Our Divided Political Heart

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It’s a shame that political party conventions don’t provide the kind of compelling and stimulating debate on policy issues that might actually serve to inform voters – assuming any are listening – about the electoral choice before the nation. It’s all the more regrettable because the American Republic is a nation of problem solvers all but genetically predisposed to “fix” things that appear broken, out of synchronization or that are not performing up to an acceptable standard.

Of course, implementation of this pragmatic solution-driven approach assumes that some significant portion of the general public actually agrees on the nature of the problems and on the necessary solutions. Judging by contemporary assessments of the political branches of government, the nation is not only divided over what solutions to offer but also over the very definition of the problems.

Herein lays the thrust of Our Divided Political Heart, E. J. Dionne’s contribution to election year politics.

There was a period, Dionne argues, of consensus politics. This era began at the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt and continued up until the election of 2000. It was characterized by an even-handed approach toward policies that undergird the core republican values of individual rights and community values and obligations. Dionne’s argument is that only when these two tendencies are in balance – rights and obligations – does the nation live up to the vision ascribed to the Founders.

But just what did the Founders envision? This is one of the early questions put forth in Our Divided Political Heart. The question establishes the launching pad for a historical narrative that runs from John Winthrop through Hamilton and Jefferson past Jackson and Clay and onward to Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. Along the way, the contemporary Tea Party comes in for constant reeducation about what the nation’s early leaders actually said and what they purported to believe.

The work seeks to shed light on the present divisions over the role and purpose of government and its impact on individual liberty and equality. Although these issues date back to a time even before the Constitutional Convention, the modern debates are of a different type. What seems absent today, Dionne suggests, is a willingness to protect liberty yet still foster fellowship and common commitment among citizens.  We have lost the American ideal that, in our republican democracy, government is “us” and not “them.”

There is nothing wrong or new in the presence of political dissension in American politics.  The early settlers quarreled over tenets of Biblical religion versus the Enlightenment. The state- building actions of Alexander Hamilton were at odds with Jefferson’s property rights of small farmers. The traditionalism of John Adams was contrary to the radicalism of Thomas Paine.

Yet, over time, divisions were reconciled and wider visions embraced. John Winthrop’s famous call to create a city on a hill included a “call to make others conditions our own . . . always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” Over the course of the nation’s history, the governmental power proposed by Hamilton was used to advance the democracy and social equality goals exposed by Jefferson.

This then is the framework established by the U.S. Constitution – checks and balances. It is a reminder that the founding document does not reflect one voice or judgment. Rather, the text is a series of conflicts from which compromises were forged. The document offers, as Dionne puts it, “a pantheon of values.” Justice William Brennan spoke to this aspect of the Constitution as well.  “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it may have had in a world that is dead and gone but is the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”

The nation’s destiny is to strive for balance in policies that favor either individual rights or community obligations. In Dionne’s opinion, conservative Tea Party advocates have propelled the pendulum to swing too far toward an individualism that “disdains government, down-plays communal obligation and sees the market as the ultimate arbiter of not only what should be produced but also of what should be valued.”

During this time of political party conventions, it is well to have Dionne’s historical reflections available. If indeed, “our individual rights are embedded in a web of social bonds and mutual obligations,” it is necessary for all of us to take stock of the attitudes expressed by candidates on the balance between the individual and the community.