Author Interviews
3:50 pm
Tue May 22, 2012

I Vs. We: The 'Heart' Of Our Political Differences

Originally published on Tue May 22, 2012 4:45 pm

For years now, the Tea Party has held individualism up as the great American value. But Washington Post columnist and Georgetown University professor E.J. Dionne Jr. says that while Americans have always prized individualism, they've prized community just as much.

In Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne — who can be heard sparring with New York Times columnist David Brooks once a week on All Things Considered — outlines his response to the Tea Party's overarching tenet of individualism. Dionne tells NPR's Robert Siegel that the conflict between individualism and communitarianism sits at the heart of American political divisions.


Interview Highlights

On the origins of American individualism and communitarianism

"The beginning of the Declaration [of Independence] talks about our rights under God, but [at] the end of the declaration, all of the signers pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. And so they acknowledged that liberty can be preserved only if we act together, only if we act in community. And, in some ways, it goes even farther back than that. ... [17th century Puritan leader] John Winthrop was quoted a lot by Ronald Reagan — [Winthrop's] 'City Upon A Hill' speech. But that was a deeply communitarian document: '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.'

"Now, on the way over here I was listening to the new Bruce Springsteen song where the refrain is, 'Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.' So we've had a capacious sense of community from 1630 right through to 2012."

On the legacy of federal power

"If you believe that government had nothing to do with developing our country, you'd have to read Alexander Hamilton out of our story; you'd have to read Henry Clay out; you'd have to read Abraham Lincoln out. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a manufacturing future for America — he was right about that. He thought government had an important role to play in bringing that about. Henry Clay called his program — which included internal improvements, a lot nicer word than 'infrastructure' and 'federal spending' on these things — he called it the American System to distinguish it from the British System, which he said was pure laissez faire. So, ironically, the American system stood as an alternative to pure laissez faire even though all of these people honored the market as having an important role in our story. ...

"In 1910, about 28 percent of all men age 65 and older in the country were receiving Civil War pensions. Want an entitlement program? In 1894 the Civil War pension system accounted for 37 percent of all federal expenditures. One of the great things about doing this book [was] to discover that, in 1798, Congress created the federal Marine Hospital [Service] for sick and injured seamen. That was signed by President John Adams. So long before Obamacare, there was Adamscare, but I don't remember a lot of demonstrations against Adamscare. ..."

"Now, it's true, we didn't build a big welfare state until the 1930s, but, as the Civil War pensions example shows and as the Marine Hospital [Service] shows, we always looked to the federal government to do some important things for the country and, in particular, to build the country up."

On how balance turned the Gilded Age into the American century

"I see the radically individualistic period of the Gilded Age as a 35-year exception — in the late 19th century — to our 235-year history. ...

"You needed private enterprise; you needed entrepreneurs. But this was not enough; it's not just that that made us a great nation. The American century only began when we began to balance this off with government that ... [checked] the power of the powerful in this private sphere. I think Americans have always been very shrewd that you need to check government power, but you [also] need to check concentrations of private power. And so, yes, capitalism does produce wonders, but capitalism doesn't do it all by itself and it sometimes needs corrections, as we learned rather recently in our downturn. And a lot of what you're hearing now, by the way, including the things you heard from Occupy Wall Street, were things that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson said back in the first decade of the last century when they were talking about checking excesses of private power."

On the long consensus that followed the Gilded Age and how it's ending

"I think those who are called liberal or progressive now represent that tradition of balance, and that what we are for is refreshing, refurbishing the long consensus. But our arguments — certainly the argument of my book — is America governs itself best when it preserves [the] public, private, individual and the communal; preserves those kinds of balances. I think, temporarily, conservatism has been taken over by those who want to wreck and overturn that long consensus. And we're going to be deciding that in this election, and I think for several elections to come. I hope the result is that we realize that we need these balances if we're going to work as Americans and fight off all of this declinist fear. I don't think we have to be in decline. I don't think that's the fate of our nation. I ran across, while I was finishing the book, a wonderful quotation from Richard McGregor ... [of] the Financial Times, and he said, 'America's problem is not that it doesn't work like China; it is that it no longer works like America.' And in some sense this book is an attempt to explore what working like America means."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, E.J. Dionne unplugged. The Washington Post political columnist and Georgetown professor appears on this program on Fridays, to do some high-class political fencing with David Brooks. Today, he's here solo.

Hiya.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And E.J. is here because he and he's just published a new book called "Our Divided Political Heart." It is a repost to the Tea Party's insistence on individualism as the great American sentiment. Yes, he says, we've always prized individualism but we have also equally prized community. And those two values, individualism, communitarianism are what divide our political hearts.

E.J., you actually point out that this division of our hearts is evident in our first founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

DIONNE: It is, indeed, because of course the beginning of the Declaration talks about our rights under God. But the end of the Declaration, all of the signers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. And so, they acknowledged that liberty can be preserved only if we act together, only if we act in community. And in some ways it goes even farther back than that, when one of the, I think, sort of wellsprings of American thinking was Biblical Puritanism.

