Sophie Cocke

May 15, 2006 

Writing in 1991, journalist E.J. Dionne in, Why Americans Hate Politics, argues that over the past three decades Americans’ faith in democratic institutions declined and they became increasingly disengaged from politics and public life.  He attributes cynicism towards the American political system to the failure of the dominant ideologies, liberalism and conservativism, to present real choices to the American people.  Due to the instability and internal contradictions of these two ideologies, political figures exploited social, economic and cultural issues to maintain their coalitions, and thus prevented the expression of consensus around many issues that had broad popular agreement. 

Dionne attributes the causes of this polarization to the cultural civil war that emerged in the 1960s.  He identifies three main issues that have shaped American politics into the 1990s and predicts their continued influence.  These include, civil rights and the integration of the black population into mainstream political and economic life, the revolutions in attitudes towards child-rearing, sexuality, and family life that emerged with the feminist movement, and the ongoing debate over the meaning and implications of the Vietnam War. 

Dionne traces the evolution of competing strands of political thought that emerged in the 1950s to 1991.  He argues that the New Left, counterculture, and neoconservatives of the 1960s hastened the demise of liberalism and paved the way for conservatism.  Vietnam became liberalism’s war, and thus became associated with failed anti-communist policy.  It also became associated with discredited social programs that, according to the neo-conservatives failed to understand the social ills it was addressing, and failed to take into account the rule of unintended consequences.  The neo-conservatives, and later conservatives associated these programs with a liberal, intellectual and social elite, who lacked true understanding of the problems of the poor, and the difficulties facing common, working class people. Support from the middle and lower class segments for the Democratic Party, was now threatened by the Republican Party who portrayed them as “limousine liberals.”  The conservative movement also benefited from white alarm over the civil rights movement, and in particular the Black Panthers.  Dionne argues that poor whites bore “the brunt” of civil rights legislation, given that they were the group that was thus thrust into contact with the black population.  This allowed the conservatives to further solidify their lower and middle class base.   

Dionne also asserts the common interests of the competing parties, and demonstrates the easy adaptability of New Left, counterculture, and neo-conservative ideas to conservtivism.  He disavows that 1960s liberals radically broke with their radical roots to embrace conservativism.  The New Left, counterculture, and conservatives were all concerned with a moral and spiritual void plaguing the country.  They favored isolationism, small businesses and localism, and disdained liberal bureaucracy.   

The liberals of the 1960s and President Jimmy Carter’s failures to produce a cohesive liberal vision paved the way for the conservatives.  But the conservatives straddled a difficult coalition – on one side were the traditionalists who were concerned with America’s moral degradation and on the other were the libertarians who despised invasive government, and whose confidence lay in the free market.  The Republican Party included the competing interests of traditionalists alarmed by the rise of large corporations, and the demise of communities and small businesses, and leaders of corporations who donated large amounts of money to the Republican Party.  This coalition coalesced around tax cuts, but were held together by little else.  By the 1988 presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis the hurdles of straddling such a difficult coalition gave rise to a particularly vacuous campaign in which no new issues were discussed.  Central to Bush’s campaign were trivial issues such as school prayer, gun control, and prison furloughs, reinvoking the Willie Horton controversy. 

Dionne argues that the role of individual actors in politics is important, but that he is concerned with the role of ideas, and how they shape and limit public discourse.  Thus, most of the book only discusses the ideas behind competing political movements.  But he does not delve past the surface in describing their political philosophies, and offers the reader little new insight into the political developments of this time period.  Furthermore, he does not define liberalism, a serious omission given that he argues that this is the ideology that these emerging parties are defining themselves against.  At one point he asserts that liberalism is so broad that it nearly encompasses all of American political life and its intellectual world. (p.56)  He does not identify the constituencies that comprised these parties making his analysis vague.   

Dionne does little to shed light on why Americans hate politics.  While he argues that political participation has been on decline since the 1960’s, more in depth analysis of statistics show that this is a fallacy.  (See McDonald and Pomkin’s The Myth of the Vanishing Voter, While there may have been pervasive cynicism towards politics, Dionne fails to show why and amongst whom.   

The value of Why Americans Hate Politics, lies more in treating it as a primary source that articulates the concerns and pessimism that permeated American life in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Central to this period was alarm over black poverty and the the break-up of families in black communities, the escalation of crime, the perceived demise of civic culture, the new negotiations taking place over family roles as women entered the workforce, materialism, the rise of large, impersonal corporations, and a lack of individual responsibility to the common good.  Dionne argues that a new political center was needed to combat these issues in a productive way that catered to existing, broad agreements over the causes and solutions of society’s ills.