Columnist E.J. Dionne addresses Wellesley community in annual Wilson Lecture
Lecture resonates with students from both sides of the aisle
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 15:09
Washington Post journalist and Georgetown professor E.J. Dionne delivered the annual Wilson Lecture in front of a crowd of over 200 people in Alumnae Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 19. Dionne’s lecture, entitled “Our Divided Political Heart,” discussed the reinvention of American conservatism, the promise of today’s young people and the need for better discourse.
With American politics at such a divisive point, Dionne discussed his belief that Americans are a complex people, citing a long history of conflicting values.
However, he dismissed worries about a U.S. decline. “I’m very hopeful about the long-term prospects for our country,” Dionne said.
The lecture provided analysis of contemporary political players. Dionne highlighted Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign messages of “hope” and “belief” as evidence that Obama was using religious themes in his first presidential run.
Dionne pointed to such campaign themes in order to emphasize the presence of spiritual messages in American politics.
Turning to the 2012 race, he pointed out examples of Mitt Romney and Obama trying to make their campaigns about “who we are” as a country, and defining how national identity is being crafted.
“What I like about this election is that it very much shows how this material crisis morphed into a spiritual crisis,” Dionne said.
He related the question of “who we are” back to the central theme of the lecture, which was the divisions in American politics. “We Americans have been torn by a deep but healthy tension between our love of individualism and liberty, and our affection and quest for unity,” he said.
Using historical references, Dionne named the debate over the role of government in helping society grow as a contentious issue in the current presidential campaign.
Although he recognized the critiques of strong government, Dionne defended federal funding as the reason why the United States is a major world power.
“If you believe that the federal government played little role in the development of our country, you have to leave out a whole lot of the American story from the very beginning,” Dionne said.
He cited that John Adams started the first form of American socialized medicine before 1800, and joked that Wellesley professors would know more about 19th century American history than him. One professor pressed him to answer to some of the philosophical backgrounds of early American history during the Q&A session.
With his college-aged son in the audience, Dionne emphasized how capable he thinks today’s young people are. “I believe that the generation that is rising up is unusually well-suited to keep our nation’s promise,” he said.
He pointed to the new generation’s ability to balance viewpoints and values, and joked that America’s youth would face a lot of issues in need of innovative solutions, given how many problems are being created today.
Although Dionne is generally viewed as a liberal, he directed his advice to young conservatives hoping to rebuild the Republican Party.
During the Q&A session, when one Wellesley student asked him how young people could reform the Republican Party, Dionne answered that politics could change through new ideas and strong commitment to political activism.
Dionne pointed to conservative pundits like Ross Douthat and David Frum as examples of promising young conservatives, expressing his hope that conservatives would rethink their strategies and platforms, particularly if Romney loses the election in November.
Students from all political backgrounds appreciated Dionne’s advice and expertise.
Marilynn Willey ’14, a member of Wellesley College Republicans, was happy to hear that she and Dionne agreed that progress needed to be made.
“I see the opposite side as very much against conservatives, and it’s nice to hear someone who isn’t and who’s interesting in talking, not just saying, ‘you’re wrong,’” she said.
Laura Brindley ’16, who identifies as a liberal, was also interested in Dionne’s message on conservatism. “I liked his view that we need a new conservative party, and it resonated with me when he said that both parties have moved to the right in recent years. I believe that Wellesley women can help reshape the conservative party,” she said.
Anne Hofmeister ’14, a moderate, enjoyed hearing Dionne’s ideas. “His comments were refreshing,” she said. “I hadn’t heard the idea of communitarianism balanced with individual liberty, and I liked his approach to the middle ground position that we need to return to.”
President Kim Bottomly, who introduced Dionne before his talk, has called the Wilson lecture “our most important lecture of the year.” The Wilson lecture is named for Caroline A. Wilson ’10, who was one of a few female journalists to cover World War I from the battlefields.