Customer Reviews: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent
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on May 23, 2012
Authors writing about political partisanship try not to offend either side--lest liberals and conservatives retreat to their talking points and shut down debate. To avoid appearing too partisan they analyze how historical precedents (especially those set forth by the founders or in the Constitution) relate to our current situation. For example:

* In Drift, Rachel Maddow cites how the founders (particularly Jefferson) rejected large standing militaries but how presidents since Reagan have found roundabout ways to conduct continuous military actions.
* In It's Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein describe how the constitutional system struggles to work within the ideology-driven environment that has evolved over the last 40 years.
* In The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney explicitly recommends such a story strategy--"liberals and scientists should find some key facts--the best facts--and integrate them into stories that move people [and]... here is where you really have to admire conservatives. Their narrative of the founding of the country, which casts the U.S. as a "Christian nation" and themselves as the Tea Party, is a powerful story that perfectly matches their values. It just happens to be wrong. But liberals will never defeat it factually--they have to tell a better story of their own."

This is kind of the strategy E.J. Dionne takes in Our Divided Political Heart but with some interesting twists. As a Brookings colleague of Thomas Mann, Dionne's narrative shares some similarities with Mann's description of how and when conservatives got onto their current path. But Dionne doesn't focus much on conservatives vs. liberals or on ways to resolve the current impasse. Instead he concentrates on the individualism that has become the Republicans' fixation (let the wealthy lead us to out of national decline) vs. the community aspirations to which liberals, Democrats and Obama are trying to return (not without the participation of the middle class).

Dionne's motivation is the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements. He admits to being most partisan when discussing them, but rather than passing too much judgment he takes us on a history tour to show how these groups connect back to reform movements through our history. Far from being an insolvable problem these reform movements--in Dionne's mind--have driven America to greatness. Can such reform now take us to the next level?

Dionne's narrative is not just his own read of history but the analyses of key historians. That makes this unique with a not-so-partisan feel. The best chapters for me were Chapter 2 where Dionne describes the politics of history and Chapter 6 where he shows how the founders would be amazed that we still look to them for guidance--given what compromise they agreed to in creating the Constitution in the first place. You learn not just historically about how Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, the two Roosevelts, and Reagan set specific agendas but also how historians couldn't help but interpret their actions based on the events that were happening in their own eras. After all, the historians' agendas motivated them to choose the eras and events they wrote about.

As a result, Dionne's book becomes a contextual journey that shows how frustrations and reform movements have existed throughout our history. The Tea Party and Occupy are just taking the baton from past reformers. He points out how the founders were conflicted by their own need to compromise... that we should not just look back to them for direction but to guidelines of reformers from different eras all along the way.

Dionne's critical point is that our most effective presidents have not been driven by their parties or even by their liberal- or conservative-ness. They have seen opportunities to advance our country and its stature in the world -- often by enabling individualism to lead the way -- but they have also enabled that advancement to be shared by everyone in our society. Admittedly these community benefits have usually been slow and required substantial catch-up (and sometimes bloodshed), but it has been a two-fold focus. Dionne points to Hamilton vs. Jefferson, Jackson vs. the Whigs, Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives preempting the Populists, FDR and the New Deal, Reagan, and Clinton all as eras and administrations where individualism worked hand-in-hand with community.

As a result of better understanding this whole 250-year reform context, I expect to better understand what's behind our current situation. While reading the book and listening to an Obama news conference, I could already see better where he was coming from and the distinctions he was able to draw. Our Divided Political Heart is well worth the read.

7/11/2012 Update - Just read "It's the Middle Class, Stupid" by James Carville and Stan Greenville. That book is an excellent next book to read after reading "Our Divided Political Heart." In it they suggest a tagline and a political strategy for winning the 2012 election in a way that will set the stage for the kind of long-term reform movement Dionne hopes for.
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on July 4, 2012
When "liberal" versus "conservative" has become a daily diet among op-ed columnists, what a treasure it is to read a conscientious journalist committed to discovering, describing, and synthesizing historical interpretations regarding the contradictory duality of individual and community responsibility which is the heart and strength of American democracy. Dionne credits President Clinton for one of the most dramatic illustrations of this philosophy by pulling a penny from his pocket and reading from the side next to Lincoln's picture the single word, "Liberty" and turning it over to read from the other side, "E Pluribus Unum" -- Out of Many, One.

