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Subject: review of Dionne

Date: Mon, 25 Apr 1994 09:55:22 -0500
From: "Laura Long" 
Subject: review of Dionne


Reviewed by Laura Long,


Illinois State University 4/25/94

Contrary to our democratic ideals, the United States is not a classless society, and Americans are just as snobbish as any English duke you might happen to meet.  But we seem to have gotten it backwards.  Rather than looking down on the working class, we glorify our manual laborers and despise our politicians.  Perhaps our prejudices stem from our perceptions of what each group contributes to society.  We could get along without politicians but not garbage collectors.  In WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS, E.J. Dionne examines the reasons behind the low status of American politicians and the American disenchantment with politics in general, coming to the conclusion that we dislike politics because it is no longer relevant to our daily lives.

Dionne perceives both the Republican and the Democratic Party as caught up in a battle over cultural issues left over from the 1960s, especially race relations and feminism.  Such issues are still relevant to today's society, but the majority of Americans seem to have come to a general consensus about them--that racism is bad and women are equal to men--while politicians remain entrenched in their 1960s philosophies, not even troubling to adjust such philosophies to the climate of the 1990s.  For instance, politicians still argue over "family values" and women's role in the family.  The reality is that, whether it is right or not, women are working outside the home and are not likely to stop anytime soon.  Rather than debating IF women should work outside the home, politicians should recognize that women ARE working outside the home and deal with the new circumstances, like increased demand for child care, that this change in society creates.

Many cultural issues just do not seem as pressing to the average American as, say, crime levels.  Extended arguments over flag burning do not mean much if you're out of work.  As George Bush discovered in the 1994 election, "It's the economy, stupid." The 1994 National Republican Convention exemplifies Dionne's thesis; Republican leaders attacked homosexuality while rank and file Republicans worried about health care premiums.  But Dionne claims the Republican leadership has a vested interest in keeping the cultural fires burning.  By promoting itself as the bastion of morality, the Republican Party can hold together its coalition of upper middle class voters (who are loyal because of economic policy) and working class voters (who share in the traditional value system).  If the issues were economically issues, the Republican coalitions would fall apart because the rich and poor often have vastly different interests.

But if the Republicans have avoided addressing the issues in a meaningful way, so have the Democrats.  Since the 1960s, Democrats have moved farther from their economic appeal to working class voters toward upper class liberals who are pursuing an agenda of social equality.  Many of these liberals have gotten so caught up in racial equality that they cannot view employment and housing concerns of working class whites as anything but racism. "Limousine liberals" who push forward social policies without considering the economic impact of such programs have alienated many working class liberals.

What all this amounts to is a lot of posturing and very little problem solving.  Both parties concentrate on looking like they are doing something, but there is little in the way of meaningful outcomes.  Yes, politicians can tell their adherents that they did not back down on the death penalty vote, but in the meantime, crime is not reduced.  The morality of the death penalty has been debated to, well, death; we need a fresh approach to the problem of crime. Whether or not the death penalty will deter criminals is in many ways irrelevant because it does not address the motives behind the majority of crimes or criminals.  While both parties have promoted valuable ideas and policies, such as racial justice and the importance of hard work, what we face at the end of the 1990s is a drought of ideas.

Dionne suggests finding common ground.  Strict ideological persistence makes it seem as though there were really only two solutions, one at each end of the spectrum.  Instead, politicians from both parties could work together to find creative solutions with which both sides could live.  The earned income tax credit for the working poor is a prime example because it satisfies the liberal goal of helping the needy and the conservative ethic of hard work.  Another example would be stricter child support enforcement, again addressing the liberal desire to help the needy and the conservative desire to enforce personal responsibility. Dionne is not telling people to abandon their values; he is instructing them to be flexible so that at least some of their values can be translated into action.

Dionne displays his prowess as a compromiser when he addresses what is perhaps the most uncompromisable issue:  abortion.  While Americans differ sharply on the morality of abortion, a large majority believe too many are performed.  By limiting the situations in which abortions can be performed, and more importantly, by addressing the societal problems that lead to unwanted pregnancies, Dionne believes the abortion stalemate can be broken.  Dionne hits the mark when he emphasizes realizing the complexity and underlying causes of abortion as a way of addressing it.  If steps are not taken to alter these conditions, abortions will continue whether they are legal or not.

Dionne tends to be vague when it comes time to make concrete suggestions.  He is good at identifying the problems with our politics but does not specifically explain how politicians could be induced to compromise and be creative.  He gives politicians no real reason to change their behavior because voters have tended to become apathetic rather than angry over this new "politics of false choices."  Besides, politicians are not in much of a position to moderate their views because they are beholden to political action committees and thus special interests.  To an extent, pluralism goes awry.  The groups most concerned with a particular issue are the groups who are most involved in the decision making process, but while they provide much needed information and insight about a particular bill, they also tend to radicalize the process.  Citizens with less at stake are more willing to compromise but have little time or interest in lobbying Congress for something they don't really care about.  Their moderating influence never makes itself felt.  Dionne has a masterful understanding of the structures that make politics work but ignores them when he offers advice on how to make Americans love politics.