Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent speaks to students at Lehigh University

Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent '93G met with students prior to delivering the 2020 Kenner Lecture.

Former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent ’93G Dissects the Politics of Anger

Dent, who served seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, delivered the 2020 Kenner Lecture.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

The role of anger and fear in politics is not new, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent ’93G told the audience gathered in Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center on Tuesday evening. Anger, Dent said, has always motivated and energized voters. “That's what gets a lot of people out to the polls,” he explained.

What is new, Dent continued, is that anger has been “effectively monetized by the political right and the left. It’s all about ratings, clicks, eyeballs and market share. That’s the name of the game. And conservatives have been particularly effective at this, and I think the left is catching up. But we're talking about big money, and that's driving a lot of the anger, and there's a lot of money to be made in this. Anger on the right and the left are both driving the politics of disruption, not just in the U.S., but, I would argue, throughout the Western world...This is not unique to the United States.”

Dent presented the 2020 Kenner Lecture, “A View from the Trenches: The Politics of Anger and What Challenges Centrist Problem Solvers,” describing what he called “the wretched state of American politics, driven so much by anger and fear.”

Charlie Dent presents Kenner Lecture at Lehigh University

Dent acknowledged his personal connections to Lehigh, noting that in addition to his own graduate degree from Lehigh, his grandfather, three uncles, father, father-in-law, brother and sister all received degrees from Lehigh.

Dent, a Republican who represented the 15th Congressional District (now the 7th District) of Pennsylvania in the U.S. House of Representatives, served seven terms, from 2005 until 2018, when he stepped down. During his tenure, Dent was a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and led the Sub-committee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, chaired the House Committee on Ethics, and served as the co-chair of the Tuesday Group. Dent currently is a senior policy advisor at the global law firm DLA Piper, and also appears frequently as a political analyst for CNN. He is a Visiting Fellow for the University of Pennsylvania, Perry World House and a Distinguished Advisor for Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Kenner Lecture Series in the College of Arts and Sciences was endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65 ’66. Kenner, who studied industrial engineering and business administration at Lehigh, established the lecture series in 1997. After a career as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse & Co.), he became involved in private equity and venture capital. Kenner formed his own firm, Kenner & Company. Inc. in 1986. He served as a Lehigh University trustee from 1995 to 2002 and was an early sponsor of the IBE Honors Program. He has long been recognized as an Asa Packer Society and Tower Society donor and was inducted into Leadership Plaza in October 2000.

The Power of Fear & Anger

Robert Flowers, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Dent, who earned a master’s degree in public administration from Lehigh in 1993.

“The Kenner Lecture routinely brings to campus speakers that often confront our commonly held views and challenge us to see things from a new perspective. Past speakers have included Nobel Prize winners, political leaders and prominent members of the media. Congressman Dent is certainly in that category,” Flowers said.

Dent described what he sees as the culturally based anger of the right and the economically based anger of the left.

“The Republican Party is embracing Trumpism as a governing philosophy, which I would often describe in three words: protectionism, isolationism and nativism, [and] which I would argue are not attributes of a great nation,” Dent explained. “[Democratic] Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appeal to a populist left-wing anger that's economically based: The billionaires, the one percenters, the CEOs, the rich are responsible for your misery. They're keeping you down, and it's all about inequality. There’s a lot of anger there.”

Charlie Dent meets with students at Lehigh Universtiy

Dent met with Lehigh students prior to his lecture.

Dent emphasized the role of fear, which he said is “taking on an outsized role in the American political system” and is preventing elected officials from doing what they need to do to govern.

Many members of Congress, he said, “are fearful or afraid of their parties’ respective bases...and Congressional leaders are afraid of their members.”

He described members of Congress who were afraid to vote yes because they might get challenged in a primary by a member of their own party. Party leaders, he said, “were afraid to do what they knew they needed to do because they thought there was going to be some backbench insurrection.”

Republican leaders, he added, are afraid of President Trump, “who demands loyalty and remains popular among the Republican base,” and “Congressional Democrats are also increasingly fearful and afraid of extreme elements within their own party.”

Political polarization is not new, Dent said, “but fear takes polarization to a new level. And when you have that level of fear and anger driving all this, polarization leads to political paralysis, where it's just really hard to do just about anything.”

As a result, Dent continued, politics have become more tribal and situational.

He referenced his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which many politicians on both sides of the aisle opposed.

“I felt awfully lonely in 2016 supporting that. I thought it made strategic sense for a whole bunch of reasons, and it was in our economic and strategic interest, long-term, to do this. But not a lot of people supported it back then.”

However, Dent said, when President Trump pulled out of the TPP, many who once opposed it suddenly supported it “because Trump was against it. It was situational. People just completely flipped.”

A consequence of situational politics, Dent said, is that “we are likely to rationalize or justify bad behavior to stand up for members of our own party...Our system is really a lot less about separation of powers anymore. It's about separation of parties, if you really think about it.

“I found that the President's party in Congress feels it's their obligation to defend the President. This has been going on for some time [and] it's gotten progressively worse over time, and that's where we are.”

Part of the problem, Dent said, is that members of Congress realize there’s little political reward for those who seek consensus or compromise. “Rewards are reserved for those who tack hard to the base,” he explained. “And that’s really the nub of the problem. If these members thought they were going to be rewarded for entering compromises they would do more, but they don't feel that. So until voters actually reward those problem-solvers and consensus-seekers, I don’t think much will change.”

Dent expects the underlying political dynamic that’s driving the disruption and anger and fear to change eventually, but, he said, “it always takes a financial or national security crisis to change that dynamic...I hate to say that.”

He continued: “I am optimistic, though, that at the end of the day Americans are generally a pragmatic and practical people who expect their leaders to behave responsibly and to address the problems that affect them. They don't expect a lot, but they do expect functionality, particularly during times of crisis. So until then I wouldn't expect too much to change, [but] there's always hope.”

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Photography by

Christa Neu

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