American politics:a 'false choice'between two extreme positions

June 23, 1991|By Tom Fiedler | Tom Fiedler,Knight-Ridder News Service

WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS. E. J. Dionne Jr. Simon & Schuster. 430 pages. $22.95. In 1988, The New York Times sent E. J. Dionne Jr. to crisscross the country as the paper's chief correspondent in the presidential campaign. Like so many political reporters, he came back with enough information to pound out a book.

The good news is that this book is not like any other produced by that class of '88. Mr. Dionne's is not a fly-on-the-wall report of who did what to whom, the kind of campaign insider's account pioneered by Theodore White and perfected by the Jules Witcover-Jack Germond duet.

Fact is, Dionne scarcely delves into the campaign except when making a larger point. And that is precisely this book's strength.

In a field that many of us believe is horribly barren of new thinking (or any thinking), "Why Americans Hate Politics" is devoted to political ideas -- ideas from the recent past and ideas for the future, ideas about the growing chasm between thoughtful Americans and the process they once held dear.

The folks who have come to hate politics are the ones who, perhaps 25 years ago, saw it as the way to bring to reality their belief in civil rights, in ending a war in Vietnam, in achieving gender equality, or in cleaning the environment. Today, many sit on the sidelines, too disgusted with the candidates to find excitement or too weary of the 30-second sloganeering and negativity to listen to empty debates.

They are the "liberals" on cultural issues still worried about the impact of smut on their children; they are the "conservatives" on fiscal policy who nonetheless back spending for job skills or educational benefits to the poor.

But their mix-and-match world view seems to have no place in the American political debate, which insists on dividing all into two camps with little or no common ground, says Mr. Dionne, now a Washington Post writer.

"The great American middle felt cheated by our politics for most of the last thirty years," he writes. "In liberalism it saw a creed that demeaned its values; in conservatism it saw a doctrine that shortchanged its interests."

Mr. Dionne's premise is that today's political debate remains hostage to the explosive divisions of the 1960s, the decade that saw the rise of litmus-test politics with its limited tolerance for complexities.

In this environment, if you don't favor abortion, you must be a sexist; if you believe welfare recipients should work for their benefits, you must be racist; if you believe a woman has the right to be treated just like her equally skilled male colleagues in the business world, you must be anti-family.

The result is that today's politics offers what Mr. Dionne calls a "false choice," a choice between two such extreme positions that neither is seen as relevant to most Americans. No wonder that on election day they tune out rather than turn out, Mr. Dionne says.

No question that Mr. Dionne makes a compelling case, one that reflects his credentials as both a scholar -- a doctorate from Oxford -- and a political junkie.

But if there is a flaw to be noted in the book, it lies in its frequently academic tone. The reader who doesn't come to it with a thorough grounding in all the "isms" of our age will need fortitude to make it to the final chapters, which sum up Mr. Dionne's ideas in a much more readable and engaging way.

Mr. Dionne goes to Herculean lengths to exhaustively quote the ideas of others, both the famous and the obscure. This may be good scholarship, but it often reads as tiresome, unnecessary and confusing.

But this is quibbling. What more than redeems the book is that it reminds us that politics isn't just about demagogues and elections. It is first, foremost and fundamentally about ideas and values that contend for supremacy in the democratic marketplace.

Or, more accurately, it should be about such ideas.

The problem is that the dominant sides in the political process have tied themselves so tightly in their 1960s-issue straitjackets that the ideas they espouse do not connect to most of our lives.

Instead, we want a politics that recognizes that we are part liberal, part conservative, part progressive, part traditional. Like the joke that a conservative is a liberal with a daughter in high school, we are a complex bundle of philosophies that scream out to be addressed in the political debate.

All this leads to Mr. Dionne's conclusion that what America needs is a politics of the "new center," where most of us dwell.

Many voters are already fashioning their own center in jerry-built style, he contends. This is why they elect a Republican to the White House, a Democrat to Congress. Voters in Vermont, Connecticut and Alaska went further by electing independents.

All this, Mr. Dionne says, "is a demand for an end to ideological confrontations that are largely irrelevant to the 1990s. It is a demand for steadiness, for social peace, for broad tolerance, for more egalitarian economic policies, for economic growth."

I share Mr. Dionne's conclusion about what needs be done before we can again approach politics with the spirit of past decades.

But he leaves one critical question unanswered: How, pray tell, do we get from here to there?

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