Saturday, April 20, 2013

Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne

I read Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne Jr. in an effort to better understand the liberal mindset. He seems an eminently reasonable and thoughtful man, with plenty of knowledge of and love for America. In fact, I found myself nodding agreement again and again with his premises. Unfortunately, when he reached his conclusions, he lost me. Most of the time, I felt myself asking if he understood that subsequent history had already proven him wrong.

The basic thesis of his book is that America is and has always been divided between competing ideals of individuality and community. While he believes that our nation has usually struck the right balance between the two, he worries now that Conservatives have taken their stronger desire for individuality to a new extreme that threatens this fragile balance. Of course, he looks up to Obama as the perfect embodiment of this fragile balance. To an extent, I agree with his thesis, although I don’t see the two values in as much competition as he does, but I had to wonder at his idea of Obama as the perfect compromiser. Does he not read the papers? Has he not heard of Woodward’s book on Obama? He seems to connote way too much credibility to the president's words and none to his actual actions.

Unfortunately, he started off the book describing the Tea Party as the embodiment of Conservative thought and as such he must attack it. He uses the tired and discredited notion that the Tea Party is racist. He bases this on two things: One - it is made up predominantly of white men. Two - They believe the media is making too much of the problems black people face in America. Hmmm. So a group of white people are, by definition, racist. That would mean a gathering of my family and friends are definitionally racist. And, that a group of people who do not consider themselves victims, namely white men, do not like to hear others calling themselves victims. Maybe they don’t like to hear about anyone’s problems, regardless of race. While describing the Tea Party and its adherents as hateful bigots, Dionne praises the Occupy Wall Street crowd as true voice for America’s heritage. The fact that the OWS people destroyed thousands of dollars in property and committed numerous crimes and had no clearly defined agenda or any real idea of what they were protesting, while the Tea Party was the exact opposite seems to have escaped him. Once again, he seems not to have noticed that history has proven him wrong.

Dionne is not happy with what he believes is the Tea Party’s, and therefore conservative’s, distortions of history, specifically American history. Now I am a huge history buff and and am voracious in my history appetite, so I respect a fellow traveler. Dionne clearly shares my love of American history as well and for that I applaud him. He is a patriot and lover of this country. He builds a strong case to support his thesis that our country has always sought to balance individualism with a concern for community. 

But I believe his case falls apart when he insists that conservatives care only about the harshest form of individualism and nothing for community. He mocks Ronald Reagan for quoting Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” line from a speech about the need for community. He believes the irony is rich and acts as if Reagan did not in fact know what the speech was about. Yet Reagan’s biographers claim that was Reagan’s favorite speech and he had the whole thing memorized. Later, Dionne praises Reagan as the last Republican to really “get” the idea of community. Which is it?

He also dismisses any historian he disagrees with as a perverter of the truth. Yet he offers no evidence of this. One, Amity Shlaes who wrote a 500-page tome on FDR and the New Deal, he calls anti-FDR (with no acknowledgement of her huge body of research) and tosses her away with a nefarious reference to her professional link to Glenn Beck. He has already disparaged Glenn Beck with nothing more than a note that Beck is controversial. I’m not familiar with the historians he cites, but I am very familiar with Shlaes and Beck. His casual dismissal of them with nothing more than shallow ad-hominem attacks does not give him a lot of credibility on this point. 

He applauds the Left for reinventing the community spirit in America. Here, it gets odd. He has stated from the beginning that for him, “community” and “government” are not synonymous. “Community” refers to the institutions that bind our nation together: Boy Scouts, church, Lions Club, schools, PTA, family, etc. Yet, as he begins his praise for the Left and its emphasis on “community” not one example involves any thing other than the government. His first example of Clinton’s AmeriCorp in which the government paid people to volunteer is exactly what I am talking about. This is not the intrinsic fabric of America being strengthened, but a socially engineered (and highly inefficiently at that) example of the left trying to create a pseudo-community using other people’s money and the force of government. Paid volunteers. It’s an oxymoron. Not true community. Ironically, although Dionne lauds true community, I think if he’s honest, he would find most of those institutions are supported by conservatives far more than by those on the left. It is the right that gives to charity and dedicates its time. It is the left that abdicates the responsibility to care for fellow humans to the government and the power to tax. (See: Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks).

