A little skirmish broke out the other day in the conservative political/intellectual world. I hesitate to call it a skirmish, because it was partly a debate about viewing cultural debates as war, and strategies for winning. I thought immediately of my late friend Andrew Breitbart and how restless he would sometimes get when conservatives would get too “eggheady.” This would happen especially when he visited friends in established conservative movement circles.
One presidential election year, I caught up with New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the final night of the Republican convention in Tampa. He was giving an invocation at both parties’ gatherings that year, and getting grief from many on the right for inviting both presidential candidates for the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York. Dolan implored people to consider that if we couldn’t even break bread together, where could we come together? Fast-forward to the Al Smith dinner with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016, when the hostility – at an event where the candidates are supposed to roast each other and laugh together – could have been cut with a knife. But at a quiet moment beforehand, even then, even in that worst of our modern elections, Dolan managed to get the two candidates to stop and pray privately together.
All that was in my mind when Sohrab Ahmari closed a piece criticizing my National Review colleague David French (both are friends) with these words: “Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.”
“Civility and decency are secondary values” are words that should give us real pause. And if you’re partial to Ahmari’s thinking right now – wherever you are coming from – included in your summer reading should be Peter Wehner’s new book, “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”
In it Wehner, who is, among other things, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes: “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 a 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.”
Wehner admits, “The great challenge for a book like this is that its greatest reach may be with people who least need to hear its message. The political entrepreneurs and social provocateurs who win profit and promotion by demeaning politics and coarsening discourse are not going to be swayed by a book like this.
“But modern psychology and ancient wisdom both show,” Wehner continues, “that the effect of example can be profound. One such example was set by a prophet from Nazareth many years ago, and there have been many since.”
“What are we waiting for?” Wehner asks. “If each of us inspires or moves one or two or three other people to give politics – real politics, not just political theater – a second chance, to think twice before sending that inflammatory tweet, or to listen and question instead of jumping to disagree, then there will be millions among us. We don’t need to transform everyone’s behavior or temperament (something no conservative would ever want to attempt, by the way). Reach the moveable middle, and the country and the culture will move with it.”
The contempt in the air is something of a social madness. It’s our moral duty to combat it with a better example. We all have our roles, but as Pulitzer Prize winner Peggy Noonan put it in her commencement address at Notre Dame this year: “The secret of successful politics: Be moved more by what you love than what you hate.” That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree, and deeply. But it also means we might still find a meeting place in our common humanity in the midst of some of our most contentious and necessary debates.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at [email protected]