One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books was John Buchan’s 1940 memoir, “Pilgrim’s Way.” Buchan, who served as a member of Parliament for the combined Scottish universities, wrote, “Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest ambition.” Politics, he added, “is still the greatest and most honorable adventure.”
These days it would be hard to find a handful of people in America who agree with Buchan’s sentiment. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, trust in government is at one of the lowest levels in a half-century. Almost three-quarters of Americans believe elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s interest. Much of the public has utter contempt for the political class.
Some of this is justified. Politicians aren’t putting forward solutions to the problems facing many Americans. There’s also their hypocrisy and corruption, as well as the triviality and rhetorical wasteland that characterizes much of public discourse. But that is hardly the whole of it. There are very good people who are quietly doing their jobs well and with integrity. I would hasten to point out, too, that voters are complicit in this problem, because they choose the people who represent them. The people who plant the flowers have some responsibility for the condition of the garden.
Repairing our politics begins with understanding the nature of the enterprise. Alleviating the public’s bitter mistrust of politics requires coming to terms with its mundane realities and limits.
If the 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr were to comment on the current state of affairs, he would warn us against cynicism and idealism, writes Wilfred M. McClay, a historian at the University of Oklahoma. Our disappointments arise from our excessive expectations. “We assume we are better people than we seem to be,” according to Professor McClay, “and we assume that our politics should therefore be an endlessly uplifting pursuit, full of joy and inspiration and self-actualization rather than endless wrangling, head-butting, and petty self-interest.”
Politics is less than perfect because we are less than perfect. We therefore need to approach it with some modesty. Politics is not like mathematics, where clear premises and deductive reasoning can lead to exact answers. We would all do better if we took to heart the words of the political scientist Harry Clor, author of “On Moderation.” “There are truths to be discovered,” he wrote, but they are “complex and many-sided; the best way to get to them is by engaging contrary ideas in a manner approximating dialogue.”
In the throes of partisan disagreements, it can be tempting to think of American politics as a Manichaean struggle of good versus evil. As someone who has been involved in his share of intense political debates, and has been a senior White House aide, I’m keenly aware of how easy it is to adopt this parochial mind-set, to feel that one is part of a tribal community.
Instead, we need the self-confidence to admit that at best we possess only a partial understanding of the truth, which can be enlarged by refining our views in light of new arguments, new circumstances and new insights. But this requires us to listen to others, to weigh their arguments with care, and maybe even to learn from them.
“You used to not be able to talk about politics at a polite dinner party because you would probably have a fight,” Lilliana Mason, who teaches political science at the University of Maryland, recently told The Washington Post, in a revealing article about how most Trump voters in Virginia, where I live, don’t know any Clinton voters and vice versa. “Increasingly, you can talk about politics at a dinner party because most of the people at the dinner party probably agree with you.”
In creating a world that continually reinforces what we believe, it gets harder to comprehend the attitudes animating others. The more distant our opponents are, the more likely we are to dismiss and dehumanize them. There’s no common ground, no acknowledgment that those who hold different views from us might have a legitimate point, an understandable grievance, a reasonable concern. This is when politics becomes blood sport.
We are in living through an especially partisan time now, but factionalism has always been a problem, under every type of political system. One possible answer comes from Montaigne, who pretty much invented the essay as we know it: “I embark upon discussion and argument with great ease and liberty,” he writes in “On the Art of Conversation.” “Since opinions do not find in me a ready soil to thrust and spread their roots into, no premise shocks me, no belief hurts me, no matter how opposite to my own they may be.”
“Whenever we meet opposition, we do not look to see if it is just, but how we can get out of it, rightly or wrongly,” he wrote a little later in the same essay. “Instead of welcoming arms we stretch out our claws.” Calmly, as always, he proposes a solution: “When I am contradicted it arouses my attention, not my wrath. I move toward the man who contradicts me: he is instructing me. The cause of truth ought to be common to both of us.”
Our low regard for politics is leading us to undervalue the craft of governing, to lose sight of the idea that there is anything at all that “ought to be common to both of us,” never mind truth. We are attracted to political novices and so-called outsiders, which leaves open the possibility of the rise of demagogic figures. Such a person might say, as the Republican nominee for president has: “I’ll give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for for 50 years. I’m the only one.”
Our democratic belief that anyone can be a political leader paradoxically feeds into the anti-democratic belief that we should look to one person to quickly and easily save us. No one, alone, can fix it, and in our system of government, this authoritarian approach is a prescription for catastrophe. Our confusion about and contempt for politics is also blinding us to the possibility that it can advance the human good. There are those moments in American history when great issues of justice have been at stake, from ending slavery and segregation to opposing Communism and fascism to protecting the physically disabled and the unborn.
More often, though, politics is about making institutions work somewhat better, helping people’s lives at the margins, giving men and women the room to make the most of their talents and skills. It’s about making our schools better and our communities safer. The people who give up on politics and who reflexively denigrate those who are practitioners of it are doing a disservice to our country. Skepticism is fine; caustic cynicism is not.
“Political activity is a type of moral activity,” the British political theorist Bernard Crick wrote in “In Defense of Politics.” “It does not claim to settle every problem or to make every sad heart glad,” he added, “but it can help some way in nearly everything and, where it is strong, it can prevent the vast cruelties and deceits of ideological rule.”
Thinking about politics as a moral activity may seem unimaginable during this malicious and degrading political year. But doing so, in a realistic and sober way, is the first step toward repairing America’s shattered political culture and restoring politics to the pride of place it deserves in our national life.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.