In his most recent diagnosis of the state of America’s political soul, the journalist and political thinker E.J. Dionne begins with a simple thesis. In the opening pages of Our Divided Political Heart, he asserts that “American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community.” The inevitable “creative tension” between these two commitments, he argues, is the source of ongoing American debate as well as American strength. We need to hold firmly to both values, as difficult as that can be in practice.
But while Dionne states that these two commitments do not simply “face off against each other”—that there is no party of “individualism” aligned against a party of “community,” but rather commitments to each ideal are to be found “in the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans”—in fact, throughout his book Dionne ends up making an argument distinct from his opening thesis. He insists that there is, in fact, one party of individualism today. That party— alternatively “conservatives,” “Republicans,” and the “Tea Party”; they are all named as purveyors of this view—has developed the notion that American prosperity and power derive almost exclusively from the efforts of individuals, and that government is everywhere and always a baleful influence. According to Dionne, Democrats/liberals/progressives, by contrast, maintain the traditionally salutary view that America is a combination of both individualism and community. He purports to offer his book as a corrective to the imbalance currently found in the political views of American conservatives, even as he also triumphantly lauds the current balance between individualism and community to be found in the Democratic Party and embodied in the presidency and person of Barack Obama.
Dionne certainly has a point concerning a main current of American conservatism today, and he rightly notes that there is a strong intellectual tradition within conservatism that supplies correctives to the libertarian, Randian leanings found among some on the contemporary right. Among those correctives he identifies the work of such thinkers as Robert Nisbet, Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, and the early George Will. However, Dionne is so exercised about the rise of the Tea Party in Republican politics that he somehow misses that “individualism” is hardly a pathology to be found exclusively among denizens of the American right; arguably, it pervades the very essence of the contemporary American left. He makes a fundamental category mistake by supposing that the left’s “balanced” position, and especially its support for “community,” can be discerned in the left’s support for the role of the national government.
A serious, rather than glancing, engagement with Nisbet would have been educational for Dionne, and would have helped him move beyond the partisan limits of his analysis. Dionne posits that “the American quest for community has taken national as well as local forms,” but throughout the book he equates the left’s identification with “community” to its willingness to support an activist federal government. With a seemingly uncontroversial reference to Robert Nisbet’s 1953 book The Quest for Community, Dionne inadvertently reveals a superficial familiarity with the conservative tradition he purports to recommend—and he unintentionally reinforces the continuing relevance of Nisbet’s analysis.
Nisbet spoke of the “quest for community” as an inherent longing of every human person. But modern society increasingly had been organized to thwart, undermine, or re-direct that longing away from local forms of membership. The modern project, as Nisbet described, could trace its origins back at least five centuries to such thinkers as Bodin, Hobbes, and Rousseau and consisted of the organized effort to align the supposed mutual interests of autonomous individuals (demanded by the rise of capitalism) and centralized government power, both working toward undermining a range of constitutive and “limiting” human associations such as church, guild, schools, and even families. As a result, the “quest for community” became pathologically redirected toward identification with the state. Government becomes, as Nisbet anticipated, the “only thing that we all belong to”—a line that was highlighted during the introductory video shown at last year’s Democratic National Convention. But this “quest for community” in fact results in the effective strengthening of centralized government power and individualism alike, at the expense of more local forms of constitutive community.
Dionne reveals a lack of familiarity with the basic contours of Nisbet’s argument, and in his insistence that the contemporary left embraces both community—in the form of an activist federal government—and individualism, what he misses is that actual forms of constitutive community are the losers in this arrangement. Our “political heart” is far from divided—it is rather in love with a unified and ongoing effort to use the power of the state to liberate the individual. The elites who lead the two parties are of one mind and one heart in this respect.
