US Political Thought

Notes on Samuel P. Huntington, Chapter III: “The United States”

in The Crisis of Democracy, by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watnuki

This is a condensation and arrangement of Huntington's argument, not a commentary upon it.

1. The sixties as a decade of “democratic renewal”: “The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America. The predominant trends of that decade involved the challenging of the authority of established political, social, and economic institutions, increased popular participation in and control over those institutions, a reaction against the concentration of power in the executive branch of the federal government and in favor of the reassertion of the power of Congress and of state and local government, renewed commitment to the idea of equality on the part of intellectuals and other elites, the emergence of the ‘public interest’ lobbying groups, increased concern for the rights of and provisions of opportunities for minorities and women to participate in the polity and economy, and a pervasive criticism of those who possessed or were even thought to possess excessive power or wealth. . . . It was a decade of democratic surge and of the reassertion of democratic egalitarianism” (59-60).1

In addition to increased campaign activity, there was “a marked upswing in other forms of citizen participation, in the form of marches, demonstrations, protest movements, and ‘cause’ organizations...” (61). There were “markedly higher levels of self-consciousness on the part of blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and women,” all seeking “their appropriate share of the action and of the rewards” (61).

“Previously passive or unorganized groups in the population now embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges, which they had not considered themselves entitled to before” (61-62). Hadn’t they!? Look at the struggle of blacks, for example--Du Bois called for full civic and political equality in 1900.

“...the sixties also saw a reassertion of the primacy of equality as a goal in social, economic, and political life. The meaning of equality and the means of achieving it became central subjects of debate in intellectual and policy-oriented circles. What was widely hailed as the major philosophical treatise of the decade (Rawls, A Theory of Justice) defined justice largely in terms of equality” (62).

“The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. . . . People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents. Within most organizations, discipline eased and differences in status became blurred. . . . More precisely, in American society, authority had been commonly based on: organizational position, economic wealth, specialized expertise, legal competence, or electoral representativeness. Authority based on hierarchy, expertise, and wealth all, obviously, ran counter to the democratic and egalitarian temper of the times. . .” (75).

“In the university, students who lacked expertise, came to participate in the decision-making process on many important issues.” Governmental organizational hierarchy weakened. “In politics generally, the authority of wealth was challenged and successful efforts made to introduce reforms to expose and limit its influence” (75).

Huntington notes the demand for an end to the near monopolization of political leadership by white men in these terms: “the value of ‘categorical’ representativeness’ was elevated to challenge the principle of electoral representativeness” (75-76).

System assimilation: Apparently, Huntington sees the capacity of the American to respond by “assimilat[ing] those groups into the political system” and incorporat[ing] members of those groups into the political leadership structure” (61) as both a sign of its resilience and a problem, since it facilitated the pressing of demands on government that led to excess expenditures and other difficulties.

2. The danger posed by democratic renewal -- a legitimation and governability crisis stemming from a loss of trust in government and in major nongovernmental institutions:

theoretical formulation -- Madisonian doctrine: “‘In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,’ observed James Madison in The Federalist, no. 5 1, ‘the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.’ To assume that there is no conflict between these two requirements is sheer self-delusion. To assume that it is impossible to reach a rough balance between these two requirements is unrealistic pessimism. The maintenance of that balance is, indeed, what constitutional democracy is all about. . . . Views as to what constitutes the precise desirable balance between power and liberty, authority and democracy, government and society obviously differ” (63).

loss of trust in authority: “In a democracy, the authority of governmental leaders and institutions presumably depends in part o the extent to which the public has confidence and trust in those institutions and leaders. During the 1960s that confidence and trust declined markedly in the United States” (76). Perhaps he should read the Anti-Federalists on how to maintain trust in government--democratic accountability, close ties of elected officials with the represented, active citizenship, etc.

traceable to an ideologically committed, active citizenry: “The democratic surge involved a more politically active citizenry, which developed increased ideological consistency on public issues, and which then lost its confidence in public institutions and leaders when governmental policies failed to correspond to what they desired” (76). He attributes part of the rise in ideological consistency to increased participation, and part to the nature of the issues: social, racial, and military. “On more strictly economic issues, on the other hand, ideology was a much less significant factor” (77).

