Book Review: The Dangerous Wane of American Communitarianism

(This is not intended as part of the League’s ongoing Inequality Symposium, but it’s not wholly unrelated either. For the Symposium posts so far, click here.)

No member of the Washington, DC journalism crowd inspires such widespread affection as E.J. Dionne. Meet E.J. and you’ll be charmed—to know him is to love him. It is one of the happy accidents of my life that I can say that from my own experience. Over the years, he has been a boss, a colleague, a mentor, a sparring partner, and a friend. My personal and professional debts will never be repaid—I hardly know how to begin.

Though this means that I am perhaps the worst of all possible reviewers for his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, it also means that I’m vying for that status with plenty of other DC writers. So if you’re looking for impartiality, you might try looking somewhere else—though most reviewers may not be as candid about their bias in E.J.’s favor.

(It’s possible, of course, that this proximity comes with advantages. I worked as E.J.’s assistant at Georgetown during the time that the book began to take shape. The resulting conversations landed me a small mention in the book’s Acknowledgements.)

Fortunately, this disclosure-as-prelude makes a useful starting point for considering Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. A large part of E.J.’s personal appeal stems from his love of conversation. He is as talented a listener as he is a teacher, and he’s generous with supportive and combative interlocutors alike. Indeed, the book may be best understood as his frustration that political conversations over the nature of the “American Idea” have so universally degenerated into battles. As he notes several times, we can’t have good conversations if everyone’s bunkered down in one of two disparate ideological trenches.

Conversation depends upon a basic minimum degree of common ground. Without some shared conventions and convictions, we are alien to one another. We become a nation of sappy, wealth-hating socialists on one hand and nostalgic, racist Ayn Rand acolytes on the other. When one side mentions freedom, the other hears “anarchy.” To paraphrase (and slightly adjust) an old line, if our current debates seem to be full of (rhetorically) raised fists, it’s probably because we’ve given up on sharing ideas.

But E.J. is no sappy third-party centrist. Our Divided Political Heart makes a novel analytical case about an increasingly obvious fact: if our politics have become toxically polarized, the American Right is responsible for poisoning the well. This is a newly popular view, thanks to books like Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin and Thomas E. Mann’s and Norman J. Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. But why bother reading what everyone knows?

E.J.’s particular angle is as good a reason as any. Kabaservice treats the rise and expansion of Goldwater conservatism in terms of grassroots organizing and institutional maneuvering. Mann and Ornstein “reveal” what Mitch McConnell announced a few years ago: the Republican Party is more interested in scoring political points than in governing. Still others have tried to explain the GOP’s new intransigence in terms of social or cultural nostalgia. E.J.’s book is interesting because it takes a much longer and more compelling view of the situation.

His analysis gets its leverage from the intersection between two sets of axes. Most critiques of radical twenty-first century conservatism stay within the confines of “Right” vs. “Left.” As it turns out, however, the real division in “Our Political Heart” is between individualism and communitarianism. As E.J. puts it:

[It] makes a mockery of the American story to deny the power of individualism in our history. But it is just as misleading to ignore our yearnings for a strong common life and our republican quest for civic virtue. Our skepticism of excessive state power arose from religious sources and classical traditions, and so did our doubts about pure individualism. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thus began our Founding document. Yet its signers also forged a full-hearted communal bond in defense of those freedoms. “With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” they declared, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Individual liberty and shared sacrifice are the bookends of our Declaration of Independence.

This approach allows E.J. to frame the GOP’s new radicalism as a departure from the American conservative tradition, rather than as a culmination. Historically speaking, the American Right has never been as univocally concerned with radical individualism as Tea Party activists now claim. Measured against conservatives like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, modern conservatism looks like a bizarre exception, rather than the rule. It completely ignores American love of community—a thought that never would have occurred to most American conservatives.

To borrow E.J.’s term, Grover Norquist, the Tea Party, and (most of all) the Koch Brothers have marched American conservatism into opposition to “The Long Consensus” of American politics. For most of the last century—America’s most powerful and prosperous—liberal, progressive, and conservative politicians alike used the organs of government to construct a community fabric that protected individual liberty and encouraged private enterprise. Only recently have conservatives convinced themselves that unregulated capitalism can reliably provide many of the community goods upon which Americans rely.

This shift hasn’t happened in a vacuum, of course. Dionne is deeply critical of the American Left’s weak attempts to provide an alternative to the Tea Party’s view of politics, economics, and the American community. With Thomas Frank, he worries that the Democratic Party is too obsessed with technocratic solutions to bother providing an alternative moral vision to compete with the Right’s—what I’ve called “The Wonky Left Problem.”

If conservatives are to blame for abandoning compromise, community, and conversation, their approach has largely succeeded because leftists have ceded them so much rhetorical turf. Conservatives were able to hijack America’s political conversation because leftists were often disengaged. E.J. puts it this way:

[T]here is still a great deal of liberal ambivalence about community, and about populism. Any time a liberal uses words such as “flyover country” or “Jesusland,” he or she is breaking faith with a broad democratic tradition that included Bryan no less than Roosevelt. This tradition acknowledges the wisdom that exists in small towns and the countryside no less than the genius of our sophisticated metropolitan areas. It honors the rights and dignity of religious believers and secular people alike. It respects the loyalties of old tightly knit working-class neighborhoods no less than the cosmopolitanism on the more affluent side of town.

Today’s leftists do not always deign to engage in a conversation with their fellows—which makes it that much easier for conservatives to serve the nation’s elites under the banner of populism.

