When it comes to politics today there is perhaps only one thing Americans, regardless of party, can agree on: We’re all disappointed, aggravated, and irritable. The right detects a creeping, un-American “socialism’’ that embraces elitist technocrats and wants to recklessly redistribute citizens’ hard earned money to the country’s losers. The left sees the Tea Party as an ill-informed confederacy of fanatical dunces.
In “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,’’ political commentator E.J. Dionne Jr. urges us to accept the philosophical foundations of these differences as our patrimony. Dionne argues that American greatness developed from longstanding, dynamic tensions between liberalism and conservatism, values that “animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans.’’ We’ve forgotten that the country emerged from these competing political and moral perspectives, and this amnesia goes a long way toward explaining our acidulous politics, where “compromise becomes not a desirable expedient but ‘almost treasonous.’ ’’
“Our Divided Political Heart’’ isn’t innovative by any means — what legitimate history doesn’t emphasize our contentious political origins? — but the book is a well-mannered, thoughtful attempt to restore civic grace and productive political conversation.
Contemporary politics functions through appeals to history — a policy either is or isn’t considered part of the American tradition — but such appeals are increasingly made with little regard for factual accuracy. Since history has become the political trump card, Dionne writes, “we should look toward an authentic past, not an invented one.’’ The right, and the Tea Party in particular, applies a murky, ideological filter to American history. The balance of “Our Divided Political Heart’’ details these deeply felt errors.
Starting with the Founders, Dionne shows a “balance’’ of liberal and conservative philosophies as the historical norm. “[T]he best way to understand the core American philosophy at the time of the Revolution and the Founding,’’ he argues, “is to see it as both liberal and republican — in our terms, both individualistic and communitarian.’’
This is anathema to Tea Partiers, of course, who view our liberal tradition as a persistent infection in the body politic. Dionne disposes of such shortsightedness by efficiently and clearly moving through a series of historical moments over the past 200 years. From the competing political positions of the Federalist papers and the Supreme Court’s stewardship of liberal principles to Bush’s compassionate conservatism, an attempt to reclaim the mantle of community from the communitarian language of Clinton-era Democrats, Dionne skewers the Tea Party’s historical fantasies with a robust genealogy of American liberalism.
Dionne correctly sees the Tea Party as radicalizing the rhetoric and posturing of the right, but he admits there’s nothing terribly novel about the group’s chicken-little nostalgia. Every decade or so we endure a surge of conservative anxiety about dispossession, which is at heart what motivates the Tea Party’s isolationist, nativist ideas.
Nonetheless, Dionne laments what he sees as a Republican Party moving away from its onetime, legitimate concern with community. “What needs to be recognized,’’ Dionne argues, “is how far Republicanism and conservatism have strayed from their own history and their own past commitments . . . They have done so by jettisoning their communitarian commitments, by adopting a highly restrictive view of the federal government’s role, and by advancing . . . a view of the Constitution that would prohibit or restrict activities that the federal government has undertaken for a century or more.’’ This is, of course, an allusion to New Deal and Great Society programs such as Social Security and Medicare and laws offering protections to unions and workers and regulating financial entities and markets.
Bush’s compassionate conservatism was, for Dionne, the most recent, perhaps last, gesture of politically viable conservative communitarianism; even Bush’s modest social programs would be reviled by many Republicans if introduced today.
Dionne offers his own balance by critiquing the left. Democrats err, he notes, by forgetting the societal benefits of constructive conservatism. Such benefits include respect for tradition and what Dionne considers a healthy skepticism about humanity’s ability to mold itself according to political desire or personal will for a greater good.
Moreover, Dionne argues that the Democrats need to correct a nettlesome failing: their suspicion of populism. Since the 1950s when politicians like George Wallace used populist rhetoric to serve racist ends, Democrats have distanced themselves from the great majority of populist ideas, forgetting the productive liberal and populist alliances that made the social progress of the Progressive era possible. Now Democrats treat populism as nearly a synonym for bigotry.
Democrats, Dionne argues, need to reclaim populism, initially a “relatively coherent set of egalitarian ideas’’ that shaped popular discontent and paved the way to removing social, political, and economic inequity. Such a reevaluation would help the Democrats shed the image of heartless social engineers and open space for more reasoned bipartisan conversation.
Without a doubt, Dionne is on thorny terrain throughout. His American history, however correct, will have a hard time dislodging the Tea Party’s self-affirming ideas. The argument that tensions between liberalism and conservatism have been around since the 1770s won’t make an ideologue accept progressive values as innately American. Such narratives merely confirm that this battle has raged since the republic’s founding and that now is the time to end it.