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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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E.J. Dionne has an optimistic message for Wisconsin in Our Divided Political Heart
Ambassador of civility
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Dionne: 'The American story really is in a broad sense a progressive story.'
Dionne: 'The American story really is in a broad sense a progressive story.'

At this wrenching political moment in Wisconsin, it's hard to think of a better person to talk to than the warm, generous and philosophical E.J. Dionne.

Dionne will be at Barnes & Noble-West on June 16 to read from his new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. He is a columnist for The Washington Post, a commentator with NPR and NBC/MSNBC, and a Brookings Institution fellow, and he teaches at Georgetown University.

He has followed Wisconsin closely and has a lot to say about the divisive politics here and around the nation, and about civility.

"Civility sounds like such a weak word," Dionne said on the phone from his office at Brookings in Washington, D.C., "but what it really means is that there is enough mutual respect that people can talk about things instead of treating a political opponent as less than human."

He invokes a beloved Republican uncle with whom he used to have heated political arguments.

"I don't want people to be wishy-washy, but I wish we could have a politics of vigorous exchange without, as my kids say, 'hating on people.'"

That has become increasingly hard in the tea party era.

In his book, Dionne gives the tea party credit for going back to our nation's original documents and the founders to make the case for conservatism.

But he challenges the tea party view that "individualism is the only American value."

"Over the long run, the American story really is in a broad sense a progressive story," Dionne says. "We started with slavery, and we abolished it. We started with a very limited franchise and expanded it to non-property-owners and to women. We built a more just country over time."

What the right overlooks, he says, is "the desire to build a country where people look out for each other."

Despite Gov. Scott Walker's win in the recall election, Dionne says the uprising in Wisconsin has lasting resonance.

"I think for so many years, so much of the energy in American politics seemed to exist on the right. Wisconsin and Ohio have shown that there is plenty of energy on the left."

Right-wing triumphalism over the failed recall is overblown, he argues. But the left also needs to see it as a wake-up call to reach out past the base.

"At this moment in our history, progressives are actually the moderates," Dionne says. "Most Americans instinctively have the view that the market should have limits, that everyone, rich or poor, should be able to get a good education."

The challenge is overcoming the overwhelming power of money in the Citizens United era.

"If you go back to the Progressives, one of their causes was to reduce the power of big money on politics," Dionne says. "This notion that money is the same as speech is dangerous."

In the end, Dionne is optimistic.

"The conservative coalition is a very old coalition. If you are looking to the future, what the younger generation stands for should be very encouraging to progressives."

Dionne takes heart from the progressive tradition in Wisconsin, which "saw government as a force operating against concentrated economic power and for the common good."

"I love coming to Wisconsin," he says, "because the tradition is quite extraordinary. It's a reminder of how adventurous and successful progressives have been."

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