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After months of presidential primaries across the country, Texas voters handed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the delegates needed to win the Republican nomination yesterday. The Republican Party will formally nominate Romney at the GOP convention in August. The campaign now begins in earnest. The economy continues to weigh most on voters’ minds. Romney’s party favors smaller government and lower taxes–issues that have divided Americans greatly in recent years. Political analysts E.J. Dionne and Ross Douthat join Diane to talk about our divided nation and what can be done about it.
- E.J. Dionne Jr. Senior fellow, The Brookings Institution, columnist, Washington Post and author of "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent."
- Ross Douthat Op-Ed columnist, The New York Times; author of "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent” by E.J. Dionne. Copyright 2012 by E.J. Dionne. Reprinted here by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Mitt Romney clinched the Republican Party's presidential nomination yesterday. If President Obama's first term in office is a guide, Democrats and Republicans will face an ideological gulf about the economy, health care and many other issues. E.J. Dionne has written a new book titled "Our Divided Political Heart."
MS. DIANE REHMHe and Ross Douthat of The New York Times join me in the studio to talk about how Americans might be able to come back together. You are certainly welcome to join the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to both of you.
MR. E.J. DIONNE JR.Good morning, Diane. Thanks for having us.
MR. ROSS DOUTHATGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you both here. E.J. Dionne, the subtitle for your book is "The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." Tell me what the American idea is in your mind.
DIONNE JR.Well, you know, a lot of people are not even sure there is an American idea, and I think there is. And what I argue is that, from the beginning of our republic, we have been torn by deep -- but I believe -- healthy tension between our love of individualism and our deep affection for community and that, at our best as a nation, we have kept these two things in balance.
DIONNE JR.And I believe that in recent years, although this argument has existed all through the republic, we have tilted far too much to a definition of being American that simply says we are about individual liberty, period. And my book does not assert that we're not about individual liberty. That certainly is part of us. But I think American individualism is very different from a radical form of individualism that just sees us as kind of free-floating people making our own way in the world.
DIONNE JR.American individualism is tempered by the idea that we have obligations to each other, that we have a yearning for the kind of support that indeed individual liberty requires. You don't protect liberty unless all of us are willing to come to the defense of each other's liberty. I note that the very first word of our Constitution is not I. It's we, as in, "We the people of the United States."
DIONNE JR.The Declaration of Independence, I think, embodies our dual character. It begins by saying that we are endowed by our Creator with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but it ends with the Founders saying that they pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to these ideas. Liberty and community are bookends of our Declaration of Independence.
REHMRoss Douthat, how do you respond to that formulation?
DOUTHATOh, well, I think it's a wonderful formulation. But I think E.J.'s written a wonderful, very engaging book that, as a conservative, I appreciate his taking the conservative intellectual tradition seriously, and I think he does so throughout his pages. And as a -- I think as an overarching description of the American tradition, I think he's exactly right.
DOUTHATI think there has always been this balance, the balance that he describes between individualism and community, the balance between, you know, the individual and the state and so on. And I think the place where we would probably disagree is more on sort of specific questions of how it's gotten out of balance and why in our current political era.
REHMWould you agree that it's gotten out of balance, Ross Douthat?
DOUTHATI agree that there is less room for common ground between the major political factions in the United States. I don't -- E.J. attributes this lack of common ground primarily to a kind of hijacking of the Republican Party by a radical individualism that is -- that deemphasizes community so strongly that it takes itself out of the American mainstream. He associates this idea with the Tea Party movement.
DOUTHATAnd I think many of his critiques of the Tea Party movement are valid. I think where we would disagree is that I think that the overall context in which the current sort of Tea Party individualistic reaction is taking place is important. And I think he underestimates the extent to which the individualist side very rarely actually wins battles over the size and scope of government.
DOUTHATAnd, in fact, the story of American politics over the last century or so is the story of sort of steadily expanding government power, government spending and so on, which prompts sometimes intemperate individualistic reactions. But those reactions don't actually change the underlying dynamics which favor, I think, E.J.'s approach to politics perhaps more than he would necessarily want to admit.
REHMRoss Douthat, he is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, author of the book titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." You can listen to my April 19 interview with Ross Douthat about his book. Now, back to you, E.J. You are concerned, as you write in "Our Divided Political Heart," about what you call the new conservatism represented, as Ross has indicated, by the Tea Party. Tell me your concerns.
