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Why Americans Hate Politics

A Book Review
League of Women Voters of Minnesota

(This article appeared in the September 1991 edition of the LWV of Minnesota's Voter)

Why Americans Hate Politics, E. J. Dionne, Jr., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1991.

Why do Americans praise democracy to the rest of the world, but treat politics at home like a spectator sport in which half of us do not participate? Why do we lack a sense of common purpose and faith in the ability of our government to act effectively?

E. J. Dionne, an American journalist educated in history at Harvard and Oxford who currently writes for the Washington Post, suggests that Americans have come to hate politics because the two dominant political ideologies-conservatism and liberalism-have failed to offer workable choices in meeting major problems. While we worry about education, social and racial disparities, jobs, health care and crime, our leaders are stuck in an ideological debate rooted in the cultural civil war of the '60s.

Tracing the Strains

A large part of the book traces the development of the various strains of liberalism and conservatism through the last thirty years. By the 1950s the successful use of government to meet the needs of the Depression and World War II seemed to have set American politics permanently on the liberal course, but Dionne says that Daniel Bell declared the End of Ideology too soon.

The perceived threat of Communism, the entry of large numbers of women into the permanent work force, the civil rights movement, the counterculture movement, new sexual mores and the Vietnam War soon provided fresh fuel for political debate. Both conservatives and liberals struggled to define when, how and to what end to use the power of government. All factions claimed that their own vision occupied the high moral ground.

The Sins That Matter

Dionne believes that both sides have pursued doctrine at the expense of governing well. "For conservatives, the sins that matter are personal irresponsibility, flight from family life, sexual permissiveness, the failure of individuals to work hard. For liberals, the greatest sins are intolerance, a lack of generosity toward the needy, narrow-mindedness toward social and racial minorities."

Dionne fords that the moral stances of both sides have led them to ignore valid problems in the application of their ideas to government. Conservatives have used the power of government to aid private industry and the free market, but declined to use it to provide essential supports for the families they claim to value. Liberals insist that the compassionate state has the obligation to offset inequalities among its citizens, but do not define what obligations recipients of help have to the state or what kind of personal values contribute to the public good.

While both agree that the Vietnam War was a disaster, days Dionne, neither has a coherent vision for our international role in the post-communist world. Both sides have failed to understand the real difficulty of the middle class in maintaining their standard of living in the face of a high tax burden. No one dealt with the banking crisis.

Dionne believes that a majority of Americans realize that our problems are complex and that solutions will be, too. We worry about equality for women and how to care for our children, about jobs and the environment. We want the government to provide essential services and to require something from the recipients in return. We want good roads, schools, health care and mass transit without excessive bureaucracy.

Americans have turned away from politics, says Dionne, because government has been ineffective in the areas most relevant to their lives and they have lost the sense that community effort can enhance private life. He thinks liberals have a better chance to lead America into renewed faith in the efficacy of government because they have more trust in the use of public authority to meet problems; but they need to rise above their current policy of appeasing factions to forge a new, more inclusive consensus. That won't be easy.

Fascinating Political History

Dionne's book is heavy reading, but fascinating political and intellectual history. His ideas on the evolution of conservative thought and its application in politics from Goldwater through Nixon to Reagan, and his comparison of the New Left and the counterculture are especially interesting. While you might not agree that a failure of ideology lies at the root of American disaffection with politics, you will surely listen to political rhetoric with a keener ear in the future.

Anne Borgen oversees Voter Service for LWVMN. A member of LWV Golden Valley, she listens to political rhetoric with a keen ear.)

Anne Borgen

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