American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. By Samuel P. Huntington. Harvard University Press, $15.
November 11, 1981        

Like Minerva’s owl—belated, dim-witted, malevolent—social science flies out at dusk to prey on history. Our rulers have beaten back the tentative challenges of the ‘60s; behind them come their ideologists, eager to expurgate, assimilate, and neutralize. Samuel Huntington’s new book has been widely proclaimed a masterpiece by the right and center. It is at least a master- stroke.

Huntington has his own scores to settle with the ‘60s. As an influential academic defender, and occasional designer, of America’s “nation-building” efforts in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, he drew bitter and richly deserved criticism from the left. Unfortunately, like most government advisers of that epoch, Huntington may have lost his soul, but certainly not his influence. He became an early, if not a founding, member of the redoubtable Trilateral Commission. Huntington subsequently astonished the commission and the rest of the world by revealing to the latter the mind of the former, to wit, among other things, that “there are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy.” This was the conclusion of the notorious “Crisis of Democracy,” immediately withdrawn from circulation by an appalled commission, which had doubtless expected only the platitudes customary in volumes of this sort.

Despite this indiscretion, Huntington was brought to Washington by fellow Trilateralist Carter and fellow former Harvard graduate student Brzezinski, where he joined fellow war criminals Vance and Brown in the new human rights administration. Having presumably connived at crackpot geopolitics with Brzezinski at the National Security Council, Huntington returned to Harvard, where he heads the immensely prestigious Center for International Affairs, a training school for aspiring world managers.

“American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” is a fresh and ingenious specimen of neoconservative mischief. Huntington on attempts an ambitious and perverse interpretation of the whole of American history in order to account for the periodic resurgence of “creedal passion,” i.e., wide spread insistence that the American Creed—liberty, equality, democracy, individualism—actually be taken seriously by those in power. There have been four major “creedal passion periods” in American history: the Revolutionary 1770s, the Jacksonian 1830s, the Populist/Progressive 1900s, and the “S&S years” (our own dear Sixties and early Seventies). In each period, vigorous reform movements challenged perceived abuses of governmental or economic power, like British colonial rule, the National Bank, the trusts and political machines, and the Vietnam war and racism. These movements did not assert new ideologies or particular Interests, but claimed they were only trying to realize traditional and univer8ally shared democratic values.

One might feel that the interesting question is not why democratic values are occasionally taken up seriously, but why they generally are not. This, however, is not a question Huntington chooses to pursue. Instead he examines these out breaks of political moralism with detached fascination, like a clinician charting the course of an epidemic. (That’s not gratuitous comparison. His well-known metaphor or the ferment produced by the antiwar and civil rights movements was “democratic distemper.”) Huntington’s conclusion is that the promise of American politics is disillusionment and disharmony, since we are all deeply committed to ideals that cannot be realized in necessarily imperfect institutions. He writes: “In terms of American beliefs, government is supposed to be egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups. Yet no government can be all these things and still remain a government.” Upon this weighty paradox (hailed by Daniel P. Moynihan on the book’s jacket as a “liberating insight”) Huntington’s entire thesis rests.

Surprisingly, this proposition is simply taken for granted throughout “American Politics.” The book contains much discussion of comparative political behavior and ideologies. But the central argument limps. That effective government is necessarily significantly undemocratic is ___ asserted a dozen times; no attempt is made to prove it. This may be because Huntington has made this point before, and now regards it as established. So for a more explicit formulation, we must look to his earlier writings.

The Trilateral Commission Report, published in 1975, has received amazingly little comment relative to its significance. In this document, issued by the organization that supplied the president, vice-president, the secretaries of state, defense and treasury, and the national security adviser of the last administration, the contemporary “crisis of democracy” is diagnosed in the following terms. “The effective operation of a democratic political system requires some measure of apathy and non-involvement on the part of some individuals and groups”—traditionally poor, black, and female. The increasing involvement of these groups in the political process, through the civil rights, welfare rights, feminist, farmworkers’, and other movements, has an unfortunate result: “the public develops expectations which it is impossible for government to meet.” Consequently, “a government which lacks authority and is committed to substantial domestic programs will have little ability, short of a catastrophic crisis, to impose on its people the sacrifices which may be necessary to deal with foreign policy problems and defense”—a lesson the Reagan administration seems to have absorbed, or to have understood instinctively.

This dispassionate scholarly analysis concludes somewhat chillingly. “Al Smith once remarked that ‘the only cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.’ Our analysis suggests that applying that cure at the present time could well be adding fuel to the flames. Instead, some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy. . . Needed, instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy… Democracy will have a longer life if it has a more balanced existence.”

Those who cannot read between the lines may consult Bertram Gross’s “Friendly Fascism” for the specifics of this program.

Distrust of democracy is, of course, nothing new. Since Burke’s regrettable example, the high road to a reputation for political sagacity has been the portentous deliverance of doubts about the popular capacity for self-government. Admittedly, charlatanism and genius may resemble each other from a great distance. Even genuine thinkers like Carlyle and Lawrence— and not merely grandiloquent blowhards like Burke— have disbelieved in the consistent wisdom and decency of people in masses and imagined a society led (though not ruled) by heroes. But whatever the merits of this vision, it is unfortunately not the neoconservatives’ plane of discourse. In the writing of Huntington and his comperes, romantic political philosophy has been supplanted by value-free political science; celebration of the organic society has been replaced by invocation of the national security state. A dismal development.

At the end of “American Politics” Huntington enumerates five tasks for the citizenry. His list consists of four platitudes: “Support the maintenance of American power necessary to protect and promote liberal ideals and institutions in the world arena, but recognize the danger such power could pose to liberal ideas and institutions at home.” I may be unkind, but I suspect that here we are closest to Huntington’s heart: more power to the national security state. True, there is that warning about the danger of increased state power to freedom at home. But how seriously are we to take it when Huntington has implicitly sketched out a case for strong governmental authority over a creedally passionate rabble who cannot understand that “hierarchy, coercion, discipline, secrecy and deception are all, in some measure, inescapable attributes of the process of government”? And as for the foreign rabble, Huntington’s suggestion that American power will protect and promote freedom throughout the world, and has done so, is simply the most outrageous and cynical deception imaginable. (Readers willing to be exasperated to the point of stroke will find Huntington elaborating this theme in the September 1981 “Commentary.”)

“American Politics” nicely illustrates the theological function of the policy-oriented intelligentsia. It contains the canonical interpretation of the ‘60s, and a jesuitically subtle justification of politics as usual. The ruling class seems to have bounced back handily from the S&S years. In the Trilateral Report, Huntington predicted this state of affairs, and welcomed it. “The democratic surge and its resulting distemper in government will moderate … These developments ought to take place in order to avoid the deleterious consequences of the surge and to restore the balance between vitality and governability in the democratic system.”

A great deal of ‘‘governability” will certainly be required of us in the‘80s. Will the coming depression produce another creedal passion period and a terminal crisis of democracy? It all depends on how seriously we masses insist on taking those troublesome traditional American values—liberty, equality, et al. It is a difficult lesson we must learn; we are fortunate to have Samuel Huntington remind us that while our defeat, isolation, passivity, and despair may be bitter medicine, they are necessary for the health of “democracy.