Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne
The end of last month, my morning read of higher ed and politics led me to E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post. This one caught my attention immediately. While I always enjoy Dionne's writing, this was reaching chords that run long and deep. Two days later, I ran across a review for Our Divided Political Heart written by Jeff Greenfield, former ABC political commentator who I've always trusted. I ordered my copy from Amazon that day.
From the very beginning, I knew this was a different book from what I've been reading. Dionne has made an argument that draws deeply on our national identity not as we imagine it today but as it has actually been throughout our history. As such, it has more in common with Habits of the Heart or Democracy in America that with the standard "isn't politics awful" writing (including some of Dionne's early works). It is a work of political philosophy, sociological analysis, and deep moral vision. While he critiques those on the right for mis-stating pieces of American tradition, he also challenges those on the left for not appropriately drawing from those traditions to inform their positions.
Here's his essential argument from the introduction.
At the heart of this book is a view that American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community. These values do not simply face off against each other. There is not a party of "individualism" competing at election time against a party of "community". Rather, both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans. Both are essential to the American story and America's strength. Both interact, usually fruitfully, sometimes uncomfortably, with that other bedrock American-value, equality, whose meaning we debate in every generation. (4)
While he begins his analysis with an examination of today's Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, he uses these as jumping off points. It is possible to find similar arguments from much earlier in our country's history that sound exactly like the claims of today. Because when we get to a point of imbalance in this tenuous relationship between individualism and community (which he also rightly refers to as liberal -- in the enlightenment sense of rational individuals -- and republican -- which refers to our belief in the greater good of the republic and not the political party), our political house falls into disrepair.
He does still examine hot button political issues. He uses the Supreme Court decisions of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United which bookended the first decade of this century as an illustration of what happens when we lose the community side of the equation. But he draws fascinating parallels with the Reconstruction period, the Populist Movements of the early 20th century, the New Deal and its aftermath, the Reagan years, and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." By using the work of political historians and civic philosophers, he's able to demonstrate the repetition of the same themes again and again.
It's something of a national Groundhog Day. We trot out the old arguments as if we're having them for the first time. In doing so, we remain ignorant of the important civic threads the other side is building arguments from. He calls for a fully informed understanding of issues of the Founders (who argued among themselves on the issue of balance and equality) and the carefully articulated positions of leaders like Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt (there's a fabulous section summarizing a book by former New York senator Jacob Javits that uses these four as a central theme in a moderate Republican's leadership philosophy). He reminds us that from the earliest days of our nation, we struggled for the right balance between a comprehensive government (after the Articles of Confederation fell apart) and individual freedoms.
In a compelling illustration he recounts Bill Clinton's use of the penny to tell our national story:
"Take a penny from your pocket," Clinton said. "On one side, next to Lincoln's portrait is a single word: 'Liberty'. On the other side is our national motto. It says, 'E Pluribus Unum' -- 'Out of Many, One'. It does not say, 'Every man for himself'. That humble penny," he would continue, is an explicit declaration -- one you can carry around in your pocket -- that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments -- to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground -- are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth." (70-71)
What we have today, Dionne argues, is a partially formed understanding of that great American tradition. When the essential balance is lost and then distorted by media, internet, and personal isolation from those we disagree with, we feel as if we've lost our way. But he suggests that the way back is not overthrow of the government, dismantling of the New Deal, or mandated rights on behalf of the disenfranchised. The way back is to acknowledge the complexity of the American idea referred to in the subtitle. It's a call not for winner take all but for us to find our common language.
My final analysis is that this is a remarkably important book. But it's not just political philosophy or civic history. On finishing, I realized that it provides the context for political debate. I could imagine a candidate for office articulating not simple talking points, but the deep traditions of individualism and community that have run throughout our nation's history. I'm an optimist, but I find myself thinking that "the American people" would actually respond to such a commitment to balance. It's not simple compromise but rather a deeper willingness to wade into the stream of American tradition and find our place afresh.