the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions it spawned. Indeed, it has been the “premise of the institutions of the Western society,” and “liberal democracy,” in particular, “is not an intelligible form of government and cannot be made to work except by men who possess the philosophy in which liberal democracy was conceived and founded.” Lippmann wrote that “the modern democracies [had] abandoned the main concepts, principles, precepts, and the general manner of thinking” that characterized the public philosophy, yet the revival and adaptation of its “common and binding principles was more necessary than it had ever been.”17
This effort to rework and revivify the Enlightenment project was not unique to a few intellectuals operating in isolation from the broader intellectual community. The burden of reanimating the cultural center of democratic life in the post–World War II period preoccupied public intellectuals everywhere, on both the left and right. It was especially felt by the professional humanities. This was a period that has recently been described as “the age of the crisis of man,” a crisis in the ethics of a universalizing humanism—of the meaning of “man,” per se. This burden was reflected in midcentury fiction, as Mark Greif has so carefully elucidated.18 It was also reflected in a range of thoughtfully crafted and broadly disseminated committee reports on the humanities written over the second half of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first.19 These reports collectively press an argument about the humanities as the home of a uniquely American civic humanism that was understood to be crucial to the future of democracy. This broad, perhaps nebulous civic humanism would find expression in and be underwritten by the humanistic disciplines.
In one of these reports, the 1945 Harvard “Red Book,” (as General Education in a Free Society was dubbed), James Bryant Conant argued that “whatever one’s views, religion is not now for most colleges a practicable source of intellectual unity.” The only thing that could replace it, Conant wrote, was a common, humanistic education. The purpose of the humanities was to enable “man to understand man in relation to himself, that is to say, in his inner aspirations and ideals.” The “main problem” of education and the humanities, in particular, was “not with the thousand influences dividing man from man, but with the necessary bonds and common ground between them”—those common “aspirations and ideals” that would join people together. Indeed, the future of democracy depended on our discovering “a common heritage and…a common citizenship,” and from these, “the binding ties of common standards”20 that would allow us to discover common ground. As the authors of the Red Book and other similar reports believed, only the humanities had the capability to recover and maintain common assumptions and traditions central to civic trust, vibrant public debate, and strong democratic institutions.21
In the decades that followed, the various humanities reports made similar appeals. As recently as 2013, in The Heart of the Matter, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked the portentous question “Who will lead America into a bright future?” and suggested that the humanities would be central to this endeavor.22
Lippmann believed that there was an urgency to the revival of the public philosophy, without which free and democratic nations would be unable to “face the totalitarian challenge.” Yet he also recognized that the obstacles to its recovery were formidable. The masses had become a mob with strong consumer appetites and too much power, and were untrained in the traditions of civility. They were, as a result, constitutively incapable of self-rule. As for the leadership class, “the public philosophy was in a large measure intellectually discredited among contemporary men.” Certainly, it seemed to Lippmann, the drift of modern philosophy did not portend any hope of scholarly renewal. As a sign of what was to come, he asserted, Jean-Paul Sartre had done away not only “with God the Father, but with the recognition that beyond our private worlds there is a public world to which we belong. If what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ then we are outside the traditions of civility. We are back in the war of all men against all men.”23
The “age of the crisis of man” came to an end in the failed effort to revive an Enlightenment humanism capable of responding to the various threats to human existence posed by war and the instrumentalities of a world dominated by technology. It aspired to universality, yet was incapable of acknowledging irreducible human particularities and the conflicts based upon them, not least, of course, the particularities of race and gender. Yet even as the humanities—the carrier of this humanism—sought to provide a corrective to the hegemonic discourses and master canons, it left the human of the humanities an all-but-empty category.
The problems were there from the beginning. Even at its founding, the architects of the new republic wondered what hope there was for popular sovereignty when individuals failed to act within the dictates of Reason, pursued nothing but their own interest, and failed to serve the common good. What happens when the laws of nature and the will of God become unclear? What does authority mean when individuals and groups offer competing reasons and pursue competing notions of the social good in such a way as to generate deep social divisions?
Despite efforts to revive it and despite the general peace that characterized the West in the second half of the twentieth century, the tensions and contradictions inherent in the Enlightenment project only deepened. How is political equality possible in a world of growing economic and enduring racial inequality? Given the seemingly infinite expansion of pluralism, including moral pluralism, are there any limits to tolerance? On what basis can private interests, often incorporated into influential, highly factional special-interest organizations and powerful corporations, be reconciled with the public good? What is the public good, anyway? The forces that were unraveling the Enlightenment project have since only intensified.
