America's nervous breakdown is right on schedule
A political scientist predicted a national freakout every 60 years. We're right on cue.
Sometimes it feels like America is going crazy. Arbitrary and confusing public health restrictions, political polarization, lurid media, and escalating culture war create a pervasive sense of disorientation verging on madness. The riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 was only the most vivid example of our collective freakout. Not just the horrified viewers on television but the participants themselves seemed unable to believe what was happening.
Several causes of this condition are contingent — not least the pandemic that put many aspects of normal life on hold. But there are deeper sources of our present freakout. In his 1981 study American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that American history is characterized by nervous breakdowns that recur approximately every 60 years. If our last bout was in the 1960s, we're right on schedule for another outbreak.
Huntington's theory is based on his interpretation of the American political tradition. Americans disagree on many issues, Huntington noted, but beneath the surface, most agree on our overarching values, including liberty, equality, and popular sovereignty. In Europe, there have been comprehensive alternatives like altar-and-throne conservatism, socialism, and fascism. But in the United States, certain basic values have enjoyed relatively broad consensus since the independence movement of the 1770s.
Yet theoretical consensus doesn't make for placid politics. If the "American Creed," as Huntington put it, answers some questions about the structure and purpose of government, it raises others. In particular, the centrality of liberal values encourages us to obsessively compare the reality of civic life to the ideals it's supposed to embody. Huntington called this tension the Ideals vs. Institutions Gap.
There are several possible reactions to the Ideals vs. Institutions Gap. There's complacent tolerance, which results when principles don't seem very important and the differences between what we are and what we aspire to be aren't clearly perceived. There's cynicism, which emerges when we clearly recognize our shortcomings but dismiss the principles that condemn them. And there's hypocrisy, which arises when we affirm the principles but ignore or minimize failures to uphold them. It's not difficult to find examples of each strategy of evasion.
Sometimes, though, the tension between deeply held ideals and existing institutions becomes too glaring to excuse or avoid. When that happens, the public is seized by self-criticism and demands for change. Huntingon described this moralistic fervor as "creedal passion" and enumerated 14 signs of its onset. The list, including widespread indignation, suspicion of organized authority, emergence of new media, and expanded political participation, is uncomfortably familiar.
Individual symptoms of creedal passion are rarely absent from American life, but Huntington identifies four historical periods when the full syndrome appeared with particular intensity. The first was the struggle for independence in the 1770s. A second arose around the 1830s, as the rather aristocratic republic established by the Constitution was challenged by mass democracy, mass immigration, and the spread of slavery. A third broke out in the late 19th Century as progressive and labor movements sought to manage accelerating urbanization and industrialization. The fourth was the combination of civil rights and antiwar movements synonymous with the 1960s.
Although we remember the outcomes of those moments fondly, they hardly felt certain at the time. Indeed, each of these examples were characterized by apocalyptic rhetoric warnings of the end of the American experiment. They were also accompanied by significant violence, from tarring-and-feathering British Loyalists to anti-Catholic rioting to labor union battles to the terrorism of the Weather Underground. In the 1860s, the whole political order collapsed into Civil War. Yet each bout of creedal passion was succeeded by a period of comparative stability. Without resolving all grievances, reforms such as an expanded franchise, economic regulation, and anti-discrimination laws reduced the Ideals vs. Institutions Gap to manageable levels. There's no magical calculation behind the the sixty to seventy year periods that Huntington proposed. But its regularity suggests a tendency of successive generations to pass from reform to conservation to renewed criticism.
But that consensus has been fraying for more than a decade. A series of events beginning with the 2008 financial crisis — and arguably with the Iraq War — called into question whether America was living up to its commitments. As in the 1770s, 1830s, 1890s, and 1960s, many citizens demanded that our government get serious about the promise of liberty and justice for all.
Creedal passion takes different forms on the right and the left, with each side emphasizing certain aspects of our shared values.
Conservatives and Republicans are more concerned with personal freedom and public accountability than with equality. That is why the so-called deep state has become the focus of populist ire. Professionals in national security, public health, and other fields are supposed to provide objective advice to elected officials and to implement their decisions in an unbiased manner. Often, though, they impose their own preferences and wield unaccountable authority. This bureaucracy can be traced back to the progressives of the 1890s, who fearing corruption and incompetence, tried to shift power from party leaders to a meritocratic civil service. Today, many conservatives prefer something like the Jacksonian spoils system that arose from the creedal passion of the 1830s.
Equality with regard to race and gender is the overriding issue on the left. Developing arguments that emerged from civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, progressives contend that the American creed historically applied only to white men. America is a "nation founded on both an ideal and a lie," as The New York Times' Nikole Hannah-Jones put it in her lead essay for the controversial 1619 Project.
The question in every outbreak of creedal passion is how to turn a lie into the truth. The distinctive answer of the 21st century left is that doing so demands not only the absence of intentional discrimination, but also targeted action to eliminate the influence of unconscious bias and historical exclusion. Like their 19th century predecessors, today's progressives trust academic experts and specialized administrators to uphold the ideal more than partisan legislatures and elected officials. Even as they condemn the inegalitarian origins of universities, professional associations, and other major institutions, they paradoxically count on those same institutions to deliver justice.
The tensions seemed to reach a head during the 2020 presidential campaign and its disastrous aftermath. For many Americans, including some who supported Republicans in the past, a vote for Biden was a vote for a return to normalcy. And his inauguration after the Jan. 6 riot seemed to confirm that the system worked, despite the unprecedented resistance of a sitting president.
But that conclusion is too comforting. Rather than a product of the pandemic, or Donald Trump, or Critical Race Theory, or social media, the disputes that most bitterly divide us emerge from principles many of us share. When we judge real institutions by an ideal standard, Huntington showed, we can't long avoid the conclusion that we're failing ourselves. The politics of creedal passion is here to stay.