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June 12, 2014

E. J. Dionne speaks on inequality & politics

E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne

“If you agree as I do that inequality has grown, is growing too fast, and that we need something to do about it in society, that actually means that you believe government needs to take some steps to do something about it,” said Washington Post political columnist E. J. Dionne in a May 29 lecture at the University Club.

Dionne’s talk, “Is Our Political System Making Inequality Worse?,” was the Wherrett Lecture of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs Center for Metropolitan Studies.

While American society has relied in part on government to help solve social inequities  — slavery, child labor, pensions, minimum wages, civil rights and disability rights —  “…we have structurally built a system that is destined, I fear, to gridlock for some time and to make it difficult to move forward on some of these questions,” said Dionne. “I think it is very disconcerting that we have this challenge before us.”

National elections tend to tilt toward the center left, reflecting the country’s slightly leftward-leaning majority. The Senate, on the other hand, is “inherently gerrymandered,” said Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a government professor at Georgetown University.

When the Senate was established, with two senators for each state, “the population ratio between the smallest state and the biggest state was about 13:1. Now it’s about 70:1,” he said. “New York and Pennsylvania have as many senators as Idaho and Wyoming,” despite vast differences in population.

“What this does in the Senate is it tilts our politics to the right of where the national majority is. It tilts toward the interests of rural areas,” Dionne said.

In the House, “you have, particularly after the 2010 election, an extraordinary gerrymander,” he said, noting it may be most extreme in Pennsylvania. “Just add up all the popular votes in the congressional districts and look at how the representation turns out,” he said. “The representation is heavily Republican, even when the majority vote Democratic.”

Gerrymandering is not the sole domain of either party, “but, after the 2010 elections, Republicans controlled the process in many more key states, particularly in the purple states — in Pennsylvania and through most of the Midwest. …

“But even without the gerrymander, progressives are at a disadvantage in House races because progressives, Democrats, tend to be concentrated in urban and suburban areas, and Republicans are spread out more,” Dionne said.

Historical inequality

New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter recently provided some historical background. Quoting from Porter’s May 13 column on the politics of income inequality, Dionne read: “‘The years from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not the most egalitarian in American history. Robber barons roamed the economy, living off lavish rents generated by powerful cartels and industrial monopolies.

“’The richest 1 percent of Americans reaped nearly one in five dollars generated by the economy and amassed almost half its wealth; at the other end of the scale, wage earners lost ground to inflation. It was the era of the Haymarket riots and Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle.’ Workers staged 1,500 strikes in 1886 alone.’”

Dionne said, “I think if you look at our time, not since that Gilded Age have we begun to see these levels of inequality. And when people started to say perhaps wages should go up, perhaps taxes on the wealthy should go up, there was a real pushback.

“What happened in that period is that there was a revolt in the country against that level of inequality. It was a revolt that started in rural America and ended up moving to urban America.”

The populist movement of the late 1800s “was a deeply — small D — democratic movement. … They weren’t people who wanted to get rid of incentives; they didn’t want to completely wreck the economic system. But they wanted their fair share, given the work that they did,” Dionne said.

Populists failed at the ballot box but “succeeded in changing the rest of politics,” as predecessors to the Progressives, who adopted many of their proposed reforms, Dionne said, labeling the time as one in which there was “a merger of reform from the bottom with reform from the middle class.”

Playing on the line popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “March without the people and you march into the night,” Dionne added, “I think ‘March without the middle class and you march to defeat’ may be the corollary.”

During that time, “the country succeeded in the process of beginning to use politics to right the social inequalities and inequities of our time, labeling Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson really quite conservative people in many ways,” Dionne said.

“They didn’t want to tear down capitalism; they were trying to save it, yet what they said about inequality sounds like it almost could have walked off an Occupy Wall Street encampment.

“Wilson said: ‘Have we come to a time when the president of the United States or any man who wishes to be president must doff his cap in the presence of high finance and say, ‘You are our inevitable master but we will see how we can make the best of it.’

“He said that the country was near the time when the combined power of high finance will be greater than the power of government,” Dionne said.

“I tell you this history because I think in our moment we get very discouraged. Politics is really in a very difficult situation now. There is so much that is blocked in Washington.”