The record of intellectual life during the past half century is, in part, the record of those often brilliant minds who found the cultural logic of the Enlightenment project and its aspirations to a liberal democratic order vacuous. Yet the ability to interrogate and highlight the imperfections and hypocrisies of that order were a luxury that intellectuals could enjoy only so long as the rest of the citizenry did not. So long as the majority of Americans—even if some of them were “deplorable” or “clinging to their guns and religion”—continued to believe in the project, there would be relative political stability.
But now, the skepticism of intellectuals has percolated into the general public. Now, everyone is a postmodern skeptic. Now, everyone sees the hypocrisy, questions the efficacy of the government, doubts the goodwill and competence of their leaders. This widespread suspicion and, often, cynicism is in large measure what is so distinctive about our political moment.
Indeed, the record of popular political opinion over the past half century is the record of a citizenry losing confidence, not so much in the ideals of liberal democracy per se or in the idea of America, but in the government that enacts those ideals. The failed war in Vietnam went far toward undermining peoples’ trust in the government to make wise decisions and speak for the interests of the nation. So did the failed war on poverty. So did decades of gridlock in which the government failed to get much of anything done.
Reams of data collected over nearly six decades have demonstrated beyond doubt that the electorate’s disaffection with the political establishment—what scholars have called the legitimation crisis—continues to spread, and even to harden into a central feature of our national political consciousness.
Today, the majority of Americans have little to no confidence that “the government in Washington” will actually solve the problems it sets its mind to. Indeed, the majority of Americans now believe that what the country really needs is a new political party because the current two-party system isn’t working.24
Here, the special ire of the American public is directed toward the political leaders in the power centers of government. Vast majorities of citizens have little or no confidence that the people who run our government will tell the truth to the public, but, rather, believe that most politicians are more interested in winning elections than in doing what is right. Most Americans consider their leaders not only venal but utterly incompetent.
While these patterns of public opinion have been in place for decades, skepticism toward the political establishment is now more obdurate, and indifference to the political theater of our leadership class more reflexive. Indeed, disaffection with the governing class may be the one thing American citizens hold in common. The resulting alienation is unevenly distributed through the population, but it is still broadly formative. The majority of Americans agree that most elected officials don’t care what ordinary citizens think and that ordinary citizens “don’t have any say” about what the government does.
Furthermore, whatever else the culture war of the last four decades has accomplished, it unquestionably intensified America’s legitimation crisis. For decades now, the ideals each side of that struggle cherishes have been the very reasons each side deems the other illegitimate. Back and forth it has gone in a contest that has been less about persuasion than about denigration of the opposition. The cycle has repeated itself with great predictability on every issue: reproduction, sexuality, family life, education, immigration, the relationship between church and state, government funding of the humanities and the arts, and so on. This animus, and the challenge to legitimacy it presents, extends to the parties in power and those who sit in the seats of power. Thus, a toxic Clinton-hatred gave way to an equally noxious Bush-hatred, and eventually to an equally venomous Obama-hatred. Should we be surprised at its latest manifestation, a pervasive disdain for Donald J. Trump, who himself has perfected a toxic form of preemptive attack? This cycle will certainly continue into the future, regardless of who holds the office.
An Altered Arc of History
The cultural logic of the Enlightenment project has lost credibility, and the liberal—genuinely liberal—regime it inspired is collapsing. The institutional structures we have built remain intact and they continue to give stability to the regime. But while the procedural republic can address certain matters of power, it cannot address matters of identity and collective purpose. It cannot tell a compelling story that binds a community in common purpose. The cultural logic that underwrote liberalism exists only in fragments, and it is not likely to come together again in any coherent way.
A common cultural logic is unlikely to return because there is no credible foundation of authority upon which to rebuild it. For all of its continued vitality in personal lives and local communities, religious faith has been thoroughly weaponized on behalf of partisan interests. In the civic or political realm, it speaks no universal truths. And for all of the achievements of science in so many different realms of inquiry, the credibility of science as an enterprise has been undermined by both the skepticism of postmodern theory and the weaknesses of “peer review.” Even in the popular mind, many believe that science itself is biased toward personal and political interests—that facts don’t matter.
