Commentary Magazine


The Extremism of E.J. Dionne Jr.

E.J. Dionne Jr. has a column registering his concerns about the “No Labels” group. But he isn’t entirely critical. Dionne makes it clear that there are some things he’s sympathetic to, including this:

The No Labelers are also right to be repulsed by the replacement of real argument with a vicious brand of name-calling. When a president of the United States is attacked simultaneously as an “extreme liberal liar” and a “Nazi,” there is a sick irrationality at work in our discourse.

It’s perhaps worth noting that during the Bush presidency, when George W. Bush was slandered by leading members of the Democratic Party as a “moral coward” (Vice President Al Gore), as a “loser” and a “liar” who had “betrayed his country” (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), and who “Week after week after week after week … told lie after lie after lie after lie” (Senator Edward Kennedy), Dionne, in an amazing feat of self-control, held his outrage in abeyance. Back then, it was not “sick irrationality at work in our discourse”; it was just the normal, good-spirited back and forth of American politics. And if E.J. has written a column reprimanding the loathsome Representative Alan Grayson for his vicious brand of name-calling, I missed it. (Grayson dubbed his opponent Daniel Webster “Taliban Dan” in a deeply dishonest ad. He has also said, “If you get sick, America, the Republican health-care plan is this: Die quickly.” And for good measure, Grayson has compared Republicans to “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals” and Nazis burning the Reichstag.)

In any event, in his column Dionne goes on to assure us that “I am still devoted to moderation.” Of course he is. But what’s really troubling him are those right-wing extremist Republicans and conservatives. Moderation, you see, is “very much alive on the center-left and among Democrats” — but it is “so dead in the Republican Party and on the right.” The No Labelers can yet be a constructive force, Dionne instructs us, “if they remind us of how extreme the right has become and help broker an alliance between the center and the left, the only coalition that can realistically stop an ever more zealous brand of conservatism.”

E.J. faces a bit of a problem, of course. The GOP he deems to be so radical, so zealous, and so outside the mainstream is barely a month removed from a historically successful midterm election. Republicans picked up more House seats (63) than in any election since 1938 and have not enjoyed this much power in state capitals since the 1920s. In addition, Americans, by a greater than 2-to-1 margin, self-identify as conservative rather than liberal. Public trust in government is at record lows; so is the approval rating for the Democratically controlled Congress. And the signature domestic initiative of the Obama presidency, health-care reform, is quite unpopular and falling short of virtually every promise its advocates made on its behalf.

If you want to place the Devoted-to-Moderation Dionne on the political spectrum, consider that he’s a great defender of the soon-to-be-ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose own extremism led to her registering an 8 percent favorability rating among independents just prior to the election (61 percent viewed her unfavorably).

The main problem for E.J., though, is that the 2010 midterm election was a massive repudiation of contemporary liberalism, as embodied by people like President Obama and E.J. Dionne. It was among the most nationalized midterm elections in our history. Having lived under liberal governance for two years, the public reacted to it like the human body reacts to food poisoning. This is something that Dionne doesn’t seem able to process; his ideology won’t allow it. And so he continues to bellow, week after week, about how radical the right has become.

It’s true that Dionne’s columns highlight political extremism of a sort. But the extremism is his, not conservatism’s.