The sociologist and cultural critic, James Davison Hunter, is well known for his discussion in the 1990s of the concept of “culture war.” Hunter is an astute and insightful diagnostician of the present political and social discontents. On a personal note, his work has influenced my own thinking and writing on many of the matters we often take up at the Forum.
I’m a little early to notice this new book (no cover quite yet), which comes out in February of next year, but here Hunter is with a new volume in the same vein, but which seems to make the point that liberal democracies depend for their survival on other, non-liberal premises and commitments, and these (so he argues) have now been dissolved so completely as to make the political project deeply unstable. The book is Democracy and Solidarity: On the Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis (Yale University Press). One to pre-order and to anticipate.
Liberal democracy in America has always contained contradictions—most notably, a noble but abstract commitment to freedom, justice, and equality that, tragically, has seldom been realized in practice. While these contradictions have caused dissent and even violence, there has always been an underlying and evolving solidarity drawn from the cultural resources of America’s “hybrid Enlightenment.”
James Davison Hunter, who introduced the concept of “culture wars” thirty years ago, tells us in this new book that the historic sources of national solidarity have largely dissolved. While a deepening political polarization is the most obvious sign of this, the true problem is not polarization per se but the absence of cultural resources to work through what divides us. All political regimes require some level of consensus. If it cannot be generated organically, it will be imposed coercively.
Can America’s political crisis be fixed? Can an Enlightenment-era institution—liberal democracy—survive and thrive in a post-Enlightenment world? If, for some, salvaging the older sources of national solidarity is neither possible sociologically, nor desirable politically or ethically, what cultural resources will fund liberal democracy going forward?