E.J. Dionne, Jr., Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Ideas Matter in Politics: Conversation with E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; and columnist for the Washington Post; 3/8/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Deciphering the Post - 1960s Political Debate

Two points emerged when I read about your background. One was that during the Vietnam War, your default position was always to get your radical friends to be able to explain their positions so the people in your hometown could understand. Or at least, that was the argument you made to them. The other was that your dissertation as a Rhodes Scholar was on what liberalism got right in the Civil Rights Movement and what it didn't get right, and the impact it had on American politics. Talk about those themes, which run through a lot of your work.

When I look back on the anti-war movement, the thing that always bothered me most was a sense of elitism, which President Nixon and all the other Republicans took advantage of. And they didn't make it up. There was, at times, a contempt for ordinary people. We privileged kids were sitting around this great university, and the people fighting the war were working-class whites, African-Americans. It just pained me because this sense of average people was not the sense I knew to be true from my own experience.

As I said earlier, I enjoyed having kids come down to Fall River, because then these folks are no longer an abstraction, where even as you glorify them in some Marxist theory, you dump on them as bigoted or ignorant or something. People, all people, are complicated, but there's a lot more wisdom there.

I was also interested in the race issue, and the thesis compares Britain and the United States on the race issue. I always thought that there was a problem with theories that say, again, as sort of an Archie Bunker view of history, that the white working class is always hostile to African-Americans, and that there is an enlightened white elite that actually is very tolerant. To me, the real story was that working-class, lower-middle-class whites were usually the people who were in direct conflict with African-Americans. A lot of these conflicts were not because someone was an evil racist; it was because there was a real conflict situation that the wealthier people could buy their way out of. What I talked about in the thesis is how this played out in politics.

I've always been interested in the idea of community. Probably my favorite conservative political philosopher is a man called Robert Nisbet, who wrote a book called The Quest for Community back in the fifties.

And whose book was adopted by radicals in the 1960s.

Yes. I got to meet Nisbet once, and he told me that he hated the New Left, and yet he said the New Left brought his book back into print. And he always had the honesty to acknowledge that.

Community, I thought, was not just an abstraction; it's a resource that people can draw on. That when we talked about conflicts over integration, these were real conflicts over turf and over control of something tangible and valuable, so that we shouldn't have been as shocked as we were when there were conflicts over busing, or block busting, where, in effect, both whites and blacks were exploited; when whites were scared out of the neighborhoods when African-Americans tried to move in. So I thought we'd do better on civil rights if we had a more nuanced sense of what these conflicts were about for the people who were involved in them.

Now, your first book ... Well, we should say you became a reporter, you were at The New York Times, you had assignments in different places in Europe, and then you also covered local politics. And then after a decade, you joined the Washington Post.


And your first book was Why Americans Hate Politics. It addresses some of the things that we've touched upon, namely, that ideas have consequences, but that in American politics things had gone wrong because people in two different groups, the liberals and conservatives, were frozen in their notions about the other side and its positions. book cover Talk a little about that.

That was a fun book to do because it allowed me to go back and look at some history that I had cared about and to try to think about it. It was written in the middle of the first Bush administration. I tried to get a sense of what had gone wrong on the Left and what had gone wrong on the Right to produce the kind of impasse it seemed we were in at that time. The core argument of the book is that politics in America was cast as a series of false choices. That we argued, say, about whether feminism was a good thing, or the family was a good thing. In fact, most Americans think equality between men and women is a good thing, and that the family is a good thing, and that the false choice perspective wasn't a very constructive or helpful way to talk about the problem.

You could go through a whole series of issues. For example, government is good or government is bad. Well, in fact, government can be both. So there was a kind of argument that was not productive, and Clinton took advantage of my argument. He ended up quoting the book quite a lot, which was both wonderful and embarrassing to a reporter who was covering the campaign. I suppose in the end I was happier that he quoted it than ignored it. It was fun. It was a very interesting period for me, because I wasn't yet a columnist, so I was trying to cover this fair and square. And I think I did that. You know, people can look at the stuff and judge. But anyway, it was a fascinating period.

