- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (January 29, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1608194388
- ISBN-13: 978-1608194384
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 78 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #293,264 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent Paperback – January 29, 2013
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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.
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* 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.
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.
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.