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  • American Ideals versus American Institutions STORSamuel P. Huntington

    Political Science Quarterly, Volume 97, Issue 1 (Spring, 1982), 1-37.

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  • American IdealsversusAmerican Institutions


    Throughout the history of the United States a broad consensushas existed among the American people in support of liberal, democratic, individualistic, and egalitarian values. These political values and ideals constitutewhat Gunnar Myrdal termed the American Creed, and they have provided thecore of American national identity since the eighteenth century. Alsothroughout American history, political institutions have reflected these valuesbut have always fallen short of realizing them in a satisfactory manner. A gaphas always existed between the ideals in which Americans believed and the institutions that embodied their practice. This gap between ideals and institutionalpractice has generated continuing disharmony between the normative and existential dimensions of American politics. Being human, Americans have neverbeen able to live up to their ideals; being Americans, they have also been unableto abandon them. They have instead existed in a state of national cognitivedissonance, which they have attempted to relieve through various combinationsof moralism, cynicism, complacency, and hypocrisy. The burr under the saddle, as Robert Penn Warren called it, and the efforts to remove that burr havebeen 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 ofthe Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. During 1977-1978 he served at theWhite House as coordinator of security planning for the National Security Council. His many booksinclude The Soldier and theState; The Common Defense; Political Order in Changing Societies; andmost recently American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, from which this article is adapted.

    Political ScienceQuarterly Volume 97 Number 1 Spring 1982


    continue to play the same role in American politics in the future that they havein the past? Or are there changes taking place or likely to take place in Americanpolitical ideals, political institutions, and the relation between them that willmake 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 bydevelopments within American society; or, third, it could be altered bydevelopments outside American society and by American involvements abroad.Developments within American society or changes in the international environment could alter the relation between American political ideals and institutionsin four ways: the content of the ideals could change; the scope of agreement onthe ideals could change; the nature of American political institutions could moreclosely 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 thesedevelopments could take place.


    At various periods in their history Americans have attempted to eliminate orreduce the gap between ideals and institutions by moralistic efforts to reformtheir institutions and practices so as to make them conform to the ideals of theAmerican Creed. These periods include the Revolutionary years of the 1760sand 1770s, the Jacksonian surge of reforms in the 1820s and 1830s, the Progressive era from the 1890s to 1914, and the latest resurgence of moralisticreform 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 goalscompletely. The relative success of reform, however, has varied significantly: inparticular, the goals of reform have tended to be more widely achieved in theearly periods than in the later ones. In the earlier periods, the affirmation of thegoals of liberty, equality, democracy, and popular sovereignty was directed atthe destruction or modification of traditional political and economic institutions; in the later periods, it was directed at the elimination or modification ofmodern political and economic institutions that had emerged in the course ofhistorical development. In the earlier periods, in short, history and progress (inthe sense of realizing American ideals) went hand in hand; in the later periods,the achievement of American ideals involved more the restoration of the pastthan the realization of the future, and progress and history worked increasinglyat cross purposes.

    The revolutionaries of the 1770s were the first to articulate the AmericanCreed on a national basis and were generally successful in effecting majorchanges in American institutions: the overthrow of British imperial power, theend of monarchy, the widespread acceptance of government based on popularconsent, the extension of the suffrage, an end to what remained of feudal practices 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 rightsasserted were justified by reference to common law and the rights ofEnglishmen. But the formulation and public proclamation of those rights wasalso a revolutionary event in terms of political theory and political debate.

    In the Jacksonian years, the American ideology was still new, fresh, anddirected toward the elimination of the political restrictions on democracy, thebroadening of popular participation in government, the abolition of status andthe weakening of specialization that is, of both ascriptive and achievementnorms in the public service, and the destruction of the Bank of the UnitedStates and other manifestations of the money power, so as to open wide thedoors of economic opportunity. Originally a fight against political privilege,the Jacksonian movement . . . broadened into a fight against economicprivilege, rallying to its support a host of rural capitalists and village entrepreneurs. Except for the role of blacks and women in American society,the Jacksonian reforms did complete the virtual elimination of traditional institutions and practices, either inherited from a colonial past or concocted bythe Federalist commercial oligarchy, which deviated from liberal-democraticvalues. All this was progressive in the broad sense, but it too carried with itelements of conservatism. The paradox of the Jacksonians was that even as theycleared away obstacles to the development of laissez-faire capitalism, they alsolooked back politically to ideals of rural republican simplicity.2 Restoration, notrevolution, was their message.

    The institutional changes of the Jacksonian years did not, of course, bringpolitical reality fully into accord with Jacksonian principle. Neither propertynor power was equally distributed. In the major cities a small number of verywealthy people, most of whom had inherited their position, controlled largeamounts of property.3 As is generally the case, however, income was muchmore equally distributed than wealth, and both wealth and income were farmore evenly distributed in the rural areas, where 90 percent of the populationlived, than in the urban areas. In addition, there were high levels of social andpolitical equality, which never failed to impress European visitors, whethercritical or sympathetic. All in all, money, status, and power were probably moreequally distributed among white males in Jacksonian America than at any other

    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.: StanfordUniversity 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, and idem, Riches, Class, and Power before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: D.C.Heath, 1973). For critical discussions of Pessens evidence and argument, see Whitman Ridgway,Measuring Wealth and Power in Ante-Bellum America: A Review Essay, Historical MethodsNewsletter 8 (March 1975): 74-78, and Rober