E.J. Dionne's "Our Divided Political Heart" is challenging reading but deeply rewarding. He emphasizes the fact that historical interpretations both reflect and shape current policy. He cites the example of President Reagan popularizing the ideal of Winthrop's "City on a Hill" but practically no one who admires the slogan is aware that the Puritan leader admonished his fellow citizens "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body." Only when struck by disasters such as a tornado or hurricane do large numbers of us reflect that standard. We find no irony in idolizing cultural heroes from both sides of this heritage -- think "It's a Wonderful Life" and "High Noon." How often do conservative radicals quote the preamble to our Declaration of Independence stating that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" without ever reading the entire document and considering the depth of its concluding commitment "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor?" We choose to read and teach history selectively to our own detriment.

Dionne's weakest section deals with defining whether either/neither/or both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are "populist" and what that term actually means. He is stronger in contending the "Long Consensus" which evolved from the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II began to crumble in the cultural changes of the 60s and 70s that followed the cynicism of the Vietnam War and Watergate and dramatic social movements such as civil rights and feminism. Republicans will undoubtedly be irritated that he contends conservative principles they espoused from Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln through Teddy Roosevelt have been hijacked and misinterpreted by the Tea Party. But he is consistent in his overriding contention that the genius of American democracy lies in the duality of a balanced commitment to both individual and community prosperity. He concludes with an expression of confidence in the Millennial generation we can only hope is justified. This book would be an excellent text for a college course.

PS -- read his acknowledgements and you'll find Dionne practices what he preaches. His name appears on the cover but this book is very much a group effort from the work of multiple historians -- living and dead -- to colleagues and research assistants.
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VINE VOICEon May 24, 2012
"This book is an effort to make sense of our current political unhappiness, to offer an explanation for why divisions in our politics run so deep, and to reflect on why we are arguing so much about our nation's history and what it means."--E. J. Dionne's

E. J. Dionne's is my favorite rational liberal political commentator; discussing around a Sunday table with David Brooks will always make my day. The days of political camaraderie are over, but the gifted analyst still prescribes some viable medicines to the current poisoned political milieu. We cannot compromise because we lost the core of our identity, that motivates our exceptionalism. EJ claims: one reason underlying our irritating political lockout, is caused by polarized minds and ego centered hearts; extreme individuality is paralyzing our political will.

Dionne narrates in a vivid analytical tour of American sociopolitical history, the Progressives and the 'New Dealers', starting with the Founding Fathers all the way to the Populists. He offers a compelling analysis of America's contemporary politics, and its current situation that puzzles the American voters at large, as well as the conventional wisdom of political analysts. The federal government has been always considered the active executive partner putting into reality the American population's dreams of opportunity and prosperity.

"A yearning to reverse decline played just below the surface in Obama's campaign in 2008. His victory was a response to a national mood conditioned by anxiety. ..., Americans worried that in the first decade of the new millennium, their country had squandered its international advantages, degraded its power ... in Iraq, and wrecked the federal government's finances. Then came the devastation of the worst financial crisis in eighty years. This was ... widely seen as challenging American preeminence." wrote EJ Dionne

The fear of America's decline is one of the oldest national impulse. It speaks, oddly, to our confidence that we occupy a lofty position in history and among nations: we always assume we are in a place from which we can decline." That is why "The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent," may well be the must-read book of the 2012 election campaign. E.J. convincely argues that since the start of our nation, it has been characterized by a deep and vital tension between our devotion to community our respect of individual liberty.

EJ criticizes the Tea Party's twisted portrayal of our political history, and says the true American tradition never reflected radical individualism, but a balance between our devotion to community and our individualism. Recently, Paul Begala described Dionne's new book as brilliant, writing that EJ, "argues we must honor the tensions between two strains of the American Dream; rugged individualists who glorify those who make it on their own; and the communitarians who revere the Americans who help their neighbors, fight our fires, and wage our wars. Both are central to the American character."

"Our Divided Political Heart will be required reading for all who seek a path out of our current impasse." So on May 29, Brookings Institute will host a discussion with E. J. Dionne about the lost balance between individualism and community, its corrosive implications for the political environment and policymaking, and how to seek a path forward from our current impasse and our fears of decline. Brookings Senior Fellow Tom Mann will provide introductory remarks and will lead a conversation with E. J. Dionne.
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on June 19, 2012
Dionne has made an argument that draws deeply on our national identity not as we imagine it today but as it has actually been throughout our history. As such, it has more in common with Habits of the Heart or Democracy in America that with the standard "isn't politics awful" writing (including some of Dionne's early works). It is a work of political philosophy, sociological analysis, and deep moral vision. While he critiques those on the right for mis-stating pieces of American tradition, he also challenges those on the left for not appropriately drawing from those traditions to inform their positions.

