Today, E. J. Dionne, Jr., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post, spoke at the Miller Center Forum on his new book, Our Divided Political Heart. In the Progressive tradition, the thesis of the book and of Dionne’s remarks is that from the beginning, Americans have been torn between the core values of individualism and community. While we cherish liberty, individual opportunity and self-expression, we also uphold the values of community obligation and civic virtue. The ongoing efforts to balance and reconcile these values have shaped the character of the nation.
Dionne argued that the Tea Party rose from sense of spiritual crisis and fears of decline, and it was a response to the perceived and real failures of George W. Bush, not only a reaction to Barack Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. The Tea Party’s solution was to reach back to the founders and the Constitution. Dionne acknowledged that is useful to go back to the founding to figure out who we are and those on progressive side need to engage with Tea Party about this. However, Dionne’s criticized the Tea Party and conservatives in the Republican Party for jettisoning the nation’s communitarian traditions in favor of individualism and thereby breaking from their own best traditions. Dionne made the case that America is a freer society when we take care of “freedom from want” and he argued for a return to the balance between individual and community values that characterized most of American history.
Dionne argued that we are at a critical juncture in history where the only country that can cause decline is America. If we continue to govern ourselves without reaching consensus the way we have in the last decade, then decline may come. According to Dionne, in order to prevent decline, we must recognize each other more than we do. We also must honor our core sense of community and liberty and not see each other in utter denial of both of these things.
Quoting John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the chief figure among the Puritan founders of New England and Bruce Springsteen, Dionne argued there is a common vision for the character of the nation that spans centuries. John Winthrop said in a 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity”:
We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.
Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album includes the following line:
Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.
Dionne posited that the two quotes speak to the best of us as a country:
A nation where liberty thrives requires us to stand with each other and make each other’s conditions our own.
Regarding the 2012 election, Dionne posited the presidential campaign started the day after the debt ceiling fight was settled. After debt ceiling fight, Dionne posited that Obama changed tactics and began to draw sharper lines. Dionne was critical of the early part of the Obama administration, positing that the president was not willing to acknowledge nature of the fight he was in, which is rooted in who he is as a non-decisive figure. Dionne also said it is absurd to think he is a radical:
I know socialists and they’re insulted when Obama is called a socialist.
In making a prediction on the election outcome, Dionne argued that (assuming better debate performance on the part of President Obama) the structure of the election favors Obama because there are more secure Democratic states than Republican states. One of the best tests will be the polling in Ohio in the next four days. Obama’s been ahead in Ohio for a long time and Dionne believes there are key reasons for this, including the auto rescue. The election outcome will also depend on how much damage Mitt Romney can undo in the next 29 days from his 47% remarks and the Bain attacks.
Watch the full Miller Center Forum with E.J. Dionne, Jr. here and tell us your thoughts. Are the nation’s values of the communitarianism and individual liberty out of balance? Are conservatives largely responsible for the decline in political consensus? Or have both liberals and conservatives contributed to the political gridlock we face today?