Liberal Democracy and the Unraveling of the Enlightenment Project

James Davison Hunter in The Hedgehog Review: “…while institutions tend to be stable and enduring, even as they evolve, no institution is permanent or indefinitely fixable. The question now is whether contemporary American democracy can even be fixed. What if the political problems we are rightly worried about are actually symptoms of a deeper problem for which there is no easy or obvious remedy?

These are necessarily historical questions. The democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe and North America were largely products of the Enlightenment project, reflecting all of its highest ideals, contradictions, hopes, and inconsistencies. It underwrote the project of modern liberalism, which, for all of its flaws and failures, can still boast of some of the greatest achievements in human history. As the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, observed, democracy is the political form of the humane ideal.

Yet with the advantage of twenty-first-century hindsight, we can now see that the Enlightenment project has been unraveling for some time, and that what we are witnessing today are likely the political consequences of that unraveling. Any possibility of “fixing” what ails late-modern American democracy has to take the full measure of this transformation in the deep structures of American and Western political culture. While politics can give expression to and defend a particular social order, it cannot direct it. As Michael Oakeshott famously said, “Political activity may have given us Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, but it did not give us the contents of these documents, which came from a stratum of social thought far too deep to be influenced by the actions of politicians.”1

What I am driving at is made clearer by the distinction between the politics of culture and the culture of politics. The politics of culture refers to the contestation of power over cultural issues. This would include the mobilization of parties and rank-and-file support, the organization of leadership, the formation of special-interest coalitions, and the manipulation of public rhetoric on matters reflecting the symbols or ideals at the heart of a group’s collective identity. This is what most people think about when they use the term culture war. In this case, culture war is the accumulation of political conflicts over issues like abortion, gay rights, or federal funding of the humanities and arts. Though culture is implicated at every level, the politics of culture is primarily about politics.

The culture of politics, by contrast, refers to the symbolic environment in which political institutions are embedded and political action occurs. This symbolic environment is constituted by the basic frameworks of implicit meaning that make particular political arrangements understandable or incomprehensible, desirable or reprehensible. These frameworks constitute a culture’s “deep structure.” Absent a deep structure, certain political institutions and practices simply do not make any sense.

This distinction is essential to making sense of our political moment….(More)”.