Politics and false choices

Monday Book Reviews

August 12, 1991|By Erica E. Gum

WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS. By E. J. Dionne. Simon & Schuster. 430 pages. $22.95. WHY DO Americans hate politics? E. J. Dionne Jr. doesn't blame the people. He blames both liberal and conservative politicians who have made political issues into a series of false choices, preventing the nation from discussing, let alone settling the questions which most challenge it.

False choices are issues with great emotional, but little substantial content, like 1988's Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance. George Bush may have raised the false issues, but Michael Dukakis didn't counter with more substantive ones like the savings and loan crisis. Consequently, half of this nation's eligible voters stayed home, disgusted with both candidates.

But Bush's symbolic and negative campaign worked on the half that voted, because it played to the political climate. The bulk of Dionne's book explains how this climate formed.

The crisply written narrative begins with the rise of the New Left, recounts the failures of modern liberalism, then moves on to the emergence, successes and stagnation of the Right. Tracing these political movements, he identifies how and where political substance was replaced by political symbol, who did it, what they did, and why.

For the most part, who, what, where, how and why is untarnished by Dionne's willingly professed liberalism. Except for few, but still unnecessary, digs at conservatives, he checks his ideology until the final chapter.

A few hundred pages is brief for a political history. Dionne achieves brevity without being cursory, provided his reader is aware of political figures like William F. Buckley Jr., Michael Harrington and Stokley Carmichael. While Buckley and a few other prominent individuals dart in and out of the pages, most have their page or so and disappear. As a good newspaperman (presently of the Washington Post, formerly of the New York Times), Dionne includes only the most essential detail, supplemented often by a pithy quote.

Although few people recur, several themes do. The most prominent is the politics of race. Overtly in the civil rights movement and the backlash to it, and covertly twined with middle class economic insecurity and fear of crime, race has played a role in nearly every national election. Willie Horton may have stirred racial prejudice, but Dionne points out that he was also a potent symbol for the legitimate concerns of lower- and middle-class whites. Liberals who have dismissed these concerns about economics and crime as fig leaves for racism delude themselves, according to the author.

Dionne's treatment of race demonstrates the depth of his research and the care of his thought. However, his book still suffers from two flaws. The first is serious: He ignores the fact that the American political system favors the two major political parties. Electoral laws and simple arithmetic make it extremely difficult for third parties to offer viable alternative candidates. By not acknowledging this possible explanation for voter disenchantment, Dionne leaves his diagnosis of the problems in American politics open to attack.

If the first flaw lies in the diagnosis, the second, far less serious, lies in the proposed cure. Dionne devotes the last 25 pages to his solution -- the policies he thinks would breed consensus and better government. But Dionne maintains neither his journalistic style nor his credibility. He comes across like a liberal Pollyanna. After spending many pages describing the plight of those liberals who propose government solutions to societal ills, it is curious why the liberal Dionne does not seem to have learned very much.

Overall, even if you don't buy his solutions, or if you suspect his diagnosis of America's political ills is incomplete, E. J. Dionne still makes a worthy contribution to the genre of political commentary. He provides a credible explanation for the role of race in recent American politics, enmeshed in a highly readable political history. If you care at all about American politics, this book is well worth your time.

Erica Gum writes from Odenton.

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