I think Clinton and a number of other politicians grabbed the idea that you had to get out of this set of false choices and into something else, and that that's what the country was looking for. Oddly, Ross Perot had some of that sense, too, in 1992. I'm told a lot of Perot supporters bought my book also, at the time.

In looking at some of your writings, I saw two insights, among others, but I just wanted to focus on two, in describing this gridlock. On the one hand, you emphasize again and again that ideas are important, that they have consequences; and you look at the ideas of the conservatives and the liberals. But in some ways, the ideas become sticky; people don't want to move beyond where they are and empathize, as you said earlier. You quote Christopher Lasch. He talked about getting in the mind of the other side. So in a way, the liberals and the conservatives needed to bring a little of your old hometown into the national debate, in the sense of actually listening to the other side to see what could be learned, so that the country as a whole could get a common position that elevated things.

I think you put that better than I could have.

At the end of the 2000 election, I went to a little town called Gallipolis, Ohio, which is in the Ohio River Valley right over the border from West Virginia. I spent the day there wandering around. One of my favorite stories out of that was I visited the two party headquarters -- they were both facing this lovely square and looking out into the Ohio River. I discovered from the guy running the Democratic headquarters that somebody in town had tried and tried and tried to get through to the Republican headquarters and failed. So he called the Democratic headquarters and said, "Could you get this message up the street to the Republican headquarters?" And I use that story. The Democrats passed the message on, and so the connection was made. It wasn't a case that because that happened, the guy at the Republican headquarters agreed with the guy at the Democrat headquarters; they disagreed fundamentally on a lot of things. It just meant that they were neighbors.

In the kind of politics that's practiced through the mass media, people aren't neighbors, people don't know each other. It's very easy to say truly nasty things about somebody you have never met. Once in a while it's easy to say nasty things about somebody you've actually met, but it's much harder. I think you're seeing that at many different levels of politics. In Congress these days, people are spending less time in Washington, more time in their districts. People don't know each other's families. And, again, it's easier, if your little kid plays soccer or baseball with somebody else's little kid, your personal attitude toward the person is different. Now, that doesn't mean you don't disagree. It doesn't mean you don't fight like crazy for something you care about. But it does change the nature of the relationship with the person, and the nature of the argument.

I like that notion of the stickiness of ideas. When is flexibility sort of a violation of your own principles, and when is flexibility important? I think that there were certain ideas at the time -- the people who were right about civil rights couldn't come to terms with why downscale whites might have certain grievances that were more than just resentments. People who were feminists couldn't understand the strength of the other side's commitment to family. And vice versa, that people on the Right would demonize feminists as if they were proposing that all children be herded into collective care for fifteen years of their lives. It was a parody of the actual position, and that happens a lot in politics.

Another example which you used in your book and which broadens this a little is the example of the Bush campaign, the first President Bush, in his campaign against Michael Dukakis, on the issue of the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom. At one level, this whole discussion was malicious, but on another level, underneath the slogans and the short version of the story lay a real conflict about values. We were avoiding getting into the discussion about one group's concern about their values and the erosion of those values. Talk a little about that.

I thought the '88 campaign should have taught those of us in journalism a lot of lessons. The discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance was an interesting example, because at one level it was a phony issue. Dukakis' interpretation of what free speech meant for Jehovah's Witnesses, who originally brought these cases ...

Dukakis signed legislation, essentially, that banned the Pledge?

No, he vetoed a bill that would have required the Pledge of Allegiance, on the grounds that you couldn't force people like Jehovah's Witnesses, who conscientiously object to that, to recite it in school. And then, of course, the shorthand was, Dukakis vetoed the Pledge of Allegiance. And, actually, oddly, this was a story I ended up, in quotes, "breaking," because Newt Gingrich called me one day, and said, "Hey, I've got this veto message you should look at." What was fascinating is the Dukakis folks did not take it seriously. I thought it was kind of a joke issue. What I thought the press should have done with that is said, "Okay, there is a side to this that is exploitation politics."

