America is suffering through a legitimacy crisis and that is ultimately a good thing

It’s clear that Donald Trump is an illegitimate President, but is Trump just a function of a broader disease?  Are we undergoing a legitimacy crisis in our broader political culture? In a recent Pew Research Center survey, 86% of respondents say that representative democracy is a good way of governing a country.  51% trust the national government to do what is right for the country and only 46% are satisfied with the way democracy is working in the U.S.  This tells me that Americans are very positive on democracy in the abstract but not so satisfied with its operation presently.

I think America’s political order may be breaking down – at least one element of it anyway.  This does not mean we are on our way to revolution or anarchy but rather the tumultuous politics we are experiencing right now will not go away anytime soon.  The reason is that one element of our political culture – how we manage cultural diversity – is breaking down.

Writing in the context of international order, Christian Reus-Smit claims that creating a legitimate political order requires, “converting material might into political authority, and transforming complex heterogeneity into authorized forms of culture differences.” A legitimate political order therefore, according to Reus-Smit, has two tasks: 1) “convert might into right,” or configure political authority in such a way as to make the unequal distribution of power seam reasonable.  How do authorities (i.e. international orders, states, regimes, governments, etc) justify their enormous power over their subjects?  If the people buy the justification then that particular configuration of power is legitimate.  2) “create authorized forms of difference, and order them hierarchically”, or provide some structure and order to the multiple types of social diversity that are present in any particular political order.  How are people with different values, norms, ideas, etc. supposed to live together under the same system?

So how does the U.S. political order handle these two challenges? I think the best explanation has been offered by Rogers Smith.  His view is that American political culture is defined by three congruent but also contradictory ideas –  liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptive hierarchy.  Liberalism is represented in the values of freedom and liberty essential to the American political order, and our political system is predicated on republicanisms, or representative democracy .  These are both normatively positive and show how “might is translated into right” in the American political order.  The power of the American state is constrained through representative democracy (and the specific institutional set up – checks and balances, separation of powers, etc.) and individual rights restrain state action and empower individuals.  This is the American Politics 101 version of the story, and also the story Smith was critiquing in his article.  That story (what Smith calls the Tocquevillian story of America) is too narrow and dismisses the terrible aspects of the American history – slavery, Native American genocide, patriarchy, etc. – as deviations and aberrations from the story rather than, as Smith argues, equal components of the story.  Smith’s claim is that the third idea he mentions – ascriptive hierarchy – is just as fundamental to the American political order as the other two.  Smith describes the ascriptive hierarchy that existed during America’s founding as:

Men were thought naturally suited to rule over women, within both the family and the polity.  White northern Europeans were though superior culturally – and probably biologically – to black Africans, bronze Native Americans, and indeed all other races and civilizations.  Many British Americans also treated religion as an inherited condition and regard Protestants as created by God to be morally and politically, as well as theologically, superior to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and others.

These hierarchies, rather than being derivations of the egalitarianism that was supposedly driving the American revolution, were an integral part of the political order that emerged from the revolution and has carried forth to today.  At the founding of this country the new freedoms, liberties, and political participation opportunities available  were for White Male Protestants only and for many this was the specific intention of the revolution not an unfortunate violation of larger liberal principles.  The ascriptive hierarchy at the heart of the U.S. political order represents the way the U.S. has tried to fulfill the second task a political order must complete to be legitimate according to Reus-Smit, which is to “create authorized forms of difference, and order them hierarchically.”

Throughout the course of U.S. history this third plank of the American political order – ascriptive hierarchy – has been challenged and modified.  From the civil war, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the civil rights movement and so on there have been oppressed and marginalized groups who have opposed this ordering principle and (mostly legal) gains have been made to reduce this hierarchy.  We are now experiencing another moment in time where ascriptive hierarchy as a centerpiece of the legitimacy of the American political system is being challenged.  The advancement of rights for Gays and Lesbians, the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the non-religious, and the new movements for civil rights including Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March all work to delegitimize the White Male Protestant hierarchy that was/is a centerpiece of the American political system.  The election of Donald Trump should indicate that these challenges have also engendered a reaction from those who benefit from the current order and want to hold on to it.

Despite the tumult and backlash we are experiencing in our politics currently I think the delegitimization of ascriptive hierarchy is a positive and necessary thing and should continue.  However to fully delegitimize ascriptive hierarchy another ordering principle for managing the cultural diversity in the U.S. must be created.  I think folks on the left and those who want to get rid of ascriptive hierarchy in the U.S. once and for all also need to advance the positive case for multiculturalism.  One way to start is to emphasize the long term benefits of cultural diversity and multiculturalism.  Its not enough just to tear down the old order, one has to have a positive vision for what will replace it as well.





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