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Society's Moral Fracturing Leads To Dangerous Places


We've been talking about our fast-paced, disorienting era and trying to make sense of it in a series of conversations called the History of Our Time.


Last week, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told us that in America and abroad, the path ahead lies not in strong individual leaders but in strong democratic institutions.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We can't rely - or no country can rely on just a single personality to carry it forward. And so what the American founding fathers understood was that institutions were built for human imperfection not human perfection.

MARTIN: Our next guest in this series says imperfections are infecting our political discourse, preventing people from finding compromise.

GREENE: His name is Peter Wehner. He's a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He's a Christian conservative who served in the last three Republican administrations. And he has termed in his writing to what he sees as a moral fracturing of our society.

PETER WEHNER: Well, I think that several things have gone on in American society that have caused a kind of moral confusion. One of those things, I think, is that there's been a rather sustained assault on truth, kind of postmodernism. And that's a movement that really developed in the academy years ago, the notion that either objective truth doesn't exist or if it does, it's not something that we can ascertain.

GREENE: You say the academy meaning, like, academia?

WEHNER: Yeah, colleges and universities. But I think what's happened is that that has now spread to the wider society and including political society. And I think when you lose that, you lose the ability to reason together. And that kind of thing is really problematic in a society. And we're seeing a kind of paranoia and conspiracy mongering in politics that is unusual and, I think, worrisome. And I think a lot of that comes back to this point about the idea that there just isn't a truth that we can agree on or accept.

GREENE: And you're saying this is on both sides.

WEHNER: Yeah. I think that this is certainly bipartisan and is touching people in all sorts of movements. Look, I think this is a human condition, right? We have a certain world view. And we tend to interpret facts through that prism. But I think what's different now is that tendency has accelerated and how dominant it is. And this is something that we have to fight against as individuals and as a society. And I think we're losing that fight. And we have more and more people living in essentially political silos.

GREENE: And we should say, you have not really spared either party in your criticism. You severely criticized Hillary Clinton. You said on our program, actually, on the last full day of President Obama's term in January that his presidency had largely failed. I just want to listen back to what you said to us then.


WEHNER: He used rhetoric that I think for a president was unusually divisive. He constantly accused Republicans of putting party ahead of country. And that kind of rhetoric over a sustained period of time has consequences. And I think that some of the failures of the Obama presidency led, unfortunately, to the Trump presidency.

GREENE: And you have even been more vocal, we should say, about the shortcomings of President Trump in your eyes. So is it really a matter of leaders failing to bring Americans together to engage and leaving them sort of in their silos?

WEHNER: I think that's part of the problem. I think one of the solutions that we need is we have to have political leaders who are willing not just to challenge the other side but to challenge their own movement. That's just not happening right now. And so what has to happen is you have to have political leaders speak to their own side - what you said is wrong, what you said is not true. And we have to have fidelity to truth. And we have to put our loyalty to truth above a loyalty to party. But I don't put all of the blame on our political leaders because this is a self-governing country.

And the people themselves are electing these kind of leaders. It's a little bit hard to say that you're planting beautiful flowers and you have an ugly garden. And for the American people to look and see, in this case, the analogy being that politics writ large is an ugly garden. But the people that they elect, either their representatives or their senators or the president, is somehow debilitating our political culture. So the American people have some complicity in all of this too. But at the end of the day, political leadership matters because our political culture is sick. Right now we're flying apart.

GREENE: So are you asking lawmakers today to almost become political martyrs if they need to? They might go down in the next election, but at least they would be leading by example in trying to make the country less divided?

WEHNER: What I'm asking for is something that I don't think is superhuman. I'm basically asking for integrity and for people to speak the truth and to act in a way that is reasonably admirable. These aren't heroic acts. The people who are participating in politics have an obligation to advance even imperfectly the common good. And they have an obligation as well to take care of our country.

GREENE: What gives you hope?

WEHNER: For one thing, I think that this is a nation, America, that has a tremendous capacity for self-renewal. And for all of the problems we've faced, we've been in much worse situations than this - the Civil War, the Depression, even several decades ago, 1968 was an awful year. Just the assassination of King and Kennedy, you had the Vietnam War - it was a very tumultuous time. So these things can go in cycles. And what's broken can be repaired. Second thing is I actually believe that in some cases, viruses create their own antibodies.

So I'll give you a practical example. In the aftermath of Watergate and the Nixon presidency, there was a real interest in political ethics. People saw what had happened with the lawlessness, and they responded to it. And that can happen again.

GREENE: What can a single citizen do if he or she wants to feel like they are helping to overcome this political division in the country?

WEHNER: One thing that we can all do is just listen a little bit better and to try and turn the temperature down rather than to turn the temperature up. I think what's happening more than I've experienced in my life is this dehumanization. It's the idea that if somebody has a different view than I do, that they're not only wrong but they're morally corrupt or intellectually corrupt or both. And we do have to be careful about dehumanizing the people that we don't agree with.

GREENE: Peter Wehner, real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

WEHNER: Thanks. I appreciate being on.

GREENE: That's Peter Wehner. He has served in several Republican administrations. He's a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. We spoke to him as part of our series the history of our time. And there are more conversations to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARBOR LIGHTS' "ON A SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.