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We Can’t Build Political Solidarity from Cultural Rubble

“Democracy in America is in crisis.” So begins James Davison Hunter’s new book Democracy and Solidarity: On the Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis. Few readers would disagree with his assertion.

Amid the crisis, American Christians have rediscovered political theology. From Catholic integralism to post-liberalism to Christian nationalism, we’re awash in proposals for a new political future. But Hunter first wants us to reassess our present problem. In his telling, our primary challenges are cultural, not political.

Contrary to the voices on both left and right who assert our troubled democracy can be repaired through “political will and smart public policy,” Hunter argues the problem is deeper: “We no longer have the cultural resources to work through what divides us” (18). If his reasoning is correct, our societal illness is more advanced and our moment more urgent than we realize.

Is there a future for liberal democracy? Perhaps not. But if there is, it lies along the path of repairing and rebuilding our culture’s deep structures.

Solidarity Is the Problem

As his book’s title suggests, Hunter frames the problem of modern democracy in terms of solidarity. We tend to think of solidarity as the willingness to come together with other people. But Hunter argues that “solidarity . . . is about the cultural preconditions and the normative sources that make coming together possible in the first place” (xii). He’s not arguing Americans don’t want to come together. He’s arguing we’ve lost the cultural resources that make coming together possible.

He’s not arguing Americans don’t want to come together. He’s arguing we’ve lost the cultural resources that make coming together possible.

Hunter is one of America’s most eminent sociologists. Since 1983, he’s held a teaching post at the University of Virginia, and in 1995, he founded the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the same institution. Like his mentor Peter Berger, he’s taken a keen interest in the problem of moral order. His 1991 book Culture Wars catapulted that term into our national consciousness, and his 2010 work To Change the World was the most provocative analysis of Christian cultural engagement since Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Democracy and Solidarity applies his trademark emphasis on the “deep structures of culture” to our failing political ecosystem.

America’s motto is e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” How much pluribus is allowed within the unum? And how do the boundaries of the unum work against the pluribus? These questions have been repeatedly confronted during our national history, and our ability to work through them has made American democracy resilient. But the cultural framework that has underwritten our ability to cooperate is beginning to unravel. Hunter writes,

For quite some time, the culture that has underwritten liberal democracy in America (and in Europe too) has been unraveling. The cultural sources that made it possible in the first place have, in the most elemental ways, dissolved, and all of the efforts to reconfigure and revivify those cultural sources over the decades . . . have [failed]. (49)

American Christians have a bad habit of fixating on culture-war issues at a surface level. Hunter’s analysis takes us deeper, inviting us to see the erosion of our frameworks for meaning. Once, we shared a “background consensus” about issues of knowledge, purpose, and ethics. The loss of those shared ideals is the real story underneath our political polarization.

Five Key Movements

We can summarize Hunter’s story about the decay of American democracy in five basic movements.

1. It started with a ‘hybrid-Enlightenment.’

This is Hunter’s term for the unique recipe of ideas that birthed American democracy. The British and Scottish Enlightenment, the classical natural-law tradition, Greek and Roman republicanism, Protestant Calvinism, and Puritan millennialism all melded together in “a lively and evolving syncretism.” These are the ideals we’ve been fighting over ever since, and they’re the basis for our cultural solidarity.

2. The hybrid-Enlightenment gave us a framework for ‘working through’ our differences.

Hunter deploys the concept of “working through” (borrowed from the field of psychiatry) to describe “the dynamics by which cultures work through their contradictions historically and sociologically” (28). For example, America was founded on the premise that all people are created equal. In practice, we’ve never lived up to that vision. Our national history is the story of how we’ve tried to “work through” that contradiction to achieve solidarity.

3. Over time, our cultural logic has changed.

In our disagreements about social and political issues, Americans have always shared a “cultural logic” that allowed us to make sense of our differences and argue meaningfully about them. But the cultural logic of liberal democracy, rooted in hybrid-Enlightenment ideals, has gradually been supplanted by the cultural logic of nihilism:

Critique and blame are totalizing. Nuance and complexity are minimized. . . . Every group defines itself against some other group, the net effect of which is the destruction of common life. (335)

4. As a result, the deep structures of our culture have eroded.

The surface-level dysfunction in our society is merely a symptom. The real problem is a fracture in the “deep structures” of our culture: our assumptions about metaphysics (what is real), epistemology (how we know), anthropology (what is a human), ethics (how humans should act), and teleology (what it all means). Hunter writes, “American public life is divided . . . not only in its vocabulary, but in its premises about what is real and true and how we know these things, about what is right and just, and about what the nation is and what it should be” (324).

5. We’re now at a point of exhaustion.

Late-stage democracy has suffered “a great unraveling”; we’re facing societal exhaustion. The hybrid-Enlightenment ideals that once united us have lost their force. Our cultural resources for working through differences have been depleted. Both left and right have abandoned the pursuit of solidarity through persuasion or compromise. This unraveling didn’t happen overnight; there’s a history here, and Hunter spends the bulk of his book walking the reader through it. But the result is “a weakening of liberal democracy’s cultural infrastructure” (292).

Is There a Way Forward?

For Hunter, the key to the issue isn’t the past; it’s the present. His discussion of current conditions will most benefit the patient reader. Hunter sees the same things you see: political polarization, identity politics, authoritarian impulses on the right and left, a media environment that rewards outrage, a public culture of anger and victimhood. As you’d expect from much of Hunter’s earlier work, it doesn’t lend itself to direct practical application. But if you’ve followed his argument thus far, he hopes you’ll begin to see these realities in a different light.

Both left and right have abandoned the pursuit of solidarity through persuasion or compromise.

And that, it seems, is Hunter’s project. He wants us to attend to the cultural roots of America’s political crisis (as the book’s subtitle states). Without minimizing the important role of law and public policy, Hunter wants to elevate our attentiveness to the health (or unhealth) of our public culture.

Instead of being co-opted into the culture wars, thoughtful Christians have an opportunity to rehabilitate the deep structures of American culture. But we’ll only give ourselves to that work if we reject the logic of nihilism and embrace the possibility of a common good.

Hunter’s hope—stated briefly in a coda that follows the last chapter—is for “a paradigm shift within liberal democracy itself” that would lead to a reinvigorated liberalism. I’m more inclined to surmise liberalism has run its course and that our future lies in a more post-liberal direction. But even where I disagree with his solutions, I’m provoked by Hunter’s analysis of the problem.

Democracy and Solidarity offers a trenchant examination of our cultural rupture that’s alarming, informative, and interesting. It’s a book we’ll be arguing about for years to come.


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