chapter  10
21 Pages

Open politics and disharmony

The concept of harmony, ironically, strikes a discordant note to many political scientists, especially among those who study and write about Western polities. Disharmony seems a much more natural state of affairs. Those who study politics, after all, emphasize its origins in conflicts of interest and clashes of ideas. Interests are constantly conflicting and colliding. To students of politics therefore harmony is hardly a phenomenon inhering in nature or in human nature. Harmony – really a pseudo-harmony – can be imposed from above or by coercion through authoritarian means masking turbulence lying underneath the surface. A more optimistic scenario however is that governing processes under liberal constitutionalism can forge agreement through bargaining and negotiation by being able to do two things: first, to satisfy critical constituencies that an outcome is the best deal they are likely to get, and that the costs of alternative action would be dysfunctional to their interests; and second, to set in motion a repeated play game so that all actors will have a continuing stake in remaining at the table. In some societies, great weight has been placed on the avoidance of conflict, while in others emphasis is placed on making one’s voice heard. Can conflict be tamed and moderated to ensure the preservation of social order? Can that be consistent with a liberal democratic and participatory political order? Are freedom and order in inherent tension with each other? The obvious answer is yes. But clearly, in an effective constitutional order, freedom and order must coexist. This chapter therefore begins with the problem of bringing freedom and order into some harmony with each other. I then focus on culture – ambiguous as it is – as a way of looking at the problem of harmony and, conversely, disharmony. Social capital is either a product of a harmonious culture or an ingredient in its composition. But it too, like culture, is a remarkably malleable concept. The phenomenon of social trust turns out to have many contextually different causes – and, perhaps, consequences. Institutions are another element in the balancing of harmony and freedom. Theories of institutions vary in the degree to which they are thought to be embedded in the culture and thus enmeshed with it, or in the degree to which they may independently force adjustments in behaviour. I turn then to the unusual American case where there is much political distemper and polarization,

though likely more at the elite than the mass public level. I emphasize that the US system, against the currents of its age when founded (the period of the Enlightenment), is sceptical about human nature and builds in incentives to force bargaining. But as politics is also the art of manipulation, politicians and activists often seek to override institutional constraints when the value of short-term gains appears to outweigh the long-run investment in the existing institutional equilibrium. And when the stakes of conflict are high, the incentives for circumvention of prevailing institutional constraints become greater. Finally, I conclude by returning to the concept of harmony, its emergence and disappearance, the conditions both conducive and inhospitable to it, the clashes with other values of political and social order and how we might study the processes by which agreement is induced and by which it decays.