How did America get so politically polarized? E.J. Dionne says to blame the founders.
Starting Monday, America’s two main political parties will gather — separately — in two different cities to talk about two different agendas and nominate two different candidates with two different visions of how to lead the country. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it’s a good reminder of how polarized we are politically.
How did we get this way, all Red State vs. Blue State?
Ask The Washington Post’s left-leaning columnist E.J. Dionne, and he’ll tell you it goes back to our very founding. In his book Our Divided Political Heart, he traces four basic political strands in the braid of our particular American ideology, two of which he identifies as highly individualistic and two of which he describes as highly communitarian. On the side of the individual, you have the mantras of self-improvement espoused by Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman’s dreams of self-realization. On the side of the collective, you have the founders’ commitment to sharing in each other’s hardships and working for the common good. That’s the tension right there, Dionne argues: the individual vs. society. Which set of needs is more important, and more worth fighting for? You see this tension in everything from the battle over gun control to the heated fracas following the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Dionne argues that conservatives have been good at highlighting the parts of American history that emphasize individual rights, while liberals have been less successful at highlighting the parts of history that support the overall welfare of society. But at a talk in Chicago in June, he pointed out how the importance of collective welfare is written right into the Constitution, starting with the preamble “We the People,”and explains why he thinks conservatives have taken the persuit of individualism too far.
You can hear him tease out the founders’ belief in collectivity in the audio above.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. E.J. Dionne spoke at an event presented by Chicago Public Library in June. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.