DIONNE JR.First, let me thank Ross for his kind words on the book. And I also just want to point out that, at the beginning of the book, I have a kind of acknowledgement to the Tea Party, and I'm very critical of the Tea Party throughout the book. The one thing I am sure they're right on is that we do need to re-engage our nation's story from the very beginning. It is useful to look at what the Founders intended.
DIONNE JR.It is useful to look at what the trajectory of the American story is. I just think that they read the story in a mistaken way. And I think progressives need to engage the terrain of history more than we have.
REHMAre you saying that they read the lessons of history too literally?
DIONNE JR.Well, I think they read our origins almost entirely in terms of our fight for individual liberty. And it's entirely true that one strain of our character is shaped by individualism. In the book, I draw on Robert Bellah's writing and note that there are sort of two core streams of individualism that affect us. One is the Ben Franklin self-improving kind, and the other is the Walt Whitman's very self-expressive kind.
DIONNE JR.You know, Whitman is sort of '60s individualism, and Franklin is -- you know, and this is an oversimplification of both men obviously -- Franklin, the driving, we're-going to-get-somewhere-in-life kind. But there are two other traditions that I think are very important. One is the biblical tradition, and I am very struck by what the Puritans had to say. There were many sides of Puritanism, and I quote John Winthrop's speech, which Ronald Reagan actually liked because it referred to us the first time as a city upon a hill.
DIONNE JR.And Reagan loved to quote that line. But I think Rush Limbaugh would regard the sermon as somewhat socialistic, to use a term Rush would use. Winthrop said, "We must delight in each other, make each others' conditions are own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body." I like to think of that in light of a new Bruce Springsteen song where the refrain is, "Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own."
DIONNE JR.So from 1630 to 2012, there is that communitarian tradition. And there's also the smaller Republican tradition where we agree in politics not simply to serve our own interests, although it's legitimate to do so, but actually constantly to keep an eye on the common interest. And the Republican tradition was very important to our Founders.
DIONNE JR.I think our Tea Party friends want to leave those last two strains of the story out altogether, or they give, in my view, a rather narrow reading of the biblical or religious strain. And so I'm hoping we can start a big argument over who we are. Indeed, I think the question, who are we, is at the heart of this election campaign we're going to have.
DOUTHATWell, I think, E.J., the quote from Winthrop helps us to put our finger on what, I think, is an important division that E.J. talks about a bit in the book, which is that there is this strong communitarian tradition in American life, which has often been a counterweight to a sort of pure rugged individualism, a kind of Ayn Rand view of capitalism and so on. But there is also, as E.J. says, a sort of conservative view of communitarianism and a liberal view of communitarianism.
DOUTHATAnd so the conservative communitarian listens to the Winthrop quote and says, yes, by all means, this is what -- you know, this is what American life should be all about. But the institutions that enable us to mourn together, work together, pray together, you know, and be in community with one another, those institutions work best when they are local and voluntary. And they work less well when they're national and mandatory.
DOUTHATAnd thus, the conservative communitarian places a stronger emphasis on the role of family, the role of churches and so on, and perhaps a weaker emphasis on the role of the federal bureaucracy, entitlement programs and so on. The conservative communitarian -- and I'm speaking in the third person here but I guess I would identify as such -- would say, well, yes, but it is very difficult. Whatever -- however much good the welfare bureaucracy does, the welfare bureaucracy doesn't love you.
DOUTHATAnd that spirit of love is ultimately a personal spirit, and it flourishes best outside the bureaucracy. And so it doesn't mean you want to do away with welfare programs altogether, but it means you always need to be mindful of the perils of conflating government and community.
REHMSo is that -- would you agree with E.J. that that is at the heart of this year's election between President Obama and Gov. Romney?
DOUTHATI would say that, to the extent -- in general, I think that Republican politicians, conservative politicians tend to be most politically effective, not necessarily effective at governing but most politically effective when they strike a balance between conservative communitarianism. Think of George H.W. Bush's a thousand points of light and George W. Bush talking about armies of compassion and so on.
DOUTHATWhen they balance that with the more libertarian individualistic strain in the conservative tradition, I don't know -- we definitely lived through a period in the last couple years when the individualistic strain has been ascendant. And I think the challenge for Romney -- and I imagine E.J. would agree about the politics at least -- is to at least partially recapture the communitarian side of conservatism in order to essentially reassure Americans that the Republican Party isn't just, as Obama would say, about saying you're on your own.
