Our Divided Political Heart will be the must-read book of the 2012 election campaign. Offering an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning the nation's political atmosphere, E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that Americans can't agree on who we are because we can't agree on who we've been, or what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us Americans. Dionne takes on the Tea Party's distortions of American history and shows that the true American tradition points not to radical individualism, but to a balance between our love of individualism and our devotion to community.
Dionne offers both a fascinating tour of American history-from the Founding Fathers to Clay and Lincoln and on to the Populists, the Progressives and the New Dealers-and also an analysis of our current politics that shatters conventional wisdom. The true American idea, far from endorsing government inaction or indifference, has always viewed the federal government as an active and constructive partner with the rest of society in promoting prosperity, opportunity, and American greatness.
The ability of the American system to self-correct is its greatest asset and Dionne challenges progressives to embrace the American story. Our fractious but productive past offers us the resources both to rediscover the idea of progress and to put an end to our fears of decline. Our Divided Political Heart will be required reading for all who seek a path out of our current impasse.
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About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for the Washington Post, and University Professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University. He appears weekly on NPR and regularly on MSNBC and NBC's Meet the Press. His twice-weekly op-ed column is now syndicated in 140 newspapers. His writing has been published in the Atlantic, the New Republic, the American Prospect, the Washington Post Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Commonweal, New Statesman, and elsewhere. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of numerous books, including the classic bestseller Why Americans Hate Politics, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Souled Out. Dionne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with wife, Mary Boyle, and their three children.
Read an Excerpt
Our Divided Political HeartThe Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent
By E.J. Dionne
Bloomsbury USACopyright © 2012 E. J. Dionne
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo Cups of Tea The Tea Party in History and on History
It began with the rant that shook the country. When CNBC's Rick Santelli exploded on the air in fury at government bailouts not of big bankers but of financially stressed homeowners, he changed the nation's political calculus and sought to redefine the objects of its rage over an economic catastrophe.
"The government is promoting bad behavior!" Santelli declared on February 19, 2009, complaining about President Obama's mortgage rescue plan, one day shy of a month after his inauguration. "This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" He then transformed those suffering from the financial meltdown from sympathetic victims to inferior beings. The Obama plan, Santelli said, would "subsidize the losers' mortgages."
Appropriately, Santelli issued his condemnation of extra-bathroom subsidies from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, one of the holy places of American high finance. The well-to-do traders cheered on their comrade-in-rage-against-government as if they were at a political rally—which of course they suddenly were. Santelli made clear he was engaged not in financial analysis but in ideological rabble-rousing when he described the wreckage of the Cuban economy after "they moved from the individual to the collective." Could it be that Barack Obama was pursuing Fidel Castro's economic policies?
Suddenly a nation with ample reason to be furious at the financiers who engineered wealth for themselves and catastrophe for so many others was being told to be mad instead at government, and at the profligate parts of the middle class— those "losers." Santelli's subliminal message: Don't be angry about the extra Gulfstreams or vacation homes of the very, very wealthy. Get mad over your neighbor's imprudent addition. It would take two and a half years for anger at Wall Street to find its expression.
And then Santelli gave political bite to his tirade. "We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July!" he shouted. "All you capitalists who want to show up at Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing!" Thus was one of the sacred terms in American history reborn in 2009 as a capitalist call to arms. Quickly the conservative and libertarian neighborhoods of the Internet, including the canonical Drudge Report, turned Santelli's rant viral. A new movement was born. All over the country, conservative citizens pledged their loyalty to the new rebellion.
But was all this really so new? As groups claiming the Tea Party mantle proliferated—many existing organizations simply rebaptized themselves in the waters of a media phenomenon—their words suggested not that they were the next new thing but rather that very old tendencies on the American right and far right were being wrapped up in shiny new packaging. "Some people say I'm extreme," Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots in Indiana, told the New York Times, "but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too." Well, yes.
In fact, as Kate Zernike noted in Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, the first reported Tea Party actually took place three days before Santelli's rant, organized in Seattle by twenty-nine-year-old Keli Carender. According to Zernike, "little more than a hundred people" showed up at the protest, "mostly older people, along with a few in their twenties" who had supported Ron Paul's libertarian campaign in the 2008 Republican primaries. What was striking about that crowd is what was striking about Carender: neither she nor the protesters she brought out were in any way exotic political creatures. On the contrary, Carender was a regular sort of conservative who, in another time and circumstance, might have become a conventional Republican precinct captain. She had come to her views, Zernike noted, by reading National Review, the thoroughly orthodox conservative magazine, and the works of the libertarian economist Thomas Sowell.
At its heart, the Tea Party consisted of nothing more (or less) than conservative Republicans who had opposed Barack Obama in 2008 and were angry that he was pursuing the policies he'd run on. Many were also upset over the failures of the Bush presidency and their sense that Bush had been a "big spender," which was certainly true when it came to Iraq.
