U.S. Political Thought

Lecture 15

November 21, 1995
Joseph Boland


    Lecture Outline
  1. Cold War “Democracy”
    1. The Cold War as a war
    2. Cold War consumerism
    3. The “end of ideology”?
    4. The political theory of Cold War democracy
  2. Huntington and the Need to Rollback the “Democratic Surge” of the Sixties
    1. Huntington’s theory as a recapitulation of the political theory of Cold War democracy
    2. Huntington’s theory as a response to the sixties
    3. Cycles of activism and apathy
  3. Radical Democracy as an Antidote for the Cold War -- the Port Huron Statement
    1. SDS’s democratic radicalism

I. Cold War “Democracy”

Samuel Huntington’s contribution to The Crisis of Democracy and the Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement, the founding declaration of Students for a Democratic Society, draw opposite conclusions about the democratic ideal from the Cold War experience. Though written at disparate points within the Cold War era (the Port Huron Statement in 1962, prior to the dramatic upsurge in student activism; The Crisis of Democracy in 1978, when the conservative reaction to the sixties was on the verge of its political triumph), they express some of the central contradictions around which the era formed itself. The global triumph of America--its hegemony in the western world and its many advantages over its rivals in the East--struck dissidents such as Hayden as hollow and hypocritical. Put simply, they believed that the triumph of American power came at the expense of its democratic and egalitarian ideals. Internationally, America had become an imperial bully, propping up dictatorships and helping defeat national liberation struggles. The only criteria for judging a country “democratic” seemed to be its allegiance to the anti-communist cause and its provision of a “good business climate.” Domestically, racial segregation and discrimination still pervaded society (most of the institutional reforms achieved by the civil rights movement came after 1962), while the poverty endured by millions seemed a national disgrace, particularly at time of extraordinary abundance.

Huntington and other conservatives, in contrast, thought that the democratic upsurge of the sixties brought about dangerous weaknesses in the political order, weaknesses which could only be remedied through the restoration of undemocratic forms of authority. System stability, not justice and rights, was Huntington’s primary concern.

We gain a fuller understanding of these opposing perspectives by looking at the distinctive features of the American political system during the first phase of the Cold War -- the fifties, or more precisely, the period beginning with Truman’s adoption of an anti-Communist foreign and domestic policy in 1947 until about 1963, when the Kennedy administration, confronted with a burgeoning and increasingly rebellious civil rights movement, changed course domestically and began pressing for civil rights and anti-poverty reforms.

The Cold War as a war: It may help to understand the Cold War if, for a moment, we forget the adjective “Cold.” As is typical of wars, the power of government over people was much greater than in peacetime. This was evident in many ways: the continuation of the military draft, the widespread persecution of dissent, the development of economic dependence on the military-industrial complex, and the growth of a national security state based on secrecy and demanding public trust without public accountability. Government became quasi-totalitarian even though the democratic forms were preserved. Wars require national unity, and the need for unity in turn serves to justify both the new powers government appropriates to itself and the sacrifices and strict obedience it demands of people. War also draws a razor-sharp boundary between the loyal citizen and the dangerous enemy. It is usually damaging to the exercise of judgment when everything must fall into one of two categories--friend or foe. Making this worse at the time was the fact that the foe had just been a friend--a wartime ally which had suffered more casualties than any other nation in defeating the Nazis. Not only had the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union engendered greater openness to Soviet society and beliefs, the Great Depression preceding the war had led many Americans to give more credence to socialist and communist theories. Thus where these ideological and cultural boundaries had been softened and even blurred in the previous eras, they now became a test of one’s basic loyalty to America.