REHMRoss Douthat, op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His book is titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." Short break here. And when we come back, we'll talk more, take your calls. I look forward hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you just joined us, E.J. Dionne is here. He is with both The Brookings Institution and The Washington Post. He is the author of a brand new book titled "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." Ross Douthat is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, author of "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." We're going to open the phone shortly, but, E.J., I know you wanted to comment on Ross' last statement.
DIONNE JR.Right. I think he did sort of identify a real line of division between, if you will, more liberal or left and more conservative or right communitarians. In the book, I'm actually quite sympathetic to conservative communitarianism as an alternative to this radical individualism. But I think where we disagree is on the role of the federal government, on the role of the national government. And I think conservatives are too willing to say that every federal engagement somehow undercuts local community, whereas I think our history shows quite the opposite.
DIONNE JR.And in the book, I cite a number of examples where the -- for example, the American Legion fought very hard to get the GI Bill, which is one of my favorite pieces of federal legislation. It expanded individual opportunity. But the American Legion, in turn, was strengthened by the fact that the GI Bill happened. The Corporation for National Service uses federal money to strengthen all those armies of compassion that President George H.W. Bush talked about.
DIONNE JR.I think -- I don't think that federal action is the enemy of local community. I agree that I think liberals need to be alive to the importance of local community and of local forums. But I think conservatives need to acknowledge that the federal government is, at times, the only instrument we have to do certain things. Abraham Lincoln believed that. Henry Clay believed that. Alexander Hamilton believed that. And I think they were right.
REHMRoss Douthat, do you agree with E.J. that, somewhere along the way, conservatives have diminished the value of community?
DOUTHATYes. I think that there is a strong strain in American conservatism that -- I mentioned Ayn Rand earlier. I'd say, in certain ways, it runs back to Rand. You can see it today in Donald Trump, a figure who's very much in the news today, who is not, I think, an ideological conservative by any definition but who appeals to...
REHMWho knows what he is?
DOUTHATWho knows, right? He -- no, he's a pure opportunist.
DIONNE JR.He's a Birther.
DOUTHATBut he appeals -- I don't even think he's a really a Birther. I think he's a -- it's all a game to Trump. But I think he clearly appeals -- you know, the image of sort of the successful businessman who's, you know, done it all himself and doesn't take any guff from anyone, that's a strain in conservatism, and it's a strain that's been stronger, I'd say, particularly in the two years since -- the first two years after Obama took office.
DOUTHATI also think -- and E.J. acknowledges this, though -- that these things move in cycles, right? And the sort of Tea Party's emphasis on individualism was itself a reaction to the perceived and real failures of compassion and conservatism in the Bush era, right, the sense that George W. Bush had laid not only a strong stress on the idea of community but a very strong stress on the role of the federal government. He expanded Medicare.
DOUTHATHe expanded the federal role in education. He was an E.J. Dionne-type of conservative, even if E.J., I think, only recognizes that sometimes in hindsight. But that -- but the fact that the Bush presidency ended in various disasters, I think, made it inevitable that there would be this reaction in a more individualistic direction on the right where people will say, look, we tried that. We tried that, you know, sort of federal role and community stuff under Bush, and look what it got us.
DIONNE JR.Point of personal privilege, I suppose. You know, the truth is, at the very beginning of Bush's term -- even though I had been one of those involved in the polemics around Florida and still am burned by Bush v. Gore, which I talk about in the book -- I was hopeful for President Bush's faith-based initiative. I thought there was potentially something to it, and, rhetorically, it was a very powerful appeal.
DIONNE JR.And I talk about some of the -- what Bush said about it, particularly in an Indianapolis speech in 1999. The problem I had as it went on is that I didn't think President Bush put any resources behind compassion and conservatism except in a couple of respects. And these are parts of the Bush legacy that I think all of us should applaud: PEPFAR to deal with AIDS abroad, some of his public health initiatives abroad, his openness on immigration.
DIONNE JR.I think these were positive sides of a Bush record which, in general -- Ross is quite right -- I was extremely critical of it. And what bothers me about contemporary conservatism is they are rebelling against Bush not for the ways in which he failed. They're rebelling against the very best parts of the Bush legacy. And I think that's a terrible mistake for conservatives to make.
DOUTHATBut do you think that the deficits that, you know, which were not as large as the deficits we're facing today, but the deficits that were created by something like passing Medicare Part D and so on, I mean, that's part of what the Tea Party is reacting against. And I don't think -- even if you agree with the programs themselves, right, you don't think that Bush's deficit spending was the most positive part of his legacy.
