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

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.

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Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue

2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO

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