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AMERICAN Ideals Versus Institution-Samuel Huntington


  • American Ideals versus American InstitutionsAuthor(s): Samuel P. HuntingtonReviewed work(s):Source: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 1-37Published by: The Academy of Political ScienceStable URL: .Accessed: 25/01/2012 18:06

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  • American Ideals versus

    American Institutions


    Throughout the history of the United States a broad consensus has existed among the American people in support of liberal, democratic, in- dividualistic, and egalitarian values. These political values and ideals constitute what Gunnar Myrdal termed "the American Creed," and they have provided the core of American national identity since the eighteenth century. Also throughout American history, political institutions have reflected these values but have always fallen short of realizing them in a satisfactory manner. A gap has always existed between the ideals in which Americans believed and the in- stitutions that embodied their practice. This gap between ideals and institutional practice has generated continuing disharmony between the normative and ex- istential dimensions of American politics. Being human, Americans have never been able to live up to their ideals; being Americans, they have also been unable to abandon them. They have instead existed in a state of national cognitive dissonance, which they have attempted to relieve through various combinations of moralism, cynicism, complacency, and hypocrisy. The "burr under the sad- dle," as Robert Penn Warren called it, and the efforts to remove that burr have been central features of American politics, defining its dynamics and shape, since at least the eighteenth century and perhaps before. The question now is: Will the gap between ideals and institutional practices and the responses to it

    SAMUEL P. HUNTINGTON is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs and director cif the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. During 1977-1978 he served at the White House as coordinator of security planning for the National Security Council. His many books include The Soldier and the State; The Common Defense; Political Order in Changing Societies; and most recently American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, from which this article is adapted.

    Political Science Quarterly Volume 97 Number 1 Spring 1982 1


    continue to play the same role in American politics in the future that they have in the past? Or are there changes taking place or likely to take place in American political ideals, political institutions, and the relation between them that will make their future significantly different from their past?

    Three possibilities exist. The relation between ideals and institutions, first, could continue essentially unchanged; second, it could be altered by developments within American society; or, third, it could be altered by developments outside American society and by American involvements abroad. Developments within American society or changes in the international environ- ment could alter the relation between American political ideals and institutions in four ways: the content of the ideals could change; the scope of agreement on the ideals could change; the nature of American political institutions could more closely approximate American ideals, thereby reducing the gap between them; or American political institutions could be significantly altered in an illiberal, undemocratic, anti-individualistic direction; or some combination of these developments could take place.


    At various periods in their history Americans have attempted to eliminate or reduce the gap between ideals and institutions by moralistic efforts to reform their institutions and practices so as to make them conform to the ideals of the American Creed. These periods include the Revolutionary years of the 1760s and 1770s, the Jacksonian surge of reforms in the 1820s and 1830s, the Pro- gressive era from the 1890s to 1914, and the latest resurgence of moralistic reform in the 1960s and early 1970s. These four periods have much in common, and almost always the proponents of reform have failed to realize their goals completely. The relative success of reform, however, has varied significantly: in particular, the goals of reform have tended to be more widely achieved in the early periods than in the later ones. In the earlier periods, the affirmation of the goals of liberty, equality, democracy, and popular sovereignty was directed at the destruction or modification of traditional political and economic institu- tions; in the later periods, it was directed at the elimination or modification of modern political and economic institutions that had emerged in the course of historical development. In the earlier periods, in short, history and progress (in the sense of realizing American ideals) went hand in hand; in the later periods, the achievement of American ideals involved more the restoration of the past than the realization of the future, and progress and history worked increasingly at cross purposes.

    The revolutionaries of the 1770s were the first to articulate the American Creed on a national basis and were generally successful in effecting major changes in American institutions: the overthrow of British imperial power, the end of monarchy, the widespread acceptance of government based on popular consent, the extension of the suffrage, an end to what remained of feudal prac- tices and privileges, and the substitution of a politics of opinion for a politics of


    status. In part, the articulation of their goals was conservative; the rights asserted were justified by reference to common law and the rights of Englishmen. But the formulation and public proclamation of those rights was also a revolutionary event in terms of political theory and political debate.

    In the Jacksonian years, the American ideology was still new, fresh, and directed toward the elimination of the political restrictions on democracy, the broadening of popular participation in government, the abolition of status and the weakening of specialization-that is, of both ascriptive and achievement norms-in the public service, and the destruction of the Bank of the United States and other manifestations of the "money power," so as to open wide the doors of economic opportunity. "Originally a fight against political privilege, the Jacksonian movement . . . broadened into a fight against economic privilege, rallying to its support a host of 'rural capitalists and village en- trepreneurs.' "I Except for the role of blacks and women in American society, the Jacksonian reforms did complete the virtual elimination of traditional in- stitutions and practices, either inherited from a colonial past or concocted by the Federalist commercial oligarchy, which deviated from liberal-democratic values. All this was progressive in the broad sense, but it too carried with it elements of conservatism. The paradox of the Jacksonians was that even as they cleared away obstacles to the development of laissez-faire capitalism, they also looked back politically to ideals of rural republican simplicity.2 Restoration, not revolution, was their message.

    The institutional changes of the Jacksonian years did not, of course, bring political reality fully into accord with Jacksonian principle. Neither property nor power was equally distributed. In the major cities a small number of very wealthy people, most of whom had inherited their position, controlled large amounts of property.3 As is generally the case, however, income was much more equally distributed than wealth, and both wealth and income were far more evenly distributed in the rural areas, where 90 percent of the population lived, than in the urban areas. In addition, there were high levels of social and political equality, which never failed to impress European visitors, whether critical or sympathetic. All in all, money, status, and power were probably more equally distributed among white males in Jacksonian America than at any other

    I Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), pp. 65-66.

    2 Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1957), p. 8.

    3 See Edward Pessen, "The Egalitarian Myth and the American Social Reality: Wealth, Mobility, and Equality in the 'Era of the Common Man,' " American Historical Review 76 (October 1971): 989-1034, anid idem, Riches, Class, and Power before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1973). For critical discussions of Pessen's evidence and argument, see Whitman Ridgway, "Measuring Wealth and Power in Ante-Bellum America: A Review Essay," Historical Methods Newsletter 8 (March 1975): 74-78, and Robert E. Gallman, "Professor Pessen on the 'Egalitarian Myth,' " Social Science History 2 (Winter 1978): 194-207. For Pessen's response, see his "On a Re- cent Cliometric Attempt to Resurrect the Myth of Antebellum Egalitarianism," Social Science History 3 (Winter 1979): 208