Furthermore, he blames loss of trust at least in part on ideological development: “those who took more extreme positions on policy issues . . . tended to become more distrustful of government. Polarization over issues generated distrust about government, as those who had strong positions on issues became dissatisfied with the ambivalent, compromising policies of government” (78). Thus strategies of compromise backfired.

This loss of trust was reflected in opinion surveys. In the 1950s about three-quarters of Americans believed that government was run primarily for the benefit of the people. By 1972, only 38 percent believed this, while 53 percent thought it was “‘run by a few big interests looking out for themselves’” (78). This loss of trust began to be recovered for Congress, the Supreme Court, and the military by 1973, but not for the executive branch.

“The leadership of the major nongovernmental institutions in society who had enjoyed high levels of public confidence in the mid-1960 -- such as large corporations, higher educational institutions and medicine--also suffered a somewhat similar pattern of substantial decline and partial recovery” (80). Only the leadership of the press and television news enjoyed more confidence in 1973 than in 1966.

substantial decline in the sense of political efficacy: which he relates back to loss of trust in government and the failure of its compromise policies to meet people’s demands.

3. The political and economic consequences of the sixties:The vitality of democracy in the United States in the 1960s produced a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in governmental authority” (64). Thus, “The vitality of democracy in the 1960s raised questions about the governability of democracy in the 1970s” (64).

Economic problems engendered by the democratic surge: “The expansion of governmental activity produced budgetary deficits and a major expansion of total governmental debt from $336 billion in 1960 to $557 billion in 1971. These deficits contributed to inflationary tendencies in the economy. They also brought to the fore in the early 1970s the entire question of the incidence of the tax burden and the issues of tax reform” (103).

He also blames growing public sector unionization: “Unionization produced higher wages and more vigorous collective bargaining to secure higher wages” (103). In the tendency of government to capitulate to unions he sees an inflationary spiral: higher wages without higher taxes lead to larger deficits and more inflation, which justifies calls for still higher wages.

Completely absent from this discussion is any consideration of how much the military costs of the Vietnam War figured in this, or for that matter, the overall costs of the Cold War military-industrial complex.

Weak foreign policy engendered by the democratic surge: Huntington argues that political leaders, unable to win favor through their domestic policies, look to foreign policy achievements to rebuild their popularity. But “The dynamics of this search for foreign policy achievements by democratic leaders lacking authority at home gives to dictatorships (whether communist party states or oil sheikdoms), which are free from such compulsions, a major advantage in the conduct of international relations” (105).

Encouragement of economic nationalism as an indirect result of the democratic surge: “The expansion of expenditures and the decrease in authority are also likely to encourage economic nationalism in democratic societies. Each country will have an interest in minimizing the export of some goods in order to keep prices down in its own society. At the same time, other interests are likely to demand protection against the import of foreign goods. . . . The resulting unilateralism could well weaken still further the alliances among the Trilateral countries and increase their vulnerability to economic and military pressures from the Soviet bloc” (105).

Restriction of military expenditures and action as a result of the democratic surge: “a government which lacks authority and which is committed to substantial domestic programs will have little ability, short of a cataclysmic crisis, to impose on its people the sacrifices which may be necessary to deal with foreign policy problems and defense” (105).

Overall threat to global American hegemony: “For a quarter-century the United States was the hegemonic power in a system of world order. The manifestations of the democratic distemper, however, have already stimulated uncertainty among allies and could well stimulate adventurism among enemies” (106).

4. The causes of the sixties: Huntington argues that the increase in political participation is not a root cause, nor are the specific policy problems that confronted the United States during the period (107). “The expansion of political participation was underway long before these problems came to a head in the mid-1960s, and the beginnings of the decline in trust and of the increase in attitude [ideological] consistency go back before large-scale American involvement in Vietnam” (107).

Was it the baby boom?: He notes that the “generational bulge” of youth in the 1960s brought new values to the fore, chief among them a lack of respect for “‘established authority’” and for dominant forms of ideological authority. There were “broader changes in their attitudes and values with respect to sexual morality, religion as a source of moral guidance, and traditional patriotism and allegiance ‘to my country right or wrong’” (109).

Moreover, youth tended to reject the behavioralist view of democracy, with only 37 percent agreeing with the opinion survey statement that “Voting is the only way that people like me can have any say about how the government runs things” (109).

