Peter Wehner, the former George W. Bush senior administration aide and current senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has some hopeful things to say about politics, believe it or not, in his new book, The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump. In an interview, he explains why he’s hopeful, talking a bit about conservatism, gratitude, and even friendship.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: If politics is dead, does that mean we get to begin again? I confess to being tempted by the sound of that and suspect I’m not alone.
Peter Wehner: As a conservative, you can imagine I’m skeptical that we can or even should begin politics anew. What I would settle for is the renewal of politics. That is fundamentally what my book is attempting to do — to explain why our politics is imperiled, why politics matters, and what we can do to repair it.
When I refer to the death of politics, I have in mind the death-match mindset that characterizes American politics today, the attenuation and attack on democratic virtues, the spread of cynicism and fatalism — and my concern that if these attitudes aren’t confronted and reversed, they will do extraordinary, long-term damage to the American republic.
Lopez: Is it fair to blame Donald Trump? He didn’t necessarily start the fire.
Wehner: I agree; Donald Trump didn’t start the fire. The way I put it in the book is that he’s as much a symptom as a cause of our problems. There were certainly troublesome trends that predate Donald Trump’s entry into politics that he’s not responsible for. But what he is responsible for is making our politics cruder and crueler, more rancorous and more dishonest, more trivial and dehumanizing. This has radiating effects.
Just to stay with your metaphor: The fire started before Donald Trump entered the political arena, but he’s been pouring kerosene on that fire pretty much every day since he entered the political arena. Some Trump supporters aren’t troubled by that; I am. Some Trump supporters seem to delight in it; I don’t. That doesn’t mean, of course, that those on the left don’t have a lot to answer for. Over the years they have done a lot of harm to our civic and political culture as well. But Donald Trump is the president, and his influence on our political culture far exceeds anyone else’s.
Lopez: Why is understanding contempt as our problem so important?
Wehner: Contempt isn’t simply frustration or anger over what is happening politically. It is to cross over a threshold from frustration to despair, from unhappiness to rage, from deep skepticism to corrosive cynicism. My concern is that many Americans have lost hope that we can solve our problems using the traditional means of politics. This is a dangerous development; it opens us up to all sorts of anti-constitutional mischief.
Lopez: How great is the danger that civility projects and talk become a watering down?
Wehner: If they’re done poorly, there’s that danger. But the best civility projects don’t try to eliminate differences. They model how to navigate through our differences, how to disagree in a way that is done responsibly and without too much rancor. David Blankenhorn, the founder of Better Angels, says the group’s goal is “achieving disagreement.” It’s to talk across our differences as fellow citizens. That’s not watering things down or living under an illusion that we’ll jettison our differences. Setting up the expectation that politics, when it’s practiced correctly, will result in us all reaching common ground is utopian silliness.
Lopez: Why should a reader stop laughing at the idea that politics can be “noble”?
Wehner: Because it happens to be true. Just to be clear, my argument isn’t that politics is always noble, or that there isn’t a dark underside that exists. It’s an imperfect profession composed of imperfect people, which is true, by the way, of all professions and people. My point is rather that politics at its best can be noble because politics at its best is a means to advance justice and promote the moral good. If a person in politics champions policies that advance liberty and human dignity and protect innocent life and fights against policies that are an assault on human dignity, why wouldn’t that be a noble thing to do? Why would people laugh at that?
Lopez: “The political arena is actually full of people who love their country and want to serve it.” Anyone in particular who inspires you today?
Wehner: One person who comes to mind is Ben Sasse. I disagreed with him when he supported President Trump’s “emergency declaration” last March, which I believed was a clear violation of the constitutional order. But Ben’s a conservative, quite thoughtful, thoroughly comfortable in the realm of ideas — he’s a former college president, with a Ph.D. in history — and a very decent human being. He believes we need to respect facts rather than assault them. And temperamentally he is just what the country, and especially conservatism, needs just now. He’s not stuck in a perpetual state of anger and resentment. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s reasonably winsome and cheerful.
