By Sally Bagshaw
This is an interview with EJ Dionne, a distinguished journalist and author, political commentator, and longtime op-ed columnist for the Washington Post. This semester Dionne teaches a class in the Harvard Divinity School called “Religion, Values, and the Future of Democracy” attended by seven members of ALI 2020 cohort. He is also a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University, and co-author of the recent New York Times bestseller One Nation Under Trump, author of Souled Out, and Why the Right Went Wrong, among others. His most recent book released earlier this year is "Code Red: How Progressives And Moderates Can Unite To Save Our Country." (@EJDionne)
Sally Bagshaw: Before we discuss the thesis of your recent book Code Red - that progressives and moderates must realize that they are allies who have more in common than they sometimes wish to admit - let’s talk about the big divide: sixty-three million people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and the nearly sixty-six million who voted for Hillary Clinton.
Bagshaw: Why do white evangelists stick with Trump?
EJ Dionne: Why are so many white evangelical Christians so supportive of Donald Trump, who manifestly - to put it charitably - does not live by the values in which they believe? The answer would suggest this difference is largely about culture, not religion. The division is about race, not religion. It’s a concern for white evangelicals who feel they are losing their cultural dominance. They are losing this cultural dominance because of the increasing diversity of the country and the rise of secular and liberal ideas, and the rise of religious pluralism. Our country, even if you just look at believers, is much more diverse than it used to be.
But there’s another way in which Trump ends up being popular among evangelicals and that is because they sense their worldview, their ideals, are under attack by a culture that is hostile to them. Examples: the media, Hollywood, writers and commentators, elite universities. They say, all these folks are trashing us. They feel displaced in this culture.
Bagshaw: A conservative writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Peter Wehner, said recently that “Trump has brought a pistol to a cultural knife fight.” Why is this acceptable to so many?
Dionne: Evangelical Christians think, “Donald Trump may not be pretty, he may be a sinner, but he is fighting for us.” And, you know, to use the language of Twitter, he owns the lines, day after day after day. They welcome the fact that he has brought a gun to their culture war.
Trump is a kind of Cyrus of Persia, you know, the king in the Book of Isaiah who is said to have saved the Jews, even though he wasn’t Jewish. Many white Christians think Trump is a Cyrus-sort of figure who helps save them by being tough right now. And they’ll live with a lot of other stuff because Trump is a tough guy on their side.
Bagshaw: Four in ten voters stand by Trump. Many of his opponents do not comprehend what sixty-three million of their country-men and women see in him. Can this gap be bridged?
Dionne: Having a president who is not dedicated every single day to sharpening our divisions might make some difference. That’s a modest statement, and that’s as strong as I think I want to get. Also, we who watch MSNBC or CNN need to recognize that the portrait of Trump is somewhat different when viewed from Fox News. Trump voters tend to focus on the parts that sound authentic. That sound like he’s speaking straightforwardly. But I’m the last person who can fully channel that argument, it’s not my own, but I think there’s a sense of feeling besieged.
Bagshaw: Many people used to believe that friends are more important than politics. Now a majority of people polled in our country say they wouldn’t want their son or daughter marrying a person from the other political party. Why have we moved so far away from the ideal?
Dionne: Well, I think one of the terrible things about this era is that not only close friends but also families have been driven apart by Trump and Trumpism. I have a lot of friends who say that within their own family, they won’t discuss politics anymore. Many of them won’t even get together for the holidays.
Bagshaw: I feel that too. What has this President gained from intentionally dividing the country?
Dionne: I think one of the big questions which we won’t be able to resolve until Trump is gone, is how much worse is it when the President of the United States is dedicated to division? I don’t say that even as a point of criticism, although obviously I’m very critical of Trump, but it is central to his political strategy that he will divide because his hope is that he will divide in a way that will leave enough people on his side that he’ll win re-election.
Bagshaw: Maybe things would improve if those who identify with blue values offer a little space for grace toward those in the red states?
Dionne: Yes. Space for grace. That’s a good phrase. I’m going to use that.
Bagshaw: Some argue that pro-life/pro-choice is the unbridgeable issue between the parties. Others, like author Randall Balmer, suggest the gap rests in white supremacy while abortion is being used as an excuse. What are your thoughts?
Dionne: Well, I’m always reluctant to read somebody’s mind or, for that matter, read somebody’s heart. You know that at some level, we should begin by taking people at their word when they say that abortion really matters more than any other issue.
Bagshaw: Do you think this nation is divided because of a backlash from the 1960’s civil rights movement?
Dionne: Probably. Large numbers of white evangelical voters began leaving the Democratic Party, especially in the South, in the Civil Rights years. Many of these voters in prior generations voted for the Dixiecrat party instead of Harry Truman. Yes, the shift in political parties was - broadly speaking - the result of a backlash on civil rights. So, I think that there is definitely an element of truth to the idea that it is not just abortion, and there are lots of other cultural questions wrapped up here. You know, in the 80s, Ronald Reagan is a perfect case in point. He signed an abortion reform law legalizing abortion in California and then became an ardent pro-lifer 1980, so there has been a lot of shifting around on that issue.
Bagshaw: Studies and polls frequently show that Republicans and Democrats have decidedly different values. In the face of the pandemic, health care crisis, and racial inequities, have differences increased?
Dionne: Absolutely, the recent PRRI study says two-thirds (67%) of Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction, compared to only one-third (32%) who say it is headed in the right direction. What’s interesting to note is that these figures are slightly less pessimistic than public sentiment at this point four years ago when 74% said we were going in the wrong direction, 25% said in the right direction.
If you compare the values between the parties highlighted by PRRI, you’d think we come from different planets. On the President’s handling of the pandemic, the fairness of the presidential election, the importance of health care, jobs, racial inequality, climate change, and more, the divide between Republicans and Democrats is substantial and appears to be growing.
Bagshaw: If Joe Biden wins, can he shepherd our country toward the unification of our values?
Dionne: To a degree, I think he can with the help of others in his administration and in Congress. In a recent Brookings Institution report I co-authored with Melissa Rogers, A Time to Heal, A Time to Build, we say, “Our nation is more divided than it has to be. It is both possible and urgent to reduce polarization, division, and the tensions they create.”
Moderate or progressive Democrats will come to Washington, they’ll see an opportunity to serve in government during a genuine crisis where necessarily a lot of stuff has to get done. I think it will be a time like the New Deal or maybe like the early Kennedy Administration, where a lot of people say this is the time I want to do public service, and it would be an interesting time. I think there will be a kind of call to service in this period among some Republicans who have been anti-Trump.
Bagshaw: Is Biden’s genuine empathy felt by others?
Dionne: I believe it is. There’s been a lot of conversation about that, about it being formed because of the loss of his first wife and daughter in the crash and the death of his son Beau. He conveys this in his life. I recently heard a story from some close friends about Biden talking with a young woman who was working on the front lines helping people who needed assistance. At the end of the conversation, Biden said, “Please give me the phone. I want to tell your parents what a great daughter they have.” That’s the kind of stuff he’s done all his life. You know, it’s a good politician thing to do, but I think that’s part of who he is.
Bagshaw: Will Joe Biden convince people who wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton to vote for him?
Dionne: I think so. In 2016 many more people voted for Trump to vote against Clinton than will be voting for Trump this time to vote against Biden. You can argue this is unfair - as I have - toward Hillary Clinton. Some of it was sexism. Some of it was people arguing that the Clintons have been around politics for a long time. But whatever the reasons were, there was a lot of hostility to Clinton.
That doesn’t mean that Trump was popular then. According to the exit polls on election day, 60% of Americans had a negative view toward Donald Trump when they voted. If you put all the exit poll numbers together, what you found is 17% of all Americans who voted had a negative view of both Clinton and Trump. Today, the “double haters” as the pollsters like to call them, are a smaller group. Fairly or unfairly, Joe Biden does not carry the baggage that Hillary Clinton did.
Bagshaw: The first sentences in Code Red read “WILL PROGRESSIVES AND MODERATES FEUD WHILE AMERICA BURNS? Or will these natural allies take advantage of an historic opportunity to strengthen American democracy and defeat an increasingly radical form of conservatism?”
Dionne: Yes. In my introduction, I urge moderates and progressives to seize this opening. They have much more in common than they sometimes want to admit.
Bagshaw: Can you talk more about how our country can unify?
Dionne: In Chapter 6 of Code Red titled “Getting from Here to There” I discuss the galvanizing idea of our time should be dignity. In our public life, politics, and how we treat each other, the dignity of each person should be our underlying value. This applies to economic policies, for the ability of every American to find fulfillment in family responsibilities, and to have a real chance to pursue their life purpose. In Code Red, I quote from my book co-authored with Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann called One Nation After Trump,recommending that we set out a series of policies that should promote dignity. First, move toward fairer economic policies. Second, shore up families through good jobs, good education, good health care. Third, address the inequalities we are experiencing in certain regions and neighborhoods. That’s dignity.
Bagshaw: Recent polls show that expanding healthcare is an issue embraced by most Democrats and many Republicans too. How does this next administration create consensus around a plan to offer health insurance and preventative health care to everyone?
Dionne: We’re moving in that direction already. Many proposals surfaced during the Democratic debates, including one supported by Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar that would allow all Americans to buy from a public system if they chose. Similarly, Joe Biden’s plan has evolved and incorporated many Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren ideas. It would create a public option by lowering the Medicare eligibility age, expand Medicaid to states where Republicans have refused to expand it, and negotiate for lower drug prices, while allowing people with private health care to keep it. Once a public option is shown to work, more people will move towards it. That takes us in a direction the single-payer advocates want to go without losing the support of those who want more measured alternatives. With moderates and progressives working together with Republicans in Congress, we can move toward a form of universal healthcare.
Bagshaw: That’s Visionary Gradualism at work. What’s our country’s next move toward a significant Climate Change response?
Dionne: Republicans are the outliers here. Only 35% of Republicans polled say they believe climate change is caused by human activities, compared to 89% of Democrats. Biden feels deeply about this and is responding to the urgency of climate change by making it one of his first policy rollouts. New jobs will result as we move away from fossil fuel and invest in sustainable energy. The voters need to be convinced they won’t lose their jobs.
Bagshaw: Will the Green New Deal move beyond being “aspirational”?
Dionne: Yes. Mitch McConnell, as Senate Majority Leader, bragged about being the Grim Reaper keeping the Green New Deal from even being debated in the Senate. If the Senate majority becomes Democratic, much attention will be given to climate change and elements of the Green New Deal. Remember that the Green New Deal - paradoxically - was a response to more politically moderate champions that we weren’t moving fast enough.
Bagshaw: Will a carbon tax become part of a Climate Change solution?
Dionne: A carbon tax will almost certainly be part of a comprehensive climate solution, but it will have to be part of a package that does not squarely hit lower-income and working-class voters.
Bagshaw: Institutional racism and racial inequities are on display like never before. You spend Chapter 7 in Code Red, acknowledging that “Justice requires attention to both identity and class.” Can you summarize this?
Dionne: Progressives and moderates must align to address both inequalities of class and status simultaneously. I argue in this chapter that “[i]t is wrong to say that a white or blue collar man who has seen his job disappear or his earnings slashed has no cause for complaint. But it is also wrong to say that this white man has exactly the same claim as his African American workmate who simultaneously faces economic distress and racial discrimination…the African American worker faces burdens - fears over how his teenage son will be treated by the police for one - that the white worker does not.”
Addressing these problems requires us to recognize the legitimacy of both positions. We must have political leadership that encourages honest negotiations, not divisions. Trump has abused his office like none other and fomented fear and anger. We must move toward leadership that calls for empathy and mutual respect.
Bagshaw: Switching to more personal issues, you were an undergraduate here at Harvard College. Did you learn your craft at Adams House?
Dionne: I was in Adams house, which at the time was a very, very, political place and a very progressive place where a large number of evenings’ dinners extended two hours longer just because we were arguing about politics. It was a time leading up to the Nixon-McGovern election. I wrote for the Crimson. I’ve always joked about being on the right-wing of the left-wing.
I wrote about a lot of political campaigns, and I brought my friends down to Fall River, Massachusetts, where I lived. I was an alternate delegate for George McGovern in 1972. I brought friends down for the McGovern campaign, and I used to joke with my really lefty friends, come down and meet this working-class you talk about so much. They’re really nice people, you’ll like them. I had some great experiences with friends doing that.
I actually also wrote about sports, and I felt that sports kept me sane. So, if you go back and look at all those Crimson issues, you’ll see not only political articles but also all these sports stories I wrote, not particularly inspired, but which I enjoyed writing.
Bagshaw: What brought you to the Harvard Divinity School?
Dionne: I am teaching at the Divinity School in part because the first year Harvard allowed students to cross-register at the Divinity school, I went up and took Harvey Cox’s class, the great progressive theologian. I took a class called Eschatology and Politics. It was my favorite class on my syllabus. I always say it was one of the most professionally useful classes I took because Harvey had us read all about liberation theology. Fifteen years later, I found myself covering the Vatican, when these liberation theologians were at the center of the news, ever condemned by the Vatican. I had dug in deep because Harvey had us read their works.
Bagshaw: You have generously let seven of us from this year’s ALI cohort into your Religion, Values, and the Future of Democracy class. What’s the impact of ALI on your students?
Dionne: I really love having the ALI Fellows in my classes. In this class, we have a range of experience. We have the energy, curiosity, and commitment of young people, combined with the experiences of very committed older people. The older I get, the more I value wisdom, you know, but I think the interactions between ALI Fellows and the younger students are fantastic.
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Personal Note from Sally Bagshaw: EJ Dionne’s compassion and sense of dignity is on display every day in his classes. Some of us joke that as nice as Mr. Rogers was known to be, Professor Dionne is even nicer, more empathetic. Recently, one of our ALI members mentioned that her ninety-year-old mother in Portland, Oregon, would be tuning into a widely-broadcasted conversation between EJ and James Kloppenberg on how religion would impact this election. EJ asked her mother’s name and where she was living. During the conversation, he gave the mother a shout-out for the best of reasons: to make one person feel special.
About the Author:
Sally Bagshaw is a 2020 ALI Fellow, former three-term Seattle City Councilmember, and Chief Civil Deputy for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Sally is a lawyer, mediator, and advocates for government that functions responsibly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.