Here's his essential argument from the introduction.

"At the heart of this book is a 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 against a party of 'community'. Rather, both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans. Both are essential to the American story and America's strength. Both interact, usually fruitfully, sometimes uncomfortably, with that other bedrock American-value, equality, whose meaning we debate in every generation. (4)"

While he begins his analysis with an examination of today's Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street Movements, he uses these as jumping off points. It is possible to find similar arguments from much earlier in our country's history that sound exactly like the claims of today. Because when we get to a point of imbalance in this tenuous relationship between individualism and community (which he also rightly refers to as liberal -- in the enlightenment sense of rational individuals -- and republican -- which refers to our belief in the greater good of the republic and not the political party), our political house falls into disrepair.

He does still examine hot button political issues. He uses the Supreme Court decisions of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United which bookended the first decade of this century as an illustration of what happens when we lose the community side of the equation. But he draws fascinating parallels with the Reconstruction period, the Populist Movements of the early 20th century, the New Deal and its aftermath, the Reagan years, and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism." By using the work of political historians and civic philosophers, he's able to demonstrate the repetition of the same themes again and again.

It's something of a national Groundhog Day. We trot out the old arguments as if we're having them for the first time. In doing so, we remain ignorant of the important civic threads the other side is building arguments from. He calls for a fully informed understanding of issues of the Founders (who argued among themselves on the issue of balance and equality) and the carefully articulated positions of leaders like Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt (there's a fabulous section summarizing a book by former New York senator Jacob Javits that uses these four as a central theme in a moderate Republican's leadership philosophy). He reminds us that from the earliest days of our nation, we struggled for the right balance between a comprehensive government (after the Articles of Confederation fell apart) and individual freedoms.

In a compelling illustration he recounts Bill Clinton's use of the penny to tell our national story:
"Take a penny from your pocket," Clinton said. "On one side, next to Lincoln's portrait is a single word: 'Liberty'. On the other side is our national motto. It says, 'E Pluribus Unum' -- 'Out of Many, One'. It does not say, 'Every man for himself'. That humble penny," he would continue, is an explicit declaration -- one you can carry around in your pocket -- that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation. These two commitments -- to protect personal freedom and to seek common ground -- are the coin of our realm, the measure of our worth." (70-71)

What we have today, Dionne argues, is a partially formed understanding of that great American tradition. When the essential balance is lost and then distorted by media, internet, and personal isolation from those we disagree with, we feel as if we've lost our way. But he suggests that the way back is not overthrow of the government, dismantling of the New Deal, or mandated rights on behalf of the disenfranchised. The way back is to acknowledge the complexity of the American idea referred to in the subtitle. It's a call not for winner take all but for us to find our common language.

My final analysis is that this is a remarkably important book. But it's not just political philosophy or civic history. On finishing, I realized that it provides the context for political debate. I could imagine a candidate for office articulating not simple talking points, but the deep traditions of individualism and community that have run throughout our nation's history. I'm an optimist, but I find myself thinking that "the American people" would actually respond to such a commitment to balance. It's not simple compromise but rather a deeper willingness to wade into the stream of American tradition and find our place afresh.
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on November 12, 2013
What is enjoyable about reading Mr. Dionne's book is his even-tempered delivery. You will find no snarky sarcastic sentences written by the author. Yes, Mr. Dionne is a progressive, but backs his work with an accurate portrayal of how our country was born. He laments the current manifestation of radical individualism that is called the Tea Party. He clearly shows how our nation has always struggled to find a balance between individual freedoms and mutual obligations. The book persuasively explains that the Tea Party's extreme form of individualism is taken from the short, 30-year, Gilded-Age era and is not reflective of the Framers' true intent.

"Our Divided Political Heart" is not the kind of work which is effective if you read only a few pages per session. Mr. Dionne's trains of thought about such topics as populism, the politics of history, the various manifestations of liberalism and conservatism, and the impossibility of nailing down the Constitution's original intent is not casual reading. It was nice to read Mr. Dionne stressing that the Constitution was created by intelligent but flawed men and it is a political document that was formed through compromise and some obfuscation. What was especially reassuring about the book is the author relies heavily on the esteemed, Colonial historian Gordon Wood. (Mr. Wood's Pulitzer Prize-winning work "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" is extremely worth your while.)

