Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent

This article originally appeared in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice.

The Center for Public Justice steadfastly maintains that we are neither left nor right; to even say we are centrist yields too much to the very metaphor of a continuum with two opposite ends.  To deconstruct this image is vexing since most Americans have such a continuum inextricably burned into their political imagination. 

Nonetheless, we need help seeing and understanding the competing political traditions in America, who do see themselves as opposite ends of a spectrum, and there is hardly a better pundit these days to help us—albeit with his own deeply held, overt, biases and assumptions—than Brookings Institution scholar and Washington Post columnist, E. J. Dionne, Jr.  I commend his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, with enthusiasm and gratitude for its historical insight, its communitarian perspective and its bipartisan graciousness (not to mention its graceful, captivating writing).

It would take a longer review to fully explain his deepest influences, although he is candid about his ideological pedigree. He has a spectacularly interesting “Personal Note” which is an extensive and charming bibliographic essay, naming the books and scholars he most esteems and that he asserts as most influential. This closing essay is worth the price of the book and could guide a student of U.S. political history in years’ worth of important reading.  It will come as no surprise that he names the influence of Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz. It is wonderful to hear such candid self-awareness and an admission that he also reads those who do not share his left-leaning populist orientation.  

This beautiful book offers a lament for our contemporary polarization, and Dionne blames, largely, the far-right individualism of the Tea Party, and, somewhat, the overstated communalism of the Occupy movement.  His thesis is fairly simple: He insists that America’s primary political tradition is a back-and-forth swing between those who favor free individuals and those who promote flourishing communities and the common good.  Both movements draw on their interpretations of the American past. Dionne is convinced that the Founders and most great American leaders understood the need to balance both freedom and community.  He calls this essential American approach “The Long Consensus,” which he claims “is under the fiercest attack it has faced in its century-long history.” 

 The first thrilling chapter offers his argument that we are “yelling at each other” because of mistaken interpretations of the American past.  The Tea Party, especially, is wrong in their claim that that personal liberty was the primary concern of the framers. 

E.J. Dionne Jr. 

E.J. Dionne Jr. 

What can be seen from the rave endorsements to the opening paragraphs is that Dionne stands in the tradition of liberal “communitarianism,” with appreciation for the best insights of historic conservatism that moderates radical liberalism. That he spends considerable space describing the strengths of evangelical, Republican speechwriter Michael Gerson is an indication of his tendencies.  Dionne, more than many scholars, appreciates the role of religion in American history and current affairs.  

Much of this book is vibrantly told American history. Not unlike Schlesinger, Dionne is playful in his telling of the tale, cleverly naming the intellectual influences of various streams of political theory and activism.  Two vital chapters critique current ideologies and are very informative.  Chapter IV is entitled “Reinventing American Liberalism: Why the Left Embraced Community” and Chapter V is “From Tradition to Revolt: How Conservatives Left Community Behind.”  His biases are evident, of course, but his analysis is important.  (One reviewer called him “the thoughtful conservative’s favorite liberal.”) Over and over, Dionne calls us back to the Long Consensus, this balance of strong individuals, strong families and strong government. 

At the heart of Dionne’s view is this claim about the balance inherent in the long consensus.  Can we “restore American greatness” (as he puts it) through “the quest for balance”?  Dionne is surely right that we need more than technical or managerial solutions.  But perhaps a well thought-out, coherently Biblical perspective could offer something more than “balancing” the best of the left and the right.  This is the contention, I believe, of the deepest thinkers who stand in the tradition of “principled pluralism.” Such a framework might offer more than an unstable balancing act between the left and right, more than a detente between freedom and community. Dionne, to be clear, wants more than mere centrist balance, and his nuanced view of civil society animates his robust theory.  Yet, as his subtitle notes, he believes we are engaged in a battle for “the American Idea.” 

I highly recommend this moving book for students of American history and for citizens who care about our culture wars and political gridlock.  I might suggest reviewing the reformational classic Political Visions and Illusions by David Koyzis. Koyzis’ radical critique gives us a helpful vantage point from which to engage, from within our neo-Calvinist movement, writers and activists from across the political spectrum and beyond it, including those like Dionne, who heroically long for something better than the current “divided heart.”

— Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.