E.J. Dionne on the Supreme Court, cable news and evangelicals

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Only a few hours after the Supreme Court declared Obama's health-insurance mandate constitutional, we spoke with Washington Post columnist and NPR commentator E.J. Dionne, who was at the Aspen Ideas Festival promoting his book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. "I love Aspen," said the characteristically enthusiastic Dionne. "It reminds me of my favorite new deal slogan: 'If you want to live like a Republican, vote Democratic.'"

Dionne will be coming down from the mountains to read from his book at Tattered Cover Colfax on July 2.Taking an approach that emphasized discourse over defeatism, Dionne was candid on issues ranging from student loans to the market vs. the state to why gay marriage should be a conservative argument.

Westword: Obviously, the big news of the day is the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act; how do you feel that this will affect Obama's campaign? E.J. Dionne: I think the best way to see how this affects his campaign is to try to imagine what it would be like had it gone the other way. There would have been no way to spin yourself out of having your major domestic achievement declared unconstitutional. So I think Obama avoided a huge catastrophe. It's also a victory for the long-term goal of universal health-care coverage; because if the whole structure of this had been knocked out, there would be nothing to build on in the future, and starting from scratch on health care is really, really hard. So this was important for Obama's reelection, but it's also really important to leading to some kind of decent social policy. You've written quite a bit about the Supreme Court lately, pointing out how blatantly divided they've become along party lines. How do you think that happens being that -- unlike politicians who have to pander to a base -- the court is not subject to elections?

In some ways this goes to what I argue in the book: that there is a large philosophical argument going on in the country that is reflected in the judiciary. The conservatives, I think, have a very clear agenda to move jurisprudence back to where it was before what legal scholars call the New Deal settlement. And after the court-packing fight [of 1937], the Supreme Court really operated under the principle that its task was to get out of Congress's way when it tried to solve social problems through legislation, the idea being that the one place where democratic means cannot always work right is in protecting minorities -- being that they lack the votes to secure their rights.

Conservatives have opposed this for a long time, and they refer to what they call the constitution in exile: which is really what the Gilded Age courts did, when they knocked down every effort at legislating on social matters. So I think in general the conservative legal project is to roll back as much of the New Deal settlement as they can.

Political division is the central theme of your book, arguing that political parties have segregated themselves today in an unprecedented way. Yet historically 1968 -- with the assassinations, the riots, the drugs, the war -- has traditionally been known as the most divided time in modern western history. Do you feel that it's even worse today?

In certain respects we were more fundamentally divided back then because we were at war, and there was a new approach to a whole series of cultural issues; it often goes under the headline "sex, drugs and rock and roll." But the form of division we have now is worse for government, because the ideological divisions are almost completely mapped onto our party divisions. The structural divisions today in our politics is worse for governing than the more radical divisions were in 1968. Is that because the radical counter-culture in '68 wasn't influencing government?

Well, it's because the parties themselves were split: There were left-leaning Democrats, and moderate Democrats, and there were even conservative democrats; and there were genuine progressive Republicans in 1968. There were Republicans who were opposed to the Vietnam War. And you believe the parties are more cohesive today?

Yes, and because the parties are more cohesive today, the philosophical split between the two parties has a more direct impact on the governing process itself.

It's fascinating to look at how the large changes in political reporting -- particularly with the advent of binary cable news stations like FoxNews and MSNBC -- have affected voters and political parties. Do you feel that this is the major contributor to uniting the parties against each other?

Well, and I say this as someone who is now a contributor to MSNBC, we have to bear in mind that neither network has an audience that matches anything like traditional networks. When O'Reilly has a really big night, I think it's only around three million people -- which is still a lot of people, but it's not a large percentage of Americans. Rush [Limbaugh] has an audience of around ten million, and while that's really a lot of Americans, again that's still a small minority of the country and the electorate.

Yet they're the ones who get the attention.

Yes, they do. And they have an impact beyond the numbers -- there's no question. But I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think that we can also exaggerate the impact of the partisan media. And I don't say this as a critic of the partisan media -- I can't, because I'm a part of it. But it's true that it is easier for people to live in their own media universe than it was thirty years ago, whether it's Fox or MSNBC or talk-radio or what you choose to read online, and that does have an impact on the debate.

And it seems that this causes people to identify themselves not by what they believe, but by what they are against. Many partisan news viewers seem addicted to anger, tuning in to Rush Limbaugh or MSNBC to get a dopamine fix of being angry at Obama, or obsessed with defeating the Republican Party. Do you feel that people are losing a sense of what they want to pursue, and are too focused on what they are against?

I think that each side has a sense of what it's moving toward. The right has a very particular view of liberty right now, which defines it as lower taxes and less regulation. From their point of view it is a positive goal: liberating people from the oppression of government. That isn't my view -- at all. And on the left there remains a view that through collective action -- including government -- you can make a society more just. The health-care law is representative of that, even though progressives would have gone beyond what was passed. Dodd-Frank was representative of that; again, progressives would have wanted to go beyond what was passed. So I do think that there are positive ideas out there.

