Democracy and Solidarity: On the Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis, by James Davison Hunter (Yale University Press, 504 pp., $40)

In a 2021 TED Talk, Katherine Maher said that “we all have different truths” and dismissed “our reverence for the truth.” When this clip resurfaced recently, more than a few eyebrows shot up. Here was a top executive of the Wikimedia Foundation, and now of NPR, slighting the value of truth. This footage also revealed what initially looked like a paradox. The idea that “we all have different truths” might at first seem like ecumenicalism, but Maher has made other public statements denigrating her political opponents. Her rhetoric is symptomatic of broader trends in American culture—a breakdown of confidence in public reason and a simultaneous eruption of factionalism.

This larger cultural trajectory is the focus of Democracy and Solidarity, a new work by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. In his 1991 book Culture Wars, Hunter ignited an academic and public debate by proposing that cultural controversies would play an increasingly important role in American politics. At first, Hunter faced considerable pushback from social scientists, who called the culture war an overblown concept. Alas, Hunter observed when I interviewed him recently, “I was right, I think. And I don’t think anyone really denies it today.”

Tracing the disintegration of the public square, Democracy and Solidarity is a bookend to Hunter’s original thesis in Culture Wars. “Democracy in crisis” is a booming genre in American publishing, but Hunter argues that many diagnoses focus simply on the political. He aims instead to sketch out the underlying cultural superstructure that drives much of this dysfunction.

Hunter emphasizes the role of solidarity, which he describes in Democracy and Solidarity as a complex web of emotional and rational connections that “defines a framework of cohesion within which legitimate political debate, discourse, and action take place.” Hunter’s sense of “legitimate” here refers to how any political order sets certain bounds on what is and is not allowed. Solidarity in that broad sense might be particularly important for democratic liberties; without some preexisting sense of cultural connection, a political order will be tempted to turn toward authoritarianism to impose solidarity—a fate Hunter fears for the United States.

But solidarity is not the same as homogeneity. Political orders have within them contradictions, uncertainties, and conflicts. Solidarity provides a field within which a society can work out its tensions—durcharbeiten, in Hunter’s appropriation of a term from Freudian psychoanalysis. Hunter argues that the U.S. originally relied on a “hybrid-Enlightenment” that was itself composite. It included various principles of rationality and democratic debate but also incorporated religious themes (especially from iterations of Protestantism). According to Hunter, the American project was incomplete from the beginning, promising universal rights, while exempting women and some ethnic minorities from full civic participation and even denying personhood to the enslaved. The hybrid-Enlightenment offered a way to work through these disagreements and the endlessly refined process of “boundary work” as the national compact was revised.

The middle section of Democracy and Solidarity conducts a historical survey of the ongoing dynamic of durcharbeiten. The precise balance of the hybrid-Enlightenment shifted over time. For instance, evangelical religious themes grew ascendant during the Second Great Awakening that swept the U.S. in the nineteenth century. This common religious heritage made it possible, for a time, to manage even shattering conflicts, such as over slavery. As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural, both the Union and the Confederacy “read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.”

Hunter notes that portions of the American elite became more secular in the latter part of the nineteenth century, eroding belief in a transcendent ground of meaning and source of being. Durcharbeiten nevertheless marched on. Much of this part of Hunter’s narrative explores a series of implicit debates—between Roger Taney and Frederick Douglass on slavery, for instance, or between Reinhold Niebuhr and John Dewey on progress—to show how arguments could proceed within a broader framework.

By the last third of the twentieth century, though, the durcharbeiten process had begun to break down. The great divisions of the 1960s widened the fractures of American culture into chasms. Immigration reforms transformed the cultural and demographic landscape. The Internet revolutionized national discourse. Some on the left soured on religion, while some cultural conservatives came to see themselves as an embattled minority. Elected officials embraced a slash-and-burn politics, portraying opponents as radical, even un-American, threats to the country. (True, American politics has often been an intense affair, but the growing dysfunction of contemporary Washington seems hard to deny.)

