In his most recent diagnosis of the state of America’s political soul, the journalist and political thinker E.J. Dionne begins with a simple thesis. In the opening pages of Our Divided Political Heart, he asserts that “American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community.” The inevitable “creative tension” between these two commitments, he argues, is the source of ongoing American debate as well as American strength. We need to hold firmly to both values, as difficult as that can be in practice.
But while Dionne states that these two commitments do not simply “face off against each other”—that there is no party of “individualism” aligned against a party of “community,” but rather commitments to each ideal are to be found “in the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans”—in fact, throughout his book Dionne ends up making an argument distinct from his opening thesis. He insists that there is, in fact, one party of individualism today. That party— alternatively “conservatives,” “Republicans,” and the “Tea Party”; they are all named as purveyors of this view—has developed the notion that American prosperity and power derive almost exclusively from the efforts of individuals, and that government is everywhere and always a baleful influence. According to Dionne, Democrats/liberals/progressives, by contrast, maintain the traditionally salutary view that America is a combination of both individualism and community. He purports to offer his book as a corrective to the imbalance currently found in the political views of American conservatives, even as he also triumphantly lauds the current balance between individualism and community to be found in the Democratic Party and embodied in the presidency and person of Barack Obama.