Review: E.J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart

Our Divided Political HeartTo read this excellent book at the height of the last campaign was, for one who takes his politics seriously, enough to restore hope that we as a people may yet climb out of the mire in which we are sunk and find once more some sense of common purpose. Or, maybe not.

Dionne, a widely read columnist with the Washington Post, a Fellow of the Brookings Institution, and Professor at Georgetown University, argues that American politics (perhaps politics in general) embodies a dialogue between two values, liberty and community, and that each of us embodies that dialogue, as what he calls a “divided political heart.”

As his readers will know, he comes from a point of view that passes for left in this country: he is an unapologetic liberal. It is then no surprise that a major thrust of the book is criticism of the takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party, with its strong emphasis on individualism and liberty, as against government regulation and taxation.

However, even as conservatives have ever more lost sight of community, he argues that liberals have correspondingly become so enamored of community that they undervalue liberty.

One of the great strengths of the book is its informed use of history to show how much we have forgotten, and how it will help us if we can but recall it.

We have forgotten that both sides of the argument have their roots in the country’s founding era, and indeed in each of the founders. We have forgotten the strong-government conservatism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln. We have forgotten much of the democratic thrust of populism. We have forgotten the accomplishments of what he calls “the Long Consensus” from the Progressive Era to Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, our present plight is rooted in the loss of consensus about social justice, management of the economy, and most fundamentally, about who we are as a people.

Dionne concludes by calling for a “New American System,” deliberately drawing on Henry Clay’s model of a strong state in service of individual liberty. He points out that it is young people—the Millennial Generation—who are both “more passionately individualistic and more passionately communitarian than any other age group in the country” (p. 253).

This is the spirit that Dionne hopes to capture. If the Tea Party needs to get beyond its radical individualism, liberals correspondingly must rise above reflexive disrespect for entire regions and populations.

john peeler

The book’s major weakness is a lack of specificity regarding the policy content of the New American System, but Dionne is surely right that we must first rediscover a common spirit; policy will follow.

John Peeler

OUR DIVIDED POLITICAL HEART:
The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
(Bloomsbury, 2012)

Published by the LA Progressive on December 3, 2012
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.