As the country enters the 2012 presidential election, the heart of American politics seems divided. In light of this struggle for a united nation and a national identity, Washington Post Opinion Writer E. J. Dionne joined the President’s Forum Speaker Series to engage the campus in a dialogue about the source of this conflict – and where we, as Americans, can find hope for the future.
“We are thrilled to have E.J. on campus,” remarked President Mark D. Gearan. “As one of the keenest observers of national and international affairs, he has an extraordinary background to take advantage of particularly in light of the current political season, Supreme Court decisions regarding health care and issues of government accountability.”
In his address titled, “Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea and the 2012 Election,” Dionne spoke of the frustration many Americans are feeling in regards to the current state of politics – and the politicians who are representing the nation. Having served as a journalist and correspondent nationally and abroad, Dionne has seen American politics from a number of vantage points. “There is a fear of decline running through the country – and we have gone through this cycle again and again,” said Dionne. “However, I am an optimist about our country. I believe that our genius lies in our exceptional capacity for self-correction.”
Perhaps one of America’s most telling signs of a bright future is that we do not feel that we have fallen to a place from which we can never arise. “We always assume we are in a place in which we can decline,” explained Dionne.
Our fundamental problem, Dionne believes, stems from our disagreement about what our history actually says. “We conclude that behind every crisis – economic crisis, global distribution of power – lurks a crisis of the soul.”
Despite his positive outlook, Dionne acknowledged that there does seem to be an ugliness gripping the country that has taken the form of one side making a determined effort to block the progress of the other – independent of actual ideology. “This has resulted in a growing sense that our political system is so polarized that even good ideas are blocked,” said Dionne. “We have lost a sense of national balance that in turn reflects a loss of historical memory.”
In Dionne’s eyes, this begs the question: what is it philosophically and spiritually that makes us Americans?
For Dionne, it is the healthy tension between American’s love of the individual and reverence for community that truly unite us – and it is this that we should build upon when moving forward. “Both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans,” explained Dionne.
“Both are essential to the American story and both are essential to the American strength. We do not have to be all one thing or all another.”
Looking back on our history, the country’s strengths have remained the same, and it is on these strengths Dionne believes we should rely as we debate what it means to be American. “Our influence has been enhanced by our economic might, our democratic norms, our intellectual creativity – it is the product of our constant struggle for liberty as we build and rebuild community,” said Dionne. “This is a nation that is bound to produce a lively life of the mind.”
Dionne also directly addressed the students in the audience, asking that they do their part to rebuild the community of the country; it is this current generation of students, said Dionne, that is the next great reforming generation in our country. Dionne cited the generation’s diversity, as well as their passionate individuality coupled with their ardent communitarian views as major assets.
“Politics is always something we do together. It is never just an individual sport,” said Dionne. “I think America is in search of a common good, a good that we can share. We must all struggle to create this.”
Dionne writes a twice-weekly opinion column for the Washington Post and is a regular contributor for the paper’s PostPartisan blog. In addition to serving as a government professor at Georgetown University, he is also a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. As a political commentator, Dionne has been featured on numerous National Public Radio programs, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A prolific writer, Dionne has also authored four books.