To understand how polarized politics became in 2004, just glance at a columnist's e-mail -- mine, for example.
At the end of this bitter year, I'm under the happy obligation of saying thanks to all readers, and particularly to the thousands of you who shared your views. I do read my e-mail, even if it takes awhile. Over the past few days, I printed out and went through about 1,000 pages of your comments, which were, among other things, smart, passionate, discerning, angry, puckish and occasionally obscene.
Readers on my side of the political fence offered warm support, column ideas and sophisticated arguments that deserved publication far beyond the confines of my e-mail inbox. I could spend all my space just expressing gratitude to them.
But I am also indebted to my critics whose outraged missives showed how much they care about politics. This column is dedicated to those who disagreed with me and talked back. Some spoke so personally that I came to imagine them as old friends taking to task a buddy they saw as a hopeless leftist getting it wrong yet again.
One reader called me a "liberal claptrap contraption," a lovely alliteration worthy of William Safire and Pat Buchanan in their speechwriting salad days in the Nixon White House. "I feel pretty good about myself this morning," a reader of the Indianapolis Star wrote, "because I once again agree with nothing you have to say." If a columnist can't make you feel good when you take that first sip of coffee, what good is he?
This reader thought I was opposed to a national sales tax because "obviously you don't wish to pay 20 or 23 percent sales tax on your next Mercedes, or in your case probably a Volvo." I'm happy to be innocent of this elitist liberal crime: I've been a satisfied Saturn owner since 1993.
Readers love to catch you in contradictions. When I contrasted President Bush's harsh attacks on John Kerry with Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning Again in America" campaign, one wrote: "Oh, so you think that Reagan was right then? I bet you didn't think so at the time. Who's flip-flopping now?" Okay, I didn't vote for Reagan. But truly, I did think at the time that the "Morning Again in America" campaign was brilliant.
Any criticism of Bush's tax cuts brought forth an avalanche of invective. One of my favorites: A reader from Chillicothe, Ohio, took me to task for "THE USUAL LIBERAL SPIN ON BUSH TAX POLICY." This reader graciously concluded his e-mail: "YES I KNOW IT'S RUDE TO USE ALL CAPS BUT I FEEL THE NEED TO YELL." No apology required.
On the same theme, another reader wrote: "Obviously, E.J. never took ECON 101 (or if he did, it didn't take)." Good point. I never did take Econ 101. At the risk of confirming conservative prejudices against liberals, I'll admit that the one economics course I took was a seminar on taxes.
Speaking of gaps in my education, a writer from Minneapolis rebuked me with a classical reference. "Livy warned us about Dionne's kind," he wrote. "For them, the welfare of the nation is always trumped by their partisan agenda."
I was stumped. I had never read Livy, the great historian of ancient Rome. But my learned friend Tony Corrado -- along with an erudite reader from Athens, Tenn. -- pointed me to Machiavelli's commentary on Livy that spoke of "partisans" creating "factions" that caused the "ruin" of regimes. It does seem like a relevant thought for our time, though my Minneapolis correspondent and I probably disagree on what's causing the partisanship, the factionalism and the ruin.
Some of my e-mail friends, bless them, acknowledged that they might be guilty of the very same sins they ascribed to me. A Colorado reader who accused me of partisanship admitted: "I've tried to vote for a Democrat before; he was my next door neighbor and best friend running for city council, but I couldn't do it." You have to admire the party loyalty. But did he tell his friend?
My critics and I share the assumption that the stakes in politics are now very high. I wish we could all argue these things through together at a tavern somewhere as an antidote to the great failure in politics these days: that nobody seems to listen to anybody else. I'm thankful that those who disagreed with me were nonetheless listening -- and that they assumed I would hear them, too. I did. We may never persuade each other, but I promise to pay close attention to those who think I'm a claptrap contraption.