“America was built by people who fended for themselves, who expected nothing from the government except protection.” Oh really? (More)

Our Divided Political Heart, Part I: Who Are We?

This week Morning Feature considers E.J. Dionne’s new book Our Divided Political Heart. Today we see how our political debates are framed in historical stories competing to define our national identity: who we are. Tomorrow we’ll explore our early history in search of our roots: who we were. Saturday we’ll conclude with Dionne’s vision of our national character: a Community of Freedom.

E.J. Dionne is a veteran journalist and commentator for The Washington Post. He earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in Sociology from Baloil College at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and is also a professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a senior research fellow at Saint Anselm College.

“I’d love to tell you who built America.”

In September 2010, Rush Limbaugh offered this summary of the American identity:

Let me tell you who built America. I’d love to tell you who built America. America was built by people who fended for themselves, who expected nothing from the government except protection. They expected nothing from the government except protection from foreign enemies and a just rule of law. Other than that, stay the hell out of our lives. That’s who built America. The very people who founded this country constructed that kind of a government. The people who built this country revolted against high taxes, a tea tax specifically. America was built by people who believed in individuality, rugged individualism. I love saying that because it so ticks off the left, rugged individualism, hard work, minimal government, freedom and liberty. You see, America was built by people who reject everything Imam Obama stands for, reject everything Imam Obama is doing. And that’s why Obama and the suckers in his party who followed him are being rejected by the people. Obama and his party are being rejected because they are the antithesis of how this country was built and how this country grew. [Emphasis added]

Rush Limbaugh is not a historian, but he summarized the historical orthodoxy of today’s Republican Party. This history includes several factual errors, and we’ll discuss those tomorrow. Today’s point is the passage in italics. Like many pundits and politicians – including President Obama – Limbaugh grounds his analysis of today’s issues in a story about the past. What’s more, this is a specific kind of story: one that purports to express the very essence of who Americans are in terms of what we believe. It is, in Dionne’s phrase, a story about the “American Idea.”

“… the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality”

Last year the Arizona legislature passed a law that prohibited classroom programs that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” The law was intended to shut down ethnic studies. When the Tucson school district refused, the state moved in and seized books and other materials. State school superintendent John Huppenthal described it as a war:

When we encountered this situation, we did what Hannibal did to the Romans. This is the eternal battle, the eternal battle of all time, the forces of collectivism against the forces of individuality.

How did teaching Latino students the history of their community transform into a battle of annihilation? Dionne argues that this fracture between individual and community – between self-interest and social duty – marks the divide in our polarized political climate. Many still write about conservative “culture warriors” and “do your own thing” liberals, but Dionne argues that model has long passed. Instead, he documents a conservative shift to radical individualism: a rejection of social duty under the banner of “economic freedom.”

“Our Founders understood this….”

Consider Mitt Romney’s speech in April to the National Rifle Association:

We will not just select the President who will guide us; we will also choose between two distinct paths and destinies for our nation. So many of the big issues in this campaign turn on our understanding of the Constitution and how it was meant to guide the life of our nation.
[…]
The belief that we are all created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights – these are not relics from another time, they reflect truths that are valid in every era. The framework of law created by the Declaration and the Constitution is the source of our greatness. It has generated unparalleled opportunity and prosperity. Our Founders understood this, which is why they created a system of government that is limited. This President is moving us away from our Founders’ vision. Instead of limited government, he is leading us toward limited freedom and limited opportunity.

Again, set aside for today the factual errors. The key is Romney’s claim that the ideas he offers are merely not his own, nor are they merely the ideas of his party or his ideological movement. Instead, Romney claims to speak for “our Founders,” and to express the singular essence of their vision: “freedom,” which he goes on to describe as “economic freedom” from taxes and regulations, the “religious freedom” of employers to impose their religious beliefs on employees, and “personal freedom” from environmental regulations and gun laws. He concludes: “We believe in America. We believe in ourselves.”

Romney’s speech on “freedom” says nothing about what Dionne calls “active liberty,” citizens governing themselves through voting, dissent, and bringing grievances to court. He says nothing about social responsibility or community. His “We believe in America” is purely individualistic: “We believe in ourselves.”

“… the cramped, narrow conception they have of liberty.”

President Obama critiqued the radical individualism of modern conservatism back in March:

Their philosophy is simple: you’re on your own. You’re on your own if you’re out of work, can’t find a job. Tough luck you’re on your own. You don’t have health care: That’s your problem. You’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own. They believe that’s how America is advanced.

That’s the cramped narrow conception they have of liberty, and they are wrong. They are wrong.

As we’ll see tomorrow, from the time of our founding we have recognized that individuals exist in communities, and that self-interest must be balanced with social duty. Radical individualism is neither who we are, nor who we were. It is not the “American Idea.”

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Happy Thursday!