Astute marketing, not philosophical innovation, is what set the Tea Party apart. It was conservative Republicanism with a sharper tilt rightward. It enjoyed the additional advantages of its own television network in Fox News, a nationwide troupe of talk radio hosts, a considerable bankroll—its most famous angels being the wealthy Koch brothers—and the energies of Sarah Palin, whom every segment of the media could not get enough of in the years 2009 and 2010, before she began to fade.
A New York Times/CBS News survey in April 2010 was especially helpful in debunking the idea that the Tea Party was a bold new populist movement. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters accounted for about a fifth of the country and tended to be "Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." It was hard to find a better description of the GOP base. They were also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. If this was populism, it was the populism of the privileged, or at least the comfortable.
The Tea Party was in many ways a throwback movement—to the 1930s and also to the 1950s and early 1960s. Like the right wing in those earlier years, it saw most of the domestic policies the federal government had undertaken since the Progressive Era and the New Deal as unconstitutional. Like its forebears, the Tea Party typically perceived the most dangerous threats to freedom as coming not from abroad but from the designs of well-educated elitists out of touch with "American values."
The language of these Obama-era anti-statists, like the language of the 1950s right, regularly invoked the Founders by way of describing the threats to liberty presented by socialists disguised as liberals. A group called Tea Party Patriots (many Tea Party groups donned the colors of patriotism) described itself as "a community committed to standing together, shoulder to shoulder, to protect our country and the Constitution upon which we were founded!" Tea Party Nation called itself "a user-driven group of likeminded people who desire our God-given individual freedoms written out by the Founding Fathers."
This was old right-wing stuff. Americans for Constitutional Action, a mainstream conservative group founded in 1958 (which was also the John Birch Society's founding year), had declared itself against "compulsory participation in social security, mandatory wage rates, compulsory membership in labor organizations, fixed rent controls, restrictions on choice of tenants and purchasers of one's property" [a protest against civil rights laws then beginning to win public support] and in support of "progressive repeal of the socialistic laws now on our books."
Attacks on a highly educated class have become a staple of conservative criticisms of Obama and his circle, and these, too, have a long right-wing pedigree. Typical of this style of anti-elitism were comments on a Web site called conservativeteapartycaliforniastyle.com that included a pictorial assault on what it called "Obamunism," with the sickle and hammer integrated into Obama's 2008 campaign logo. "You attempt to be Professorial, Mr. President, and no one is impressed," wrote a blogger called Paul. "Americans are now resentful of anyone who has an Ivy League Education because this demonstrates how far detached the Ivy Leaguers are from the American People. Demonizing the Tea Party will be your downfall. The more you insult them, the stronger they will become."
Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, had a similar message in 1966, although he expressed it more jauntily. "I can find you a lot more Harvard accents in Communist circles in America today," he declared, "than you can find me overalls." A 1967 Birch Society publication asserted: "From Woodrow Wilson—himself a professor—to Lyndon Johnson, we have had nothing but Presidents surrounded by professors and scholars." The writer warned against a "conspiracy conceived, organized and activated by professionals and intellectuals, many of them brilliant but cunning and clever, who decided to put their minds in the ser vice of total evil."
The similarities between parts of the Tea Party and the old far right pointed to a darker side of the movement—a minority, perhaps, but a vocal one—that veered toward both extremism and racism. The Obama ascendancy clearly radicalized parts of the conservative movement, giving life to conspiracy theories long buried and explicit forms of racial politics that had largely gone underground since the successes of the civil rights movement.
Defenders of the Tea Party cried foul whenever anyone suggested that, in light of the president's background, race might have something to do with the movement's ferocity. And it's true that a conservative, libertarian, and right-wing ideology was more central to the movement than race. A white female progressive president might also have incited a backlash. Nonetheless, the Times/CBS News Poll made clear that the racial attitudes of Tea Party supporters were significantly different from those of the rest of the country.
The survey asked a classic question designed to mea sure racial attitudes without requiring respondents to give explicitly racist responses: "In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?" Twenty-eight percent of all Americans—and just 19 percent of those who were not Tea Party loyalists—answered "too much." But among Tea Party supporters, the figure was 52 percent, almost three times the proportion of the rest of the country. A quarter of Tea Partiers said the Obama administration's policies favored blacks over whites, compared with only 11 percent in the country as a whole. A survey in the summer of 2011 by the Public Religion Research Institute found a very similar relationship between membership in the Tea Party and attitudes toward race.
It was hard to miss the racial overtones in a speech that former representative Tom Tancredo delivered to a cheering Tea Party crowd in February 2010. Tancredo declared that in 2008 "something really odd happened, mostly because I think that we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country. People who could not even spell the word 'vote,' or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House, name is Barack Hussein Obama."
For African Americans, who remembered "literacy tests" as phony devices once used in the South to keep blacks from voting, Tancredo's words had a familiar and insidious ring. But the Tea Party conventioneers welcomed them.