And John Winthrop was quoted a lot by Ronald Reagan; his City Set Up On Hill Speech. But that was a deeply communitarian document. (Reading) We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and struggle together; always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.

Now, on the way over here, I was listening to the new Bruce Springsteen song where the refrain is: Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own. So we've had a capacious sense of community from 1630 right through to 2012.

SIEGEL: You take on a commonly voiced view of U.S. history and federal power in U.S. history. The view is that until the 20th century, federal power was very modest. It was the age of small government, a system that we broke faith with in the 20th century. You say - not so.

DIONNE: Not so at all. In fact, I see the radically individualistic period of the Gilded Age as a 35-year exception...

SIEGEL: In the late 19th century.

DIONNE: ...in the late 19th century to our 235-year history. If you believe that government had nothing to do with developing our country, you have to read Alexander Hamilton out of our story, you have to read Henry Clay out, you have to read Abraham Lincoln out. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a manufacturing future for America - he was right about that. He thought government had an important role to play in bringing that about.

Henry Clay called this program, which included internal improvements - a lot nicer word than infrastructure and federal spending on these things - he called it the American system to distinguish it from the British system, which he said was pure laissez-faire. So, ironically the American system stood as an alternative to pure laissez-faire, even though all of these people honored the market as having an important role in our story.

SIEGEL: And you would say - linking government programs, government benefits to a communitarian view of the country - that something as dramatic as Social Security, which came with the New Deal in the 1930s, actually came in the wake of other programs. You have these figures about Civil War pensions; that we were accustomed to paying lots of people from the government.

DIONNE: Right, and the Scotch poll did a lot of important work on this. In 1910, about 28 percent of all men aged 65 and older in the country were receiving Civil War pensions. Want an entitlement program? In 1894, the Civil War pension system accounted for 37 percent of all federal expenditures.

One of the great things about doing this book is to discover that in 1798, the Congress created the Federal Marine Hospital System for sick and injured seamen. That was signed by President Adams. So, long before ObamaCare there was AdamsCare, but I don't remember a lot of demonstrations against AdamsCare.

SIEGEL: But I do remember reading, I think it was Arthur Schlesinger in "The Coming of the New Deal," that until the 1930s the typical American - in terms of what he or she saw of the federal government - it was a postman. That was it.

DIONNE: Right and the post office itself was an extraordinary American invention. Our post office was far more expensive than any post office in the world. It was also central to our political system, because cheap postage is what allowed ideas to circulate through the country.

Now, it's true, we didn't build a big welfare state until the 1930s. But as the Civil War pensions example shows, as the Marine Hospital System showed, we always look to the federal government to do some important things for the country and, in particular, to build the country up.

SIEGEL: The exceptional period here - the Gilded Age, as you write about it - it culminates, if you will, in the U.S. becoming an imperial power. It had - the 19th century ends with the Spanish-American War and the U.S. suddenly bursting on the scene. It is more powerful than ever. Suddenly it is prepared to be the creditor nation, rather than the debtor nation. You know, one might argue, well, the Gilded Age, you know, teed it up for the United States.

DIONNE: Right, but the Gilded Age, you needed private enterprise, you needed entrepreneurs. But this was not enough. It's not just that that made us a great nation. The American century only began when we began to balance this off with government that was necessary, first to check the power of the powerful in the private sphere. I think Americans have always been very shrewd, that you need to check government power but you need to check concentrations of private power.

Yes, capitalism does produce wonders. But capitalism doesn't do it all by itself. And it sometimes needs corrections, as we learned rather recently in our downturn.

SIEGEL: The Gilded Age was followed by a long consensus in which the purpose of government was generally not disputed by Republicans, Democrats, relatively centrist liberals and conservatives. The long consensus seems to be over at this point. Are we into a new Gilded Age? Are we into a period of a few decades perhaps that will be another exception?

DIONNE: I think that's the question that's really on the ballot in 2012. Because I think those who are called liberal or progressive really now represent that tradition of balance. And that what we are for is refreshing, refurbishing the long consensus. But our arguments - certainly the argument in my book - is America governs itself best when it preserves these public/private, individual and the communal - preserves those kind of balances.

I think temporarily, conservatism has been taken over by those who do want to wreck and overturn that long consensus. And we're going to be deciding that in this election and I think for several elections to come. I hope the result is that we realize that we need these balances if we're going to work as Americans and fight off all of this declinist fear. I don't think we have to be in decline. I don't think that's the fate of our nation.

I ran across while I was finishing the book, a wonderful quotation from Richard McGregor, who is now the American correspondent for the Financial Times. And he said, America's problem is not that it does not work like China. It is that it no longer works like America. And in some sense this book is an attempt to explore what working like America means.

SIEGEL: The book is called "Our Divided Political Heart." E.J. Dionne, thanks and see you on Friday.

DIONNE: Great to be with you, see you then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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