Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?   /   Fall 2010   /    Essays & Short Takes

Polarization and the Crisis of Legitimacy

James Davison Hunter

The longstanding debate about consensus and dissensus in American public life is not merely academic. The data collected, the articles and books published, the heated words exchanged amount to much more than intellectuals blowing smoke at each other. The debate matters a great deal. At stake are questions about the legitimacy of American institutions and, in particular, the institutions of democratic governance.

America was conceived by its founders as an experiment. It is worth asking from time to time how the experiment is going. Just how strong and enduring is American democracy (not to mention its other leading institutions) in the face of fundamental challenges to its legitimacy within the general public? Are its legal-bureaucratic procedures and collective rituals enough to sustain these institutions over time? Or does American democracy require at least some broad-based consent rooted in a common public philosophy? Even when there is assent to common ideals, how substantive does that assent need to be?

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