The Cold War was simply a war, though a new kind of one, in many other respects. The Cold War had a permanent war economy. The military spending for World War II had decisively ended the Great Depression; now many members of the political and economic elite regarded Cold War military spending as a necessary means to forestall the return of depression. War needs served as the rationale for many domestic policies. The interstate highway system, for example, was supposed to improve national defense capability. The post-WWII relationship between corporations and organized labor reflected the opportunities and needs of Cold War era American capitalism. In essence, the leadership of the AFL-CIO agreed to back domestic and international anti-communism in exchange for wage, benefit and job security improvements for the unionized workforce. This, in turn, enhanced the ability of the United States to make Cold War foreign policy an instrument through which to construct a system of post-colonial economic and political dependency in the Third World.

But the Cold War was also a new form of war. The omnipresent danger of nuclear holocaust gave to the era an undercurrent of terror in the face of a continual and mortal confrontation. Total annihilation was an ever present possibility. It imbued people with a profound sense of helplessness which many sought to alleviate though an unquestioning faith in the national government and dominant institutions. Yet the nuclear confrontation was itself destroying the grounds for this faith by eliminating the accountability of government for the conduct of the Cold War.

Nuclear standoff elicited the hope that annihilation could be endlessly deferred if only people were vigilant enough, productive enough, loyal enough. Moreover, the threat of escalation by the enemy served to justify new expenditures and new technological initiatives, while an enforced public ignorance about the enemy made it very difficult to question claims about its intentions or capacity. Much of the “hysteria” and “paranoia” that Hartz bemoaned in the American people was a product of the Cold War more than of a supposed ideological immaturity on the part of Americans.

The Cold War lacked a definite “front.” Not only could it, in the form of nuclear attack, strike anywhere within the country, but since government claimed to see the hand of “international communism” behind every Third World insurgency, the Cold War could become a localized “hot” war almost anywhere.

It was a war that seemed endless, and in fact lasted for over a generation. And particularly in its first phase, it severely constricted the space for political debate and the range of views that could gain a hearing (or even escape outright repression). Anti-communism, maintained in considerable part by a mixture of fear and repression, operated as a kind of negative consensus, a universal taboo through which submissiveness and docility were cultivated in citizens.

Cold War consumerism: The Cold War economy dramatically expanded the material opportunities available to many working people. Wartime savings, the GI bill, America’s dominant international position, government loans for home buying, a substantial increase in real wages and other factors brought millions of Americans into the middle class and contributed to the expansion of middle class purchasing power. Many achieved the “good life” -- a home in the suburbs with a car or two, a secure job, college for the kids (and for many returning veterans), indulgence in new consumer goods. Moreover, the social welfare system established under the New Deal remained intact, providing some assurance that illness, injury, unemployment and other personal misfortunes would not ruin oneself or one’s family. For people with vivid memories of the Great Depression, this was an extraordinary reversal of fortune.

The “end of ideology”?: The combination of an anti-communist consensus, prosperity for many, and the collapse of the old left led some social theorists to argue that the end of ideology had been reached. From now on, they speculated, political differences would be limited to interest-group competition for material benefits and political power within the framework of the liberal democratic welfare state and corporate capitalist economy. Most end of ideology theorists claimed that the fundamental social, economic and political arrangements of Cold War America were the best ones possible; therefore, no ideological alternative would gain a significant following. Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition was an expression of this, though Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology stated the thesis more pointedly.

The political theory of Cold War democracy: During the 1950's and 1960's a “behavioral revolution” swept over American political science. Its proponents, like the end of ideology theorists, idealized the political-economic and social realities of Cold War America. They took democracy as it existed in the United States to be the most democratic system possible (with relatively minor adjustments) in complex industrial societies. Their extreme emphasis on empirical study was rooted in the belief that democratic norms and mechanisms could be read out of contemporary political behavior. Because Huntington’s essay is heavily indebted to the theory of democracy they developed, it is worth outlining its main features:

1. A preoccupation with the stability of the political system: The governing problem was one of elite management (adjustment to change, achievement of goals) and the sustaining of popular allegiance. The analogy to the conduct of a war is obvious: government strives to effectively coordinate the war effort and to maintain popular support for it.

