Magazine article The Christian Century

Liberalism after 9/11: E.J. Dionne on What's Right about the Left

Magazine article The Christian Century

Liberalism after 9/11: E.J. Dionne on What's Right about the Left

Article excerpt

FOR THE PAST decode E. J. Dionne has written a column on politics for the Washington Post that has been syndicated to more than 90 other newspapers. An unabashedly liberal Catholic, Dionne has trenchantly analyzed the policies and strategies of left and right while calling for a revival of progressive politics in the tradition of FDR's New Deal.

Dionne, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has taken a special interest in the place of religion in politics, chairing the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and editing (with John Dilulio Jr.) What's God Got to Do with the American Experiment? (2000). His 1991 book Why Americans Hate Politics was nominated for a National Book Award.

Dionne's latest book, Stand Up and Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps and the Politics of Revenge (Simon & Schuster), describes the partisan tone of politics in recent years and the failures of liberals to press their concerns forcefully or persuasively. We spoke with him about the political landscape and political possibilities.

You suggest in your recent book that the language of political discussion has shifted to the right in recent years. Can you give some examples?

The largest sign of this shift is the invocation of market language to justify almost everything. Market language has displaced moral language. The example I cite in the book is from Ann Lewis, who used to work at the Clinton White House. She said, "We used to call for immunizing little children against disease. Now we call for investments in human capital." She was poking fun at this language, but her point was serious: if even immunizing kids has to he defended through market language, the progressive idea is in deep trouble. Progressives begin to sound like people who are afraid of their own moral arguments.

A second example is the way in which progressives, especially Democratic politicians, have been reluctant to defend government's legitimate role. Recall President Clinton's declaration that the era of big government is over. Well, if you're in favor of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, a strong Securities and Exchange Commission and a whole lot of other things, including national defense, you are already for a pretty big government. By pretending that you're not, you're being untrue to yourself and you're not framing the right kind of argument. The proper argument is not an abstract debate over the size of government but a debate over how much government we want and need, whose side government is on and what interests government serves.

A third shift in language is evident in the constant effort by progressives to sound tough. There's a point to this effort, because liberalism has never been the same since Humprey Bogart was replaced by Woody Allen and Alan Alda as the symbol of what it means to be a liberal. Bogart was a symbol of a kind of tough liberalism rooted as much in solidarity as in kindness or compassion. There's nothing wrong with kindness and compassion, but solidarity is a stronger virtue.

As soon as liberals enter an argument about toughness, they lose. If the one side says, "You're soft," and you say, "No, I'm not," the argument's over before it begins.

When liberals seek to talk about whose interests government should serve, they can expect to hear conservatives complain that they are fomenting "class warfare."

Whenever somebody yells "class warfare," it's important to ask who began the war. Is it class warfare to point out that a tax program is tilted toward the very wealthy? Is the tax program itself a symbol of class warfare?

The great sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once referred to free elections in democracies as the playing out of the democratic class struggle. There are interests at stake in elections.

Conservatives never tire of playing class warfare on culture issues. They try to argue that liberals are out of touch or are elitists. …

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