As a columnist for the Washington Post, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including Why Americans Hate Politics, E. J. Dionne Jr. keeps his finger on the nation’s pulse. Across the political spectrum, he writes, many Americans fear that our nation, not just the economy, is in decline; that political polarization is keeping us from governing ourselves effectively; and that growing inequality may persist over the long term because the old social contract based on shared prosperity is broken. Yet in his new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, Dionne argues that what we are experiencing is not national decline, not yet, but rather a historic loss of balance that urgently needs to be restored.
If one sees democracy as an ongoing balancing act, it should not be surprising that the public sometimes leans too far in one direction or the other. Democracy is fragile and requires regular maintenance, but equilibrium can be recovered with effort. And U.S. history can alleviate fears for the future and offer clues about what needs to be done.
The word balance is crucial to Dionne’s thesis that America’s identity includes the core values of both individualism and community, which pull in different directions yet must be held together if we are to maintain balance and move ahead as a nation. An overemphasis on either comes at the expense not only of the other but of the whole democratic experiment.
“American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community,” writes Dionne. He then adds respect for equality as a third core component, one doubly important because equality is often linked to the positive role of government in promoting and extending liberty.
Catholic readers will find America’s core values, positive role for government and emphasis on human rights and equality highly compatible with church teaching.
Citing one historical example after another, Dionne challenges the Tea Party’s distorted view of U.S. history, which touts small government as a core value of the founders and limits government’s responsibility to relieve and prevent inequalities. The Tea Party, he argues, promotes extreme individualism (characteristic of the Gilded Age) at the expense of community and government. And that is pushing us off-balance today. While Dionne thanks the Tea Party for turning to history, he shows their version of history fudges the facts. Historians favored by the Tea Party, for example, have glossed over the fact that slavery, based on a notion that blacks are inferior to whites, was a major cause of the Civil War. A few of their apologists wrote for the extremist John Birch Society of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Dionne puts the record straight. For a hundred years, throughout the 20th century, a national desire to hold the core values (individualism, community, equality) together shaped what Dionne calls the long consensus. That consensus, he maintains, is what made the United States into a world leader. These core values are also rooted in our founders’ beliefs and in the Constitution.
The author’s main arguments are compelling. Here is a sample: The Constitution itself is no revelation handed down to God’s anointed. It is a compromise document, the work of individuals who argued over principles, values and politics, but who together established a strong federal government, powerful enough to unify, lead and defend a group of former confederated states. Individualism and community are present in the substance of the Constitution; both were present in the writing of it; both should be present in the interpreting of it and the amending of it.
Moreover, the principle of equality embedded in the Constitution, though far from perfectly realized when it was signed, contained the seeds of expanded liberty realized later in the movements to end slavery, to protect labor, to give women the vote and so on. The founders did not consider themselves infallible (nor should we), evident in the fact that they humbly wrote into the Constitution a process for amending it.
“We believe in limited government, but also in active and innovative government,” writes Dionne. “Our Founders did not devote so much time and intellectual energy to creating a strong federal government only for it to do nothing.”
Imbalance can be fatal. The Union was imperiled and nearly lost in the most serious case of Americans out of equilibrium: the Civil War. At that time Abraham Lincoln reminded Congress that the Union preceded the states and created them. He noted that while the union is mentioned in the Constitution (beginning with the Preamble, “a more perfect union”), the sovereignty of states is not.
In later chapters, Dionne recounts how other imbalances were corrected, as with the rise of the populists, the progressives and the repeal of Prohibition. Still, the book offers no quick fix or any recipe at all. Dionne suggests that it falls primarily to the millennial generation to restore the value of community in the face of today’s extreme individualism. He bases his optimism on the results of a Pew study of millennials. But in my view, a poll does not carry the weight of history, though I hope he is right and that the country can wait that long for a remedy.
Not only does the author deftly use history and political theory to shed light on the current political polarization of America, he does so in an exemplary way, with civility and equanimity. It would be hard to find a more well-reasoned or hope-filled book about the current fractured state of the country. If reason, hope or civility appeals to you, read this book. If not, read it solely for the historical discussion.