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A Well-Written and Thought-Provoking Call to Arms
on June 20, 2004
The recent death of Ronald Reagan inspired many recollections of the former President's remarkable talent for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Even his fiercest political opponents found him to be an amiable man who did not take political differences in a personal fashion. Sadly, politics today is played by a different set of rules. To see how the game is played today, one need only start with a current list of some of the bestselling books from either side of the political spectrum. Bookstore shelves yield discordant titles such as DELIVER US FROM EVIL: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism by Sean Hannity; BIG LIES by Joe Conason; TREASON: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism by Ann Coulter; and THE REPUBLICAN NOISE MACHINE: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy by David Brock. These are just a few of the representative titles found in the politics section.
STAND UP, FIGHT BACK by E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a call to arms to those people who, regardless of political views, are troubled by the fiercely personal nature of American politics and the growing tendency to make every political debate partisan. Dionne worries that one side in the current political climate, liberals and progressives, have lost the will to fight for traditional principles supported by the vast majority of Americans. The current political atmosphere, Dionne argues, is damaging not only to democracy but also to important political institutions as well.
At other moments in our history, revenge has been an important theme in American political life. From the era of Andrew Jackson to the post-Civil War period to the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, American politics has experienced cycles in which each side depends for victory more on mobilizing its loyalists than persuading the uncommitted. So divided are we along party and ideological lines that we cannot even agree on what event triggered the current cycle of revenge. Some believe it started with Watergate, others point to the confirmation battles over Supreme Court nominees, and still others would suggest that the Clinton Wars were the commencement of the battle. Regardless of when the struggle began, there has been no peace in American politics for many years.
One of Dionne's core themes in STAND UP, FIGHT BACK is that an opportunity was squandered to once again unite the country and create a better political atmosphere in America. After September 11th, President Bush had the opportunity to reunite the country. Indeed, for a brief period of time, the country was unified. But instead of building upon that opportunity to avoid divisive politics, President Bush chose to divide the country on issues such as homeland security, tax cuts and the war in Iraq. Dionne firmly believes that historians will not judge the President well for his conduct.
But Dionne does not limit his disapproval to the right wing of American politics. Liberals and progressives have both been unable to articulate an agenda to advance their political positions and unwilling to engage in the same tactics that have brought success to the Republicans in Washington. Recent events do seem to suggest that Democrats now appear willing to engage the right wing in a more vigorous fashion. In this current election year, candidate John Kerry has not been reluctant to respond in kind to attacks on his record and his patriotism. Democrats know all too well that the failure to respond quickly and vigorously to these types of attacks often results in defeat at the polls.
Still, strong words and a backbone are only part of what progressives need to succeed in order to once again become the majority in American politics. Dionne spends a great deal of his book discussing tired and useless arguments that liberals and moderates cannot seem to avoid and new arguments that they should start making. He calls these two areas "The Wrong Stuff" and "The Right Stuff." The discussion here is illuminating because Dionne destroys several myths and stereotypes of American politics, including issues such as deficit spending, judicial activism, big government and national defense. All too often, liberals have run from these debates. If they stood up and engaged conservatives on these issues, Dionne maintains that those voters who occupy the middle of the political spectrum would join their cause.
STAND UP, FIGHT BACK is a well-written and thought-provoking call to arms to those people who feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Much of what Dionne has written here he has espoused before in his regular columns on the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Dionne is a prescient observer of American politics. The sad fact about most political books is that they sway very few opinions or change very few minds. It is sad because E. J. Dionne offers a wise statement of what will best serve the future course of America's well being, and all sides of the political debate would do well to heed his advice.
--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman