The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress is losing a wise institutional patriot

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) confers with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a news conference in January 2019. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
5 min

We think of prophets as thundering against injustice and calling us all to account. Those mighty voices are indispensable. But there is another kind of prophet who speaks to us with quiet wisdom.

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) would bridle at the thought of anyone turning him into a prophet. His perspective on politics is infused with the humility of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Augustine’s commentaries on the imperfections of human nature. But that is precisely why he has long been the second kind of prophet for me.

Price, who is retiring from Congress in January at the age of 82 after 17 terms in office, has been a special figure in our public life. He is a loss to the institution and our politics precisely because he thinks institutionally. He believes that Congress matters and that individual members have obligations not only to themselves, their consciences and their constituents, but also to making the first branch of government function effectively.

He grew up in east Tennessee in a Republican family and became a Democrat as a student in North Carolina because of his engagement in the early years of the civil rights movement. He got divinity and political science degrees from Yale and is a first-rate political scientist — his book on Congress, first published in 1992, came out in its fourth edition at the end of 2020. It’s one of the best examples of “participant-observer” scholarship.

He thinks a lot about right and wrong (he briefly considered becoming a minister) without ever falling into the trap of a scolding moralism.

On the contrary, his morality — inspired by Augustine and the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — is rooted in the idea that we are all imperfect. But we also have the capacity to transcend our failings.

He speaks of recognizing “the pervasiveness of sin and self-seeking in all that we do individually and collectively” while appreciating “the spark of divinity, the other side of human nature” that can “break through to order our lives and order our affairs.” His “paradoxical notion of human nature,” I’d argue, has the benefit of being true.

First elected to the House in 1986, Price is part of a relatively small club: someone who lost an election (he was beaten in the 1994 GOP landslide) and then came back to Congress two years later.

Having relied on him over the years as a sane voice during out-of-control political moments, I wanted to interview Price one more time before he left town and returned to teaching at Duke. I think of him, in a phrase introduced to me by the political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann, as an institutional patriot.

“A member of our institution or any governing institution needs to strike a balance between their own personal convictions, personal goals, personal political axes to grind … and what it’s going to take for the institution to function,” he says. “Of course, you’re going to criticize institutions. Of course, you’re going sometimes to set yourself apart and take a lonely, conscientious stand. But you also need to understand that an institution of 435 members, each marching to their own drum, is going to be totally dysfunctional.”

He can also see things from multiple angles. How many former state party chairs/professors/politicians/theology students have you met? So, I asked him what advice he would give Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), representing opposite wings of his party, if they made a joint visit to his office.

For someone often seen as a moderate, Price’s answer contains some surprises.

“I wouldn’t just tell them to be nice to each other,” he says with a laugh. “I think a lot of the civility discussions are quite superficial.” He also insists, “I don’t think we get anywhere by just telling everybody that they ought to tack towards the center.”

The imperative, he says, is “strategic thinking.” On the one hand, “don’t hesitate to be full-throated advocates for what you believe in. … At the same time, understand that not every battle can be won on the first try and that politics is a matter of striking a balance between … compromising and finding common ground where you can, and fighting where you must.

“The art is, of course, knowing which is which,” he adds. “And within the Democratic Party there needs to be a kind of sense that not every battle is Armageddon. … You just don’t necessarily solve all the problems at once.” In the Price vision, the means are determined by what works, but the ends are measured against principle.

I’ll miss a politician who combines reflection with action, the practical with the visionary, and engagement with critical distance.

It’s in the nature of Democrats, he says, never to be content — and that’s okay with him. “We hold before ourselves ideals of liberty and justice and common good,” he says. “And we are never satisfied with the current iteration of those things.”

But the rest of us might be a bit more satisfied with our institutions if they were graced with a few more institutional patriots like David Price.