clock menu more-arrow no yes

This 1981 book eerily predicted today's distrustful and angry political mood

Over the past several months, attempts to explain the rise of anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump and now Ted Cruz have evolved from, "What the hell is going on?" to, "No, really, what the hell is going on?" But at least the basic descriptive landscape is becoming increasingly clear: Voters are in a foul mood, seething with distrust and anger. They feel like the government is corrupt and unresponsive, and it's time to do something about it. America has lost its way. We need to get back to our roots. We need to make America great again.

While this apoplectic outburst of raging disillusion does feel like a new force in American politics, it's actually an old one, and a recurring one. It's just that we haven't experienced it this fully in decades. Really, since the 1960s. And before that in the 1900s. And before that in the 1830s. And before that in the 1770s.

I'm cribbing this pattern from Samuel Huntington's 1981 book American Politics: Promise of Disharmony. More than anything I've read in current journalism and analysis, this 35-year-old classic provides the most compelling big-picture explanation for our current enraged political spirit. It's goose-bump prophetic in its prediction that around this time we would be entering a period of "creedal passion" — Huntington's term for the moralizing distrust of organized power that grips America every 60 years or so. In such periods, the driving narrative is that America has lost its way and we need to return to our constitutional roots.

The core of Huntington's argument is that we are a nation founded on ideals. The problem is that these are ideals can never be fully realized. This creates some obvious tensions. As Huntington explains: "In terms of American beliefs, government is supposed to be egalitarian, participatory, open, noncoercive, and responsive to the demands of individuals and groups. Yet no government can be all these things and still remain a government."

In other words, at the heart of American politics is an unresolvable paradox: Power is illegitimate. But how can a government function without power? So either government is illegitimate because it is doing things (asserting power), or it's useless because it is not doing things. As Huntington wrote, "The American people believe that government ought not to do things it must do in order to be a government and that it ought to do things it cannot do without undermining itself as a government."

Or, as he also put it, "The dominant political creed constitutes a standing challenge to the power of government and the legitimacy of political institutions. Political authority is vulnerable in America as it is nowhere else."

Huntington calls this gap between our ideals and our institutions the "IvI gap," short for ideals versus institutions.

Most of the time, this gap is not a big deal. Most of the time, the tension between the anti-power ethos of American political ideals and the necessarily pro-power functioning of American political institutions exists below the surface, suppressed through a predictable cycle of cynicism, then complacency, then hypocrisy. But every six decades or so, it erupts into the open in a paroxysm of "creedal passion" that looks a lot like the current political environment.

Huntington's calendar places the first period of American creedal passion in the 1770s, the time of the American Revolution and the revolt against "the crown." The next period came in the 1830s, when Jacksonian Democracy led a revolt against "the bank." Then again in the 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives led a revolt against "the interests and the system." Then again in the 1960s, when activists revolted against the military-industrial complex. This calendar anticipates another period of creedal passion in the 2020s — which we are rapidly approaching.

What does a "creedal passion" period look like?

These periods follow certain recurrent themes. "The common enemy in all was large-scale organization," wrote Huntington. "The common goal in all four periods was the break-up or reduction of organized power, its reform and control, the opening up of the processes of decision making to public participation. ... In all four eras, institutions of power were summoned to judgment before the ideals of liberty, and the anti-power ethic reinvigorated as a guide to political action."

More specifically, Huntington has identified 14 characteristics of these periods. Nine describe the general mood:

  • "Discontent was widespread; authority, hierarchy, specialization, and expertise were widely questioned or rejected."
  • "Political ideas were taken seriously and played an important role in the controversies of the time."
  • "Traditional American values of liberty, individualism, equality, popular control of government, and the openness of government were stressed in public discussion."
  • "Moral indignation over the IvI gap was widespread."
  • "Politics was characterized by agitation, excitement, commotion, even upheaval — far beyond the usual routine of interest-group conflict."
  • "Hostility toward power (the antipower ethic) was intense, with the central issue of politics often being defined as 'liberty versus power.'"
  • "The exposure or muckraking of the IvI gap was a central feature of politics."
  • "Movements flourished devoted to specific reforms or 'causes' (women, minorities, criminal justice, temperance, peace)."
  • "New media forms appeared, significantly increasing the influence of the media in politics."

