I cheerfully concede what some soi-disant conservatives charge: my conservatism is not theirs. Some of what passes for conservatism is a radically anti-political ideology, decayed Jeffersonianism characterized by a frivolous hostility toward the state, and lacking the traditional conservative appreciation of the dignity of the political vocation and the grandeur of its responsibilities.
Those are not my words. They belong to a bow-tied and baby-faced George F. Will who, in 1978, at the ripe old age of 37, was fresh off his Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and whose very first book (The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts) was a preview of Will's quirkiness to come.
What set George Will apart from other laissez faire, chamber of commerce conservatives back then was the healthy Tory skepticism he evinced when it came to a free market capitalism whose unholy furies of greed, avarice and ambition were often unleashed with devastating effect on communities whose stability and persistence conservatives have always made it their special obligation to preserve.
I miss that George Will, I really do, because I cheerfully concede that when I first discovered Will as an impressionable college sophomore I was smitten by his uncommon learning and erudition.
Yet, today, George Will's government-respecting conservatism is as shuttered as that original Border's Bookstore on State Street in Ann Arbor where I first found him.
How sad to see Will now recast as such a dependable apologist for plutocracy, defending Citizens United as a blow for liberty and free speech and extolling the virtues of the "rugged individualism" he once deplored as he simultaneously attacks liberals like Elizabeth Warren for delivering the commonplace conservative message that we are all in this together.
I've highlighted Will's criticisms of the "anti-political" tendencies of certain soi-disant conservatives in order to emphasize just how far advanced this assault on "the political" has become on the right.
It is now unremarkable for mainstream Republicans to boast of their allergic reaction to compromise of any kind, thus making politics impossible - by definition.
There are also "Constitutional Conservatives" like Sarah Palin who seek to embed the entire right wing agenda in "The Supreme Law of the Land" with their balanced budget and family values amendments, so that conservatives never need fear some future Democratic president or Congress undoing their handiwork by committing the unpardonable offense of what we once called "democracy."
Given the drift in American politics over the last 30 years to the right, it's not too far off the mark to say we no longer have Republican and Democratic parties. Rather, what we've got is a Community Party that still believes in E Pluribus Unum and a Leave Me Alone Party that was outraged when President Obama "misspoke" by calling our national motto "From the Many, One" instead of the Christian Right's preferred "One Nation Under God."
Into this fray now steps the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne, Jr. with a new book called Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. It's a book that tries to make sense of a complex American character where the longing for "community" co-exists uneasily with an almost obsessive infatuation with heroic and rugged "individualism."
Reconciling the E Pluribus part of America's split personality with the Unum is a task that only a Roman Catholic like E.J. Dionne could love, whose Church has for 2,000 years been trying to make sense of the mystery of a Holy Trinity in which God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all co-exist as one.
But it's precisely this divided loyalty between the community and the individual that constitutes the "genius" of the American political tradition, says Dionne, since from the beginning Americans have been "communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians" without being fully comfortable with either.
For all that America's new conservatives claim to represent the values which inspired the Founding Fathers, however, Dionne says it's the right wing that breaks most with our country's deepest traditions about the balance and interplay "between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community."
American conservatism, says Dionne, is now about low taxes, fewer regulations, less government - and little else. Anyone who dares to define it differently "faces political extinction." That's what happened to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana when he was derided as a "sellout" for working toward a bipartisan consensus with Democrats -- then defeated in a GOP primary after having served his country and his party in the US Senate for more than 30 years.
Dionne says that Republicans, especially those in the new Tea Party Congress, have abandoned what once were American conservatism's most attractive features: its prudence, its caution, its sense that change should be gradual, but most important, its concern for fostering community.
This commitment, he says, "now lies buried beneath slogans that lift up the heroic and disconnected individual - or the "job creator" - with little concern for the rest."
The same George Will, for example who attacked Elizabeth Warren for being part of "a liberal project" designed to "dilute the concept of individualism" and thereby refute "respect for the individual's zone of sovereignty," wrote in his 1983 introduction to Clinton Rossiter's classic, Conservatism in America, that what made American conservatism incoherent was its too close association with free market capitalism.
"The severely individualistic values and the atomizing social dynamism of a capitalist society conflict with the traditional and principled conservative concern with traditions, among other things," wrote Will.
Those other things, said Will, included "the life of a society in its gentling corporate existence," namely communities, churches and other institutions "that derive their usefulness and dignity from the ability to summon individuals up from individualism to concerns larger and longer-lasting than their self-interestedness."
Validation for Dionne's thesis about the distance that has now developed between conservatism and its former concern for the health and stability of the community is provided by right wing reaction to that thesis.
I can understand why a vile partisan bomb-thrower like Ann Coulter would generate partisan heat with books titled Slander, Treason, Godless, Guilty and If Democrats Had Any Brains They'd Be Republicans.
But I really have no idea what it is about the mild-mannered E.J. Dionne that provokes such hostility among conservatives. With a book with a title that talks about a "divided political heart," Dionne shows himself to be about as fearsome as a Hobbit or Harry Potter's house-elf, the one named Dobby.
Nevertheless, in the Washington Post's "What others are saying" comment section (what my friend at USA Today calls the "Pig Pile) right wing readers were out in force with their torches and pitchforks complaining about the appalling absence of liberal civility: "Pure tripe as always, E.J.," one called it. "Dems can just eat it," said another. "Keep drinking that Obama Kool-aid," remarked a third. "It is too late to apologize, Mr. Dionne. You have done your share of grinding out propaganda for an abhorrent political ideology that has lost sight of the people it wants to govern," said another.
Actually, that last remark was borderline literate.
Dionne says he has long admired the conservative tradition and has written about it with great respect, which he has. And while I have no way of knowing if part of Dionne's motivation for writing this new book was, like mine, distress at seeing what's become of the conservatism now embraced by his Post colleague, George Will, there is no question Dionne has added his voice to a growing chorus of writers alarmed at the balkanization of our national community along sectional and sectarian lines.
These are writers who recognize that the project begun by the Founding Fathers to pull together a nation made up of multifarious factions of often incompatible and irreconcilable conviction -- and to hold them together in a well-ordered constitutional "union" able to "break and control the violence of faction" -- is unraveling as some of those factions, mostly on the right, are trying to sever the "mystic cords of memory" which once bound our national community together so that they can wriggle free and go their own way.