And this is where the book could go further. Leftists should be better at explaining “that citizens in a free republic need a degree of economic security, independence, and self-sufficiency [in order] to carry out their civic duties and…participate fully in self-government.” Why aren’t they? I’m not confident that I know (though I float some suggestions in the wonky piece linked above), but it seems like the next stage in E.J.’s analysis. If American conservatism has abandoned fully half of the American political tradition, surely the Left should be prepared to speak to those Americans who recognize that something has gone missing. And if leftists are prepared, surely there should be much to say.

But wishes like this are the best sorts of critique—since they implicitly indicate that the book was worth extending. It’s a fantastic book, well worth a read, and E.J.’s the sort of decent, sensible journalist who deserves to be taken more seriously than most—especially if we’d like to improve our political conversations.

Conor P. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find more on Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is punditconor@gmail.com. 

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dangerous Wane of American Communitarianism

  1. Leftists should be better at explaining “that citizens in a free republic need a degree of economic security, independence, and self-sufficiency [in order] to carry out their civic duties and…participate fully in self-government

    What’s so great about self government?

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    • Sorta cuts down on tyrannous excess. Outsourcing government is a bad idea. It was tried for a while and some people still yearn for the days of empire and colonialism, I suppose. Carrots and sticks, greasy little nawabs served by chaiwallahs in uniforms, those were the days, eh?

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        • Murali, top-down management doesn’t work with countries. You don’t get to fire the citizens. You can jail ’em and repress ’em but unless you’re ready to try some Final Solution or that sort of thing, those folks just won’t go away, heh heh.

          Charter cities are failing everywhere they’ve been tried.

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              • There are different conceptions of charter cities. In the U.S., a charter city is simply a city whose basic governing structure is defined by a charter, rather than by state law (the latter are called general law cities). Obviously this is not exactly what either Murali or Blaise are talking about, but it’s an important starting point, because the larger concept of a charter city is one that is allowed to run its own affairs, with little to no intervention from above. Bear with me here, I’ll come back to that.

                I’m not sure that China’s ghost towns are actually charter cities in that sense. The government of the PRC is building these cities from scratch, a Brasilia approach of the type criticized by James Scott in Seeing Like a State, as the “high modernist city,” a top-down city designed to meet an aesthetic/bureaucratic/governing ideal, not a city designed to attract real humans. Not being an expert on China’s ghost towns, I stand open for correction, of course.

                In this larger sense a charter city is a sort of entrepreneurial venture, as promoted by Paul Romer and Patri Friedman.

                Theoretically, needing to attract residents to make the necessary ROI, the true charter city should (if run by practical businessmen and not idealists) be designed to be more attractive to real life people than the high modernist city. Of course it could all turn out to be a pipe dream, all theory and no empirical success. But the first ones are just in the planning stages, so I think Plinko’s 0 for 0 is correct, for the moment.

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  2. E.J. Dionne is a prince among writers.

    The evolution or more properly, transmogrification, of the American Right is not hard to sort out. The nation was founded by high-minded revolutionaries much enamoured of Liberty when it suited their purposes. By the time the Constitution was drafted, the smoke of Shay’s Rebellion still hung in the air. These men who had so proudly proclaimed the equality of man were in no mood for Liberty of that sort. They knew what they had done to the previous regime could be done by others. As a last-minute gesture of compromise they tacked on the Bill of Rights, poorly thought out and wretchedly drafted concessions which perplex us to this day.

    The contradictory threads of populism and elitism were always seen in the warp and woof of the nation’s fabric. The two ideas have never been reconciled. They are with us still. I love Dionne, but there never was a time when American Conservatism was able to square up those notions. Bill Buckley tried. While WFB was the Great Colossus, standing astride the mutually-distrustful wings of Conservatism, that Grand Panjandrum managed to keep a few of the elitists on board through generous applications of Foo-Foo Dust. It could not last.

    And it hasn’t lasted. The Tea Party is an ancient thing, a hearkening back to the era of the Jacksonian Democrats and long before them, to the Anti-Federalists. There never was a consensus unless there was a war blazing away. The Cold War attenuated the worst of the internal political divisions, though we saw a few eruptions, they were just the fires deep in the coal mine periodically bursting through cracks in the ground. The American Populist predates the founding of the nation and he will outlast it.

    If American Liberalism has made any strategic errors, strategy only asks four questions:

    Who are we?
    Who are they?
    What is the objective?
    What tools and resources are needed?

    The Liberals have never truly answered the first two questions with any authority. They fatuously believe their causes ought to be embraced by everyone. Their objectives are not clearly defined, though they have made considerable progress on the Rights of Man, if the recent victories on LGBT rights are any measure of progress.

    The Conservatives have badly embarrassed themselves over time, conniving with bigots and pandering to xenophobia and generally consorting with Taliban Types within the religious community. They let the Liberals do all the hard work on changing America’s mind on the Rights of Man, slandering them all the while. But when attitudes change, when Nigger Nigger Nigger is no longer tolerable campaign rhetoric, they’ll resort to other dog whistles. They always pandered to America’s worst instincts and always will. Lee Atwater the Boogie Man might have died but his cause goes marching on. There will always be an Andrew Breitbart or a James O’Keefe or a Matt Drudge or a Karl Rove or a Ann Coulter or a Rush Limbaugh to replace him, for these characters are interchangeable as Lego blocks. Fuelled by cheap outrage, they do not appeal to the individual but to the mob and here is where Dionne fails most grievously. A mob is a community and it is roused to action, not by a perceived threat from an individual, but by another community.

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