That dismissal would come at a cost: It would deprive those on the American right of an opportunity to grapple with an earnest effort to reach across the political divide. Rather than publish another smack-down polemic, most of which could be entitled “You’re a Moron If You Don’t Agree With Me,” Dionne takes his readers on a richly researched tour of history to restore the broken consensus about who we are and what America stands for.
“Building a new consensus,” he says at the outset, “will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continue to insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives and dominates our story.” Our country, he says, “has witnessed the rise of a radical form of individualism that simultaneously denigrates the role of government and the importance most Americans attach to the quest for community.” Dionne believes that figures as diverse as Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt would have been appalled by the understanding — or, rather, misunderstanding — of what “the American System” is all about. And over the next 200-plus pages, Dionne marshals an array of historians to reinforce this central point.
Where did this misunderstanding come from? For Dionne, its locus is the late 19th century, the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism was at its peak and when the Supreme Court was turning the 14th Amendment on its head, substituting corporate coddling for the goal of using federal power to protect citizens from abuse at the hands of the states. For most of our history, he argues, and especially over most of the 20th century, America has been guided by “the long consensus” — from the first Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan — that while it would be wrong “to deny the power of individualism in our history . . . it is just as misleading to ignore our yearnings for a strong common life and our republican quest for civic virtue.”
His finds evidence for this coexistence in the Declaration of Independence, which ends with its signers pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” He finds it in Federalist paper 27, where Hamilton writes of a federal government engaged in “matters of internal concern.” He finds it in Lincoln’s signing of a land-grant-college bill in the middle of the Civil War.
Along the way, Dionne provides a liberal’s analysis of why constitutional “originalism,” as advanced most notably by Justice Antonin Scalia, is misplaced; why historians of another age badly misread Reconstruction; why populism does not deserve its bad name. And he consistently frames his argument as a respectful, if deep, disagreement with the tea party and its allies, while chastising his fellow liberals for their condescension.