How Samuel Huntington Predicted Our Political Moment

Jason Willick, American Interest, July 14, 2016

Samuel Huntington, the professor of government at Harvard University (and member of The American Interest editorial board from its founding until his death in 2008) was a titan of 20th-century social science. Several of his books, including Political Order in Changing SocietiesThe Third Wave, and The Clash of Civilizations, are classic works that will shape political thought for generations.

Huntington’s final book, however, has been denied a place in that pantheon. Who Are We?–a wide-ranging treatise that argued, among other things, that American elites were dangerously out of touch with the American public when it came to issues of patriotism, foreign policy, and national identity–was panned by most mainstream reviewers in 2004 as an ideological and careless screed that flirted with xenophobia. At 77, the eminent scholar was accused in respectable circles of losing his marbles.

But as the Republican Party prepares to hand its nomination to Donald Trump–a self-described “America First” nationalist, running on a platform of immigration restriction, trade wars, and Jacksonian foreign policy–Huntington’s thesis is looking more prescient than ever before–not as a prescription, but as a way of describing the divisions running through the heart of American society.

Since Trump’s rise, many sharp analysts have identified the clash between nationalism and cosmopolitanism as the fulcrum of American politics and even suggested that our parties are in the process of a long-term realignment driven by these competing understandings of American national identity. But Huntington saw the crucial importance of this fracture more than a decade before the gifted New York demagogue declared his candidacy for president:

The views of the general public on issues of national identity differ significantly from those of many elites. The public, overall, is concerned with physical security but also with societal security, which involves the sustainability–within acceptable conditions for evolution–of existing patterns of language, culture, association, religion and national identity. For many elites, these concerns are secondary to participating in the global economy, supporting international trade and migration, strengthening international institutions, promoting American values abroad, and encouraging minority identities and cultures at home. The central distinction between the public and elites is not isolationism versus internationalism, but nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.

According to Huntington, postwar globalization had given rise to a new class of “global citizens” at the highest echelons of American academia, industry, and (bipartisan) politics–a “de-nationalized” elite whose “attitudes and behavior contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification of the rest of the American public.” The jet-setting cosmopolitans tended to be far more supportive of free trade, open immigration, and activist foreign policy than most Americans. Huntington described this wide and allegedly growing gap as a major source of the decline in trust in democratic institutions since the 1960s.

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Though he would surely see through Trump’s opportunistic demagoguery if he were alive today, Huntington was rightly concerned about the tendency of the political class to ignore the public’s preferences on issues related to America’s identity, culture, and role in the world. Disillusioned by both liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, he advocated for an alternative approach. “Cosmopolitanism and imperialism attempt to reduce or to eliminate the social, political and cultural differences between America and other societies,” he wrote. “A national approach would recognize and accept what distinguishes America from those societies.”

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