In a speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ronald Reagan said the nation faced “A time for choosing.” We face such a time again. (More)

Our Divided Political Heart, Part III: Who Will We Become? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature considers E.J. Dionne’s new book Our Divided Political Heart. Thursday we saw how our political debates are framed in historical stories competing to define our national identity: who we are. Yesterday we explored our early history in search of our roots: who we were. Today we 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.

“There’s only an up or down….”

Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech was not, as widely believed, his keynote address at that year’s Republican National Convention. It was a paid campaign advertisement, given on October 27th. Conservatives often call it simply “The Speech,” and it expressed the ideological arc of what would become modern conservatism. Reagan offered a Manichean choice between liberty and tyranny:

You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down – [up] man’s old, old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

Reagan followed with a indictment of the federal government that ranged from the federal debt to foreign aid, from grain subsidies to the Great Society, and from Social Security to socialism. Under Democratic leadership, Reagan insisted, the federal government had exceeded the enumerated powers in the Constitution. They had betrayed the vision of the Founders. Worse, he said, that overreach had not solved the problems:

We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one. So they’re going to solve all the problems of human misery through government and government planning. Well, now, if government planning and welfare had the answer – and they’ve had almost 30 years of it – shouldn’t we expect government to read the score to us once in a while? Shouldn’t they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help? The reduction in the need for public housing?

He proposed partially privatizing Social Security. He opposed the recently-enacted Medicare plan, and said France’s universal health care would soon be bankrupt. He opposed regulations on business and property rights, though without explicitly naming the recently-enacted Civil Rights Act. He would confront overseas rivals with military force.

It was a speech that, with a few updated details, any Republican could give in 2012 … to rousing applause.

Liberty for Whom?

Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 election, and Richard Nixon ran on a more centrist platform in 1968. Despite his many flaws and the crimes that ultimately brought him to disgrace, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed a comprehensive health care bill very similar to the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Yet he also began the GOP “Southern Strategy” that whispered about race amidst clarion calls for law and order, and what he called New Federalism:

First, we cannot delay longer in accomplishing a total reform of our welfare system. When a system penalizes work, breaks up homes, robs recipients of dignity, there is no alternative to abolishing that system and adopting in its place the program of income support, job training, and work incentives which I recommended to the Congress last year.

Second, the time has come to assess and reform all of our institutions of government at the Federal, State, and local level. It is time for a New Federalism, in which, after 190 years of power flowing from the people and local and State governments to Washington, D.C., it will begin to flow from Washington back to the States and to the people of the United States.

Third, we must adopt reforms which will expand the range of opportunities for all Americans. We can fulfill the American dream only when each person has a fair chance to fulfill his own dreams. This means equal voting rights, equal employment opportunity, and new opportunities for expanded ownership. Because in order to be secure in their human rights, people need access to property rights.

By “putting a black face on poverty,” Republicans could play on race privilege to preserve wealth privilege, a strategy they continued in 2012. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in 1998, the radical individualism of modern conservatism – coupled with Democratic leaders’ poll-driven reluctance to discuss our social duty to care for each other – became “The New American Consensus; Government of, by and For the Comfortable” … wrapped in the ‘originalist’ cloak of revering our Founders.

What is Self-Government?

That reverence for the Founders is the least ‘original’ part of ‘originalism.’ They didn’t revere each other. They were not yet cast in statues and carved on mountains. The Founders knew each other as ordinary men, with ordinary human virtues and vices. They wrote provisions for amendments into the Constitution precisely because they did not consider themselves fonts of unalterable wisdom. In the end, they could not secure ratification of the original Constitution without the package of amendments we call the Bill of Rights.

As we saw yesterday, they did not all agree on the scope of government or the kind of nation they wanted. The Constitution includes both consensus and compromises. It left many details to be worked out in the actual practice of governing. And on some key issues – most notably slavery – the Founders temporized, hoping those who came later might solve a problem the Founders could not.

The Declaration of Independence, so often cited by radical individualists as their philosophical touchstone, declares not a rebellion against the idea of government but against a government beyond their reach. Consider their first four complaints:

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

These are not the demands of radical individualists who wanted to “get government out of the way.” They are the demands of political activists who wanted to participate in self-government. Their charge about taxation is number 15 on the list, and reads “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”

Yet many conservatives today cite our ‘divine‘ founding documents – which expressly rejected rule by divine right and sought to enable self-government – to restrict our capacity for self-government. We the People elected a president and a Congress who campaigned on and ultimately passed health care reform … only to see conservatives, and four Supreme Court Justices, declare that our Founders would have disagreed and thus the law must be overturned.

A Community of Freedom

History is important, Dionne argues, not as a prescription for solutions to today’s problems but as evidence of how We the People have struggled through two centuries “to form a more perfect Union.” What he calls the “American Idea” is neither exclusively individualistic nor exclusively communitarian. Throughout our history, we have recognized that our thirst for individual liberty often exists in conflict with our need for community and our social duty to care for each other. We have tried – haltingly and imperfectly – to balance those interests: to both safeguard individual’s rights and meet social duties.

Dionne presents evidence for an emerging consensus among younger Americans for what he calls a Community of Freedom. He cites a Pew Research survey of Millenials – those born from 1980-1992 – as being both more tolerant of individuals’ differences and more grounded in traditional family and community aspirations. Dionne also celebrates the strides made by the LGBT equality movement, whose primary political goals over the past decade have been open military service and equal respect in marriage and parenting: the antithesis of the hedonism with which liberals have long been charged. And he notes the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its focus on narrowing wealth privilege so that we meet our social duties in education, health care, rebuilding our infrastructure, protecting our environment, and other community interests.

Dionne recognizes that this Community of Freedom will not look like the small-town bonds of the 19th century, or the top-down programs we commonly identify with the New Deal. Indeed he argues that the New Deal’s most far-reaching program was the National Labor Relations Act that enabled individuals to form unions and thereby gain a level playing field in negotiating the terms of their employment. Similarly, he suggests, a key element of the Community of Freedom may be disclosure regulations, such as those proposed for the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, that help individuals better understand their options and thus level the playing field in financial and consumer transactions.

This is not about government doing everything for us. As Dionne argues, that idea passed with the decline of communism, and for good reason. But neither is it about government leaving as isolated individuals to be overrun by corporate interests, a permanent Gilded Age with the few enriched and the many impoverished. Polls show we recognize a need to balance individual liberty with social duty, and history shows we have long tried to achieve that balance – however haltingly and imperfectly – in our eternal quest for “a more perfect Union.”


Happy Saturday!