With the 2012 general election just more than a week away, amid what arguably has been the most contentious of presidential campaigns, E.J. Dionne Jr. brought a sense of historical perspective — and just the right amount of levity — to the Western Michigan University campus.
Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, author and self-professed progressive, was the first in a series of speakers sponsored by the University Center for the Humanities. His talk Thursday night, “The Election and Our Divided Political Heart,” was part history lesson, part humorous reflection, and part honest commentary.
He also promised a prediction for the outcome of this election.
Most of all, Dionne drove home the importance of America’s balance between the individual and the community.
“We Americans are a very confusing people, and perhaps, most especially, to ourselves,” he said to a full house at WMU’s Dalton Center Recital Hall. “The self-portraits we create are often contradictory, the product of our culture, our movies, our art, our literature, all seem to celebrate conflicting values.
“Is our country better personified by the communitarian spirit of Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Dionne speculated, “or by the individualism of Clint Eastwood in ‘Dirty Harry’?” Dionne also mentioned, tongue in cheek, “the Eastwood we’ve seen at the Republican convention.”
Dionne is no stranger to reporting politics. His Post column is syndicated in newspapers throughout the country, and his weekly appearance on NPR’s “All Things Considered”, aside his friend and foil David Brooks of the New York Times, have placed him in a good position from which to view and assess the political landscape.
His latest book, “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent,” is, contrary to its opening line, a hopeful book about the state of politics.
Dionne said the fact that we talk about our decline is in itself a statement of the high regard we have for ourselves.
“Out of our fears of decline come some of the greatest moments in American history,” he said. “These feelings of decline usually start in specific crises in foreign policy or economics — or, as was the case in the Bush administration in 2008, both of these,” he said.
“We debate our history, we debate history’s lessons, and we disagree about what those lessons are.”
He cited President Obama’s 2008 campaign as an example of one such moment. “I recall the posters carrying the single word, ‘Hope’ and the ‘Change we can believe in’ slogan,” he said. “I’ve always thought that the word ‘believe’ was as important as the word ‘change’ in that slogan.”
The Tea Party, he said, came along and “also responded to this sense of spiritual crisis by reaching back into American history, by reaching back to our founders and to our Constitution, and my book in some way is inspired by the Tea Party even as it is very critical of the Tea Party’s view of who we are as Americans, and also of their take on the American story.”
In that vein, Dionne puts the onus on people of a progressive political streak to help restore the balance disturbed by the Tea Party proponents.
“Those of us who are on the progressive side of politics need to have an argument with them — a civil argument, but an open argument,” Dionne said. “I think we progressives have been too willing to leave the argument about American history to the right, too reluctant to embrace the American story, which I believe is a progressive story.”
As he does in his book, Dionne himself reaches into history for some reflection.
“Should our conservatives be the only people who carry around copies of the Constitution in their pockets?” he asked. “Why do we leave the Declaration of Independence to them? The most moral-focused people in our history did not do that.”
In no way incidental, Dionne asked his audience, “What’s the first word of the Constitution of the United States?” The crowd’s response was reverberating.
“It’s ‘We, the people,” he said. “Not even ‘We, the persons of the United States’.” And Dionne finished reciting the document’s opening stanza (including the part about promoting “the general welfare. Yes, welfare is right there in the constitution”). It speaks of a ‘We’ country; the Declaration of Independence is a perfect reflection of the balance between individualism and community. It begins by describing the unalienable rights that come from our creator … but in the last paragraph of the declaration, the founders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. They understood we cannot protect individual liberty unless we act together.”
Dionne posited the current political climate, however vitriolic it might seem to us, against the politics that wrought the foundations of our democracy.
This presidential campaign has seen its share of negativity, stemming from such hot-button topics as the Affordable Health Care Act, dubbed by many as Obamacare.
Again Dionne turned an eye to history.
“I remind you that the first American version of socialized medicine was signed into law in 1798 by that great conservative president, John Adams,” he said. “Adams signed a law creating the Federal Marine Hospital Service, which funded hospitals across the country to treat sailors who were sick and injured on the job.
As for his prediction?
“My view is that President Obama is going to get re-elected,” he said. “I think that partly on the basis of where the polls have been over the long period of time, particularly in Ohio. I am an Ohio fundamentalist — sorry, Michigan — but I do think they are both running for president of Ohio.”
He offered an alternate possibility, however: that Obama could win the electoral vote and Romney the popular vote.
“And I’m sure our Republican friends would be just as insistent that the Electoral College counts just as they were back in the