The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Fractured Republic After Trump
By Peter Wehner
HarperOne; hardcover, $25.99; available June 4
White House veteran Peter Wehner, who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations and now is a New York Times contributing opinion writer, has written a definitive work on what is wrong with our politics and how it can be repaired.
The outspoken conservative and Christian critic of President Donald J. Trump offers a deeply reasoned and persuasive argument for restoring politics as a worthy calling to a cynical and disillusioned generation of Americans in The Death Of Politics.
Wehner writes, “This is a book that pushes back against what people have come to think about politics. The word itself conjures in our minds an image that is nasty, brutish, and depressing. My aim, however, is to leave you far more hopeful about politics than you are, because you have far more power than you think.
“Even I need to be reminded of this, as someone who has spent my whole career in politics, where I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly; where things work and things fail; and where I’ve encountered men and women of integrity, as well as scoundrels. I’ve worked as a college intern in the Washington State legislature, as a senior advisor in the White House, and in the previous three Republican administrations. Today, in my current capacity as a New York Times contributing opinion writer, contributing writer for The Atlantic, and frequent commentator on political talk shows, my focus has been on the general calamity caused by President Trump.
“In such a context it’s not always easy to get beyond fear and worry, deep disappointment, and a sense of genuine outrage at what is being done to the profession I value and the nation I love. This book, then, has been beneficial for me; I hope it will be for you as well. We have lost sight of who we are as a people and as a nation. We need to relearn what American politics ought to be about, and we need to realize that as citizens we have the power and ability to repair the fraying we have witnessed.
“Here’s the problem: when Americans think about politics today, their first thought is that it is inherently dirty and undignified; that most politicians are corrupt and unprincipled, either knaves or fools; that those involved in politics only care about their self-interest and not at all about the interest of the country; that it takes no special skills to be a politician – in fact the less experience, the better; that the problems we face as a nation are simple, the solutions obvious, so either stupidity or malice must explain why the solutions haven’t been implemented yet.
“We are indeed at a low ebb in the history of modern American politics – a period when politics is both trivial and dehumanizing, when large challenges are being either ignored or made worse, and when politics is an arena for invective. Virtually across the board, in both parties, the political leadership ranges from mediocre to dismal. Republicans and Democrats have contempt for each other. They can’t work together to solve our common problems. And the most important and powerful political office in the world is occupied by a man who is intellectually, temperamentally, and morally unfit to be mayor of a small city, let alone president of the United States.”
Wehner feels that we have to overcome this despair, which has caused citizens to abandon hope in one of the chief means for improving our world, our political process. This can open the door to us falling victim to demagogues but also dismantle the foundations of American greatness.
President Trump is a destructive figure, but Wehner views him as a symptom of the diseased state of our politics. He feels Americans need to stand up to Trump’s depredations and the forces that gave rise to him and challenges voters to consider their own complexity in the broken state of our politics.
“This book began to take shape, for me, from its realization that any nation that elects Donald Trump to be its president has a dangerously low view of politics,” Wehner writes. “This statement isn’t simply a supposition; it points to a serious problem. Donald Trump is the culmination of a long-term destructive trend: the public’s utter contempt for politics. By contempt I don’t mean merely extreme frustration or anger over what is happening politically. Such reactions have been apparent in America since our first contested election in 1800. Something new is afoot in our political lives. By contempt, I can describing how many Americans have crossed over a threshold from frustration to despair, from unhappiness to rage, from deep skepticism to corrosive cynicism. Many Americans have lost hope that we can solve our problems using the traditional means of politics. That is a very dangerous development; it opens us up to all sorts of anticonstitutional mischief.
“What is the result of this contempt? At a time when it’s imperative for Americans to recover a sense of the high purposes of politics, they elected as president a man who seems determined to denigrate it. Trump in this case is a symptom at least as much as a cause of the virus now threatening our common life in America. There is a very real sense that Trump’s presidency could mark the death of the very best of the American tradition of politics. If this happens, it would be a catastrophic loss.”
Wehner believes the country can turn around, but only if we abandon our contempt for politics and each other. We need to appreciate that politics is not only a necessary activity and an essential way to advance human flourishing.
The hard lessons Wehner feels people have learned about how to govern that are imperiled include: why we have checks and balances; why faith properly understood can elevate our politics, while distortions of faith can badly undermine our politics; why moderation, compromise, and civility are essential democratic virtues; why we defend the rights of those we disagree with; and why we need to oppose those who use words as weapons to annihilate truth.
The Death of Politics is meant to teach Americans what politics is meant to be about, and that people realize they have the power and ability to repair the fraying we have witnessed.