Hunter’s picture of the current American cultural landscape as a conflict between rival tribes is bleak. An alternative to this kind of political warfare is a more technocratic politics (a world of “nudges,” administered by Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.), which he also sees as falling short of the aim of serious durcharbeiten. America’s escalating cultural conflict, he believes, reveals the limits of proceduralism. Without some larger cultural consensus, civic life collapses.

Ironically, Hunter observes in Democracy and Solidarity, the United States may still have some common culture, but the new cultural paradigm seems designed to heighten divisions. Absent faith in the existence of some guiding truth and a discourse aimed at finding this truth, our culture degenerates into universal hostility, in which all cultural actors cast themselves as aggrieved victims. Hunter’s discussion of the breakdown of normal discourse offers a helpful way of understanding a recent revolution: relativism is not the antithesis of the contemporary politics of identity-based grievance but instead the precondition for it. The spectacle of anti-Semitic mobs overrunning elite universities distills this trend: the site of liberal deliberation has become a stage for one of the oldest bigotries. Once the belief in some greater ground of truth has broken down, armies clashing by night are all that remain. Donald Trump promises “vengeance,” while his foes pledge a “reckoning.” Americans endure the maelstrom.

Confronting these challenges is a high-stakes political undertaking. In our conversation, Hunter raised the idea that now might be the time for a “third founding,” after the ones in 1776 and 1865. And in another sense, too: “Athens, the Enlightenment, and now the post-Enlightenment.” The goal of this new founding would be to restore and to extend the promise of “liberal democracy.”

For Hunter, cultural problems require cultural solutions. His book calls for a political reimagination to find a new public mythos that can help bind the nation again. A “reconstituted humanism” would not be the bare proceduralism that haunted academic political theory over the last half of the twentieth century. It would draw instead from a robust range of traditions—not only Christianity but also classical learning and Confucianism, for instance.

In our interview, Hunter emphasized Democracy and Solidarity’s claim that the project of durcharbeiten remains more vital at the local level. Compared with the melee of national politics, face-to-face exchanges are more open to thoughtful negotiations of difference. It seems plausible that the seeds of that more robust civic vision could be found there. If a loss of faith and disenchantment with transcendent truth have undermined the conditions of rational freedom, then tight-knit communities of purpose and responsibility could help restore deeper habits of meaning. The reemergence of classical education—with its insistence on intellectual rigor and the wisdom of tradition—might be one green shoot of civic renewal.

Asserting the importance of culture does not necessarily mean policy passivity. While Hunter doubts that law can be an effective cultural teacher, he writes that policy efforts could be part of the response to this deeper crisis. One of the recurrent themes of Democracy and Solidarity is that political and economic conditions can make certain cultural conflicts worse; for instance, the 2008 financial crisis dramatically accelerated cultural conflict by heightening a sense of economic precarity among working-class Americans. Thus, policy efforts to improve the conditions for working-class families could be part of reknitting the civic compact.

Hunter argues that the algorithmic imperatives of social media platforms have some responsibility for the brokenness of our national culture. He told me that he thought that regaining robust durcharbeiten would likely require a fundamental reorganization of the technology space. If that’s the case, tech policy might be an important component of cultural renewal—whether it’s as modest as limiting phones in classrooms or as ambitious as reforming some regulatory structures of the digital economy.

When I asked him about the future, Hunter offered a stark choice: “Jefferson or Nietzsche”—that is, either a politics of deliberation about the truth or one of pitiless collision. In Democracy and Solidarity, Hunter gives us both a penetrating diagnosis of our current challenges and an archeology of the resources available in the American tradition for meeting them.

This brings us back to the “hybrid-Enlightenment.” I would put a particular stress on “hybrid.” Yes, certain Enlightenment strands were essential for the founding of the United States. Yet, the project of reasoned deliberation goes far beyond the Enlightenment itself, and American culture has many pre-Enlightenment roots. The exotic diversity of American life has nourished the projects of self-governance and belonging. America is a place of mixing and remixing, where immigrant fuses with native-born and cultural legacies cross. Recovering that range of resources perhaps can help us find new unions—and maybe even a renewed Union.

Photo: Tetra Images/Tetra images via Getty Images


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