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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

The Uses of Passion

American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony By Samuel P. Huntington 303 pp., $15.00

By William E. Mckibben

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY officials, in the spring of 1969, sponsored a campus-wide "convocation" on the topic of Vietnam. As Alan Adelson in his book SDS recounts it, the day's final speaker, historian William Leuchtenberg, "brought the whole thing to a head. Woefully he warned that Americans are losing faith in their democracy." But the radicals throughout the crowd cheered and called out things like 'It's about time.' Leuchtenberg said: 'Our hope lies in the ballot box.' "BULLSHIT' cried the radicals."

Another speech--this one given a year earlier at the Harvard Commencement--opens Government professor Samuel Huntington's new book. "American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony." Delivering the traditional "English oration," law student Melvin E. Levine tried to explain the protests of the decade to the parents gathered in the Yard. Our activism, he said, is not an effort to "subvert institutions or an attempt to challenge values which have been affirmed for centuries...We are not conspiring to destroy America. We are attempting to do precisely the reverse: we are reaffirming the values which you have instilled in us and which you taught us to respect."

Huntington stakes his book--a profound, superbly constructed argument--on the notion that this Harvard "moderate" was more typical of his generation than the Columbia "radicals." Young Levine's speech, he says, "had precisely caught the spirit of the decade. By and large, the struggles of the 1960s did not involve conflicts between partisans of different principles. What the 1960s did involve was a reaffirmation of traditional American ideals and values." Indeed, Huntington insists, the same is true of all four periods of activism ("creedal passion") in our history--the Revolutionary era, the Jacksonian period, the Progressive era and the 1960s and early 70s. "In sum, creedal passion periods involve intense efforts by large numbers of Americans to return to first principles," an "American creed" represented by vague and symbolic words like freedom, equality, justice, and individual rights, and marked by a pervasive "antipower ethic."

We are united by those ideals--there has, for instance, never been a powerful socialist movement in this nation--but also divided by them, or so Huntington insists--that is the central message of his book, the reason why political turbulence is a guaranteed American phenomenon. Though we share the same goals, we do not always agree on the success of our system in reaching them. Indeed, Huntington argues, to the degree that a government must govern, it will always fall short of the absolutes: certainly it will never be able to erase the continuing suspicions about government power. This gap between expectations and performance (or, in Huntington's brushed-chrome lingo, between ideals and institutions, abbreviated as the "IvI gap") fuels our volatile periods of creedal passion. "The ideological challenge to American government thus comes not from abroad but from home, not from imported Marxist doctrines but from homegrown American idealism."

Convulsive outbursts like the 1960s, occur only occasionally in our history, not because the gap between hopes and achievements is necessarily greater in such periods, but because it is perceived as such. The continuing "cognitive dissonance" created by this gap breeds four responses--the intense moralism of the creedal passion periods, cynicism, hypocrisy (a denial that the gap exists, known under other circumstances as patriotism), and complacency. Relative deprivation amidst general prosperity, and increased numbers of politically active young people (who tend to moralism, becoming cynical, patriotic or complacent as they age) are among the possible triggers of activist phases of the cycle, which he says occur at about 60-year intervals.

IN THE FUTURE, Huntington says, it is entirely possible that American could keep swinging along on the same rollercoaster with occasional passion periods to clean the pipes of our system, keeping it free of "stagnation and decay." But the chance also is there, he fears, that "the oscillations among the responses could intensify in such a way as to threaten to destroy both ideals and institutions." Moralism could get out of hand, and keep our government so weak it can't deal with the myriad problems, we face; since "the realities of power ensure that government will never be truly democratic," there is at least the possibility of continued unrest. This caution--this pessimism--is a strong undertow throughout the book.

So that is the argument, elegantly and readably described in this 303-page volume. A serious consideration of the stance will examine both its veracity and its implications, but first a superficial criticism: Professor Huntington devotes a good portion of the end of his book to justifying the sort of foreign policy that led to our involvement in Vietnam, a tortured agglomeration of Kirkpatrick-like nonsense and absurd historical claims. For example, he says that 1967, when 500,000 U.S. troops were in Indochina marked the "high point of democracy and political liberty in Vietnam." Clearly, Huntington labors under a simpleminded deception that confuses "elections" with freedom. Huntington is a brilliant man, like most of the men who, with him, planned the greatest immorality in our history; he would be well-advised to stop talking about Vietnam and hope the rest of the nation proves as forgetful as our president.