Was it due to the emergence of a post-industrial society?: “Rising levels of affluence and education lead to changes in political attitudes and political behavior.” The “better-off, white-collar, suburban groups” are “growing in numbers and importance relative to” the “poorer, working-class, blue-collar groups . . .” (109). Most importantly, “The more educated a person is, the more likely he is to participate in politics, to have a more consistent and more ideological outlook on political issues, and to hold more ‘enlightened’ or ‘liberal’ or ‘change oriented’ views on social, cultural, an foreign policy issues” (110).

Unfortunately for this explanation, rates of participation “ran far ahead” of what changes in educational composition would lead on to expect. This was partly due to “the tremendous increase in black political participation during these years. . . . [, which] was the product primarily not of increased individual status but rather of increased group consciousness. . . . A decline in the saliency of school integration, welfare programs, law enforcement, and other issues of special concern to blacks will as some point presumably be accompanied by a decline in their group consciousness and hence their political participation” (110-111).

Nor can education explain increased ideological consistency, again for empirical reasons: roughly equal increases occurred in the fifties and sixties among those at the high and low ends of the educational attainment spectrum. Nie and Anderson suggest that “‘The political events of the last decade, the crisis atmosphere which has attended them, have caused citizens to perceive politics as increasingly central to their lives.’” Thus the explanation must lie with changing political relationships.

It was creedal passion during a period of social change: Huntington endorses the liberal consensus view: “American society is characterized by a broad consensus on democratic, liberal, egalitarian values. For much of the time, the commitment to these values is neither passionate nor intense. During periods of rapid social change, however, these democratic and egalitarian values of the American creed are reaffirmed. The intensity of belief during such creedal passion periods leads to the challenging of established authority and to major efforts to change governmental structure to accord more fully with those values” (112). He compares the sixties to the Jacksonian and Progressive eras.

5. Huntington’s theory of political cycles (which is implicitly a prescription for system restabilization): “There is . . . some reason to think that there may be a cyclical process of interaction in which:

(1) Increased political participation leads to increased policy polarization within society;

(2) Increased policy polarization leads to increasing distrust and a sense of decreasing political efficacy among individuals;

(3) A sense of decreasing political efficacy lead to decreased political participation.”

Discouragement and apathy are, for Huntington, desirable, since they facilitate smoother system management. Note, though, a quasi-parallel with Smith’s “serpentine path” -- egalitarian surges followed by restoration of ascriptive hierarchies -- except that these restorations are, for Smith, setbacks for liberals and liberalism.

Huntington suggests one way a democratic surge might be brought to heal -- by shifting the issue focus to economic issues (which occurred in the mid-1970s). First, he notes that economic position taking is not as clearly related to ideological commitments. “In addition, inflation and unemployment are like crime: no one is in favor of them, and significant differences can only appear if there are significantly different alternative programs for dealing with them. Such programs, however, have been slow in materializing; hence, the salience of economic issues may give rise to generalized feelings of lack of confidence in the political system but not to dissatisfaction rooted in the failure of government to follow a particular set of policies. Such generalized alienation could, in turn, reinforce tendencies towards political passivity . . .” (84-85).

He elsewhere makes clear that this is not an extrinsic factor. The democratic surge produced a surge in government spending, which precipitated economic problems.

6. The need to restore ‘balance’: Huntington, based on the theory above, looks forward to a decline in democratic activism. “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 the governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy -- an ‘excess of democracy’ in much the same sense in which David Donald used the term to refer to the consequences of the Jacksonian revolution which helped to precipitate the Civil War. Needed instead is a greater degree of moderation in democracy” (113).

This ‘moderation’ comes in two forms: reassertion of undemocratic authority and cultivation of political apathy. “First, democracy is only one way of constituting authority, and it is not necessarily a universally applicable one. In many situations the claims of expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents may override the claims of democracy as a way of constituting authority” (113). He goes on to say that democratization in the sixties often “only frustrate[d] the purposes of those institutions [to which it was applied]”--a “more democratic university is not likely to be a better university” (114).

“Second, the effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups. In the past, every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in politics. In itself, this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively.” Now, with the marginal groups participating more, “the danger of overloading the political system with demands which extend its functions and undermine its authority still remains. Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups” (114).

“There are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy” (115).