Dionne praises Obama for being the perfect example of someone with both a community and individualistic focus. Unfortunately, I believe Dionne is being willfully naive. He praises Obama for his words in support of religion, yet has no response to the actions of Obama which have caused religious groups to feel under attack. He points out that as a “community organizer” of course Obama cares about community. But that form of community organizing only meant trying to get more and more government hand-outs to his favored group. No mention is made that when asked to actually live in the community he supposedly cared so much about, Obama chose to commute an hour back to the upscale Hyde Park neighborhood in which he lived. For Dionne, words are everything. Actions don’t seem to exist. Again, I kept thinking, doesn’t he know that history has proven his impression of Obama wrong?

All throughout the book, he continues to act as if history never happened. He cites Alexander Hamilton’s belief in a strong federal government as an example of the right’s hypocrisy in its veneration of the Founders. Yet Hamilton advocated for a strong government when the folly of an extremely weak government had become obvious. Does anyone seriously believe a single Founder would look at the leviathan we have today and advocate for a bigger and stronger government? He praises FDR for setting up “community” focused programs like Social Security and Medicaid (notice government programs, not true community according to his own definition) with no acknowledgement whatsoever that those same programs are bankrupting our country. He also has high praise for the way FDR saved capitalism and points to the economic explosion that followed. Except it didn’t. We got the GREAT Depression. The economic explosion followed the DEATH of FDR and the defeat of his programs by a Republican congress. He disparages Bush v. Gore as a travesty. Yet every single recount of the Florida vote gave the win to Bush. Even the media’s recount after the decision still had Bush winning. It’s like he’s stuck in the thick of November 2000 still sitting on the edge of his seat awaiting the outcome. Again and again I wondered, doesn’t he know what happened next?

Constantly I felt like I was being dropped off a cliff by his arguments. He says something so obviously right and full of common sense and has me nodding in agreement, then drops a bomb at the last minute. For example, he believes in viewing the Constitution in its original sense. All well and good. He cites a scholar saying strict Constitutionalists believe that the Constitution “offers a ‘narrative of a traditional nation that promises to restore: an America dedicated to personal responsibility and limited government, private property and godliness.’” Right. Does anyone seriously disagree with that? Dionne does. He admirably quotes a scholar saying, “The Framers believed that personal liberty and political equality required a measure of economic independence and material security.” Then goes on to add, “Protecting our constitutional democracy thus demands that we address ‘our unequal and unfair society.’” Um, where is that in the actual Constitution? Nowhere does the Constitution even remotely hint that we need to “address our unequal and unfair society.” He just added that in as something he would like it to say. All very odd and jarring. 

He ends with a grand and beautiful vision of what America can be. He points out with great hope what an amazing generation the youth of today are. They hold all the right opinions and all the right ideals. Never mind that everyone acknowledges that we become wiser with age. In fact, the 60s generation from which Dionne harkens went from being even more idealistic and utopian than today’s youth to overwhelmingly Republican. That will happen with today’s youth as well. Give them time to live in reality, a place Dionne avoids. Sample non-reality based dream, “In a democracy, government should be seen less as an entity that issues commands than as a forum where citizens debate the future of their community and their nation.” Really? Was the Affordable Care Act a forum for discussion of the medical issues that plague our society or “an entity that issues commands”? Government is force. It is supposed to exist solely to protect our rights. It is not a forum for discussion. People discuss. Communities discuss. Government forces. To do otherwise is to favor one group over another. (See: The Law by Bastiat).

I was initially pleasantly surprised that Dionne seems to be such a genuinely nice person. I’m sure I would like him personally. It wasn’t that I disagreed with the author that made this book a difficult read. I read books I disagree with on a regular basis. The problem was that I agreed with so much of it. He is so right about so much, yet his conclusions are so wrong. Over and over, I was flat out astonished that someone as obviously smart, knowledgeable and decent could be so wrong about so much. His leaps of reasoning and logical fallacies gave me the feeling of being dropped off a cliff time after time. Once, I had to read a sentence at least 10 times to even understand what point he was trying to make because of the sentence’s internal contradictions. Sometimes they weren’t even actual sentences. I stared at one for several minutes just searching for a predicate, any predicate. No matter what he intended to say, that alone kept jarring me.

The next book I picked up after this one was The Victims’s Revolution by Bruce Bawer. A good book, I’ll review it soon, and overall I found myself in agreement with him, but that is not what initially hit me as I began to read it. His clear writing and logical argumentation washed over me and I can only describe it as “refreshing.” I literally felt refreshed not to be jarred repeatedly but to flow from thought to thought with logical consistency. Midway through this book on “the closing of the Liberal Mind”, I got my explanation. The left has stated, through their university representatives, that they reject reason and rationality as patriarchal and hegemonic. Got that? They reject reason and rationality. Now E.J. Dionne makes sense.

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