E.J. Dionne's Intellectual Defense of Populism
If earlier this year Bruce Springsteen turned communitarianism into an American anthem with “We Take Care of Our Own,” then this summer E.J. Dionne has reinforced its intellectual foundations in his latest book Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in the Age of Discontent. With the nation having a long overdue conversation about economic fairness, his book provides a fast-paced, historically rigorous explanation of how inaccurate readings of our nation’s formation and development reinforce our imbalanced, factually impoverished public debate.
While his tone is deliberative, Dionne emphatically refutes conservative revisionists who attempt to exorcise communitarianism and civic republicanism from our nation’s founding, as well as certain liberal elites who reject economic populists as dangerous, anti-intellectual, ill-informed reactionaries. For any progressive sick of the right and rich claiming a monopoly on what it means to be American, consider this book a dose of medicine served with a spoonful of sugar.
While much of the public debate about Dionne’s book has focused on restoring the balance between individualism and communitarianism, he is most engaging when he walks the reader through both the history and historiography of populism through the years. With an enjoyable saunter through the historians we all read in high school and college, Dionne reminds us of how each generation rewrites history based on the dynamics of its time. Historians after World War II recast earlier populist movements as scary, anti-intellectual and anti-Semitic, having viewed fascism as its ultimate form. A few decades later, historians who had witnessed the civil rights movement revisited populism with more sympathy towards the idea that mass movements might be how decent people correct an immoral status quo often defended, implicitly or directly, by elites.
In the spirit of balance, Dionne sets out that “many liberals have been too eager to embrace historical critiques of Populism that emphasized its more extreme expressions. As a result, they have been insufficiently alive to Populism’s deeply democratic character and its roots in America’s oldest traditions of republicanism and self-rule.” In addition to the demagogues and orators of American populism, he recognizes the contributions of Ben Franklin, Henry Clay, Ralph Waldo Emerson and their prophetic counterparts in Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel of the “beloved community” that became a bedrock of Martin Luther King Jr.’s American narrative and aspiration.
Dionne is willing to call out the Tea Party, but he goes out of his way to find the elements he can admire. Perhaps because of this respect, he opts out of some of the deeper critiques that could be made and instead simply notes facts from history, allowing the reader to decide if these resonate with the current moment. For example, he references the historian Taylor Branch, who cited an “awestruck” Alabama reporter remarking on George Wallace’s unique ability to “transmute a latent hostility toward the Negro into a hostility toward big government.” He later quotes the scholar Theodor Adorno, who in 1950 defined a pseudo-conservative as someone “who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
I personally found the historical analysis in the book more compelling than some of its applications to current events. For example, I was unconvinced by the case presented, albeit conditionally, for President Obama as a communitarian, but I do accept that such a caricature of him in conservative media was sufficient to fuel opposition from the far right. Dionne accurately describes him as a leader who defined himself against both moral memes that emerged from the 1960s—“do it if it feels good” on the left and “greed is good” on the right. But Dionne concedes that a full-throated defense of being in this together did not emerge until the third year of Obama’s administration.
Ironically, Dionne makes a more compelling case for how President George W. Bush represented a culmination of the communitarian right, and it is this betrayal that fires so much of the far-right’s distaste for the former president. Dionne quotes historian Gary Gerstle, who observed that the far right might see Bush as a “multiculturalism of the godly,” a pejorative phrase for Bush’s comfort across racial and even linguistic lines, his work on poverty in Africa and his general embrace of compassion.
Progressives are finally having the foundational debate that our nation desperately needed in January of 2009. This debate cannot and should not be reactive just to the current conditions but rather must be deeply rooted in America’s history and values. In Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne bolsters the intellectual, constitutional and moral foundations on which this stronger, more just America can be rebuilt.