2018 Manion Lecture: A Look at Contemporary America
Description: Dr. Douglas Elmendorf addresses the current US political discourse which is characterized by social divisions, hyper-partisanship and changing perspectives on pluralism.
Date: October 27, 2018
Taki Sarantakis: Good afternoon, good evening, depending on how you segregate your day. My name is Taki Sarantakis. I am the new President of the Canada School of Public Service and it is my great pleasure to welcome you here today to hear the 2018 Manion Lecture. Au nom de l'École de la fonction publique de Canada j'aimerais souhaiter la bienvenue a tous les participants de conférence Manion.
Douglas Elmendorf: I am delighted to have the opportunity to present the 2018 Manion Lecture. I look forward to explaining, as best I can, what is happening in the United States today. I regret that I'm able to give this speech only in English. When I received this invitation from President Sarantakis, I was thrilled for two reasons. I didn't know, by the way, what an important day this would turn out to be in Canada; maybe that's a third reason. But the two official reasons are, first, I've never had the chance to be in Canada's capital region and I was looking forward to remedying that embarrassing gap in my experience. And my wife Karen Dinen and I are just delighted to be here today. I was also thrilled because I know how influential the people in this room and watching across this country are. I spent 20 years of my career in Washington D.C. working on economic policy for the U.S. national government. I had the pleasure and privilege to work with an incredible array of public servants, people whose outstanding skills and deep commitment were making a tremendous difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. And I was especially grateful to the public servants who continue the ongoing work of government even as political administration's come and go. Thank you for all that you are doing for your communities, for Canada, and for the world.
Since becoming Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at , I've had a different connection to talented people who choose to go into government; participating in their training rather than in their ultimate activities. At the Kennedy School we teach students to be principled and effective policy makers and public leaders. The passion and skills of our students give me great hope for the future of governance. I'm truly heartened to see a new generation of public leaders answer a call to serve. The leaders we train come from and go back to places all over the world. Nearly half of a typical class at the Kennedy School come from outside the United States, representing roughly 90 countries, and we are a global school as well, in terms of our faculty, who come from a wide array of places. Indeed, I want to thank you for some of Canada's most terrific exports. The wonderful Canadian students and faculty who have come to the Kennedy School, I gather there are a number here and I hope we can say hello after I finish, I want to mention just a few names. Among our recent alumni are Yasha Recci, who graduated in 2016 and is currently serving as a Canadian diplomat in Thailand. Naheed Nenshi, the Mayor of Calgary, graduated from the Kennedy School in 1998. Gabrielle Scrimshaw received her degree last year. She is the indigenous Canadian who is the co-founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada and an advocate for indigenous leadership and economic development. Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of your Liberal Party, taught at the Kennedy School for a number of years before going on to become rector of Central European University in Budapest. And David Eaves teaches our students today about the use of technology in governance. He is from Vancouver and has advised the Canadian government on its open data strategy and sat on Ontario's open government engagement team. I'm proud that all of these amazing people and so many, many, more who are associated with the Kennedy School have done so much good in Canada and around the world.
Yet despite all the good important work done by you, by members of the Kennedy School community and by so many people, we are gathered at a troubled time in the world. We are gathered at a time when many people have lost confidence in their established political leaders and criticized those they view as elite, for being self-serving. We are gathered at a time when many people feel left behind by the rising tide of globalism in economic affairs. We are gathered at a time when the core institutions of democracy are under threat in a number of countries. We are gathered at a time when the international order, built in the decades following the Second World War, is being taken apart in some ways. Much that is happening around the world today, in my country, should concern us deeply. However, I remain profoundly optimistic about the future and about the ability of people of goodwill to make a better world.
So with that combination of concern and optimism, let me offer my perspective on what is happening in the United States today and what I expect will happen next. That is of course a very big topic and to make the discussion somewhat manageable, I decided to structure my remarks around some of the deep divisions one sees in the United States today, and the ways that I think we will overcome these divisions. The United States is now divided, sorted, polarized, in ways that it has not been in at least 50 years. You can see this phenomenon in many aspects of American society. I feel the oddity, by the way, of standing in Canada, in North America and referring to my countrymen and women as Americans. I realize there's a sort of imperialism in that, that I regret, but it is a convenient term and I will stick with it today.
In the United States, most people's allegiance to their political party and distrust of the other major political party, has become especially b. Record numbers of Republicans view the Democratic Party as a threat to the nation's well-being and record numbers of Democrats view the Republican Party as a threat to the nation's well-being. These attitudes permeate people's views on all sorts of topics. For example, Democrats' confidence in the US economy has dropped sharply over the past few years, while Republicans' confidence has surged, even though, in fact, the USeconomy is continuing along much as it has been. More people now say they would be very unhappy if their child married someone outside of their political party; a sort of opprobrium that we used to think about in terms of religious background perhaps, or something else. And where older political affiliations are increasingly aligned with other characteristics, we are seeing unusually large differences in voting patterns and political attitudes between women and men, between college educated and non-college educated Americans, between people living in rural areas and urban areas, and so on.