DIONNE JR.I agree that the Tea Party is motivated in part by the Bush deficits. Indeed, I think conservatives in general didn't want to say Bush was too conservative as President because they wanted to save conservatism, so it was politically convenient to go to his right. The problem is, when you look back at where the deficits came from, the bulk of them came not even from Medicare Part D. They came from waging two wars and cutting taxes twice at the same time, and I keep wanting my conservative friends to acknowledge this when they talk about the deficit.
REHMAll right. Let's bring this to the present day then. Is President Obama even more of a communitarian than he is a liberal? E.J.
DIONNE JR.Yes, that's -- that is what I argue in the book. And I think that communitarian side of him was very, very clear in his inaugural address. In the book, I make the point that in political terms, that inaugural address might have been a bit of a missed opportunity because, I think, politically, he would've been better off to tell the country what a deep economic mess we were in, how hard it would be to get out, and then give hope that we would eventually.
DIONNE JR.But as a substantive matter, I admired the speech because he was sort of setting his face against excessive individualism on both the right and the left. And I think the Tea Party had an intimation of this. If the Tea Party is, as I argue, an expression of radical individualism, they understood that Obama was, in his way, deeply communitarian president, even though they call him a socialist, not a communitarian. That's their word for it. And so I think that it inspired this reaction on their side.
DIONNE JR.And indeed, the more Obama has talked about this balance that I talk about in the book between individualism and community, the more Republicans and conservatives want to revolt against balance itself. And I think that presents a real problem to Romney and the campaign 'cause Ross -- I think, politically, Ross is right, that Romney does need a communitarian side.
DIONNE JR.I don't see that he has presented it at all up to now. Indeed, I think, on the whole, he has simply given into this individualism, unless, in fact, that is his view. And I think part of the argument over Bain Capital and the nature of capitalism is an argument over whether you're going to have a more socially minded capitalism or not.
REHMBut, of course, Mitt Romney has changed his views on a number of these issues, Ross, leaving us to question, as E.J. has put it, where he is on some these issues.
DOUTHATWell, yeah. I mean, Mitt Romney's changed his views on a very, very -- on a very long list of issues. And I think it's a mistake with Romney to, you know, look at him as -- I mean, he is not self-consciously trying to develop a new vision of conservatism, right, the way George W. Bush self-consciously in 1999 and 2000 said, OK, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress are unpopular. I'm going to cast myself as a different kind of conservative. You know, this is where the term compassion and conservatism came from.
DOUTHATThere was a self-conscious effort on that front. Romney is not doing that. Romney is someone who, you know, seems like an ambitious man who's sort of generally ideologically right of center, not as right of center maybe as he posed as in the primary campaign but who is happy to sort of identify himself with the current views of the Republican Party in order to be elected president.
DOUTHATThat being said -- and this is, again, where I think E.J. and I disagree a little bit -- I think the current views of the Republican Party that he's identified with are not the views of Ayn Rand or Glenn Beck. They are the views of figures like Paul Ryan, the congressman from Wisconsin, who is obviously well to the right of E.J. on a host of issues, but who is also someone who is not arguing for the wholesale abolition of the federal government and the return of complete power to the states and so on.
DOUTHATI mean, the centerpiece of the Ryan -- the famously controversial Ryan budget, for instance, is a reform to Medicare that is modeled, in part, on plans that some people on the center-left have, in some versions, embraced and is not -- it's many things. It can be argued with and disagreed with, but it's not an attempt to say that, you know, henceforward the states will run Medicare or nobody will run Medicare and so on. It's reforming within an existing federal structure.
DIONNE JR.I would just argue back to Ross in the case of Paul Ryan that, first of all, he is someone who has said he's now trying desperately to back away from it, that Ayn Rand was central to his view of the world. And at some point, the numbers in a budget affect the substance and that, I would argue back that, in fact, Ryan does want to undercut these long-term commitments. Even centrists who favor certain structural aspects of the Ryan budget have said that if you actually use his numbers, you're going to undercut these programs in the long run.
DIONNE JR.And, again, that gets us back to the question of what is the role of the federal government. And the argument I make in the book is that conservatives are really wrong when they say that -- or especially the individualistic wing of conservatism -- when they say the federal government did not play a major role in American life until the progressives came along. And I have chapters both on the Constitution itself and also on what Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton were up to.
