Our Divided Political Heart – The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent

Reviews and excerptsNPR excerpt is directly from the book; all other excerpt selections and highlighting done by web curator, Phyllis Stenerson

1 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne Jr., review by Jeff Greenfield, Washington Post, June 1, 2012

2 -  ‘Our Divided Political Heart’ by E. J. Dionne Jr., review By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE, New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2012

3 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E. J. Dionne Jr. , NPR.org – excerpt

4 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent By: E.J. Dionne Jr., Bloomsbury.com -  – About Our Divided Political Heart – Who are we as a nation? And what is it that’s tearing us apart?

5 – Our Divided Political Heart, The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne, bookbrowse.com  May 2012 – book summary

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1 - Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne Jr. By Jeff Greenfield, Washington Post, June 1, 2012

“a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.”

If you want a perfect embodiment of the political divide that E.J. Dionne Jr. describes and laments in his new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” there’s no better place to look than the credentials of E.J. Dionne Jr.: columnist for The Washington Post; senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; professor at Georgetown University; regular guest on “Meet the Press,” MSNBC and NPR.

These credentials, the very model of a modern major commentator, are multiple red flags for the millions who see in academia, D.C.-based liberal think tanks and most of the media the very forces that helped dragoon America away from its authentic roots and traditions. They all but ensure that anything Dionne might say would be rejected out of hand. And they help explain why his ambitious and estimable mission — to remind skeptical Americans of the strong communitarian foundations of the republic — is probably doomed to failure. The very folks Dionne is most determined to convince are the ones most likely to dismiss the historical evidence that fills almost every page by replying, “Consider the source.”

“Building a new consensus,” he says at the outset, “will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continue to insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives and dominates our story.” Our country, he says, “has witnessed the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community.” Dionne believes that figures as diverse as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would have been appalled by the understanding — or, rather, misunderstanding — of what “the American System” is all about. And over the next 200-plus pages, Dionne marshals an array of historians to reinforce this central point.

Where did this misunderstanding come from? For Dionne, its locus is the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism was at its peak and when the Supreme Court was turning the 14th Amendment on its head, substituting corporate coddling for the goal of using federal power to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the states. For most of our history, he argues, and especially over most of the 20th century, America has been guided by “the long consensus” — from the first Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan — that while it would be wrong “to deny the power of individualism in our history . . . it is just as misleading to ignore our yearnings for a strong common life and our republican quest for civic virtue.”

Yet, apart from that résumé that would make reciprocal respect unlikely, Dionne’s case for the rebuilding of the long consensus is exactly what the current version of American conservatism does not want. As Karl Marx once said of his fellow communists, the tea party disdains to conceal its aims. In his maiden speech last year, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) was sharply critical of Henry Clay’s compromises, embracing instead the abolitionist stance of Henry’s cousin Cassius Clay. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared in his presidential announcement speech that he sought to “make Washington as inconsequential in your life as I can,” there was no one on the right who suggested that this might be at odds with American history.

When Richard Mourdock, who recently defeated Indiana’s Richard Lugar in his attempt to extend his 36-year Senate career, was asked about bipartisanship, he said, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

If Dionne’s effort to find common ground is likely to fail, it does not lessen his achievement. His case is strong enough, serious enough and grounded enough to challenge those on the other side of the divide to offer a counterargument as rigorously argued as this one. 

2 Our Divided Political Heart’ by E. J. Dionne Jr. By GEOFFREY KABASERVICE, New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2012

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr… examines current political concerns through the lens of history, religion and philosophy. But while readers will admire Dionne’s intellectual dexterity in diagnosing the historical origins of our present political problem of division and dysfunction, they may also wish he could make a more substantive case for how we might move beyond it….he situates our current divisions in the full sweep of American history, going back to the founders — since, as he observes, “Americans disagree about who we are because we can’t agree about who we’ve been.”

Dionne posits that American history has always been characterized by tension between the core values of individualism and community. Americans have cherished liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression while also upholding the importance of community obligation and civic virtue. The founders referred to these values as liberalism and republicanism, and the effort to balance and reconcile them has shaped the American character. Neither value is reducible to liberalism or conservatism as we now understand them, although communitarianism presumes a belief that government is at least potentially a constructive force. Dionne, a self-described “communitarian liberal,” acknowledges that he has much in common with conservative intellectuals like Robert Nisbet and the “compassionate conservatives” around George W. Bush. But Dionne argues that today’s Tea Party-influenced conservatives have broken with their communitarian traditions and become zealots for radical individualism. He pleads for a return to the balance between individual and community values that characterized most of American ­history.

Conservatives’ contentions that the founders believed in minimal government and maximal individualism, for example, are countered by the findings of scholars like Gordon Wood that the American revolutionaries sought to create a strong federal government and conceived of a highly communal and at times anticapitalistic version of liberty. Dionne points out that conservative justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas who claim to be able to discern the “original intent” of the Constitution are deluded, since the founders held conflicting views and some provisions of the Constitution “embody not timeless truths but sensitive compromises aimed at resolving (or getting around) pressing disagreements of the moment.”the laissez-faire doctrine of the Gilded Age was an aberration, and that “conservative individualists are thus trying to convert a 35-year interlude into the norm for 235 years of American history.”

… he hopes that Occupy Wall Street will find expression in traditional politics, just as the Progressives fulfilled many Populist goals by joining them with the aspirations of the middle class. The merger of Populism and Progressivism, in Dionne’s view, laid the groundwork for “the Long Consensus”: the active-government commitment to prosperity that expanded both individual opportunity and collective security in the century after Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency in 1901. It is this consensus, along with the balance and moderation it embodied, that is threatened by a Republican Party newly converted to the cause of radical ­individualism.