Now it bears emphasis, that divisions among Americans are not new. There have often been significant tensions in our country, tensions between Americans with different personal characteristics and different visions for the country. Thus we have experienced ongoing push and pull between isolationist tendencies and desires to engage internationally; between a desire for progress and a desire to return to "the good old days"; between populist and elite perspectives; between city dwellers and rural folk; between distrust of big government and big business on one hand and confidence in our large institutions on the other; between defence of immediate American interests and standing up for underlying American values; between a pluralist attitude of opportunity for new immigrants and a nativist attitude focused on protecting older immigrants.
One great strength of democracies like the United States and Canada, is that they allow competing visions to be expressed. The British novelist E. M. Forster, who also penned a number of political essays and anti-Nazi broadcasts in the 1940s, wrote "Two cheers for democracy. One, because it admits variety and two, because it permits criticism". But Forster recognized that democracy also falls short sometimes, so he did not give it three tiers. And one key way in which democracy can fall short, is that the variety of visions for a country can grow wider and people with competing visions can become unable to resolve those divisions within the normal functioning of their democratic system.
In the United States our divisions have grown, especially during the past decade, and we have not yet found ways to resolve those divisions or to move ahead effectively despite them. Let me explain what I see as three of the primary sources of divisions in our country and then offer some thoughts about how I think we will ultimately move ahead. You'll recognize that many of the forces causing wider divisions in the United States, are having similar effects in other countries as well. But I will focus in my remarks on the country I understand best.
One factor that has created growing divisions between people in the United States, is rising economic inequality. Our economic system has not served lower and middle income Americans very well during the past few decades. In particular, Americans who have less education or are living in certain parts of our country, have had much less economic opportunity and much less improvement in their standard of living, than Americans who have more education or living in other parts of our country. Moreover, the growing income divides are mirrored in growing gaps in life expectancy and other social indicators. Americans of my age, in the top part of our income distribution, are expected to live significantly longer than our parents did, on average, while Americans of my age, in the bottom third of the income distribution, are expected to live no longer than their parents did, on average. Indeed, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown that mortality rates for less educated, non-hispanic whites in the United States, have worsened during the past few decades, in contrast with mortality rates for other groups in our country and for people in many other countries, in part because of a rise of what Case and Deaton have termed "deaths of despair" from alcohol, drugs and suicide.
A second, and probably more important factor, that has led to growing divisions among Americans, is social and cultural changes. Women, people of colour, LGBTQ individuals and some others who have been discriminated against and marginalized historically in the United States, are now in somewhat ber positions, on average, in our society. These changes are very long overdue and very far from complete, but they are real. As these changes have made the United States more fair, they have lowered some other people's relative status and some of those people are unhappy about that outcome and want to stand up for the identity that they feel. In addition, other people, who do not object to the changes in our society, do object to what they view as a growing focus on demographic identity in the United States. And thus social and cultural changes that are moving the United States in the right direction and reducing some divisions, have unfortunately accentuated other divisions.
In addition, the share of the US population born outside of our country, is now the highest it has been in a century. The greater diversity of language, food, and culture that has resulted is exciting for many Americans, but it is disorienting and disconcerting for others, who fear the loss of customs and lifestyle of which they are familiar. Moreover, the economic and social changes I've described, work together in people's minds. There's evidence that white voters in America in 2016, tended to view economic concerns through a racial lens, in which they reacted partly to how they were doing, relative to how people in certain minority groups were doing.
And the third factor that has contributed to growing divisions between some people in the United States, is that more of our public leaders have been deliberately intensifying divisions for their short-term political gains. They have done so partly for the way they have treated each other. Michael Ignatieff, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote to the New York Times a few years ago "For democracies to work, politicians need to respect the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary is someone you want to defeat. An enemy is someone you have to destroy". More American elected leaders now treat other elected leaders as enemies to be destroyed and some treat opposing voters as enemies to be vanquished as well. More of our elected leaders have also intensified divisions in our country by undermining key institutions of American democracy that have helped to hold us together. These leaders are suppressing voting, using a range of techniques. They're undermining the rule of law, ignoring facts and evidence, and attacking our free press, even though voting, the rule of law, facts and evidence, and the press, are the cornerstones of our democratic system. In addition, more of our elected leaders are openly fanning the flames of discrimination and bigotry, in ways we have not seen for at least a half century.
Altogether then, I see three primary sources of the growing divisions the United States: widening economic inequality, social and cultural changes, and deliberate political strategies. Of course these three factors are not the only ones weighing on American politics and policy today. In the wake of a severe financial crisis and deep recession, and with the United States engaged in seemingly endless war overseas, many Americans have legitimate reasons for frustration with the economic and political system. People have legitimate reasons for thinking that many members of the elite are promoting their own well-being, rather than pursuing the common good; that globalism has served narrow interests better than some broad ones; that experts are often wrong. Those of us who are lucky enough to be in positions of influence, need to take these concerns seriously and respond to them. That means, among other things, listening to people outside our usual bubbles, trying to understand their perspectives and looking for ways to work across differences on a range of issues.
