I often at least scan E. J. Dionne’s syndicated newspaper essays because, although I don’t often agree with him, I do respect his insight and intellectual honesty. There really are intellectually honest leftists out there! His recent book, Our Divided Political Heart, was true to form–I greatly enjoyed his insight and analysis on our deeply divided political culture, but disagreed with his conclusions on the core problem and the solution.
Let’s begin with his major premise–that we Americans can’t agree on who we are as a nation and a people because we can’t agree on who we have been. And he says that who we have been in our history and tradition is a nation not of radical self-reliance and self-interest, but of a commitment to a balance between love of individual freedom and devotion to community. This insight is right out of the “communitarian” playbook, not a particularly radical notion nor outside the mainstream. But he makes an all too frequent mistake in his approach to communitarianism, properly understood in American history.
David Brooks makes the same mistake in a recent essay critical of what he calls the “hyperindividualism” in the current Republican message coming from their recent national convention. He laments that there was no talk of community and “compassionate conservatism”, the latter I have always considered to be a duplication of terms since Bush 43 coined it.
The major mistake here is to conflate “community” with “government”. When Edmund Burke spoke and wrote of the “little platoons” of community activists and the organic nature of community service, he wasn’t referring to government intervention and bureaucracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville lauded the American structure of “voluntary associations” that permeate every aspect of life as the backbone of our brand of communitarianism, he wasn’t talking about government administration of social programs. At most what they had in mind for government services was based on the principle of subsidiarity, or government that is close to the people it serves and is bound up in a web of custom, habit, and local accountability.
This is the community best understood in our history. Dionne provides a historical survey of our tradition in this regard, but seems to want to have the definition of community begin with the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was an attempt to reverse the model envisioned by the Founders. He calls the period since the advent of Populism, Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society the Long Consensus. And he vilifies the Tea Party movement, which in fact wants a return to the founding principles, as a radical element that is borderline anarchist in nature and wants to roll back this “consensus”.
I don’t deny that throughout our history there has been a delicate balancing act between our love of liberty and our striving for equality of opportunity, along with major battles over the role of government in fostering both. Tocqueville was explicit in pointing this out. Nor do I deny that government has played a major role in providing the infrastructure and public works that have made the American success story possible. Think where we would have been without the intercontinental railroad, the Erie Canal, the interstate highway system, or even the GI Bill, which financed a different kind of infrastructure.
But these partnerships and major national projects have been beneficial to community, properly understood, and are much different in nature from what now passes for community–the intrusiveness of government paternalism, which is too often coercive, creates dependency, and feeds an entitlement mentality that is corrosive to our character and moral fiber and in many respects destructive to community. David Brooks says that “what matters is not whether a program is public or private but its effect on character”. I agree, but the result of “community” read as “government” too often has a negative impact on our character.
For all my issues with Dionne’s conclusions, this book is a good read and pretty accurately identifies the wedge points in the American “divided political heart”, and this conflicted vision about who we are is what watershed elections like this one are all about.