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