E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy



E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne has the unique perspective of studying the horse race and the big picture of American politics. He writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post and appears regularly on NPR, but he’s also a senior fellow at Brookings and professor in Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

We talked with him about the relationship between partisan politics and democracy, the need for empathy across the political spectrum, and a few policy ideas to help make America more democratic. We could have talked all day and hope to return to some of these topics in future episodes.

Additional Information

E.J.’s Washington Post columns

E.J.’s lecture at Penn State 

E.J.’s paper on universal voting for Brookings

Chris Beem’s TED talk on how young people can improve democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you agree with E.J.’s notion that a partisan response was required to protect democracy?
  • Have you noticed a difference in political argumentation over the past few years? Is it more difficult to have arguments now than it was a few years ago?
  • What do you see as the relationship between civil society and democracy? How could one help the other?
  • What do you make of the National Fair Vote Interstate Compact and universal voting?

Interview Highlights

[3:52] In One Nation After Trump, you wrote that a partisan response was required to protect democratic values. What did you mean by that?

Trump had done something to our politics that was very dangerous and needed to be reversed, and given that the Republican Party had chosen almost to a person (with a couple of exceptions in Congress) to support Trump, the only way to hit back, to create any sense of accountability, was to give at least one house of Congress to Democrats. There a lot of people out there who aren’t necessarily partisan Democrats, who aren’t necessarily liberals or lefties, who believe that there are abuses here that need to be checked, and that there is a threat to democracy that needs to be reversed, and that’s exactly what happened after the 2018 midterms.

[5:19] Should that approach continue heading into 2020?

My view is that the Republican party has moved to a point where it needs a real rebuke in order to look inside itself and analyze where they want to continue to be.

[6:54] ]What happens to the people who are conservative but don’t may be aligned with where the Republican party is currently?

I think there are still a lot of conservatives who made a deal that they think is still worth making on behalf of low taxes deregulation and Supreme Court appointments. There is a pattern in which some districts that 30 or 40 years ago would happily have sent a moderate Republican to the house are now sending Democrats.

[11:00] You’ve also called for making America empathetic again. Have you seen any indication that it’s happening?

Yes, I have seen it in the reactions of the people when the Muslin ban. The number of people who rush to the airports over the Muslim ban and people who may not have met a Muslim in their life and said “wait a minute, this isn’t who we are.” There is also the reaction of the people to the kids being taken away from their parents at the border. I think we’ve taken some steps forward, but we still have a lot of work to do.

[12:51] What can people do to develop a sense of empathy?

Chris Beem gave a TED talk in which he said we need people to do three things. First, people need to tell the truth. Second, they need to engage in democratic humility, and third, people need to join an organization. I think one of the terrible things about the Trump age is that the division is so deep that friends who disagree about politics don’t even talk about politics anymore because they’re afraid of busting the friendship, and that’s a problem.

[14:54] Why do you think it’s so hard for people to have constructive arguments?

I think some of it is that our allegiances are all aligned together in a package. So people’s political commitment and people’s party commitments are aligned with their ideological commitments or often aligned with their religious commitments that includes people who are religious or secular combined with where they live. The “big sort” argument and many things combined in one party has come to stand for it.

[16:00] How we can make civil society work given the world we live in today?

I think we people need ways in which they can get together face-to-face and do things together. Sports teams are part of that, by the way. There is enormous life in civil society when where kids sports are concerned about it. What I want to tell to my conservative friends is: I’m with you, I want a stronger cvil society, but you have to acknowledge the cost of inequality and the cost of economic collapse.

[19:08] Can you give us an overview of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact?

We have a problem in our country that’s going to keep growing with the Electoral College. Since 2000, we’ve had just two elections where the Electoral College went against the popular vote. The way in which population is getting concentrated in big states, the over-representation of low population states in the Electoral College will get even greater. This is a problem for democracy and you can’t change it very easily under the Constitution.

[22:26] You’ve also worked on what you describe as universal voting. Can you explain what that is and how it might work?

This idea comes from Australia. Australia has compulsory attendance at the polls, but not the United States. I’m working on an initiative with Miles Rapoport at the Ash Center at Harvard on this. We’re trying to see what would this look like If we did it in the United States. Our theory is if you can ask people to serve on juries, if you can ask people for going to say to potentially give their lives in war, then asking people to vote is not an over ask for civic life. It finally reverses the role of local officials. They can’t suppress the vote anymore. Their job is to help make it as easy as possible for all the people in the country to vote.


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