2. “Excessive” political participation considered dangerous and therefore undesirable, because members of lower socio-economic groups tend to have authoritarian attitudes and to be politically uninformed. They are, in short, democratically incompetent. Note that Huntington, while agreeing with this thesis, does so for a different reason, believing that participation places too many demands on the political system and reduces elite steering capacity.

3. Widespread apathy judged politically rational behavior: Most behavioral theorists thought of political participation in narrowly economic terms: rational participation was based on a calculation of benefits over costs, or in Thoreau’s terms, on “expediency.” From this perspective, it was difficult to explain why ordinary citizens should even bother to vote. Political apathy on the part of the masses was considered rational, but so to was political action by corporations and other large institutions, since they could usually reap substantial economic benefits from it. Thus the apathy necessary to system stability was actually held up as a model of citizenship.

4. Elite pluralism: Democracy under conditions of widespread apathy and limited participation is a competitive struggle for votes among contending elites plus the provision of civil rights and liberties (though in fact racial discrimination was pervasive at the time). In addition, there needs to be a near consensus on the “structural principles of the existing society” (in other words, Hartz’s liberal consensus).

Some theorists placed the emphasis on pluralism, stressing that voters in the aggregate exercised substantial influence over elite leadership and government policy because elections amounted to referenda on both. Others argued that, in truth, power and effective agency were concentrated among the elites because they shaped the political agenda and controlled the political system.

5. The authoritarian underpinnings of Cold War democracy: System stability entails active elite management, and the latitude, the ‘freedom of action’ required for effective management will be crimped unless there is a large measure of citizen deference to political authority. But the cultivation of deference depends upon the existence of undemocratic authority patterns in other dimensions of social life (family, school, work, military service, and so forth). On the one hand, the putative need for authoritarianism in government requires the widespread experience of authoritarian relationships outside government; on the other, the reality that the capitalist economy, the patriarchal family and other dominant social institutions themselves depend on undemocratic forms of authority means that, for their stability, government must also include a “healthy element of authoritarianism.” A vibrant democracy in either sphere (public or private) would threaten to destabilize authoritarian patterns in the other.

6. The actual taken to be the ideal: As mentioned earlier, the theorists who saw in Cold War America the realization of political democracy elevated actual conditions to the level of ideals.

Carole Pateman’s Participation and Democratic Theory, from which much of the information above was taken, is a useful source of further information.

II. Huntington and the Need to Rollback the “Democratic Surge” of the Sixties

Huntington’s theory recapitulates many of the elements of the Cold War model of democracy outlined above. He is chiefly concerned about system stability, and regards an “excess of democracy” as the primary threat to that stability: “The vitality of democracy in the 1960s raised questions about the governability of democracy in the 1970s” (64). He views widespread apathy as a sign of political health, not a shortcoming. Finally, he makes the need to restore undemocratic forms of authority the central theme of his argument:

Restoring undemocratic forms of authority requires a reassertion of their functional superiority: “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). Thus he claims, for example, 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). Note that Huntington makes no attempt, in this article at least, to defend this claim.

Nearly all the differences between Huntington’s theory and that of the earlier model derive from extraordinary differences in historical experience. The earlier model crystallized towards the end of the fifties as a justification, if not a celebration, of that decade’s apathy and conformism. Huntington, by contrast, might be accused of conservative nostalgia, for he wonders how apathy and deferential conformism can be restored in the wake of the sixties. Not only did the proliferation of social movements break the spell of Cold War subservience, it effectively refuted a key element of the model of Cold War democracy. Ideological conflict was not at an end -- millions of Americans were troubled enough or angry enough about the “American way” to engage in a wide variety of protest and resistance actions. Over time, moreover, the sixties movements became radicalized. The Black Panthers made a revolutionary nationalist appeal to working class and impoverished blacks living in the urban ghettos. They combined a demand for black self-determination, international solidarity with Third World revolutionary movements, and a willingness to ally with radical whites. A growing current of the peace movement adopted an anti-imperialist position of support for Vietnamese resistance to the US. Radical feminists identified male supremacy as a system of domination woven through all the institutions and customs of society. Only a revolutionary union of women could expose and extirpate it. The student movement erupted in a series of strikes and occupations of administrative buildings. The universities were indicted as prowar, racist bastions of ruling power. The momentary takeovers were symbolic of a politics which sought permanent popular control over these institutions. The American Indian Movement (AIM) assaulted white paternalism by occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.

