Charlie Dent, ‘93G, and former Republican U.S. Congressman, lived “inside the trenches” during his 14 years serving the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, which covered most of the Lehigh Valley region.
Dent delivered the 2020 Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding at Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center on Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Dent’s family has attended Lehigh for nine generations, and he received his master’s in public administration in 1993.
He said American politics is primarily driven by “anger and fear.” He said he witnessed the increasing political polarization and wretched conditions that continue to escalate and present challenges.
“Anger has always motivated and energized voters, far more than anything else,” Dent said.
Dent said that anger today is all about “ratings, clicks, eyeballs and market share,” and is moving politics in a new direction throughout the rest of the world. He said many European political systems such as those in Britain, Italy and Germany are being driven by anger from the people.
He said the Trump presidency appeals to a “populist, right-wing anger that is culturally-based,” compared to anger on the left which is based in economics. He described ‘Trumpism’ in three words: protectionism, isolationism and nativism.
Dent said fear has also become an aspect of today’s political climate, and noted that he witnessed fellow members of Congress who were fearful about appealing to their party and their members. There is evidence today that leaders of both parties are afraid, which prevent them from performing their duty, Dent said.
“Many Republican leaders fear the president, Donald Trump, who demands loyalty and remains popular among the Republican base,” Dent said. “The president, unlike previous presidents, will use that popularity among the base to punish heretics of both parties: just ask (Sens.) Mitt Romney, Joe Manchin and Doug Jones.”
Jeffrey Kenner, ‘65, endowed The Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding and Tolerance in the College of Arts & Sciences in 1997, and was pleased to be back at Lehigh.
“It’s great that so many people come out and enjoy these lectures,” Kenner said. “It’s an honor to be at Lehigh and provide for it.”
After retiring in 2018, Dent became a CNN analyst and a senior policy adviser for DLA Piper, a global law firm. Dent was first elected to the House in 2004, and prior to that, served in the Pennsylvania state assembly and state senate.
After redistricting in Pennsylvania, the 15th Congressional District, once represented by Dent, became the 7th Congressional District. The new district includes all of the Lehigh Valley and is now represented by Susan Wild, a Democrat.
Dent said politics is no longer about ideology or principles, but rather loyalty to the president. Romney, for example, was disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Committee since he voted for witnesses and a conviction at the impeachment trial.
He said anger and fear has increased polarization within both parties, and that the country has become a separation of parties rather than a separation of powers.
Dent told the crowd how he was admonished by members of his own party after attending a Super Bowl party hosted by President Barack Obama weeks after his inauguration in 2009. He recalled how he was lectured for being in the same room as the “enemy” party.
“Fear always prevents members from getting to yes,” he said.
Dent said along with the increase in polarization, the norms and standards within the American political system have changed.
He said that it will take a financial or national security crisis to change the political dynamic.
He referred to the 2008 Great Recession as a time when all the branches of the government came together to get the job done. Dent said Americans expect their leaders to behave responsibly and to address problems that affect the voters, particularly during times of crisis.
Ethan Moscot, ‘22, attended the student roundtable discussion with Dent prior to the lecture, and he said he was pleased that Dent was not overly partisan — a tribute to Dent’s moderate stance throughout his time in office.
“It really informed me of a nice inside look of Congress,” Moscot said. “I like that Lehigh brought a moderate speaker to campus, and (that) is why I came.”
Although he acknowledged there is anger and fear within the American political system, Dent said he is optimistic that the political parties can be more united in the future.
“There’s always hope,” he said.