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 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 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 decline but a historic loss of balance that needs to be restored.
The word balance is crucial, because our national identity includes core values—individualism, community and equality—that pull in different directions yet must be held together if we are to maintain our balance and move ahead. “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 names respect for equality as a third core component; it is often linked to the positive role of government in promoting and extending liberty. That is a very Catholic view of government, too.
For a hundred years, throughout the 20th century, a national desire to hold these values together shaped what Dionne calls “the Long Consensus.” That consensus is, he maintains, what made the United States into a world leader. These core values are rooted in the beliefs of the nation’s founders and in the Constitution. Writes Dionne: “We believe in limited government, but also in active and innovative government. Our Founders did not devote so much time and intellectual energy to creating a strong federal government only for it to do nothing.”
Dionne seeks to correct a distorted view of U.S. history and the role of government espoused by the Tea Party, which promotes extreme individualism (characteristic of the Gilded Age) at the expense of community and government. He uses historical examples of past imbalances to show who did what to correct them; these latter include the populists, the progressives and those who worked to end Prohibition. The record of past successes the author describes ought to instill confidence in our national future and show us how to restore our balance. The task of correcting the current imbalance belongs primarily to the Millennial generation, writes Dionne, which he finds up to the task. I hope he is right on that point. Overall, it would be hard to find a more civil, well-reasoned or hope-filled book about the current polarized state of the country. By all means, read this book.
Karen Sue Smith
Purchase Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent from Amazon.com.
Marilynne Robinson is best known for her first two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, which appeared 20 years apart. Reviews of Gilead (2004) were rapturous, yet readers sometimes wondered: what took so long? Robinson’s latest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, offers a satisfying answer. The book reveals an agile mind formed by decades of deep reading. A committed Christian and American, Robinson calls upon believers and citizens alike to live up to their highest ideals.
When I Was a Child takes up a number of disparate subjects. Robinson writes about Thomas More, Cicero, Jack Miles, Moses, cosmology and Johann Friedrich Oberlin with equal enthusiasm. The essays are surprisingly, and refreshingly, political. Robinson admits to being an unabashed liberal, and offers an extended critique of capitalism, a word, she notes, which never appears in America’s founding documents despite its widespread invocation today. Citing Walt Whitman, she writes that as a country “we have never fully achieved democracy,” and that we must recommit ourselves to its flourishing and not be distracted by the pursuit of “power and wealth.”
Robinson makes an erudite case for the good of public institutions. She revisits influential but misunderstood figures in support of her argument. It is often said, for example, that we live in a Calvinist society, which prizes an individual work ethic. Yet John Calvin was by no means neglectful of the common good, Robinson writes; he emphasized that we must do “good to our neighbors” and not “seclude them from our abundance.” A similar ethic can be found in the law of Moses, which has often been erroneously contrasted with the law of Christ. “The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor,” Robinson tartly notes. “Why do we not know this yet?”
Readers of Robinson’s novels may be surprised by her essay style. Compared to the concise prose of Gilead, the writing of When I Was I Child can seem labyrinthine. Robinson acknowledges this plain fact: “I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway.” Readers daunted by her prose may wish to start with the more accessible essays, like “Wondrous Love” and the title selection, a lovely reflection on the elusive spirit of the West.
But by all means, read the whole book, slowly if need be. Don't be surprised if you find yourself underlining furiously:
“Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom.”