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E.J. Dionne: Political Heartstrings Torn Between Individualism and Community

August 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Judy Woodruff talks to E.J. Dionne about his new book, "Our Divided Political Heart," in which he argues that America's heartstrings are torn by two contrasting devotions: a love of individualism and a quest for community.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a bookend of sorts, as we return to the subject of politics with the first in a series of conversations about partisanship.

Judy Woodruff starts with a view from the left.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In order to understand the present, we must first understand the past. And as our political parties grow farther apart and find it harder to work together, we can study our history for clues to a possible solution.

That’s the idea behind a new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” from Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

E.J. Dionne is here.

Thank you for being with us.

E.J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: Thank you for having me in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, E.J., how divided is our political heart?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I argue that from the beginning, Americans have been torn by a deep, but I think ultimately healthy tension between our love of individualism and liberty on the one side and our love for and quest for community on the other side.

And I think this goes all the way back to the Puritan founding when John Winthrop talked about how we must identify with each other and labor and suffer together and celebrate together. And this communitarian side of us, this part of that emphasizes the common good tends not to be emphasized a lot.

We tend to look at ourselves as a country that’s basically about individual freedom and liberty. And I don’t deny for an instant that individual freedom and liberty is very important to us.

But I think that, from the beginning, we have understood that only if we acted together, only if we came to the defense of each other’s liberty, does the system work.

One of the great facts is the first word of our Constitution is the word “we.” I think we often forget that, “We the people of the United States,” not the persons of the United States, but the people. We are a group, as well as a set of individuals with rights that we cherish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this idea of community, you’re saying it’s been there all along, but it hasn’t gotten as much appreciation as a part of who we are? Is that…

E.J. DIONNE: Right.

And that’s especially true with our friends now in the Tea Party, but it’s by no means unique to the Tea Party.

There were great political writers like Louis Hartz, political scientists in the ’50s, who really was — put heavy emphasis on this individualistic, liberty-loving side of us. And I think that we sort of forget, A., how important community was. And, B., we kind of misunderstand the role of government in our history.

Community and government are not the same thing, but I do think they are linked because we often turn to government to express the will of the community, to do things together that we can’t do alone.

And if you go all the way back to Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, who are very important characters in my book, they used government in important ways to build up the country, not to the detriment of individual rights, but in order to create the systems we needed to become a prosperous — a prosperous and well-educated country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you argue, among other things, that today’s modern conservatives have in particular gotten away from this idea of community. What caused us or them or it to happen? What brought this about?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I think there are short-term political reasons, and there’s been a long-term fight among conservatives.

I write, I like to think — and some of my conservative friends think I write respectfully about conservatism. I respect and admire conservatism in a lot of ways.

And at its outset, conservatism was very community-oriented. Indeed, it mistrusted what early conservative thinkers saw as liberal individualism. People like Edmund Burke were very skeptical of that.

I think alongside this more communitarian conservatism has been a sort of libertarian conservatism that mistrusted the communitarians and the traditionalists. And then I think, after the 2008 elections, conservatives were at a kind of fork in the road.

And they could say, all right, Bush was unpopular because of Iraq and because perhaps some of his policies were too conservative. But that wasn’t very functional for the conservatives in the Republican Party.

So, instead, they decided actually Bush was a big-government guy after all. He was a compassionate conservative. He gave us the prescription drug benefit and more federal power over education.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

E.J. DIONNE: And so I think the Tea Party brand of individualism was fueled both by the election of Obama — And the election of the opposition sometimes fuels a lot of discontent — but also by reaction against President Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, your plea, E.J. Dionne, is for what, is for today’s, for modern conservatives to take a closer look at what this compact is all about, this balance between individualism and community?

E.J. DIONNE: Right.

I mean, I have a particular plea to conservatives, which is precisely that, that I would like them to return to a time when, say, William F. Buckley Jr., who, in many ways, was the founder of modern conservatism, could write a book called “Gratitude,” in which he talked about what we all owe back to the country that has protected and nurtured us.

And I wonder if Bill Buckley, the great conservative, would lose a primary these days if he tried to run on his book “Gratitude.” But it’s also an argument to all of us. There have been moments when liberals put such heavy emphasis on individual rights that we — and I think of myself as a liberal — that we forgot about the importance of building community at the local level, at least as much as at the national level.

And so I think, if we came to think of ourselves as all of us in some ways divided by these twin loves, it might be a little easier to talk to each other. I don’t have any — I’m under no illusions that a book by a columnist would bring about some revolution. But I would like people to sort of sit back and say, you know, I’m not a complete individualistic or I’m not a complete communitarian. And we want a balance here.

And I think it’s that balance that we — has made us work as a country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I read a review by — of your book by Jeff Greenfield, a journalist, who said the fact that you are a columnist for The Washington Post, that you’re seen as somebody on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum may mean that conservatives aren’t going to listen to you or not even going to give your argument the hearing that it deserves.

How do you respond to that?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, I hope that’s not true.

I have actually done a number of conservative talk radio shows for this book, where I felt that the host really wanted to engage the argument. So, we have had — I have had some real arguments with conservatives.

There’s — And I know that there are a number of conservatives I speak to who do believe that conservatism has gone off the rails. It’s not where they want it to be.

And, so, I hope some of these ideas penetrate, and maybe after this election, we can try to have a conversation again. In bitter elections, conversations are harder than after the election.

But I grew up in a very, very politically diverse extended family. And we could argue with each other all the time and still love each other. I would love to see a country where that could happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense that’s happening, that…

E.J. DIONNE: Well, right now, we don’t love each other very much. No, I would like to see a country where we could argue and not hate each other.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: E.J. Dionne, the book is “Our Divided Political Heart.”

It’s great to have you with us.

E.J. DIONNE: It’s great to be with you. Thank you.