Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent
E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Hardcover, 325 pages, $17.99
Kindle edition 9.99
Money quotes: "At the heart of this book is the view that American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community. These values do not simply face off against each other. There is not a party of "individualism" competing at election time with a party of "community." Rather, both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans. Both are essential to America's story and to American strength. Both interact, usually fruitfully, sometimes uncomfortably, with that other bedrock American value, equality, whose meaning we debate in every generation."
"The notion that Republicans believe in less government and lower taxes—and nothing more or less—is so ingrained that we often forget the Republican Party was not always defined this way, and neither was the tradition from which the party sprang."
Basic premise: At the outset, let me state this is not a soothing anodyne "just do this and everyone will get along" prescription for some third way proposal that is bound to fail. Rather, if there's someone else's money quote to cite, it's Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
In an interesting twist on exploring the world view of voters (see an alternative view based on authoritarianism), Dionne looks at the tension between individualism and community, and how it shows up in odd but recurring places. For example, the epithet "socialism" applied to Obama's health reform efforts in particular, and Obama in general by the tea party has its roots in the concept that Obama's political positioning isn't the pure individualism that the tea party—and Republicans who are beholden to it—are advocating.
Further, and core to the book, Dionne takes a respectful look at conservatism and how it has lost its way by forgetting that community was once part and parcel of conservative thought. There was a time that respected conservatives like William Buckley could and would take on the John Birch Society's poisonous revisionist view of American history. That intellectual honesty was lacking during the rise and fall of Glenn Beck and the modern day iteration of Bircher ideas that's been absorbed and recycled by the tea party and, sadly, the Republican House. Conservatives taking on the extremists within have either been AWOL or ostracized, and many false concepts about early and contemporary American history have been twisted by modern conservatives in an attempt to justify the fight against any vestige of communitarian policy, such as the hard Right's antipathy to Medicare as a concept. Republican Allen West has already brought back McCarthyist charges of Communists in Congress. About the only thing missing is making fluoridation of community water an election issue.
An alternate strain of conservatism (called "compassionate conservatism" by George W. Bush's speech writer and current Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson—and see Gerson's Why the Tea Party is toxic for the GOP) lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Republicans and conservatives (these days, one and the same.) Or, maybe, Bush's failed presidency did. Either way, PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), Bush's immigration proposals and government sanctioned faith-based initiatives stand as relics of a conservative past that had much more substance and depth behind it than the current iteration of "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare!". I say that with particular sadness because PEPFAR and pandemic flu preparations are, in my view, the two things that the Bush Administration did right (at least once abstinence-only was stripped from PEPFAR regs.) They are, in context, two of the more communally-oriented policy approaches from that administration, which may well explain both my viewpoint and the likelihood that neither policy would ever be implemented by contemporary Republicans.
Dionne doesn't take many partisan shots in the book (though an unabashedly proud liberal viewpoint is present throughout). Rather, it's a comprehensive, well documented tour through our history, citing numerous historians and sociologists and well as columnists and pundits. If you took the time to follow up and read the citations, for example, discussing the revisionist history of post-Civil War Reconstruction (and I may!), or the world view of 60's Republicans like Jacob Javits, who argued in favor of the progressive roots of the Republican Party, you'd have a summer's worth of reading material to get through.
Overall, I found the book to be an impressive tour of forgotten history, recent and otherwise (including the Progressive and Populist movements of an earlier era), and a helpful explanatory guide to the rhetoric conservatives use today. How else does calling Obama a socialist make any sense at all?
I highly recommend it, and suspect that this book will have staying power.
Author (description from Brookings page): : E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.
A nationally known and respected commentator on politics, Dionne appears weekly on National Public Radio and regularly on MSNBC. He is a regular contributor to NBC’s Meet the Press. He has also appeared on News Hour with Jim Lehrer and other PBS programs.
Readability/quality: This is a good read. There are numerous hooks to get you interested in history (what's Rick Perry got to do with Andrew Hamilton and Henry Clay? Very little, as it happens. What do Civil War pensions, a notable communitarian effort by the Federal government, have to do with FDR? A great deal.) While the end notes are extensive, the references are neither overdone nor get in the way of the story.
Who should read it: Political junkies, history buffs, those interested in the history of Populism beyond the current use of the term, unabashed liberals and thoughtful conservatives, Tom Friedman.