By Jeff Greenfield, Published: June 1 in the Washington Post.
If you want a perfect embodiment of the political divide that E.J. Dionne Jr. describes and laments in his new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” there’s no better place to look than the credentials of E.J. Dionne Jr.: columnist for The Washington Post; senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; professor at Georgetown University; regular guest on “Meet the Press,” MSNBC and NPR.
These credentials, the very model of a modern major commentator, are multiple red flags for the millions who see in academia, D.C.-based liberal think tanks and most of the media the very forces that helped dragoon America away from its authentic roots and traditions. They all but ensure that anything Dionne might say would be rejected out of hand. And they help explain why his ambitious and estimable mission — to remind skeptical Americans of the strong communitarian foundations of the republic — is probably doomed to failure. The very folks Dionne is most determined to convince are the ones most likely to dismiss the historical evidence that fills almost every page by replying, “Consider the source.”
That dismissal would come at a cost: It would deprive those on the American right of an opportunity to grapple with an earnest effort to reach across the political divide. Rather than publish another smack-down polemic, most of which could be entitled “You’re a Moron If You Don’t Agree With Me,” Dionne takes his readers on a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.
“Building a new consensus,” he says at the outset, “will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continue to insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives and dominates our story.” Our country, he says, “has witnessed the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community.” Dionne believes that figures as diverse as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would have been appalled by the understanding — or, rather, misunderstanding — of what “the American System” is all about. And over the next 200-plus pages, Dionne marshals an array of historians to reinforce this central point.
Where did this misunderstanding come from? For Dionne, its locus is the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism was at its peak and when the Supreme Court was turning the 14th Amendment on its head, substituting corporate coddling for the goal of using federal power to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the states. For most of our history, he argues, and especially over most of the 20th century, America has been guided by “the long consensus” — from the first Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan — that while it would be wrong “to deny the power of individualism in our history . . . it is just as misleading to ignore our yearnings for a strong common life and our republican quest for civic virtue.”
His finds evidence for this coexistence in the Declaration of Independence, which ends with its signers pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” He finds it in Federalist paper 27, where Hamilton writes of a federal government engaged in “matters of internal concern.” He finds it in Lincoln’s signing of a land-grant-college bill in the middle of the Civil War.
Along the way, Dionne provides a liberal’s analysis of why constitutional “originalism,” as advanced most notably by Justice Antonin Scalia, is misplaced; why historians of another age badly misread Reconstruction; why populism does not deserve its bad name. And he consistently frames his argument as a respectful, if deep, disagreement with the tea party and its allies, while chastising his fellow liberals for their condescension.
“Any time a liberal uses words such as ‘flyover country’ or ‘Jesusland,’ he or she is breaking faith with a broad democratic tradition.” (He might have added the remarks of a New York Times columnist who on national TV referred to the Midwest as “the land of the low-sloping foreheads.”)
Yet, apart from that résumé that would make reciprocal respect unlikely, Dionne’s case for the rebuilding of the long consensus is exactly what the current version of American conservatism does not want. As Karl Marx once said of his fellow communists, the tea party disdains to conceal its aims. In his maiden speech last year, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was sharply critical of Henry Clay’s compromises, embracing instead the abolitionist stance of Henry’s cousin Cassius Clay. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared in his presidential announcement speech that he sought to “make Washington as inconsequential in your life as I can,” there was no one on the right who suggested that this might be at odds with American history.
When Richard Mourdock, who recently defeated Indiana’s Richard Lugar in his attempt to extend his 36-year Senate career, was asked about bipartisanship, he said, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
If Dionne’s effort to find common ground is likely to fail, it does not lessen his achievement. His case is strong enough, serious enough and grounded enough to challenge those on the other side of the divide to offer a counterargument as rigorously argued as this one.
Jeff Greenfield is a Yahoo News columnist and host of PBS’s “Need to Know” and WNYC’s “Money Talking Segment.” His latest book, “Then Everything Changed,” is out in paperback.