…. He shouldn’t be accused of political favoritism for diagnosing the current moment of “asymmetric polarization,” in which Republicans seek to overturn the Long Consensus while Democrats defend it. “If describing developments in American political life candidly is dismissed as a form of partisanship,” he warns, “then honest speech becomes impossible.”

… while he is justly critical of ideologically compromised right-wing history, he calls ideological left-wing revisionism “important,” “debunking” and thought-provoking.

Dionne declares that “the country confronts a time of decision,” one that demands more than “musty bromides” about moderation or mere procedural reforms…He hopes Republicans will recover their abandoned communitarian traditions The history Dionne tells can provide inspiration and guidance, but Americans will have to find new ways of thinking and acting if they are to restore the political balance that once enabled American greatness.

3 – Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E. J. Dionne Jr. – excerpt of this book  INTRODUCTION – Who We Are: Liberty, Community, and the American Character – NPR.ORG 

Fear of decline is one of the oldest American impulses. 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. It’s why there is a vast literature on “American exceptionalism” and why we think of ourselves as “a city on a hill,” “the first new nation,” “a beacon to the world,” and “a light among nations.”

When they arise, our declinist sentiments usually have specific sources in economic or foreign policy travails. These apprehensions quickly lead to bouts of soul-searching that go beyond concrete problems to abstract and even spiritual worries about the nation’s values and moral purposes. When we feel we are in decline, we sense that we have lost our balance. We argue about what history teaches us — and usually disagree about what history actually says. We conclude that behind every crisis related to economics and the global distribution of power lurks a crisis of the soul….

the words hope and believe were pointed responses to a spiritual crisis engendered by fears of lost supremacy. They help explain why the Obama campaign so often felt like a religious crusade…. The difficulty in producing a sustainable economic upturn (even if the hopes for a miraculous recovery were always unrealistic) only deepened the nation’s sense that something was badly wrong. Obama … failed, particularly in the first part of his term, to understand how the depth of the nation’s political polarization would inevitably foil his pledge to bring the country together across the lines of party and ideology…Whatever Obama was for, whatever he undertook, whatever he proposed — all of it was seen as undermining traditional American liberties and moving the country toward some ill-defined socialism. Whatever else they did, Republicans would make sure they prevented Obama from accomplishing anything more. Over and over, they vowed to make him a one-term president…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.

Americans are right to sense that the country confronts a time of decisionWe are right to feel that traditional paths to upward mobility have been blocked, that inequalities have grown, and that the old social contract — written in the wake of World War II and based on shared prosperity — has been torn up. Musty bromides about centrism and moderation will do nothing to quell our anxieties and our fears.

… our current unease arises less from a shortage of specific plans or programs than from a sense that our political system is so obstructed and so polarized that even good ideas commanding broad support have little chance of prevailing. We don’t have constructive debate because we cannot agree on the facts or on any common ground defined by shared moral commitments.   

4 Our Divided Political Heart The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent By: E.J. Dionne Jr. – www.bloomsbury.com

About Our Divided Political Heart – Who are we as a nation? And what is it that’s tearing us apart? In Our Divided Political Heart, E. J. Dionne Jr., one of our most respected political commentators, argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been. The American tradition, Dionne says, points not to radical self-reliance and self-interest, but to a balance between our love of individual freedom and our devotion to community. With a deep understanding of our nation’s past, Dionne crafts an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning our current political atmosphere. He shares the Tea Party’s engagement with the American past, but takes on its distortions of our history while rooting the Occupy Wall Street movement in America’s civic and Populist traditions.

Dionne offers both a fascinating tour of American history-from the Founding Fathers to Clay and Lincoln, on to Populism, the Progressives, and the New Dealers-and an interpretation of our moment’s politics that shatters conventional wisdom. He reclaims the American idea of the federal government as an active and constructive partner with the rest of society in promoting prosperity, opportunity, and American greatness. And he challenges progressives to embrace their country’s story-to redefine progress and to put an end to our fears of decline.
Our Divided Political Heart is indispensable for all who seek a path out of America’s current impasse.

Reviews

“As he has so often, E.J. Dionne has written a brilliant new book, and it places our current division in political and cultural context” –  Paul Begala, Newsweek

“[A]n earnest effort to reach across the political divide….Dionne takes his readers on a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.His case is strong enough, serious enough and grounded enough to challenge those on the other side of the divide to offer a counterargument as rigorously argued as this one.” –  Washington Post

5 Our Divided Political Heart, The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E.J. Dionne, bookbrowse.com  May 2012 – book summary

Our Divided Political Heart will be the must-read book of the 2012 election campaign. Offering an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning the nation’s political atmosphere, E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been, or what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us Americans. Dionne takes on the Tea Party’s distortions of American history and shows that the true American tradition points not to radical individualism, but to a balance between our love of individualism and our devotion to community.

Dionne offersan analysis of our current politics that shatters conventional wisdom. The true American idea, far from endorsing government inaction or indifference, has always viewed the federal government as an active and constructive partner with the rest of society in promoting prosperity, opportunity, and American greatness. ystem to self-correct is its greatest asset and Dionne challenges progressives to embrace the American story he renews our hope that cooler heads can prevail with a renewed balance of individual rights and the needs of the community.” – Kirkus Reviews

Our Divided Political Heart recalls us to an American past that speaks powerfully, and hopefully, to our present political travails. Every citizen concerned about the state of our politics should read this book.” – Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice

“This is a brilliant book about America’s current political divide. But more importantly, it’s an insightful exploration of our nation’s history and our ability to balance individualism with community. That sense of balance has been lost, and this book shows how we can restore a shared appreciation for our historic values.” – Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin  

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 co-editor 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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