DIONNE JR.And they had a very robust view of what the federal government could do to make our country richer and better. Clay had what he called the American system, and he called it the American system to distinguish it from British laissez-faire, which is something that would not make the Club for Growth very happy. And so, in my view, when the progressives came along, they didn't embark on some whole newfangled thing.
DIONNE JR.They were actually restoring an approach to government that was represented by Hamilton and Clay. And I think those of us who are now on the progressive side of politics represent much more the traditional balance of the American tradition than the current form of conservatism does. I'd like conservatism to change. But, in the meantime, I think it's a fight between balance and individualism.
REHME.J. Dionne. His new book is titled "Our Divided Political Heart." The first two words, Our Divided, are in red. Political Heart are in blue. And Ross Douthat, he's an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, author of "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850, first to Norfolk, Va. Good morning, Ted. You're on the air.
TEDGood morning. I think the great divide and discontent in our country are caused by a growing intolerance, be it an intolerance of race, of religion, of wealth, of poverty, of conservatism, of progressiveness. And that intolerance is caused by three things: ignorance, hatred and fear. And those can be overcome only by teaching our children the three R's -- not reading, writing, arithmetic, but respect, restraint and responsibility.
TEDMy fear is that we are instilling and perpetuating this divide into another generation. And my memory hearkens back to a movie of a few years ago, "Mars Attacks!" where the president makes an impassioned plea to the Martian leader and ends by saying, can't we all just get along? The -- ponders for a couple of seconds, sheds a tear, and then kills the president.
REHMAll right. Ross Douthat.
DOUTHATWell, I think that this is -- you know, we've been talking about sort of, you know, who's to blame for our polarization, right or left, the Tea Party or whoever. I think the caller puts his finger on this deeper point, which is that we have this long-term trend towards polarization in our country, which existed before the Tea Party. It existed before the Bush presidency. It's been with us really going back to the 1970s, and it's not just a trend towards political polarization.
DOUTHATIt's also a trend where people cluster geographically with like-minded people. There's a book by Bill Bishop called "The Big Sort" that talks about this. People, you know, consume media that confirms their prejudices and so forth. And this is -- I mean, independent of your ideology, I think that this is -- has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to saying, well, why -- you know, why are our -- why do our politics seems so broken? I mean, part of it is we just are more ideologically polarized than we were 30 or 40 years ago.
REHMHere is an email from Richard, who says, "Aren't the communitarian and individualistic strains in our culture exactly what de Tocqueville was describing in the 19th century? His masterpiece "Democracy in America" continues to ring completely true today." E.J.
DIONNE JR.Well, God bless that caller. I have a lot of Tocqueville in my book, and I think the caller is right. I think that -- again, I am making an argument that these two tendencies, these two sets of values define us, not one or the other, but both. And Tocqueville was very, very alive to that. And there are -- that's why lots of different kinds of Americans, left and right, admire Tocqueville's observations about us.
DIONNE JR.If I could just go back to the previous caller, first, what a good preacher he is. And I'm going to carry respect, restraint and responsibility in -- around in my head all day, even if I fail to live up to that.
REHMWhat about ignorance, hatred and fear?
DOUTHATI'll handle those.
DIONNE JR.Yeah, Ross will be in charge of those.
DIONNE JR.He will -- but, you know, in the book, I do talk a lot about our history having a politics. And one of the interesting things that I ran across in -- over the years in sort of thinking about the argument here is how we dealt with reconstruction after the war. Our whole view of reconstruction was shaped by almost a racist history for a long time based on a view that African-Americans couldn't govern themselves. And there is an interesting interaction between how we view history and how we view the present.
DIONNE JR.Around when the civil rights movement was rising, a lot of scholars said, wait a minute. If you go back and look at the real story of reconstruction, it was a period of empowerment of African-Americans. African-Americans wanted power themselves. And the history was rewritten as the civil rights movement was going forward. And I think we can learn from our history that we do go through periods where hatred and fear are dominant.
DIONNE JR.But a good thing about America -- and Tocqueville said this, and so did Winston Churchill, who -- my favorite line on America: Americans always do the right thing after first exhausting all the other possibilities. We tend to overcome these periods of division and hatred. And that's why, ultimately, even though my book is, in part, polemical, it is also a hopeful book.
