The Death of Politics, Peter Wehner. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.
Summary: A book that explores the noble calling of politics, the causes of the deep divisions reflected in the 2016 election and the years that followed, and what must be restored if the American experiment is to endure.
Peter Wehner, I believe, represents a significant swath of the American population that is deeply concerned by our current political divisions and the transformation of our political processes into hyper-partisanship, vitriol-laden discourse, and a disregard for truth, for the meaning of our words. At least I would like to believe that is the case. Perhaps Wehner just represents me and a few others.
Peter Wehner is an op-ed writer for the New York Times, perhaps enough of a qualification for many to write him off without a second look. That would be sad, because before this, he served in three Republican administrations going back to Ronald Reagan. The fact that those of his party would probably repudiate him today reflects the transformation of our politics that resulted from the election of our former president, whose election had been opposed in a number of Wehner’s opinion pieces.
Given all this, Wehner begins his book with a surprising assertion–that politics is a noble calling–perhaps not quite as surprising if one considers his background. He describes our current moment as a “slough of despond” and a “mess” but he argues that it is not a time to give way to cynicism or wallow in the slough but to recover what is noble in the imperfect practice of politics.
First though, he traces how we ended up in the current mess, attributing it to rapid demographic and cultural change, middle class economic anxiety, a politics of contempt all around, and the failures of our governing class. The ethnic and religious makeup of the country has changed. The day has come when those who are white and Christian are no longer in the majority, the wages of workers in the middle class have fallen, and our political leaders seem to be out of touch in their elite bastions.
Wehner then considers three political philosophers who have shaped the American experiment: Aristotle, John Locke, and perhaps America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. To these he attributes ideas like no ruler being above the law, that participation in a political community is essential to a healthy state, that human freedom and equality are not granted by the state but inherent, that governments govern by the consent of the governed, that it is not the state’s business to shape souls, and that fighting for justice does not abrogate the need to recognize the dignity of those who oppose us. Wehner maintains we need to reaffirm these foundations and the dangers of deviating from them.
Faith and politics is the subject of his fourth chapter. It is here that Wehner’s own deep Christian faith is evident, but not of one aligned with partisans. He discusses the moral basis religion has brought to American life at its best, ranging from civil rights to the Bush administration’s AIDS relief efforts in Africa. He observes the disjunct of evangelicals’ excoriation of a Democrat’s sexual failures while looking the other way in 2016. He argues that the ends don’t justify the means and contends that Christians need to focus on what Jesus actually taught, for the need of a coherent political vision rather than a stance on a few issues, a shift from a politics of revenge to one of reconciliation, and for the treatment of all our citizens as “neighbors.’ He argues that we need a gospel culture rather than a political culture within the church.
As he looks to the healing of our culture, it begins with words. We need to realize the power of words to stir us to either principled effort of unholy actions. He’s blunt in his denunciation of the culture of lying in the previous administration and the chilling phrase of “post-truth.” He contends that we all have a role in the restoration of integrity in our words from politicians to journalists to citizens who test claims for truthfulness, not only of the other political party but our own.
Wehner has not given up on the possibility of civility in our politics, of moderation and compromise in our policies (at least as of 2019). What I wish he could answer is how he would energize the “moderate middle” against energetic progressive and nationalistic partisans. I think he is hoping for the extremes to move to the middle, and I think this is highly unlikely in our heavily gerrymandered states where one’s base is all one needs to be elected. I personally have less hope that this will change our politics, but, like other virtues, I believe civility is its own reward, and part of Christian character that enjoys the favor of God, if not our political adversaries. But even here, Wehner holds out an interesting hope in the concept of the Second Friend (drawn from C. S. Lewis). These are not the First Friends who share our outlook but the person who shares our interest but comes at them in opposing ways with opposing conclusions. They force us to better thinking and action.
His final chapter offers a case for hope, drawn from his own political experiences–both the low and high points. He reminds us that we have never had perfect politicians–flawed leaders have led us in times of war and peace. He’s not arguing for the pretty, but the possible–a politics that works.
I found myself wondering if this would have been written differently after the contentious year of 2020 and the events of January 6, 2021. I wonder if he would have written with greater urgency. I would not have changed the argument though. Events since he has written only underscore the urgency of a return to the values he espouses. I think his plea for a return to the foundations of our democratic republic would have been stronger, foundations I believe partisans on both ends of our political spectrum are ready to jettison for their political ends. We need his call for honorable means in the pursuit of our political ends. When we allow ends to justify our means we will find that the fruits of victory will be poisoned fruit. The health of our politics and the democratic experiment will always be the worse for it.