Given Huntington’s political objective -- the restoration of elite authority -- his ideological objective might be described as the submergence or effacement of sixties’ radicalism. Initially, he discusses this radicalism only in terms of barren abstractions -- “increased group consciousness” and “increased ideological consistency.” About the social experiences and political insights which gave birth to sixties’ radicalism he is silent. Radical feminists, for example, were not “challenging” masculine “authority” for the hell of it, but because it was confining, degrading, and oftentimes brutal. Yet Huntington’s final position on sixties’ radicalism is the completely mystifying assertion that it was due to “creedal passion” evoked by a period of “rapid social change” (112). This is a mystification on two accounts. First, it was not “rapid social change” which produced what he calls “creedal passion,” but rather the bursting forth of social movements which precipitated rapid social change. Secondly and more importantly, he reduces radical beliefs to the intellectualized expression of “passions,” mere arbitrary and irrational responses to change. Aside from reflecting his refusal to consider the substance of radical belief, this conforms to Huntington’s desire to restore the legitimacy of elite authority. The supposedly irrational passions of the multitude need authority to keep them in check.

Huntington, while acknowledging that the sixties saw the return of ideological conflict, considers the period an aberration:

He proposes a 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 leads to decreased political participation” (84).

To achieve a return to apathy, Huntington suggests that the issue focus be shifted to the economy. 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). Translated, Huntington is proposing a divide and conquer strategy based upon economic differences. The worsening economic conditions of the seventies, brought about by Vietnam War spending, no doubt gave this strategy credibility. While the war and not the Great Society programs was responsible for inflation, budget deficits, a negative balance of trade, and a loss of American competitiveness in a number of important fields, conservative politicians had considerable success in reversing blame. By blaming the Great Society for the economic woes caused by the Vietnam War, they not only rationalized the gutting of social welfare programs, they succeeded, as Huntington urged, in fomenting racially charged economic divisions.

Radical Democracy as an Antidote for the Cold War -- the Port Huron Statement

The Port Huron Statement is propelled by the problem of a society whose middle class comforts come at the price of a barbaric foreign policy and a racist domestic one, yet in which material prosperity, fear of being disloyal during war, the regimented complexity of life, and the Cold War’s reduction of fundamental opposition to virtual treason have seemingly driven from consciousness the possibility of any “viable alternative to the present,” any prospect of “new departures” (469). For dissidents such as Hayden who are “imbued with urgency,” society was, as the novelist Henry Miller put it, an “air-conditioned nightmare.”

Like Jane Addams, Hayden cannot overlook the gulf separating principles from practice. The nation proclaims itself committed to freedom and equality yet uses its military power against those fighting for freedom in the Third World. At home the President, already possessing the necessary powers to end racial segregation, stands by while civil rights activists are beaten and even killed. Worse, perhaps, most people are mute despite “deeply felt anxieties” beneath the “glaze” of contentment. “Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for now” (469). In place of genuine democracy there is only silence and paralyzing fear. Thus the goal of Students for a Democratic Society is to reawaken the yearning for a life not molded and limited by impersonal dominating institutions. SDS is “an effort rooted in the ancient, still unfulfilled conception of man [sic] attaining determining influence over his circumstances of life” (470).