Those who feel that social movements work elsewhere but not in the United States are ignoring American history, he said. “We’re ignoring, among other things, the legacy of the civil rights movement … we are ignoring a whole slew of reform movements where Americans, because of our love of opportunity, democracy, said, ‘We cannot continue to live with these levels of social inequities.’”

Discouraging trends

Citing current Supreme Court decisions that he says are “steadily tearing down the barriers to big money in politics,” he cautioned that in spite of decisions that brought about social reform, courts tend toward conservatism.

“We progressives got very accustomed, beginning with Brown v. Board of Education, to a Supreme Court that helped achieve social reform in our nation. And from Brown forward there were a whole series of progressive decisions that moved us forward,” he said.

“I think that progressives may have gotten a little lazy and a bit too given to rely on the court, forgetting that for much of our history … that courts tend to be on the conservative side of things. We can’t forget it any more,” he said.

“If we really want to think about how we fight inequity, we are going to have to realize that the court is now acting in many ways how the Gilded Age court did and we are going to have to find ways around that.”

“There’s no other democracy in the world that has now quite the regime that we have when it comes to political money,” Dionne said.

“I think it is a mistake to view money as speech. … Money is a means to have rapid access to audiences,” he said. “There is something peculiar in politics if one side can afford a large microphone and the other can afford a small one or no microphone at all.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, in issuing the decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down caps on individuals’ political contributions, “said… we have to throw out these barriers because nothing is more important than the right to select the leaders of our country. Which is true. Except where was that law when the court weakened the voting rights act?” Dionne asked, adding that he views campaign finance reform and voting rights as closely related issues.

A tension in values

“I am still a ‘glass 1/10- or 1/2-full’ guy about our success in challenging inequity in our history,” Dionne said, arguing that there is strength in the fact that America is a nation characterized by a tension in values.

In his 2012 book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” Dionne argued that Americans value both community and individualism.

“I believe that in recent years we’ve forgotten about the community-regarding side of ourselves and emphasized the individualistic side. … I’m not proposing we get rid of the individualistic side. That’s very much a part of who we are. But so is the community-loving side.”

Another view is that the tension is between equality and achievement. “We want equal opportunity. We want to make sure that rewards are fairly distributed. We don’t want too much inequality but we don’t want to get in the way of achievement,” Dionne said.

“The other way to look at it is just that we believe in both liberty and equality. And that we have constantly tried in our history not only to keep those two in balance, but to realize that each is very important to the other,” he said.

“If we don’t have equality, then a lot of us will not have liberty.”

Back to the Constitution

“I think our American tradition is a very constructive tradition that those of us who are on the progressive side need to hug real hard. I think that we have given up the American story too much to our friends in the Tea Party: Why should they be the ones quoting the Declaration? Why should they be the ones quoting the Constitution of the United States?”

Noting that the first word of the preamble to the Constitution is “we,” Dionne said, “We don’t say it enough as Americans these days.”

Labeling himself not merely a Constitutional liberal, but a “preamble liberal,” Dionne said: “The preamble of the Constitution: ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare’ — Yes, welfare is right there,” he quipped. … “‘and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’ — again OUR selves and OUR posterity — ‘do ordain and establish this Constitution.’

“We should be very proud of a constitution that begins with a paragraph like that. And I think we should remind people constantly that that is what the government established by our founders is committed to.”

Dionne closed by making a seemingly unlikely connection between rocker Bruce Springsteen and 17th-century Puritan leader John Winthrop. “Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own” is the refrain from a Springsteen tune. “What a wonderful sentiment,” said Dionne.

Winthrop, in the same sermon from which Ronald Reagan drew his pet reference to America as a ‘shining city on a hill,’ also said: ‘We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together; mourn together; labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.’

“From Winthrop to Springsteen we have managed to hold deeply committed to an idea of social equity and an idea of the debts we owe to each other,” Dionne said. “Both Winthrop and Springsteen, I think, speak to the very best aspects of us as Americans.

“And I think we will honor our past as we open a more secure and just and equitable future, by remembering as they do, that building a nation where liberty thrives requires us to stand with each other and make each other’s conditions our own.”


Recordings of recent Wherrett lectures are posted under the lectures tab at

—Kimberly K. Barlow