There were other memory losses where America's history with race was concerned. As the country began commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, defenders of the South's "Lost Cause" sought to play down the role of slavery as the conflict's primary cause and instead linked the Confederate revolt against Washington to Tea Party-style concerns about "big government." One Georgia blogger captured the identification with the Confederacy on parts of the right: "Some say simplistically that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Unfortunately, there is no 'simple' reason. The causes of the war were a complex series of events ... Many of the problems Georgians saw more than one hundred fifty years ago are being reiterated today. The 'oppressive' federal government. High taxes (tariffs before the war). A growing government unwilling to listen to law abiding citizens. Sound familiar? They were complaints levied from 1816 on in Georgia."
The Civil War entered the national political debate when Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, named April 2010 "Confederate History Month" in a proclamation that didn't mention slavery. (McDonnell later revised the document to denounce slavery as "evil and inhumane.") Mississippi's then governor, Haley Barbour, spoke up for McDonnell by declaring that the controversy surrounding the proclamation's rather substantial omission "doesn't amount to diddly." When Barbour took himself out of the GOP presidential race, his wading into the Civil War argument was often cited as one reason why a popular conservative with strong ties to party officials around the country decided to forgo his opportunity.
The episode underscored not only the extent to which the battle over history had entered contemporary politics, but also how much history was being distorted in the process. Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president and a celebrated chronicler of the war, cited fellow historian C. Vann Woodward's wry observation that history itself "becomes the continuation of war by other means." In a powerful lecture inspired by the war's anniversary, Faust made note that some continued to see the aftermath of the great struggle as a defeat for American principles. "The powers of the centralized nation-state achieved by the war are now questioned and challenged," she observed, "seen as the betrayal rather than the fulfillment of the Founders' vision."
Moreover, "significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South, continue to reject slavery as a fundamental cause of the war, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that what southerners called the 'peculiar institution' played a critical role in secession debates, declarations, and decisions across the South." Even the National Park Ser vice's chief historian, Robert Sutton, was drawn into politics—simply by doing his job. As Faust observed, when Sutton "insisted that the nation's historic sites emphasize that 'slavery is the principal cause' of the war," he "encountered widespread resistance and controversy."
One after another, historians took to op-ed pages and lecture halls to explain that slavery had indeed been the central issue behind the conflict, and that no amount of revisionism could alter this. "A century and a half after the civil war, many white Americans, especially in the South, seem to take the idea that slavery caused the war as a personal accusation," the great Civil War historian Eric Foner wrote in the Guardian. "The point, however, is not to condemn individuals or an entire region of the country, but to face candidly the central role of slavery in our national history." After all, it had been Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens who declared that the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy "rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition," and that "this, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth." That racism and slavery, not states' rights, lay at the heart of the southern rebellion was an inconvenient truth for some of the conservative rebels of 2011.
Again and again, contemporary politics became the staging ground for arguments about the past, some of them quite surprising. Relitigating history became a central characteristic of the Obama era, as the perceptive progressive writer Elbert Ventura noted in the spring of 2011. "Beyond the circumscribed world of academic journals and conferences, history is being taught—on TV and talk radio, in blogs and grassroots seminars, in high school textbooks and on Barnes & Noble bookshelves," he wrote in Democracy magazine. "In all those forums, conservatives have been conspicuous by their activity—and progressives by their absence."
The new right-wing historical revisionism needed to be taken seriously as a political matter, if not as an approach to history itself. Revisionist historians on the left had long come under attack from conservatives for using the past primarily for the political purposes of the present. Such conservative criticism is very much alive. Writing in 2011, James W. Ceaser, a neoconservative scholar, offered a lovely and apt metaphor for the value of history: "Like the experience of foreign travel," he wrote, "it can refresh the mind and provide a sense of distance from the familiar." Then Ceaser added: "How sad it is, therefore, that so much academic history today does just the opposite, projecting current issues back onto the past, invariably for the purpose of promoting a contemporary ideological viewpoint. Instead of freeing us from the present, 'history' of this kind ends by imprisoning the past."
Excerpted from Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne Copyright © 2012 by E. J. Dionne. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Who We Are: Liberty, Community, and the American Character 1
Part 1 Why Are We Yelling at Each Other?
Chapter I Two Cups of Tea: The Tea Party in History and on History 29
Chapter II The Politics of History: Why the Past Can Never Escape the Present 53
Chapter III Lessons from the Humble Penny: The Striver, the Seeker, the Puritan, and the Patriot 69
Chapter IV Reinventing American Liberalism: Why the Left Embraced Community 83
Chapter V From Tradition to Revolt: How Conservatives Left Community Behind 101
Part 2 What History Teaches Us
Chapter VI One Nation, Conceived in Argument: The Revolution, the Constitution, and the Origins of the American Debate 127
Chapter VII The American System: How Strong Government, Strong Individuals, and Strong Communities Have Supported Each Other 155
Chapter VIII What's the Matter with Populism? Why Everybody Loves It, Except When They Don't 189
Chapter IX The Long Consensus and Its Achievements: The Quest for Balance from the Progressive Era to the Reagan Era 213
Part 3 Recovering Our Balance, Restoring Our Greatness
Chapter X The New American System: Building a Community of Freedom 245
A Personal Note 269