SDS’s democratic radicalism: Hayden identifies eight qualities of a radical democratic alternative to Cold War authoritarianism: (1) “Making values explicit”, (2) rejection of dogmatism, (3) humanism, (4) reaffirmation of citizen sovereignty and competence, (5) civic individualism, (6) expanded political participation, (7) democratization of civil society (schools, workplaces, etc.), and (8) nonviolence. These are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Making values explicit echoes Thoreau’s distinction between moral principle and expediency. Like Thoreau, Hayden is sharply critical of those who serve an immoral system with their heads. Professors and administrators “sacrifice controversy to public relations” while “their skills and silence are purchased by investors in the arms race” (470). Narrow thinking bred of specialization and quiet despair born of the “horrors of the twentieth century” must be overcome if people are again to ask basic questions about what makes a life worthwhile. In addition, educators and activists must stimulate new visions and a richer historical understanding so that people do not continue to “regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally functioning parts” (469) but begin imagining how we can “live in a different and better way” (470).

Adopting the tradition of American pragmatism found in John Dewey, Hayden rejects “sure formulas” and “closed theories” in favor of the analysis of “concrete conditions” using “the guideposts of basic principles” (471). He breaks decisively with the different currents of the old left due to their outmoded doctrines and antidemocratic organizations. The Communist dream was “perverted by Stalinism,” while the social democratic strategy of pursuing the “step-by-step transformation of society as the result of pushing for one ‘politically acceptable’ reform after another’” (478) plays into the hands of the American elite, which uses “state intervention, . . . our abundant capacity for material gratification, and the ability to condition nearly all the information which people receive” to stabilize the system and soften contradictions.

The result of technological and economic progress was supposed to be expansion of human freedom and of opportunities for “self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity” (471), yet nearly the opposite results have obtained. The very workers who have gained the greatest material benefits from post-war prosperity commute from sterile suburbs to the dull monotony of assembly line work.

Compounding this, the dominant strain of Cold War political theory (see above) regards the citizen as “a thing to be manipulated, . . . inherently incapable of directing his own affairs” (471). What is closer to the truth is that “human incompetence” is the product of elite social engineering, which has induced “a sense of powerlessness” in ordinary citizens and enforced an ignorance of the underlying dynamics of the socio-political order. This, in turn, has engendered “repressive and controlling,” status conscious and egotistical behavior in personal life as a form of compensation and an expression of buried anxiety. What is needed is to restore both political and personal sovereignty, the latter meaning “not to have one’s way so much as . . . to have a way that is one’s own” (471).

People who feel politically and personally empowered and informed will be capable of civic individualism, that generosity of spirit which “imprints one’s unique individual qualities in the relation to other men [sic], and to all human activity” (471). In an era of complex interdependence, a rich and wide experience of connection with others based on feelings of kinship and respect is necessary if human beings are to make sense of social reality and find ways to govern it together. Moreover, “to dislike isolation is not to favor the abolition of privacy; the latter differs from isolation in that it occurs or is abolished according to individual will” (472).

In place of the sham “democracy without publics” of Cold War America, marked by “the actual structural separation of people from power, from relevant knowledge, from pinnacles of decision-making” (474), SDS sought “the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims”: individual involvement in decisions affecting their lives; and “that society be organized to encourage independence in men [sic] and provide the media for their common participation” (472). This would entail: (a) decisions made by “public groupings”; a positive conception of politics as “collectively creating an acceptable pattern of social relations”; that politics serve to bring people out of isolation and into community; and that the “political order” clarify problems, provide outlets for expression, facilitate the illumination of choices, and see that “channels . . . be commonly available to relate men to knowledge and power” (472).

SDS also rejected authoritarianism in civil society, notably in the universities and the workplace. Just as Eckstein, Huntington and other Cold War conservatives saw a necessary symmetry between authoritarianism in civil society and in government, so SDS believed that democratization had to occur in both spheres. Hayden criticized the paternalism of the university, its divorcement from the realities of social life, and the extensive influence which “private financial interests” exercise over them, making them “less disposed to diagnose society critically, less open to dissent” (474). And Hayden appeared to call for economic democracy, declaring that the major economic “resources and means of production should be open to democratic participation and subject to democratic social regulation” (472).

Finally, SDS urged “that the means of violence be abolished and the institutions -- local, national, and international -- that encourage nonviolence as a condition of conflict be developed” (472).