Nor can we look to the media, the institution whose civic purpose is to educate the public with accurate information. Long before accusations of “fake news” were flung from the White House, popular trust in the media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly had been declining. Most Americans agree that “you can’t believe much of what you hear from the mainstream media.”25
An attitude of mistrust extends to other powerful institutions—nearly all Americans believe that Wall Street and big businesses in our country often profit at the expense of ordinary Americans. Significant majorities believe that the “system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest Americans,” that “the leaders in American corporations, media, universities, and technology care little about the lives of most Americans,” and that “the most educated and successful people in America are more interested in serving themselves than in serving the common good.”26
Leaders and elites in America, whether in politics, business, education, or the media, have become cut off from ordinary Americans by virtue of their affluence, their education, their neighborhoods, and a range of class markers, not least of which are speech codes. The elites live in the same nation, but in a different universe. Is it any wonder we are seeing populist disdain for elites and their culture?
The antiestablishment candidates in the 2016 election made their name by repudiating the long-standing party institutions. They didn’t emerge and gain a broad public platform in a vacuum. They represented a rebuke to the parties and leaders who failed to tell a believable story of common dreams.
So while it tempting to imagine Trump as sui generis—and no doubt he is in many ways—he has almost certainly established new and troublingly low standards for how to acquire and maintain political power. His incivility, boorishness, and willingness to denigrate the reputation of opponents, not to mention the superficiality of his thinking and absence of experience, may be extreme, but these attributes also model a new kind of cultural logic that is already well established in contemporary American democratic practice. It is a cultural logic that, if followed, will likely bend the arc of history away from justice, freedom, truth, tolerance, and unity, not toward them.
Can the cultural logic underwriting late-stage democracy be fixed? Maybe, but not easily and not anytime soon.
© James Davison Hunter
James Davison Hunter is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. His many books include Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: Moral Education without Good or Evil, and To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.
This article was first published in Volume 19, Issue 3, Fall Edition 2017 of The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary academic journal published triannually by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (IASC) at the University of Virginia. Part of the journal's mission statement is to strive "for both the breadth of the fox and the depth of the hedgehog." All enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Michael Oakeshott, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, ed. Timothy Fuller (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 93.
- Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. William Rehg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 285.
- John P. Diggins, “Authority in America: The Crisis of Legitimacy,” in Diggins and Mark E. Kann, The Problem of Authority in America (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981), 6.
- The account in this section draws heavily from Adam B. Seligman’s masterwork, The Idea of Civil Society (New York, NY: Free Press, 1992).
- John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690), essay 2, ch. 2, sect. 6, 107. Retrieved from York University (Toronto), http://www.yorku.ca/comninel/courses/3025pdf/Locke.pdf.
- Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, 23.
- Ibid., chapter 1, “The Modern Idea of Civil Society.”
- Quoted in Hans Kohn, American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1957), 13.
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, letter 3 (1782). Retrieved from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, http://web.utk.edu/~mfitzge1/docs/374/creve.pdf.
- Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, 74.
- John P. Diggins, “The Three Faces of Authority,” in Diggins and Kann, The Problem of Authority in America, 35.
- Quoted in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), xlii.
- Alexander Hamilton, “Concerning the defects of the present constitution…,” The Federalist 15.11 (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2008), 95.
- Arthur Mann, The One and the Many: Reflections on the American Identity (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 68.
- Hannah Arendt, “What Is Authority?,” in Between Past and Future (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1980), 91.
- Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 15–18.
- Walter Lippmann, The Public Philosophy (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1955), 107, 109, 133, 160–61.
- Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
- These include General Education in a Free Society (1945), One Great Society: Humane Learning in the United States (1959), the Report of the Commission on the Humanities (1964), The Humanities in American Life: Report of the Commission on the Humanities (1980), A Report to the Congress on the State of the Humanities and the Reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1985), Reinvigorating the Humanities (2004), and The Heart of the Matter (2013). The sponsors of these reports were august, to say the least: respectively, Harvard University, the American Council of Learned Societies, Phi Beta Kappa, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Association of American Universities, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
- Harvard University, General Education in a Free Society, 5.
- “A Humanities for Our Time,” The New Humanities Working Group, draft, 2017, http://iasculture.org/events/humanities-our-time.
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter, 2013, https://www.humanitiescommission.org/_pdf/hss_report.pdf.
- Lippmann, The Public Philosophy, 161, 176, 179.
- See, for example, James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, The Vanishing Center of American Democracy: The 2016 Survey on American Political Culture (Charlottesville, VA: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2016), 18.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 20.