Left, Right & Center
Why Americans Hate Politics.
by E.J. Dionne, Jr.
Simon & Schuster. 430 pp. $22.95.
A great improvement befell American journalism in the late 1980’s with the departure of Sidney Blumenthal and the arrival of E.J. Dionne, Jr. at the Washington Post. Although Blumenthal’s work usually ran in the “Style” section of the paper, while Dionne’s has appeared mostly in the news pages, the beat they have covered is largely the same: the ideological side of politics. But what a difference between them: Blumenthal’s (presumably self-assigned) mission was to skewer the Right, especially neoconservatives, and to do so in a manner uninhibited by any scruple of balance, fairness, or accuracy. (See my review of his book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, in the October 1986 COMMENTARY.) Dionne, by contrast, is at pains to report faithfully the views of the groups and individuals he covers.
This penchant for fairness and accuracy, and a lively interest in political ideas, equip Dionne well to chronicle contemporary political history. This is partly what he has done in Why Americans Hate Politics, and the account he gives is valuable and instructive. But, alas, it is not all he has done. As the book’s strained title suggests, he also has attempted some ambitious theorizing, which does not succeed nearly so well.
A child of the 60’s, Dionne is especially good at conveying what so many others have failed to recognize or else to acknowledge: the powerful impact of the New Left on all that followed it. “The New Left,” he writes, “played an immensely important and . . . widely underestimated role in shaping and transforming both liberalism and our political culture.” One reason for the underestimation may be that the New Left self-destructed before it was a decade old. Nevertheless, as Dionne aptly notes, “at the very moment when most of the ‘formal’ institutions of the New Left, including SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], drifted into irrelevancy, the movement’s ideas were beginning to have a real impact on mainstream liberalism.”
Within the Democratic party, the impact was both sociological and political in nature. “New party rules that emphasized participation led to an increasing role for the well-to-do and a declining role for the working and lower middle classes,” Dionne reports. Still more significantly,
the antiwar movement did allow the Left and its ideas back into the Democratic party. . . . Suddenly, a critique of American foreign policy that had been off-limits was very much part of the party’s normal discourse. . . . By 1970, the antiwar forces held a majority among congressional Democrats. . . . Cold-war liberalism . . . moved from being the Democratic party’s overwhelmingly dominant tendency to representing the view of an influential but embattled minority.
Still, although the New Left—or, in its watered-down version, the New Politics—vanquished “cold-war” liberalism, it could not gather enough support to take power in the country at large. Instead, ironically, it paved the way for a quarter of a century of Republican control of the White House. “The New Left wage[d] war against the paternalistic liberal state and defeat-[ed] it,” notes Dionne. “The Right picked up the pieces.”
Conservatism’s electoral success was made possible not just by the works of the New Left, but also by the intellectual reinvigoration of conservatism itself, which Dionne carefully traces. He records the contributions of traditionalists like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr., with their emphasis on piety, duty, and virtue; of the libertarian economists Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, with their surpassing faith in free markets; and of National Review editor Frank Meyer, whose project was a “fusion” of these two contradictory strains.
This is an interesting account, though I was not close enough to the conservative movement in those years to judge Dionne’s accuracy with confidence. I feel better equipped to assess his version of the history of neoconservatism, and this falls wide of the mark, perhaps because he relies too heavily on Peter Steinfels’s 1979 book on the subject.
One of the difficulties in any account of neoconservatism is that it was an ideology never proclaimed; even the term itself was a hostile invention, coined by one group of liberals (or socialists) to stigmatize another in a conflict over the meaning and direction of liberalism. As Dionne tells it, that conflict in the first place was over economic policy: neoconservatism “first became visible as a movement in domestic politics” in the mid-1960’s through the efforts of the quarterly magazine Public Interest to challenge the social-welfare programs of the New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society.
In fact, however, the main conflict within liberalism at the time was not over domestic economic policy but over the Vietnam war, which was being prosecuted by the Johnson-Humphrey administration and was opposed from the Left by a growing number of activists, largely affluent and college-educated. When this opposition to the war carried over into the Democratic primaries in the 1968 presidential campaign, the antiwar faction began to refer to itself as representing a New Politics, a grandiloquent way of asserting that it stood for something other than liberalism as liberalism was then known.
But this nomenclature soon proved a liability, as it hinted too directly at the link between the New Politics and the New Left and offered an inviting target for the telling epithet, “radic-libs,” coined by Richard Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew. Soon New-Politics advocates were disclaiming the label, asserting that they themselves were the true liberals, whereas the Johnson/Humphrey Democrats were not liberals at all but neoconservatives. Almost to a man, those so labeled repudiated the term, although as the years went by most gradually came to acquiesce in it.
