E.J. Dionne has a new book out about the state of modern conservatism and how it’s broken. He encapsulates much of his thesis in his Washington Post column today. What it boils down to is that the nice quiet manicured and well-bred conservatives that we remember from the good old days have been taken over by the fringes.
For much of our history, Americans — even in our most quarrelsome moments — have avoided the kind of polarized politics we have now. We did so because we understood that it is when we balance our individualism with a sense of communal obligation that we are most ourselves as Americans. The 20th century was built on this balance, and we will once again prove the prophets of U.S. decline wrong if we can refresh and build upon that tradition. But doing so will require conservatives to abandon untempered individualism, which betrays what conservatism has been and should be.
Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.
Perhaps it’s unfair to give him a hard time for finally figuring out something that a lot of us have been noticing for so long. If you’re my age (and Mr. Dionne is five months older than me), you’re a baby boomer who came of age when the Beatles arrived in America, so you’ve seen it for most of your life, starting in Selma and making its way through America via a lot of different routes, including Kent State and New Orleans.
Mr. Dionne quite correctly notes that what has led us from the country club conservatives to the seething mob with their misspelled signs is the breakdown in the sense of community; we’re all in this together and together we can handle the problems that come along. We may have different approaches, but we don’t need to separate ourselves from each other. That has been taken over by mistrust of the community and turned into an I-got-mine-screw-you mentality.
What it comes down to is that it’s a lot easier to blame someone else for all your problems than work to find a solution. We unite a lot faster when there’s a common enemy, and a lot of people have made a lot of money and gained a lot of power by exploiting that basic fact of human nature.