Balm for Our Divided Political Heart

9:09 AM

Over the last few days, I have made my way through E.J. Dionne, Jr.'s Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. To begin with, the book posits that the United States is not an either/or, individualism or community, but a both/and. I have long enjoyed Dionne as a writer for Commonweal and the Washington Post and as commentator on MSNBC as well as someone I follow on twitter (@EJDionne). A Catholic, Dionne speaks gracefully about Catholic social teaching, a quality that particularly appeals to me.

The book's premise, that we in the United States, have a divided political heart is attractive and rings true. Written in 2012, just ahead of the election, I panicked as I entered Chapter II which began by recounting revisionist history from Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin (53). I was not eager to revisit the ugly politics preceding the general election of 2012. I yearned for something deeper. Dionne delivers.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., Photo: Brookings
Our Divided Political Heart engages American history, from the Founders, to the present. More than 2012 presidential candidates, we spend time with the Founders, especially Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Dionne does not pen a hagiography as much as draw the context for compromises, especially with regard to race, that they and later generations, like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, continued in new forms. Moving through Lincoln and the Civil War and Reconstruction, the book pays special attention to the Populist Movement and the New Deal. It includes rigorous scholarship about our shared history as Americans and invites us to see our current political choices in a broader, historical, philosophical view.

Regularly, Dionne recalls instances of how some current political figures call for individualism to the exclusion of community, but, from the beginning, Dionne reminds us that "in a democracy, government is not the realm of 'them' but of 'us'" (italics in the original, 6). While critical of his adversaries, he does not belittle them; their own remarks efficiently accomplish that. As Dionne observes, "Above all, the history of the early republic reminds us that so many of the commonplace assertions in our current discourse are simply wrong" (184). He exhorts that "it's important to get our national story right" (123).

Modern political currents urge an amnesia around how the New Deal has benefited us. My paternal grandfather, a veteran of World War II, was the first in his family to go to college. He did that by virtue of the G.I. Bill. He continued on to law school. After private practice, he then spent 24 years on the bench in Muncie, IN. Since then, almost all of his progeny have earned a bachelor's degree, and more than half of us have graduate degrees. The New Deal, particularly the G.I. Bill, changed the trajectory of my family.

Even now, three years after Dionne wrote the book, current events, especially the 2016 presidential election, maintain its relevance. Donald Trump's entrance into the presidential race yesterday served as ample reminder. Sounding not unlike a softer George Orwell, Dionne writes: "If describing developments in American political life candidly is dismissed as a form of partisanship, then honest speech becomes impossible" (251). What I long for, what I believe we long for, is "honest political speech," not a sound bite honed in a focus group or some business mogul flexing his public relations acumen. Dionne, to invoke the words of Moisés Naím, makes life harder for the "terrible simplifiers."

On the other hand, yesterday was the occasion to see an example of honesty. More important than Trump's announcement, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out. One may ask questions about the timing. It may require less courage to do so today than when Barney Frank did in 1987, or Harvey Milk before that, but I appreciate his candor. Buttigieg sharing his heart in this way is balm to his heart as well as ours, allowing him to be himself to the rest of us.

At the end of Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne introduces the word "stewardship" (261). A rich, powerful word more commonly seen in religious and environmental contexts, stewardship is an apt term for our political life. Choices between the individual and community, between rugged individualism and solidarity, are not simply choices that impact today. We are stewards for what will be handed on to the future. We are stewards of a political heritage, received from our Founders. We are entrusted with precious gifts, received thankfully. These gifts are to be nurtured that we may hand them on to future generations. Not so much a story of 2012, Our Divided Political Heart tells a story of our political heritage and calls us to steward it in the present.

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