REHME.J. Dionne. And that book is titled "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." More of your calls, comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, Ross Douthat is here. He's an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, author of the book titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." I talked to Ross about that book back on April 19 if you'd like to go back and listen to it. Today, we're talking about E.J. Dionne's new book. It's titled "Our Divided Political Heart." And E.J. Dionne is with both The Brookings Institution and a columnist for The Washington Post.
REHMHere's an email from Roger, and, apparently, a number of emailers have expressed the same concern. He says, "I find it frightening that one of your guests is questioning individual rights when, recently, corporate rights have been so dominant over individual rights. The downfall of unions, the rise of the upper 1 percent, the fall of the middle class, all should push people to reinforce individual rights over group rights." Ross.
DIONNE JR.I think that's me. I think that's directed to me.
DOUTHATOh, I think that's aimed at E.J.
REHMWe think that's to you.
DOUTHATI think he's suggesting that E.J. is not recognizing the -- what you might call the sort of liberal uses of individual rights, right?
DIONNE JR.Right. I'm grateful for the email because it is important to me that I not be misunderstood on this question of individual rights. I'm very consciously not saying that community always trumps individual rights. On the contrary, we would not be Americans without that strong individual rights tradition. And I note in the book that probably the single best example of a failed communitarian experiment is prohibition.
DIONNE JR.And it's worth remembering that prohibition wasn't just a conservative cause. There were a lot of progressives who also backed prohibition in the name of improving the country. And one of the arguments I make in the book -- I have chapters on populism and progressivism, that I suspect this emailer might find congenial, where we brought government into the economy more after the Gilded Age precisely because we were afraid of economic concentration.
DIONNE JR.And it took government intervention to empower workers to have some kind of bargaining power against their employers, the Wagner Act. You know, if you listen to some of the things that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson said in the 1912 campaign, they sound very much like Occupy Wall Street. Wilson used to talk about the danger that high finance will become more powerful than the government of the United States.
DIONNE JR.So I think, again, the power of our tradition is a balance. We do not want a government that's all powerful, but neither do we want excessive concentration of power in the private -- in parts of the private sphere. And so government steps in to defend the interest of the community and of individuals against concentrated private power.
DOUTHATBut -- and I suppose my question for E.J., and I know you and my colleague David Brooks mixed it up on this front online a bit yesterday. But when -- it's true that if you go back and listen to Woodrow Wilson, T.R. and so on, their rhetoric in certain ways is well to the left of any Democratic politician today. But they were also operating in a landscape where, at least for some of that period, there was no federal income tax.
DOUTHATThere was no New Deal, no Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid. Most of the Cabinet agencies we have today didn't exist and so on and so forth. And the question that I keep coming back to, reading E.J.'s book, is, at what point does the liberal communitarian say well, the arguments about the, you know, the size and scope of government that we made in 1907 have to be reevaluated, given the size and scope of the government we have in 2012?
DOUTHATBecause I think E.J. talks a great deal about how we've had this national consensus in American life about the size and scope of government, in part, over the past 70 or 80 years. And there's truth to that, but, by the same token, part of what's inspiring the conservative reaction at the moment is the fact that the government we have, if left on autopilot, is scheduled to grow by leaps and bounds beyond the size it's had for the last few generations. And, again, this is sort of my recurring question, sort of, what does the liberal communitarian think about that future?
DIONNE JR.Right. And the answer is that if you look at most parts of our government, they have not grown by leaps and bounds. There are two parts of our government that have grown substantially from the progressive era. One is our military is much bigger. And I think we are going to have a big debate over what size military we need.
DIONNE JR.The other is that, yes, we have established, as the progressives wanted to have established, public systems of social endurance, Social Security for the elderly and Medicare and Medicaid. And the only -- the federal government isn't growing because you've got a bunch of liberals who desperately want the government to take over more of the economy. Government is growing because the baby boom is aging and because health care is getting more expensive.
DIONNE JR.I don't want to repeal those. I wish, as a baby boomer, you could repeal the aging of the baby boom, but, unfortunately, that's just not possible.
REHMLet's go to Ann Arbor, Mich. Good morning, John.
JOHNGood morning, Diane. I greatly appreciate you taking my call.
JOHNI have been trying successfully to promote the issue of voting reform to open up our political processes to third parties for more than a decade-and-a-half since I think it's one of the most important changes we can make to improve our political system. My questions to the guests and you is what can we do to get this issue out into the public forum, especially on a show like yours?