But what was Bush getting at? What Bush was getting at is that a lot of parents worried about the messages that their kids were getting in schools, and they wanted their kids not only to learn to read, write, and count, but also wanted them to get a sense of values. And one of the values is a kind of intelligent patriotism. The irony is that the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist, it's actually more of a communitarian document than it is a right-wing document. As reporters, I think it would have been better if we had tried to cover that second level and say, "Okay, what is Bush really getting at here? Why does this issue have traction with people?" Then we might have told an interesting story about the country as well as the campaign.

This is an argument that you've made, that reporters covering campaigns should be investigative reporters of ideas. Namely, what are the ideas of the candidates, and what are the long-term consequences of these ideas? Where do those ideas come from, and what are the implications of the ideas in actual politics?

Right, and it's nice of you to mention that. I use that term "an investigative reporting of ideas" because so much of the political culture is dominated by scandal these days. And this is said with great respect for investigative reporters. We'd be in a lot of trouble if they didn't exist. So it's not to denigrate them, but rather to raise up that bar and to say we should have investigative reporting on that side, but we also need to take more seriously what candidates actually say.

It's a great irony that party platforms, which are always dismissed, turn out to be very good guides to what candidates actually do in office. It is very often the case that the candidate does what he or she says he or she will do, and when they don't do it, it's often because of circumstance, not because of some betrayal of principle. Therefore, if we paid more attention to what candidates actually said, we would give readers more of a sense of what might actually happen, and then also look underneath to what their real commitments are.

For example, I always thought in the 2000 elections that George W. Bush was much more candidly conservative than he was portrayed. Yes, he was very good at using soothing moderate language, but he didn't lie about where he stood, he didn't lie about the big tax cut or the privatization of Social Security. I thought that portraying him as moderate missed the boat. And in an odd way, it was disrespectful to him. I think he was actually a conservative, and made it very clear. We spend so much time on character that we forget that what these guys and women actually believe has real effect on us later on, when they try to put it into practice.

What is the reason for all the static? I mean, we're not a small town, that is, the national election is not like Fall River, where you came from. What, institutionally, do you think is at work that obfuscates rather than clarifies what's going on in a campaign?

There's a wonderful book by two academics, Marty Shefter and Benjamin Ginsberg, called Politics by Other Means. They argue that what we used to settle through elections, we now settle through non-democratic mechanisms; namely, we go to the courts, we have newspaper disclosures, or we have congressional investigations. Now, we've always had those things, but what they argue is the terrain in battle has shifted from trying to win an argument with the public, which is a democratic way, a multi-democratic way to carry out things, and instead we have this other kind of politics.

That kind of politics is then reinforced, I think, by the rise of a certain style of cable television which thrives on having one big story, and the big story is often more effective when it's a scandal story. So instead of carrying out arguments, we basically try to discredit, completely discredit, the person we're arguing with. I use the term "the politics of moral annihilation." That's what we do in politics, they say.

And that, oddly, is one of the reasons why Clinton survived impeachment. I think that the public was furious at Clinton, they thought what he had done was at best dumb and at worst wrong. But they did not like the process through which he was being brought down, and they didn't like the focus. The more focus there was on it, the more sympathy there was for Clinton, not because people liked what he did, but because they didn't like this process.

Is the fact that news and political discussion is becoming entertainment an issue here, in the sense that it's really not about elucidating and educating, but creating a show?

Right, although entertainment should never be undervalued. When we look back to periods in our history where there were high levels of political participation, before the turn of the century, campaigns were mostly entertainment. We shouldn't romanticize ... I'm often guilty of romanticizing my hometown and small towns, and there are problems in that kind of politics, too. But a lot of it was parades, and fascinating invective that was amusing. So I don't denigrate the entertainment. I wish politics were more entertaining to people. I don't think [the problem] is so much entertainment as it is the formula that people have found that is successful for getting viewers. These are rather small audiences on cable shows, but you don't need a huge audience to be successful. So what you're doing is engaging a certain style of political junkie on those channels, and then that begins to refract back to the rest of the coverage on other channels, and even occasionally into newspapers. So it's not so much entertainment that bothers me, it's the almost staged conflict. It's the staged part that is the problem.

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