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E.J. Dionne Jr.’s Lost Hope for the Republican Party

How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country
By E. J. Dionne Jr.

E. J. Dionne Jr. has spent a career searching for common ground among opposing groups, in the hope that it can become the foundation of a politics of consensus. In books like “Why Americans Hate Politics” (1991) and “Our Divided Political Heart” (2012), he tried to chart a course between left and right, suggesting that if we peer across the political divide with clearer eyes and more open minds, we can begin to build a postpolarization politics.

As part of this endeavor, he has often chided the right for its mounting extremism, but he never wrote it off. Which is why Dionne’s latest book should send our alarm bells shrieking. Though written in the same patient, even soothing, voice as his earlier works, the narrowed scope of “Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country” shows how much his view of politics has changed. The right barely factors into this new bridge-building project. Conservatives are, for all intents and purposes, a lost cause.

This means “Code Red” is not yet another call for bipartisanship (thank goodness). Nor is it a plea for centrism, which in an earlier era had been a defining feature of Dionne’s work. Here he has abandoned the idea of a center poised between left and right. “The political center cannot be defined as a halfway point between Democrats and a Republican Party that has veered far to the right,” Dionne writes. Instead it is something to be negotiated within the Democratic Party.

As a result, Dionne pleads with moderates and progressives to see one another as allies who have far more in common than they might think. And while his past calls for political unity seem to have failed, there’s reason to hope this one might succeed. The rise of Donald Trump and the radicalization of the right have been unifying forces for moderates and progressives. While the two factions disagree sharply on proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, they share a distress and disgust with the Trump presidency and the growing right-wing extremism that preceded it.

This is an exquisitely timed book, coming just at the moment of the Democrats’ quadrennial splintering. With the primaries in full swing, Democratic unity feels fragile as voters dig in behind their favored candidates. What better time for what Dionne calls his “articles of conciliation” to unite the “coalition for dignity, decency, democracy and fairness”?

And yet, it’s not at all clear moderates and progressives need to be reconciled. To be sure, there are real divisions among Democrats, perhaps even more now that independents have drifted away from the Republican Party and into the Democratic fold. In the book’s most important chapter, Dionne deftly sorts through the fights over “identity politics” to make the case that alarmists who fear the party is becoming too socially liberal misunderstand the relationship between identity, economics and power.

But in the Trump era, policy fights and hurt feelings have done little to damage the coalition. From the 2018 midterms to the impeachment debate, Democrats have been unusually united. And there’s little reason to think that even a bruising primary battle that drags into the summer will weaken the moderate-progressive unity that the Trump presidency has forged.

“Code Red” is a worthwhile exploration of the shared goals (and shared enemies) that unite moderates and progressives. But more than that, it is a sharp reminder that the common ground on which Dionne built his career has been badly eroded, with little prospect that it will soon be restored.

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