What happened to E.J. Dionne? Dionne, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post and Catholic intellectual, has become a representative of arguably the most serious problem with the left: the refusal to engage arguments from the other side. This leads to arguments that are repetitive, propagandistic, and frequently unmoored from reason and common sense. And in Dionne’s case, it didn’t have to be this way. He was once one of America’s most interesting journalists.
Dionne gained his reputation in 1991, with the publication of his book Why Americans Hate Politics. In it, he dissected American politics since the 1960s, concluding that Americans hated politics because they were offered “false choices” by both the left and the right. Citizens didn’t want people to starve, yet recognized that large welfare payments could make people lazy. They wanted abortion to be legal, but with restrictions. Vietnam made them doubt foreign wars, but they retained respect for the military. America was a both/and, not an either/or country.
Reread today, Why Americans Hate Politics still seems fresh, not least because of Dionne’s ability to honestly engage the arguments of conservatives — and to criticize the left. Here he is on the New Left of the 1960s:
Yet as the 1960s went on and the political energies of the New Left focused more and more on cultural issues and the war, the movement began defeating its own purposes. Anger at the American government was transformed into hatred of American society. Avant-garde culture and morality created a gulf between the left and the mass of Americans who favored social reform but lived by a traditional moral code. Thus, when the theory of “participatory democracy” was applied, in an admittedly imperfect way, to the Democratic Party, it ended up concentrating power into the hands of a culturally “advanced” upper middle class. This hardly advanced the cause of democracy, since the upper middle class already had much power in both parties.
Dionne then examines the rise of the neoconservatives, liberals who became disenchanted with the excesses of the New Left and the counterculture. And to Dionne, they often had good cause to be. “The tragedy for liberals is that they had much to learn from the neoconservatives…. In particular, the neoconservatives were right in seeing virtue as a legitimate goal of government policy — even if they were wrong in using virtue as a battering ram against democracy, which they sometimes did.” Furthermore, the neoconservatives “were right in insisting that a democratic system depended on citizens capable of exercising discipline and self-restraint — even if their fears about the assaults of the New Left and the counterculture on such values were exaggerated.” Dionne then ends the chapter with this hammer blow:
Over time, liberals were no longer certain what kind of family was worth encouraging; they feared welfare programs that required recipients to work; they nearly always saw understandable worries about law and order as covert forms of racism; and they came to believe that almost all doctrines emphasizing the value of local community were indistinguishable from the phony “states’ rights” argument used by segregationists.
This is not to give the impression that Dionne was a conservative. One of the more salient connections he draws in Why Americans Hate Politics is between the counterculture of the 1960s, with their calls for no restrictions, and the perils of consumer capitalism. While acknowledging that the government made blunders, he defends the Great Society. But through Why Americans Hate Politics his argument remains grounded in reasoned intelligence and common sense — if not what Catholics like Dionne (and myself) call the natural law (more on that later). It’s important to strive to improve society, Dionne concludes, and to use government in a reasonable way towards that end. But human beings are imperfect and utopia not possible.
In Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne is particularly strong on racial issues. While writing that black rage over centuries of racism was understandable, he defends whites who in the 1960s and ’70s were frightened of the pathologies that had taken over the inner cities. In 1988, Republican presidential candidate George Bush toured flag factories and ran ads pointing out that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, had allowed Willie Horton out on a furlough, where he attacked again. Dukakis criticized the Republican campaign of “flag and furloughs,” but Dionne was having none of it: “”But ‘flags and furloughs’ spoke precisely to the doubts that many Americans developed about liberalism from 1968 onward. In the eyes of many of their traditional supporters, liberal Democrats seemed to oppose personal disciplines — of family and tough law enforcement, or community values and patriotism — that average citizens, no less than neoconservative intellectuals, saw as essential to holding a society together.” Furthermore, “black separatism…encouraged the most subtle kind of racism: the refusal to admit that certain values were color-blind and worth promoting in the ghetto no less than outside.”
On abortion, Dionne called for compromise. Most American wanted abortion to be legal, but not in the entire nine months. In Why Americans Hate Politics, Dionne endorsed restriction on late term abortions — a stance he would not defend in later years.
Over time, Dionne lost the wisdom of his former self. He seemed to have become unhinged during the disputed 2000 election, then bedazzled by Barack Obama. After 2000 and then 2008, Dionne grew more and more unreasonable and more dogmatic — not to mention lazy. The difference is clear in the 2004 introduction to the reissue of Why Americans Hate Politics. In fact, it’s possible to mark Dionne’s transformation from level-headed Dr. Jekyll to a demented left-wing Mr. Hyde down to the paragraph. In the introduction, Dionne offers a brisk update of the thirteen years that had elapsed since Why Americans Hate Politics was first published. The summary is mostly sound and lucid. Dionne notes that President Clinton balanced the budget even while raising taxes. Crime fell during his presidency. Al Gore endorsed government assistance to religious charities. Most Americans, while disgusted with President Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal, were against impeachment. And so on.