Lopez: “The task of citizenship in America today is not simply to curse the political darkness but to light candles. This can be done one person at time, in your neighborhood and city, at a homeless shelter and a school-board meeting, at neighborhood gatherings and city councils, and in countless other settings.” But surely that is not enough?
Wehner: Of course that’s not enough. But those are only two sentences in a 264-page book. I credit my editor with pushing me to offer a host of concrete things that citizenship requires of us. But I should add that the main purpose of The Death of Politics isn’t to offer a 10- or 100-point plan for how to be a good citizen. Such books and reports exist, and they can be helpful. But my aim is to deal with what I take to be more fundamental matters, which is to explain what politics rightly understood is. What is the role of faith in politics, and why does it go off the rails so easily? Why are moderation, compromise, and civility democratic virtues worth defending? Why does democracy require that we honor the culture of words? Those are the kinds of issues I explore in this book. I also argue that citizens who demand more will yield politicians who offer more.
Lopez: For anyone who has had friendships rupture or strained over Donald Trump, how do you hope you and Joe Klein might be examples (even though your fraying predated Trump)?
Wehner: In The Death of Politics I begin the fourth chapter with an anecdote. During the 1990s I became good friends with Joe Klein, who was then a columnist for Newsweek. Joe was more liberal than I, but we had similar interests, and our relationship was characterized by respect, affection, and interest beyond politics.
For reasons I discuss in the book, the relationship went south after I joined the Bush White House. When I left, we aired our differences publicly, through the different outlets we wrote for — and in my case, NRO was one of them. The debates got intense and at times personal. I justified what I wrote — I was simply defending myself from attacks, I told myself — but part of me felt that what happened wasn’t quite right. So years later I reached out to Joe in an email, in hopes of reconnecting. We did; we met for breakfast at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. Reconciliation was on track.
What’s the point of the story? It’s that difference in politics can break bonds of affection. Things can escalate quickly. In our case, political differences had splintered our relationship. I’m thankful that we put things back together, and we’re once again close. But it took time and effort and intentionality on our part to make that happen. So when I write about how politics can create mutual animosity, and how we might say things in the heat of the moment that we come to regret, I know of what I speak. I’ve been there.
Lopez: You talk about “After Trump,” but there may be a long road to that point yet — he may be president another four years. Can there be healing during the Trump presidency years?
Wehner: At the national level, it’ll be extremely difficult, especially during what will almost surely be a brutal election. The fact that the president thrives on inflaming our emotions means we’re still in the middle of a rough stretch. On the left, there’s a lot of deep contempt for people who don’t share their views, especially on cultural matters. So we’re caught in quite a bad cycle just now, but that’s precisely why we need to begin to carefully think through what needs to be done at every level to repair things.
I’d add that while our national politics is a wreck right now, progress can be made at the local and state level. In the book, I profile groups such as Better Angels and Speak Your Peace, whose aim is to achieve disagreement while continuing to remain respectful of one another. They’ve had impressive success. And David Brooks is doing some great work at the Aspen Institute in an effort to create a cultural movement to repair our country’s frayed social fabric. We should do what we can do, and we can all do something.
Years ago a friend of mine told me that if you walk into your bedroom and are overwhelmed by how messy it is, the first thing you need to do is pick up the clothes at your feet. You can’t clean up everything all at once, but you can act right away to make things better. And if you stay at it, the room will eventually be cleaned up.
Lopez: You mention Bill Buckley and gratitude. Why must politics always be about gratitude?
Wehner: The reference to Bill Buckley is in a section of the book on how citizens can heal the breach. Buckley believed a year of voluntary national service would strengthen feelings and appreciation for the nation. On gratitude, I write in the book that people who are grateful are more able to dispense grace to others. Gratitude finds ways to express itself; the result is a more humane, decent, and merciful society and political culture.
Lopez: Is there something particularly conservative about gratitude?
Wehner: My close friend and former colleague Yuval Levin has said that conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs — we know that people are imperfect, and fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. He argues that conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it. And that seems right to me.