Mr. Dionne is a very good writer, but the work has a slightly academic tone to it. Hopefully, this will not detract you from reading it. The book is highly informative, well-reasoned and ultimately a hopeful one.
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on July 24, 2012
Because we live in such a polarizing political landscape that constantly evokes our nation's history as a precedent for whatever message is being delivered I believe a historical context for what government is to us and the role we want it to play in our society is essential in our ability to digest what we are being sold and determine what we really believe in. I believe that. That is why I bought this book yesterday and finished it today.
To understand who we are and where we are going we must understand where we have been. I recommend this book to anyone who believes that as well.
While it is a little wordy and generally critical of specifically the Tea Party movement (in the context that they evoke our Constitution for their founding principles of weakening our government) E. J. Dionne provides plenty of praise for both Republicans and Democrats as well as a critical tone for those who forget that the perhaps the key American strength we possess is compromise. The duality of what it means to be an American is that we all in our core contain both Republican and Democrat ideals and we resort to extremism at our peril.
Seems to me the missing argument in our political landscape is not the case for the absolute left or the absolute right but in fact it is the case for the middle. It is that political middle ground that has fostered the greatest nation in the world and created a government of the people for the people that will mature with the people.
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on June 10, 2012
I really wanted to like this book. When I heard the author's interview with Rachel Maddow, I bought the book immediately. However, I struggled to follow it, even though I think I probably agreed with the author's premise, if I understood it properly. The book would benefit from better organization, particularly within the chapters, and a glossary might be helpful. It might also be useful to have an appendix with a presidential timeline, complete with each president's political affiliation and primary philosophies and/or accomplishments. Essentially, it was confusing to see the same ideological labels applied in different ways depending on the political era, and although I was familiar with presidential philosophies from FDR forward, it was hard to relate to earlier presidencies without easily seeing where they fit in the "big picture." For a history professor or a political scientist, these issues would not be problems. However, without that firm historical frame of reference, it seemed to me that the author rambled.
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on June 25, 2012
E.J. Dionne has done great research and called upon a great wealth of historical information that making this a great read. His overview of progressive, conservative and liberal political traditions in our nation puts to rest much of rhetoric being bandied about by pundits, reporters and politicians in the current election cycle. His work is a reminder that our "conservative" presidents were often very liberal and our "liberal" presidents were often conservative. He also traces the changes in both the Republican and Democratic positions over the past century. He gives healthy space to the many third party movements that have had a real impact on our nation. Amidst it all, he provides a persepective to understand much of the idiotic vitriol that pervaides the current political season. He treats both the left and the right with equal praise and disdain when earned or needed. His is a heartfelt lament for a time when elected officials talked to one another, when Congress was in session from Monday morning to Friday evening, when political opponents and their families shared weekend outings and raising money wasn't their primary function.
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on January 27, 2013
While the ideas expressed in this book are very interesting, Dionne's writing style is complex and sometimes convoluted. Good concentration is required during the reading process to understand the content. The core notion of the book - that individualism and communitarianism have been in the American psyche from the very beginning of the nation - is very instructive, and points to an inadequate understanding of American history in our modern politics.
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on November 11, 2012
One of my favorite books of any category. I found reading progress to be slow only because his many references and how he expands on them to have me constantly going to Wikipedia, or Amazon for books mentioned. This book has been a major eyeopener for me to understand our country's history and how our government functioned from our founding (and I do a lot of reading). The tone is one that does not slam the Tea Party or others who seem to me to lack an understanding of our history, and are simplistic in their conclusions. It is one of those books I could hand to those who are, if not ultra-conservative, are far far from being liberal. He takes you on a journey where you feel his knowledge is expansive, instructive, with no obvious hidden agenda others accomplish by twisting their private facts. He is gentle with his education.

When I see him on TV being interviewed, I stop and listen. I get the same reaction: This man is calm, educates, and whose views and comments are based on an incredible foundation of knowledge. I cannot think of another political scientist who has the same charm and knowledge. I would love to have him moderate our next presidential debates.

Read this, regardless of your political views, you will come out with a much broader level of understanding our our country's history, and be able to recognize that the history we hear from Fox news and right wingers is based on wishful thinking, or with a built in agenda versus based on research.
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