But I agree with your premise that there is something troubling about the anger. Because we are at a point where we seem to have lost the ability to reason with each other. Like it says in Isaiah: "Come, let us reason together." The core argument of my book is that all of us (or almost all of us), as Americans, from the beginning of the Republic, are torn between our love of individualism and our quest for community. There's a little bit of libertarian in the most progressive American, and a little bit of the progressive in the most libertarian American.

And those two don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Exactly. And in fact, I think that Americans, at our best, find a proper balance. We're constantly in search of decent balance between liberty and community, between public and private, between the state and the market. You don't often hear talk from the partisan news cycle about striking a balance between the state and the market -- do you ever receive criticism from the left for acknowledging the validity of the right?

Partly because of my communitarianism, I have more feeling for a certain style of social conservatism -- not right-wing conservatism. I agree with the right that the family is actually important to social policy and that family breakdown has caused us difficulty as a country. It has made eradicating poverty more difficult. Where I part company is when they translate that to opposition to gay marriage or gay rights in general. In fact, I think that the strongest argument for gay marriage is actually a kind of conservative argument: if you believe in fidelity and commitment, why would you close off people who are gay or lesbian to the opportunity of marriage?

In your 2008 book Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right you argue that evangelicals are losing their foot-hold in American politics, and that the left is reclaiming a religious identity within the culture of Washington. Do you think that the failure of Rick Santorum's presidential campaign was an indication of this?

I'd probably like to say that. But the movement, in some respects, has had more staying power than I had expected. It's become a genuinely important pressure group inside the Republican Party. In the primaries this year we saw that evangelicals are a still a force to be reckoned with, but they are not a force that can dominate the party. I still cling to my original view that in the long-run they face a slow decline in politics.

Is that because the younger evangelical generation isn't carrying the same torch along?

Yes, because of demographics. And also because they will always face the problem that the Republican Party's primary commitment is to economic conservationism. The real legislative energy in the party is with the business wing, and not the evangelical wing.

And it's not that the younger generation are churched less, it's that the younger generation of evangelicals have different views on important issues, like gay marriage or social justice, than the older evangelicals.

Do you think Mitt Romney is making any progress winning them over?

I think that the overwhelming dislike of President Obama among evangelical conservatives is so strong that Romney will win a substantial majority of them. The only question he has to face is whether his Mormonism creates a drop in turnout. It's hard to imagine his faith leading evangelical conservatives to vote for president Obama. The cost for Romney is that evangelicals won't allow him to move to the center; I think he's worried about losing them. If I remember right, I don't think he won a single primary where evangelicals cast a majority of the vote. I was in Iowa at that time, speaking to evangelicals about the primaries -- they were all for either Santorum or Gingrich, and whenever Romney's name came up they almost unanimously dismissed him, explaining that his Mormonism was a dealbreaker. His campaign is certainly not putting his faith at the center of his identity like George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter did.

And that's because Mormons are a minority faith. It was politically functional for President Bush to do that -- it's not politically functional for Romney to put Mormonism in the center. And that has a couple of costs, one being that he is not able to tell an important part of his personal story. Which is integral to selling yourself as a candidate. Do you think this will change when we get closer to the election?

I think he's wary of that, because in 2007 he tried to give a substantial speech on religion -- and it didn't really work very well. It was in contradiction with itself: the first half was a Kennedy-like you shouldn't vote for people on religious grounds, and then the second half was how he committed he was to a faith that closely resembled evangelical Christianity. The two halves didn't work well together.

He's going to count on other issues to convince evangelicals to vote for him.

You've always carried a great affection for universities and the importance of higher education: How do think that the rising cost of education, mixed with the unstable employment numbers, will effect the job market in the next decade?

I think it's one of the biggest barriers to reducing inequality in the United States. The difficulty for people from families from modest means to get higher ed is going to increase inequality, unless we do something about it. I worry about this on a lot of levels: One is that if state universities become more expensive, more and more students have to use community colleges, which crowds the community colleges, which were always there for people who only needed them for one- or two-year degrees. Or people who were using them to put themselves into a position for higher ed.

I think this crisis is getting so bad that it is going to force us to look for new models for higher education. When I graduated from college in 1973, we were in a period when -- other than the GI Bill -- you had the broadest access [to higher education] across class lines. And because you had substantial student loans and scholarship programs, if you took on debt it wasn't crushing you for the rest of your life. And now the burden of debt is just unconscionable -- especially if people go to private colleges. And I don't think we can go on like this. I think the universities need to think through what they can do to solve this problem.

I often wonder that with all the leaps we are experiencing in technology and access to information, getting a degree won't be as essential in the future as it once was. Skills and employment will be achieved while bypassing this aging institution.

Well, when you see so many of the oldest, major universities developing online programs, I think you are going to see some major restructuring of higher education in the next twenty years. People who love universities -- as I do -- are going to want to figure out how you save the best of the great research universities, while still opening up opportunity to more people.

E.J. Dionne will be reading from Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 2, at Tattered Cover Colfax, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. This event is free; click here for more details.

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