By George Will
WASHINGTON – America is a creedal nation and the creed is, as Robert Penn Warren wrote, the “burr under the metaphysical saddle of America.” It is a recurring source of national introspection, discontent, self-indictment and passionate politics. We are in the midst of a recurrence.
The tone of today’s politics was anticipated and is vindicated by a book published 30 years ago. The late Samuel Huntington’s “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony” (1981) clarifies why it is a mistake to be alarmed by today’s political excitements and extravagances, a mistake refuted by America’s past.
The “predominant characteristics” of the Revolutionary era, according to Gordon Wood, today’s pre-eminent historian of that period, were “fear and frenzy, the exaggerations and the enthusiasm, the general sense of social corruption and disorder.” In the 1820s, Daniel Webster said “society is full of excitement.” Of the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The country is full of rebellion; the country is full of kings. Hands off! Let there be no control and no interference in the administration of this kingdom of me.” As the 20th century dawned, Theodore Roosevelt found a “condition of excitement and irritation in the popular mind.” In 1920, George Santayana wrote, “America is all one prairie, swept by a universal tornado.” Unusual turmoil is not so unusual that it has no pattern.
By the time Huntington’s book appeared, American had had four of what he called “periods of creedal passion” – the Revolutionary era (1770s), the Jacksonian era (the 1830s), the Progressive era (1900-1920) and the 1960s. We are now in the fifth.
The American Creed’s values are liberal, as that term was understood until liberalism succumbed to 20th-century statism. The values, expressing the 18th century’s preoccupation with defending liberty against government, are, Huntington said, “individualistic, democratic, egalitarian, and hence basically anti-government and anti-authority.” The various values “unite in imposing limits on power and on the institutions of government. The essence of constitutionalism is the restraint of governmental power through fundamental law.”
What made the American Revolution a novel event was that Americans did not declare independence because their religion, ethnicity, language or culture made them incompatible with the British. Rather, it was a political act based on explicit principles. So in America more than in Europe, nationalism is, Huntington said, “intellectualized”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Who holds them? Americans. Who are Americans? Those who hold those truths to be self-evident.
America is an inherently “disharmonic society” because the ideals of its creed are always imperfectly realized, and always endangered. Government is necessary but, Huntington says, “the distinctive aspect of the American Creed is its anti-government character. Opposition to power and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power are the central themes of American political thought.”
In 20th-century Europe, the ideologies that propelled change – Marxism, fascism – were, Huntington noted, utterly unlike those that animated the 18th century. “In the United States, in contrast, the themes, slogans, and concerns of one creedal passion period strongly resemble those of another.” Ideologies minted since the Revolutionary era, such as Marxism, have had slight impacts on American politics. Although many intellectuals consider American political theory unsophisticated, it is more central to political practices than theory is in other countries.
After the Founding there was, Huntington thought, a change in Americans’ “dominant conception of human nature.” The image of man as inherently sinful, dangerous and in need of control by cleverly contrived political institutions yielded to a much more benign image of man as essentially good and potentially perfectible. But, Huntington wrote, “both views were used to justify limitations on government.” If men are bad, government should be weak lest men put it to bad uses. If men are well-intentioned and reasonable, strong government is not necessary to control them, so “government should be weak because men are good.”
Periods of creedal passion involve returns to first principles – hence the tea partiers orientation to 1773. “Americans,” Huntington believed, “become polarized less over the substance of their beliefs than over how seriously to take those beliefs.” Today, the general conservatism of this center-right country and especially the tea party impulse demand renewed seriousness about the creed’s core skepticism about government. Modern liberalism’s handicap is its unhappiness with this core.
“It has been our fate as a nation,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter, “not to have ideologies but to be one.” It is an excellent fate, even if – actually, because – the creed periodically, as now, makes America intensely disharmonic.
George Will’s e-mail address is email@example.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.