The remaining five describe the political changes these periods bring.

  • "Political participation expanded, often assuming new forms and often expressed through hitherto unusual channels."
  • "The principal political cleavages of the period tended to cut across economic class lines, with some combination of middle- and working-class groups promoting change."
  • "Major reforms were attempted in political institutions in order to limit power and reshape institutions in terms of American ideals (some of which were successful and some of which were lasting)."
  • "A basic realignment occurred in the relations between social forces and political institutions, often including but not limited to the political party system."
  • "The prevailing ethos promoting reform in the name of traditional ideals was, in a sense, both forward-looking and backward-looking, progressive and conservative."

While it's too early to be sure about the final five, most of the first nine characteristics resonate solidly, some almost eerily well, with the current political moment.

Though Huntington's claim is that this cycle largely follows its own internal, endogenous logic (moralism –> cynicism –> complacency –> hypocrisy –> moralism), he does note a few external factors that periods of creedal passion politics tend to have in common.

Generally, they do not occur during times of war or economic crisis. But they are more likely to occur "during periods of rapid social and economic change, when established relationships among groups are disrupted." As Huntington explains (echoing his earlier work), "In the history of most societies, rapid economic and social change enhances the role of ideology in politics." He also notes, "Changes in the relative social and economic status of particular groups may motivate those groups to focus on the IvI gap and to attempt to bring about reforms in political institutions and practices." The current agita of downwardly mobile middle-class whites fits this description.

Huntington also notes that "young people have a relatively high group propensity toward moralistic behavior," which means that a relatively high percentage of young people in society contributes to moments of creedal passion. Millennials are now overtaking baby boomers as the nation's largest generation. This may be another contributing factor.

And then what?

Each period of creedal passion brings with it a set of political process reforms (see characteristics 10 through 14 above). The 1770s brought the American Revolution. The 1830s expanded suffrage and created the modern mass political parties. The 1900s brought various forms of direct democracy, most prominently the initiative and the direct election of senators, and a law banning corporations from making direct campaign contributions. The 1960s (and early '70s) brought a wave of sunshine and transparency laws, binding presidential primaries, and major campaign finance reform.

But in the end, the system is never fully reformed, just realigned. The reforms empower some interests and disempower other interests. As Huntington writes, "The cry is reform, the result is realignment."

The system survives, Huntington explains, because "the peculiar genius of the American system is that, more than other major political systems, it allows for this period reconstitution of its principal institutional components."

After a decade or so of moralistic politics demanding that we close the "IvI gap" and return to our constitutional roots, the fever historically breaks. As Huntington writes, "The feeling that the gap must be eliminated is replaced by the feeling that nothing can be changed." People realize that "the gap must be accepted — and perhaps even enjoyed, as its role in American humor suggests." Cynicism prevails.

And then cynicism predictably fades, and politics enters an era of complacency, in which most people are politically disengaged. This is followed by an era of hypocrisy: Boosterism and patriotism dominate public life ("American institutions are seen to be open and democratic; America is the land of opportunity."), but beneath the cheerleading, the reality is of course different. This "intense assertion of American ideals leads to renewed perception of the IvI gap." And so another period of creedal passion begins.

Is Huntington right?

Donald Trump is promising to "Make America Great Again." Tea Party Republicans are offering "constitutional Training" and citing the Constitution as a defense against every federal policy they dislike.  Ammon Bundy, leader of the Oregon militia occupying a federal wildlife refuge, has named his group "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom." Sizable majorities of Americans think the government is run for the superrich, by the superrich, and that they have little say in what happens. Trust in institutions is at history-of-polling lows.

Re-reading Huntington, the characteristics he describes across other periods of creedal passion are uncannily resonant with the politics of today. It sure feels like we are entering another era of "creedal passion" in near-clockwork precision.

Of course, it's hard to know how things will play out for sure. Even if Huntington is right, each period looks slightly different from the last.  One way this period may be different is that impetus for reform will probably come from the political right this time, given both that Republicans are likely to control Congress and most state legislatures for at least the next decade (and probably longer), and that more of the moralizing passion is currently on the political right than on the political left.

If Huntington is correct, the next decade is going to be a period when some political reforms that have long stagnated become possible again. It should be an exciting time in American politics.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.