Since longitudinal surveys were rare in the Revolutionary Era, and George Gallup was still several generations distant when Old Hickory sat in the White House, Huntington concentrates on the 1960s and 1970s, a span lotted up and graphed more completely than any in our history. His contention that the 1960s closely resembled the other "creedal passion periods" in the degree of adherence to traditional American political values is not so much wrong as incomplete. Certainly, adherence to some "American creed," especially in the early years, is a current that runs through much of the writing from the New Left. Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus in the early 60s, wrote for example that "the things we are asking for in our civil rights process have a deceptively quaint ring. We are asking for the due process of law ... We are asking that regulation ought to be considered as arrived at legitimately only from the consensus of the governed. These phrases are all pretty old, but they are not being taken seriously in American today. "In a 1965 speech SDS president Carl Oglesby brought Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine back from the grave to discuss the war in Vietnam." Our dead revolutionaries would soon wonder why their country was fighting against what appeared to be a revolution," he declared.

But those mid-60s views, and the survey data produced by Huntington, tell only one part of the story. As the Movement aged, it grew fiercer, following an ever-increasing spiral of rhetoric and action, a spiral that, unquestionably, helped destroy the cause. By 1969, at least the leading activists on college campuses had moved from liberal, moralistic frustration to programmatic, very radical leftism. Students who had been happy to march with signs were throwing rocks. Asked in 1969 what he foresaw "as the future tactic of the movement," Abbie Hoffman--by no means on the most radical edge of the movement--answered: "Sabotage. Today I don't think I'd sit in a building. I am only interested in what I can get away with--and that spells sabotage. The movement is bound to become more violent."

Words can become so vague that they lose their pungency and become hail-mary sort of comforting sounds. To Americans, liberty, freedom and the like are such words, held close and uttered reverently by radicals and reactionaries, apologists and activists, crusaders and cops. So to say that 60s activists shared some belief in those goals is correct, but to link them too closely to the campaigners of the Progressive era of the Jacksonian period may be an exaggeration. By the end of the period, the leader, and many of the followers, were angry and bitter, they wanted liberty, freedom, and equality, and they mistrusted power, but--in their intense frustration--they were willing, at least rhetorically, to tear the whole American construct down. Some of them built bombs.

AND THE FARTHER OUT ON THE LEFT they edged, the more frustrated, the more totally disappointed, the Vietnam generation eventually became. As Huntington quite correctly points out, the 60s activists didn't accomplish a hell of a lot--they couldn't end the war for years, and they didn't change any basic institutions of our government. Desegregation was the only victory (an achievement that may yet prove transient), and even the civil rights movement was unable to even get a grip on the thornier question of economic rights for minorities. Indeed, the most discouraging portion of The Promise of Disharmony deals with the limits to reform--not only in the 60s but throughout our history. Beginning with the notion that there is "considerable repetition from one creedal passion period to another: the favorite causes of one era tend to reappear in the next." Huntington reaches the obvious conclusion:

Through two hundred years and four major periods of reform fervor, the history of progresive reform is, apparently, the history of much reform but modest progress. Reform seems ephemeral, privilege reincarnate, and the realization of the democratic ideal only marginally closer in 1976 than it was in 1776.

In fact, Huntington says activists in the 1960s had less effect than their predecessors. "The goals of reform have tended to be more widely achieved in the early periods than in the later ones."

Why this increasingly depressing outcome to America's creedal passion periods? A conflict between "history and progress," Huntington explains, one that involves the difficulty of campaigning for the old ways, made more difficult by the inertia of modern institutions. But a more convincing explanation might be this: that many Americans, not out of patriotism but out of callous economic or political self-interest, have perverted the American Creed itself (and not, as Huntington argues, just the institutional reforms that emerge from it) to hold people in bondage. It is no accident, it seems to me, that words like rights and liberty play prominent parts in those Mobil Oil ads in the Times, no accident that the defense complex is very solicitous of "individual freedoms," no accident that Ronald Reagan, in private an unparalleled chum of every special interest, is in public a protector of the common man against, "pervasive government power." Huntington, discussing political reforms introduced by the progressives, quotes historian Ted Lowi: "The perpetual bane of the reformer's existence is the ease with which the party leaders adapt new structures to the old purposes."

In one sense, then, The Promise of Disharmony is a compelling argument for abandoning the "American Creed" as we have come to know it--abandoning reform, in favor of thoroughgoing and systemic change, in favor of revolution. Huntington seems to agree, at least in part, with the Columbia radicals who were convinced "the system" could never cure the country's ills. What is needed may be the exposure of those buzzwords for what they have become--camouflage for men who have no interest in freedom or justice, who have managed to enslave most Americans with their perversions of these ideas. This ill-defined and watery "American Creed" has offered convenient cover for those whose ideas are directly contrary to its noble ideals; they have managed to fool enough of the people to withstand the few radicals who have caught on to their game.

Huntington's argument, in this light, reduces itself to a defense of America in relative terms. "American political institutions are more open, liberal, and democratic than those of any other major society now or in the past. If Americans ever abandon or destroy these institutions, they are likely to do so in the name of their liberal democratic ideals. "Our country, in other words, does not live up to its creed. And cannot be reformed to ever live up to its creed. But an attempt to meet those noble goals might well destroy the nation that comes closest to meeting them. For Huntington, an idea is a conclusion. For others--for optimists--it could be a challenge.

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