It takes neither a politico nor a clairvoyant to realize that the current state of American politics is less than healthy. Public trust in government hovers around an all-time low as Americans of all political stripes express dissatisfaction with the political class.
To offer an assessment of what's gone wrong and a roadmap for how to fix it, Will Hurd, until last year a Republican member of the House of Representatives representing Texas's 23rd Congressional District, is out with a new book, American Reboot.
Hurd draws on his experience in the CIA, as a cybersecurity expert, and as a former member of Congress to chart a course for what America ought to do to rebuild that trust and start moving the country forward.
Hurd's prognosis of what ails the country is often hard to argue with. Social media is driving divisions by making it easier than ever to shout at our opponents behind the safety of a keyboard. Our country's most strident ideologues aren't really interested in governing at all. Hurd's story about how he was asked, while leading a briefing following an attack on a base in Afghanistan, if he might wrap up early to allow senior members of Congress to go rug shopping perfectly captures how our political class can't be bothered with real issues. And Hurd isn't afraid to wade into the debate on hot-button issues, cutting to the quick on the Russian collusion hoax, calling out Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) by name for misleading the country.
But in many cases his prescription for addressing these problems is minimal.
One of the many crises that Hurd discusses in his book is the dearth of affordable childcare and professional challenges facing pregnant women. His solution? Pegging parental tax cuts to inflation and calling the regular practice of employers not hiring women who are pregnant "outrageous." As far as inventive policy approaches that would move the needle, these hardly qualify as the kind of "pragmatic idealism" Hurd champions.
His framing is much the same when discussing America's lagging K-12 educational attainment, a problem he outlines a solution for in three paragraphs (cut red tape, pay teachers more, empower schools, teach coding) before moving on to remedy our lack of computer engineers and their relative diversity.
In lieu of details, Hurd is often long on platitudes. He implores us to help our political adversaries and remember that "way more unites us than divides us." His epilogue is titled "We are all in this boat together."
And despite Hurd's admonition that politicians need to just "show up and listen," he sometimes comes across as condescending and dismissive. He gives short shrift to well-founded freedom of religion concerns about the Equality Act, saying he "shouldn't have been one of only a few Republicans" to support the bill. He blamed "cognitive bias" for why people were skeptical of social distancing and wearing masks during COVID-19, even though increasing evidence shows that neither approach was particularly effective.
Rather than recognize earnest disagreement, Hurd blames the usual boogeymen. He contends that what ails American politics are the fringes: the loudest voices on social media, QAnon believers, and attention-seeking bomb throwers from noncompetitive congressional districts. These forces conspire together to prevent progress for the "super majorities" of Americans who are reasonable, bipartisan and—it would seem—have ready answers to America's greatest challenges.
But the reality isn't so tidy. How do we expand services like Medicare and Medicaid—as Hurd suggests we need to—without sacrificing quality of our health care more broadly? How do we promote economic freedom while reckoning with the legacy of America's racial and gender shortcomings while also confronting an increasingly bellicose China? How can we spend enough to leapfrog our adversaries in advanced tech without ballooning a national debt that hits a new record high every day?
On these nubby questions, Hurd is mostly silent.
Part of the trouble is that Hurd often conflates his own brand of down-the-middle political pragmatism with both electoral popularity and moral conviction. Yes, primaries and gerrymandering prevent the will of the voters (sometimes) from being expressed. But the bigger problem is that Americans of good faith often disagree—both with each other and with Will Hurd—about how we should address the challenges Hurd glosses over.
Immigration provides a case in point. Drawing on his time representing a majority-Latino House district, Hurd argues that America needs to welcome more immigrants. But would his Latino former constituents agree? Despite what a more identity-conscious wing of the GOP has been saying since the 2012 election postmortem, the idea that Hispanics are interested in increasing immigration or kinder, gentler treatment of illegal immigrants isn't supported by the polling data.
On other issues, Hurd's solution follows the tried-and-true D.C. approach of ignoring the downstream consequences. When talking about the revolutionary power of A.I., Hurd's workforce concerns are limited to adapting to "a workforce capable of using A.I. for the tool that it is" and avoiding "unnecessarily economic hardship and pain for the average American." But what about the people working the jobs that will be lost: the truck drivers, receptionists, accountants, and cashiers? Hurd's advice is to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and learn to code "to ensure the U.S. economy stays the most important economy in the world."
And Hurd papers over areas where we just can't agree. He calls for bold action to confront the threat of climate change, intoning that "addressing this existential crisis" will require finding common ground. But on perhaps no issue are Republicans and Democrats more divided. A 2019 report from the Pew Research Center found that 90 percent of people who are or lean Democrat believe the government is doing too little to fight climate change, whereas only 24 percent of conservatives thought the same. Similar polling ahead of the 2021 U.N. Climate Change conference found that 82 percent of Democrats saw climate change as a critical threat while only 16 percent of Republicans felt the same.
Rather than address these differences, Hurd is mum about Republican skepticism and suggests that the Democrats aren't really interested in the radical Green New Deal in spite of the fact that more than 100 elected Democrats have signed on to or endorsed the legislation.
While Hurd's new book may outline his vision for the future of the Republican Party, it falls far short of its self-appointed goal of providing "an idealist's guide to getting big things done." American Reboot reads instead like Chicken Soup for the Frustrated Politician's Soul—a laundry list of feel-good solutions that ought to be done in a world where no one has to deal with the messy politics or the pesky details involved.
Countless politicians arrive in Washington assuming that the challenges confronting our country are easier than they seem. That's understandable. But walking away from the town and its challenges without recognizing the difficulty and complexity of the real world doesn't inspire confidence in a supposed road map to fix it.
Perhaps that challenge is far beyond anything anyone could hope to explain in a 250-page book. But that's precisely the point. "Rebooting" a country isn't like rebooting a computer; you can't simply reach over and hit the power button and hope that what turns back on is better. You need to invest the time and energy to rewire and reengineer all the things that matter—a challenge far greater than writing a book about how it might come to be.
American Reboot: An Idealist's Guide to Getting Things Done
by Will Hurd
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $27.99
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant and freelance commentary writer in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican congressional staff member.