Dionne is so confused about this point that he misses it even when he endorses it. For instance, in commending the “balanced” view that he finds expressed in the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, he italicizes the following line in which the ends of government activism are revealed: not to hamper individualism, but to protect it. Were Dionne attentive to the pincer movement described by Nisbet—in which the state supports the liberationist ambition of autonomous individualism, and autonomous individuals increasingly appeal to and rely upon the state as guarantor of their liberation—he might have noticed that this same basic devotion to individualism lies at the heart of the contemporary left, and particularly the president he claims as the very embodiment of “balance.”
There is no mention in Dionne’s 300-page book, for instance, of the campaign commercial that launched President Obama’s re-election campaign, “The Life of Julia.” Julia is portrayed over the course of her life as the beneficiary of a bevy of government programs; notably, with the exception of one slide, she is constantly pictured alone. She appears to be especially reliant upon the government because there is no evidence of any support of family, community, church, or friends in her life. In her middle age, she (on her own accord, apparently) “decides” to have a child, and in one scene is shown sending young “Zachary” off to school; he is never to be seen again for the rest of her life. It is the very picture of the Leviathan—in this world, there are only individuals and the state.
There is similarly no mention of an incident early in Obama’s first presidential campaign, when he argued (while campaigning during the Michigan and Ohio primaries) that there might be a need to revisit terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that were undermining and even destroying the economic base of communities throughout the upper Midwest and elsewhere. As was reported in hushed tones afterwards, Obama quietly dispatched his economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, to Canada to assure our northern neighbors that the president-to-be didn’t really mean it. Obama’s policies have consistently used the power of the federal government to “liberate” upwardly mobile individuals while leaving communities to fend for themselves in a globalizing and rapacious economic order. When has the word “NAFTA,” or any debate about “free trade,” been heard during the Obama administration? Would you rather be a trader on Wall Street under someone named Clinton or Obama or someone named Bush?
Dionne is enraptured, however, by any rhetorical flourish in which Presidents Clinton or Obama speak admiringly of community: he cites speeches by each as proof-positive of their care and concern for community, while he consistently dismisses conservative rhetoric—such as Ronald Reagan’s sentimental appeals to small-town America—as so much deception that shrouds policies that advantage Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.
Again, Dionne has a point: many Republican policies have proven harmful to communities, particularly those policies that have supported forms of crony-capitalism that have treated the small producers and blue-collar American workers as an afterthought. But have the Democrats lauded by Dionne done any better for communities in this regard? Have those “moderate traditionalists” who came to mistrust Democrats for their aversion to speaking positively about “family, faith and community” simply been in the throes of false consciousness since the 1980s? Did Obama win them back in 2012 by appealing to those rooted aspirations—or did he succeed in driving them away from supporting any candidate at all, as they finally realized that they were fundamentally unrepresented in the American political system today? Shouldn’t Dionne be concerned that several million fewer such voters even bothered to turn out in 2012? Where do we see this resurgent concern for “family, faith and community” in the policies of President Obama?
Dionne is correct on two main points: a major element of the Republican Party today is dominated by individualistic tendencies, and government can indeed do good things to assist people, especially against the depredations of global capitalism. But this book is keenly disappointing as anything more than a campaign handbook. Dionne willfully refuses to extend his analysis to consider more comprehensively the pathologies of American political life, particularly the complicity of his partisan friends.
Perhaps most lamentably, Dionne not only overlooks the systematic ways in which the left today advances the power of government to support the liberation of autonomy-loving individuals, but he also misses the opportunity to encourage the growing number of articulate conservatives who have taken up the banner of the likes of Robert Nisbet—one of whom, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, recently provided the introduction for a new edition of Nisbet’s Quest for Community. Where, on the other hand, does one see evidence of intellectual creativity on the Left today that consistently shows concern for the condition of “faith, family and community?” You will search in vain for the health of our actual communities in the pages of this book—written by one of America’s most celebrated communitarian thinkers—unless you unreflectively accept that “government” and “community” are the same thing. But that view is finally nothing more than the “quest for community” gone awry, something Dionne, more than anyone, should realize.
Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.