DIONNE JR.Well, I'm not -- I don't think third parties are a panacea. We can have a big argument over whether the system should be tilted toward the two parties, as we have it, as Britain sort of has it, or whether we should have a multi-party system. And I don't think multi-party systems are as representative in practice as they look in theory.
DIONNE JR.There is one voting reform that's very controversial that I am interested in, which is mandatory attendance at the polls, which they have in Australia. It's not a terribly oppressive system. You pay a small fine if you don't show up. I think our whole discussion of voting is skewed. You have, on the Republican side these days, these enormous efforts to keep voters from casting their ballots. You're building more and more barriers to the polling place…
DIONNE JR....voter ID law, throwing people off the voter rolls, as they're doing in Florida. And I would like the pendulum reversed in saying everybody should have the right to vote, and everybody should participate.
REHMHow do you feel about that, Ross?
DOUTHATI strongly oppose it. I...
DIONNE JR.I knew he would.
DOUTHATWell, I just think that it's a classic case of sort of it's -- this is why -- this is a place where I don't think liberalism is communitarian. I don't think it is genuinely communitarian to say, you know, we're all part of a community, and, darn it, we're going to force you to be part of that community by fining you...
REHMWhat do you think about a third party, though?
DIONNE JR.What if you can ask...
DOUTHATOn the third party question, I think that there is the potential since we've been talking here about places where sort of right and left can overlap and where the two-party binary doesn't quite fit. I do sometimes think we would be better off as a country maybe if there were multiple small parties sort of more geographically concentrated, if there were sort of a blue-collar Catholic, more socially conservative, economically liberal party in the Midwest and a more libertarian sort of techno-futurist party in California.
DOUTHATWhen I think about third parties, though, I think that the pundit class tends to always focus on third party presidential candidates. And, in fact, if you're serious, and I hope the caller is, about building up a third party, what you would actually want is a few third-party senators or congressmen who would represent a kind of balance of power. But that's not...
DIONNE JR.But you are getting -- but you are getting -- and third party candidates have been quite successful in local elections. Maine...
DIONNE JR....seems likely to elect an independent senator, Angus King, and then select...
DOUTHATBut for it to be meaningful, it would need to become more of a -- you need not just one independent governor but a kind of New England party, I think...
REHMAll right. To South Bend, Ind. Hi there, Conrad.
CONRADHi. Thank you for taking my call.
CONRADI have two comments. One, you know, Mr. Douthat said that the Tea Party's a response to ever growing government. But since Ronald Reagan, we have heard that taxes are bad, taxes are bad. Let's not pay taxes, lower taxes. So in our states, the taxes are at the lowest levels ever. Federally, the taxes keep being cut, and yet we wage wars. We do all kinds of things. Seems to me that, in fact, the Tea Party is just one more continuation of the idea that we shouldn't take actions, and we shouldn't have big government. We shouldn't have government at all.
DOUTHATI mean, I think it's true that there has been this strong anti-tax sentiment on the right going back for the last 30 years, and the Tea Party naturally expresses it as well. And I think that the caller is hinting at what's been a big problem for contemporary conservatism, which is that conservatives are very enthusiastic about cutting taxes but less enthusiastic -- and, again, this is where I think E.J. sometimes overestimates their radical individualism -- they are less enthusiastic about actually cutting government.
DOUTHATAnd so the result is it's not the shrinking of government. It is massive deficit spending. But this doesn't mean -- I think the story of the last 30 years is not Republicans succeeding in cutting the heart out of government. It's Republicans often creating large deficits because they're willing to cut taxes but not willing to restrain the growth of government at the same time.
REHMWould we have the same kind of deficit we have now if we had not engaged in two wars, E.J.?
DIONNE JR.The answer is no. I mean, these wars were expensive at the time, and they also have long-term costs because we have a real obligation to all the people who fought in those wars and particularly all of the people who were terribly wounded in those wars. The wars don't explain it all. I think the Bush tax cuts themselves are a big part of it. If you hadn't had the Bush tax cuts, if we were back to the Clinton era taxes, we'd have about 3.5 to $4 trillion coming in over the next decade.
REHMDo you agree with that, Ross?
DOUTHATDepends on what we're talking about when we talk about the deficits. If we're talking about the deficit as it stood in 2006 or 2007, which I agree with E.J. was, you know, a major failure of the Bush presidency, then, yes, the combination of increasing domestic spending, the two wars, and an unfunded tax cut created those deficits. The deficits we're facing now, though, reflect two further trends. One is a combination of what were billed as short-term spending increases by the Obama White House, which coincided with a collapse in government revenues driven by the financial crisis.
