Dionne, 60, whose previous books include the 1991 bestseller Why Americans Hate Politics, will talk about his new book Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets.
A senior fellow in governance studies at the center-left think tank the Brookings Institution, Dionne argues that the GOP has abandoned its traditional commitment to communitarian values in favor of a radical and potentially destructive form of individualism.
Dionne sees American political history as a dynamic interplay of individual and communal goods, and he objects to abandoning one for the other.
"American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community," he writes in Our Divided Political Heart. "We ignore this tension within our history at our own peril."
Dionne says that in keeping with its radical individualism, the right champions laissez-faire economics and the free market above all other values, including social justice. By contrast, traditional Republicans and Democrats alike were as concerned with the common good and the expansion of personal liberties as they were with economic progress.
"The preamble to the Constitution proclaims shared goals, not individual goals, including providing for the welfare of the people," Dionne says from his home in Bethesda, Md., which he shares with his wife, Mary Boyle, a lawyer, and their three teenage children.
"I do thank the tea party movement," Dionne says, because it has opened up an important debate about the nature of who we are as Americans. "I [have] felt that so many of our current arguments were asking the question, ‘Who are we?'?" says Dionne. "And we disagree about who we are because we disagree about who we have been."
Our Divided Political Heart tries to answer that question by charting the historical beginnings and development of our individualistic and communitarian impulses going back to Alexander Hamilton and extending to Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.
He asserts that we have been most prosperous when we have maintained a balance of the two impulses and that the communitarian impulse has always been alive in Republican leaders, citing George H.W. Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" and the faith-based initiatives of his son, George W. Bush.
Today's conservative movement, Dionne argues, has tipped the balance and the careful consensus right and left had forged over the last 100 years. Dionne levels some of his harshest criticism at the tea party for using what he says is a distorted view of history to sell its ideas.
"I've always loved the American story, and I grew more and more frustrated with the way our friends in the tea party … tell that story" he says. The right recounts an attractive story that makes a great deal of our robust individualism, our know-how, and our eagerness to make a life for ourselves — as long as we are left alone by the government, he says.
Federal power is the bugbear in this tale, always characterized as an intrusive force that imposes more taxes and regulations on ordinary, hardworking Americans. Republicans have for decades cast Democrats as tax-and-spend proponents of big government, Dionne admits, but he insists the tea party has inspired a far more radical denigration of federal power.
Dionne illustrates his point in a somewhat disturbing chapter in Our Divided Political Heart that deconstructs the first Republican primary debate last June in New Hampshire.
Ostensibly gathered to discuss their approach to governing, the seven GOP candidates instead scrambled to establish their bona fides as critics of government, heaping scorn not just on President Obama's administration but on the very idea of the federal government. Each tried to outdo the other in their commitment to dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs. Michele Bachman called for the dissolution of the Environmental Protection Agency (established by a Republican, President Richard M. Nixon), while Rick Perry lashed out at Social Security as a "failure" and an "illegal Ponzi scheme."
A week earlier, Dionne writes, Mitt Romney had complained that government spending was so out of control that "we're only inches away from ceasing to be a free economy."
The message, Dionne writes, was clear: The government has no positive role whatsoever in American life. Best to "shrink it and get it out of the way. … Our friends in the tea party are looking to the Gilded Age 1865 to 1901; they look at that as representing the entirety of our history," says Dionne, referring to a period ruled by laissez-faire economic policies, and a harsh view of communal life drawn from social Darwinism. "That is the period when radical individualism was dominant."
The primary fear of radical individualists is government power: Liberty is equated with freedom from regulation and any sense of civic duty, Dionne says.
"Their primary fear is governmental power, of how the government gets in the way of liberty and human freedom. Anything that strengthens government in this view is dangerous," says Dionne.
The progressive tradition, by contrast, sees government as a constructive force, says Dionne.
"For those of us on the other side, we ourselves are concerned about government power also, but we also see other threats to liberty in concentrated economic power," says the author, "and the force we have that can counter that is government."
Dionne maintains that one of the Founding Fathers' greatest concerns was the danger posed by private economic interests. The free market, he says, must be tempered by rules that help curb abuses of that power, including such 20th-century advances as the labor movement, child-labor laws, and workplace safety regulations.
Luckily, Dionne says, another protest movement has come along to pick up the banner of communitarian values and to call for an end to corporate abuse — Occupy Wall Street.
"They criticize the government for not acting forcefully enough on behalf of ordinary people against the large economic interests, including Wall Street," says Dionne.
"To me, they represent the other side of this classic split among Americans," says Dionne. "They represent in some ways the divided political heart in the most vocal way."
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.