Then comes the 2000 election. And off come the wheels. When the election result was disputed, “the toughness inside the Republican part (and among allied organizations and political commentators) reemerged.” This made things difficult for liberals, because — hold on — “Democrats were slow to come to Gore’s defense as he demanded recounts that were perfectly typical of very close elections — and seemed all the more justified in Florida, given the disenfranchisement of so many Democratic voters.”
It’s like watching a skilled surgeon’s hands begin to shake. Suddenly, the Rhodes scholar and Post eminence is churning our facts that simply aren’t true. Democrats were anything but slow in backing Al Gore, and the recounts the former vice president asked for were confined to heavily democratic precincts. From there, like some horrible journalistic domino theory, Dionne’s integrity begins a rapid collapse. He claims that President Bush, the victor in a close election, blew his mandate to government from the center by cutting taxes for the wealthy. After 9/11, Dionne writes, Bush squandered the opportunity to work with Democrats: “Bush had opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security when Democrats had proposed it after 9/11. But when questions finally arose over what Bush had done (or failed to do) in the pre 9/11 period, he changed the subject by embracing the Democrats’ idea.” Worse, “Bush accused the Democrats of being insufficiently tough in their approach to the war on terror.” And, of course, there’s Iraq: “the administration failed to find the weapons of mass destruction it had insisted Saddam held in abundance.”
The old E.J. Dionne, the E.J. Dionne of Why Americans Hate Politics, would never have written those sentences, or been that lazy. Without losing his liberal bona fides, he could have presented the full story: Bush cut taxes, yes — and the economy boomed. He created the Department of Homeland Security not out of some fear of criticism that he had not done enough to prevent 9/11, but because he wanted to protect the country. President Bush never accused the Democrats of being insufficiently tough in the war on terror — although after Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced “this war is lost,” he would have had cause. He criticized Democrats for voting for the war in Iraq — a resolution to use force passed handily in the House and Senate — and then turning against the war when things got tough. Dionne doesn’t reveal any of this. The author of Why Americans Hate Politics once cited history books, policy journals, newspapers, intellectuals and regular people, creating a mosaic that was very close to reality. In one part of his books, he quotes a woman in the 1960s who says she is against the Vietnam War — but that the protestors and professors are even worse. These days Dionne won’t even admit that most intelligence organizations in the world, not just the U.S. and Britain, thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
Just as disappointing is Dionne’s weakness on race. In 2008 he fell hard for Barack Obama, giving the future president a pass the former he never would have offered Stokely Carmichael and other black radical from the 1960s. In 2008, Dionne delivered a love letter to Obama in the form of an essay in the New Republic. Obama’s connection to racist preacher Jeremiah Wright had just broken, bringing Obama what Dionne called “the week from hell.” Then Dionne offers this: “Obama surely must feel, at the very least, the bitter irony: Few recent presidential candidates have spent more time wrestling with the politics of religion.” The old Dionne would not have seen the irony, either — because there is none. Obama entered politics as a young man in urban Chicago, a center for black nationalism. The blowback he eventually got from his friendship with Reverend Wright was the simple result of that. There was nothing ironic about it at all. And the old E.J. Dionne would have seen that. Rather than a soporific mash note, he could have published a compelling examination of the failures of the Black Power movement — and how whites were right to reject it. When professor Skip Gates of Harvard was arrested by a white police officer for being disorderly, causing a national debate, Dionne called for an end to “racial score-settling.” The old E.J. would have had the guts to call Professor Gates out on his Black Power resentment. He would have passed a judgment.
A couple years ago, Dionne was on television debating conservative Tucker Carlson. Abortion came up, and Dionne argued that most Americans were for keeping it legal. Yes, Carlson, said — but with no restrictions? Dionne sat there silently, and Carlson pushed: None? He repeated. No restrictions at all? Dionne sat, waiting for the moderator to change the subject.
In the journey from journalist to dogmatist, Dionne has become a shrill and predictable writer. He has traded the integrity of the investigative journalist and intellectual for the frisson of the propagandist. This is especially dispiriting because Dionne is a Catholic. What has made writing by Catholics from G.K. Chesterton to Anne Rice so compelling is the tension between reason and political correctness, between the natural law and modernism. The natural law, Catholics believe, is the law that the conscience dictates — the law that tells everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, that rape and murder are intrinsically evil. According to St. Ambrose, who is quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the conscience is “God’s herald and messenger,” guiding human beings about right and wrong. And while the conscience is a proper guide, Catholics also believe that it also needs to be developed; this is done by adhering to the Gospels and the teachings of the Church. Catholics further believe that God has revealed himself through human reason. In Dionne’s early writing this tension was evident, and made for compelling reading. A good liberal, he was willing to call America on racism, excessive capitalism, and anti-government zealotry. A reasonable man and faithful Catholic, he was equally able to challenge the left on reverse racism, condescension towards working class whites, and abortion fanaticism. Now he’s just another hack.