DOUTHATSo that's -- those are the Obama deficits. And then you have the future deficits, which are basically Medicare and Social Security. Really, mostly Medicare created deficits that are starting to kick in but really kick in about five or 10 years down the road. And so we're sort of juggling three separate deficit problems that have all -- are all conspiring to create the broader trend. But the two wars that -- going forward, that's less of a problem for the deficit because they are being wound down.
REHMAll right. To Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning, Don.
DONGood morning. I can't wait to get E.J.'s book.
DIONNE JR.Bless you. Thank you.
DONOh, good. I love you, E.J. You're brilliant. But this has been with us a very long time. And I think part of the problem is -- look at the McCarthy era. I remember growing up -- I'm in my 60s. I remember growing up and reading papers, even as a kid. Nowadays, we're told what to think. We watch television. I understand we're all exhausted at the end of a day, working two and three jobs, but that's no excuse. We should engage, and, instead, we turn on Fox News and get told what to think. And I think this is part of -- the biggest part of the problem.
DIONNE JR.Well, I think that we do have something of a tendency to retreat into our own corners. Ross mentioned Bill Bishop's book "The Big Sort," which I quote and cite in my book. We tend to live with people who agree with us politically, so we're not challenged perhaps as much as we used to be. But I think nostalgia as against actually learning from history is probably something we should avoid.
DIONNE JR.And, again, the reason I go back to this American balance is that I think one cure to the kind of polarization we have is to acknowledge that we are interesting, complicated people with competing values, and let's talk about that openly and try to balance them.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Randy, and there are several email who would like the same kind of advice. He says, "Our country is divided, very, very divided. As a volunteer in the Democratic Party, how would your speakers assist us to become a bit more communal and less vindictive toward those with different opinions? I say this because, recently and in the past, I have experienced a great deal of vitriol from Tea Party members here in Texas. Yes, they told me I was less than a person."
DIONNE JR.Well, this is very, very troubling. And one of the reasons I so want to reclaim the whole American story for the progressive side of politics is to say that we are not un-American. Indeed, I would argue we represent a very robust strain of the American tradition. But I also think those of us on the progressive side, one of the things I try really hard to do, which I appreciate Ross mentioning, is that the conservative tradition itself has some real resources for all of us. You know, I think that some tradition does need to be overthrown, but it should be done lightly.
DIONNE JR.Not all of the ideas of those of us who are progressive come up with should -- all our ideas should be subjected to the test of, will this really work? Will this not have unintended consequences? And so I do think we need progressives who are open to the best of the conservative tradition. But I sure would like our conservative friends to abandon a kind of -- well, the earlier caller would have called it McCarthyism -- but the sense that we, who are progressive, are outside the American mainstream. We love our country as much as they do.
DOUTHATI suppose -- my advice to the caller would be to, you know, to model in your own life the virtues that you seek to encourage in your political antagonists. And that means, as E.J...
REHMThe Golden Rule.
DOUTHATAs in the Golden Rule, but in intellectual and communal terms, this means on the one hand -- and this is harder to do in today's America -- but, on the one hand, sort of seeking out organizations, institutions, friendships and so on where you will be exposed to people with whom you disagree. And, second, it means engaging with the brightest minds on the opposite side of the partisan divide.
DOUTHATSo don't just read a brilliant liberal, like E.J. Dionne, you know, sitting here next to me, and compare him to, you know, the most fulminating talk show host on the right wing side and say, well, that -- that's, you know, that's the divide. It's, you know, it's E.J. Dionne versus the crazies. You should do something like -- there is a magazine of conservative policy called National Affairs that launched in D.C. a couple years ago that, full disclosure, a friend of mine edits.
DOUTHATBut I would invite any liberal interested in public policy to take out a subscription to that magazine and read it cover to cover, every issue. And sort of -- and spend -- and I would say the same for a conservative, to subscribe to a smart liberal magazine and engage with those ideas.
REHMAnd my hope is that the coming political debate will somehow allow for those ideas to get across to the American people.
DOUTHATYou may be disappointed, Diane.
REHMI may be disappointed.
DOUTHATI'll be hopeful.
REHMBut I can always hope. E.J. Dionne, his new book, "Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent." Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His book is titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of the Heretics." Thank you both.
DIONNE JR.Thank you, Diane.
DOUTHATThank you, Diane and E.J.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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