The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 2010)

Polarization and the Crisis of Legitimacy

James Davison Hunter

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 12.3 (Fall 2010). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2010

(Volume 12 | Issue 3)

The longstanding debate about consensus and dissensus in American public life is not merely academic. The data collected, the articles and books published, the heated words exchanged amount to much more than intellectuals blowing smoke at each other. The debate matters a great deal. At stake are questions about the legitimacy of American institutions and, in particular, the institutions of democratic governance.

America was conceived by its founders as an experiment. It is worth asking from time to time how the experiment is going. Just how strong and enduring is American democracy (not to mention its other leading institutions) in the face of fundamental challenges to its legitimacy within the general public? Are its legal-bureaucratic procedures and collective rituals enough to sustain these institutions over time? Or does American democracy require at least some broad-based consent rooted in a common public philosophy? Even when there is assent to common ideals, how substantive does that assent need to be?

There is no question that the normative foundations of American institutions, and American democracy in particular, have been fragmenting and polarizing over the last several decades. The problem is not merely one of inequality, a conflict among those with different economic and political interests within those institutions. Fragmentation and polarization have occurred along cultural axes that reflect competing understandings of what these institutions stand for. The nature and purposes of the family, education, science, faith, business, the media, and government itself are all disputed at a fundamental level.

What makes these conflicts especially knotty is that they often trace back to deeper metaphysical and epistemological differences that rarely if ever see the light of day. When disputes go “all the way down” in this way, what is legitimate for one faction is, by rights, illegitimate for another. What is justice for one is injustice for another. What causes optimism for one faction generates fear and distrust for another. In the back-and-forth volley of power, the net effect has been suspicion, anger, and resentment, and these suggest the makings of a legitimation crisis.

These social, political, and cultural dynamics have been most observable in our public discourse, a discourse given voice by the elites who lead competing culture-producing institutions. The so-called middle of average Americans have very little public platform to give voice to their own grievances besides their vote, which is part of the reason why public discourse over many of these issues has seemed more polarized than the public as a whole.

One take on public opinion data seems to confirm this view. The language of “culture war” seems to overstate the case and to exaggerate the polarization. What kind of war is it if fought just among elites? If average Americans don’t show up? However the language of “war” is precisely how various activists have described their experience. For many caught up in its logic, it feels like war. In the social sciences, the meanings that actors impute to their world and experience is not irrelevant to analysis and interpretation.

The problem is that those who find more consensus than dissensus base their arguments only on the statistical averages found in studies of public opinion, as though culture is reducible to collective psychology. They conveniently ignore the most interesting and important manifestations of culture—critical aspects of culture that are deeply conflicted. Most of these scholars know better.

A closer look at the data, however, makes it clear that much of the broader American public is becoming increasingly polarized. You just have to know where to look for it. Dissensus, then, is not only an artifact of polarizing political parties and special interest groups but extensive throughout the American electorate. This means that the present legitimation crisis has deeper roots and a longer reach. Finding solutions to such common problems as the financial crisis, health care, terrorism, war, and the like, is only made that much more difficult.

Challenges to the legitimacy of American democratic institutions are, of course, anything but new. They have cropped up regularly from the time the Republic was founded. And while these challenges can vary in intensity, they also vary considerably in terms of what triggers dissent, rage, cynicism, and indifference. When a conflict emerges over who is a member of the human community, and therefore worthy of its rights and protections, conflict can become especially volatile. And in a political culture in which identity politics dominates, every conflict is over inclusion and exclusion.

This does not mean that American democracy—its ideals, institutions, and practices—is in any imminent danger of falling apart. A better question is, can it retain enough common meaning and collective purposes to sustain the levels of dissensus we are now seeing and to coherently address the immense challenges it faces in the twenty-first century?

James Davison Hunter is the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory and Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and Is There a Culture War?: A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life, with Alan Wolfe.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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