From the outset neoconservatism was distinguished by a hostility, on the international front, to Communism and, on the domestic scene, to the radical Left and all its works, especially its espousal of racial preferences, its intolerance of dissenting opinion, and its denigration of the American experience. But on economic issues, notwithstanding the indisputably important role of the Public Interest, the movement was if anything more faithful than New-Politics liberalism to the traditional Keynesian policies of the Democratic party. This was because the neoconservatives saw blue-collar workers as their natural allies against the college-educated New-Politics bunch. When Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, then the preeminent neo-conservative hero, ran for President in 1976, he boasted the highest rating of any member of the Senate on the AFL-CIO’s scorecard of “correct” legislative votes—the purest measure of Keynesianism.
It was not until the 1980’s that most neoconservatives moved to the Right on domestic issues, impressed by the success of Reaganomics against the stagflation that had so overmastered the Carter administration, and influenced as well by the experience of collaborating with more traditional conservatives. Thus, one could say that Dionne errs less in describing where the neoconservatives ended up than in explaining how they got there. This would be of lesser moment if it did not obscure two important facts: that the original tenets of neoconservatism—internationalism, anti-Communism, equal rights, civil liberties—were once the distinguishing hallmarks of American liberalism itself, and that those who in the late 60’s succeeded in wresting sole possession of the liberal name had actually come to embrace positions—isolationism, anti-anti-Communism, preferential treatment by race—once recognized as illiberal.
Still, despite its flaws, Dionne’s record of these debates is a useful one. Not so his scantily supported claim that “Americans hate politics.”
Here, contrary to the many commentators, Right and Left, who bemoan the lack of clear choice in American politics and wish that our heterogeneous parties would sport the sharper ideological edges of European parties, Dionne puts forward the original argument that American politics is too polarized. Ours, he laments, is an “either/or” politics, instead of a “both/and” politics. We speak of “issues”—thus encouraging disputation—when we ought to speak of “problems” that might be solved by reasoning together.
Polarization, moreover, impels us to focus on less important rather than more important questions:
While Americans battled over the religious Right, Japanese and German industrialists won ever larger shares of the American market. While Left and Right argued about racial quotas, the average take-home pay of all Americans stagnated. While Michael Dukakis and George Bush discussed Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance, the savings and loan industry moved inexorably toward collapse. While politicians screamed at each other about the death penalty, more and more children were being born into an urban underclass whose life chances were dismal. . . . While veterans of the 60’s continued to debate the meaning of the Vietnam war, Communism collapsed and a new world—probably more dangerous and certainly less predictable than the old—was born.
Aside from the remarkable claim that the world will be more dangerous with the demise of Communism, this litany raises two questions. First, is not Dionne himself constructing false “either/or” dichotomies by suggesting that we may be concerned about, say, getting mugged or about the doctor’s bill that will ensue therefrom, but not about both? Second, why are questions of justice, security, and morality less “real,” less important, than material questions?
It would seem that, for all his fairness as a reporter, Dionne has ideological proclivities of his own. He wishes that American voters would hew more closely to their economic interests because this would lead them to vote for liberals or Democrats. And he wishes that liberals would pursue a more radical economic policy, one sufficiently appealing to the masses to overcome their attraction to conservative positions on social issues.
But what, then, of the evils of polarization? Apparently, there are two kinds of polarization, a bad kind caused by divisiveness over social and cultural issues, and a good kind caused by divisiveness over economic issues. This would explain Dionne’s otherwise mystifying assertion that the election of Bernard Sanders, “an independent socialist,” to the U.S. House of Representatives, and of Paul Well-stone, an “appealingly eccentric left-wing professor,” to the U.S. Senate, somehow expresses the voters’ “demand for an end to ideological confrontations.” Quite the contrary.
Nor are Sanders and Wellstone the only polarizers who excite Dionne’s sympathy. He writes:
The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s triumphant tour through Wisconsin . . . was, in many ways, the  campaign’s high point. . . . Many [whites who] had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 . . . cheered Jackson’s defense of the common people . . . [and] his calls for a coalition of “working people” against the “merger maniacs” at the investment banking houses. In Jackson’s formulation, whites of modest means were no less the victims of racism than blacks. . . . The Jackson campaign in Wisconsin was simultaneously a political drive aimed at creating a coalition of protest on the Left and a quasi-religious revival in which blacks and whites were seeking to absolve and be absolved of past sins.
In this passage enthusiasm overwhelms journalistic detachment and we can clearly see that there is more than one E.J. Dionne. There is the fair-minded political reporter who has written a commendable chronicle of some recent political history. And then there is the man of political conviction. The second has written an essay which he believes to be about the American people’s frustration with politics, but I believe it is about his frustration with the politics of the American people.