But I want to continue to focus now on the three sources of division that I have highlighted. Where does the United States go next? Well we need to overcome these divisions and I'm confident that we will, for the most part. But that process will not be quick or easy or complete. Let me explain.
I'll begin again with the divisions stemming from economic forces. The key forces that have generated rising income inequality in the United States are technological change, that favours more educated people, and the globalization of economic activity. Both of these forces are poised to continue in coming decades, much as they have for the past few decades. The ever-expanding use of digital technology and soon the spread of artificial intelligence we'll continue to benefit more educated people. And even a trade war between the United States and China, if it occurs, will not stop globalization. Technology and global trade will raise overall income the United States in the future, as they have in the past. The challenge we have not been meeting, is to raise income significantly for the broad cross-section of Americans.
I've spoken at length elsewhere about approaches for achieving more inclusive income growth in the United States. The key pillars to my mind are: to increase public investment in education and training for people who do not have good access to education and training today; to improve jobs that are usually held by people with less education and training; to expand rather than contract public programs for lower and middle-income Americans; to increase public investment in infrastructure; and to implement regulatory policies that protect the people from unfair business practices. None of these approaches will reduce widening inequality on their own, but collectively they can make an important difference.
Unfortunately, I see little prospect, to be honest, for advancing in these directions in the near term. Despite president Trump's populist rhetoric, the economic policies that have been advanced by the administration and by Republican congressional leaders, have not generally helped lower and middle income Americans. The tax cut primarily benefits high-income Americans. The regulatory roll backs and foreign trade disputes have primarily benefited pockets of American industry and workers, while increasing risks for others. On the ongoing efforts to cut government programs, subsidizing health insurance hurt lower and middle income Americans rather than helping them.
However I'm much more optimistic over the medium and long term. I think we see a growing public appetite on both sides of the American political aisle, for policies that can foster inclusive growth. As the appetite grows and public leaders try to feed it, we can start to make progress again on our economic divisions. The second source of divisions that I discussed was social and cultural forces. I mentioned these forces were probably a more important factor than economic forces in increasing our country's divisions. Analysis of the 2016 election appears to show that views of identity, such as race and gender, mattered more for voting patterns than views of economics, in part, because the candidates' positions on identity issues were so strikingly different from each other. Unfortunately, divisions caused by social and cultural forces are much more difficult to address than those caused by economic forces. The changes that have finally let women and black Americans and others who have been excluded from aspects of our society, play somewhat larger and more appropriate roles, will not be reversed. Many people welcome this evolution of course. But some others will continue to object to what they view as a misplaced focus on demographic identity. And still others will resist the changes consciously or unconsciously and will respond positively to leaders who argue that a return to earlier social norms is possible and desirable. Divisions around these social and cultural changes will persist.
For immigrants, I fear that the United States may be entering a long period of somewhat less openness. The last time that immigrants were such a large share of the US population, the country imposed tight restrictions on immigration that were not eased again for 40 years. I do not think we will repeat a backlash of that magnitude, because I believe that many Americans have an appreciation for the crucial positive role of immigrants in our society. But as a citizen, as a student of economic growth, and as the leader of an educational institution where people from outside the United States are absolutely essential, I find the prospect of any reduction in our national openness to be very troubling.
The third source of divisions I discussed, was deliberate political strategies of intensifying divisions and undermining public support for institutions that helped to keep us together. Those strategies seem to play well in some elections today, especially in primary elections with voters from one party, in elections in congressional districts or states where one party greatly dominates the other. The apparent success of those strategies for some elected officials and candidates encourages other officials and candidates to follow suit. And the debasing of our political culture that we have seen, will not be easy to reverse. It is unfortunately much easier to destroy trust and tear down institutions than to gain trust and build institutions.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks, wrote a year ago: "Day by day, Trump is turning us into a nation of different planets. Each planet feels more righteous about itself and is more isolated from and offended by the other planets." And the journalist EJ Dionne, now a visiting professor at Harvard, wrote in one of his Washington Post columns: "In the era of President Trump, politics is reduced to a fatuous debilitating spectacle. We screech, we weep, we laugh bitterly. We don't seem to think much." This increasing frustration on the part of many people, and less constructive engagement between people with different views, poses a very serious challenge. I am nonetheless confident that the United States will renew a positive political culture over time, for three reasons. First, the core institutions of our democracy have withstood the attacks on them. The rule of law has been attacked but still our law enforcement agencies and our courts are doing their jobs. The free press has been attacked but still I read important and illuminating pieces of journalism every day. Facts and evidence are sometimes ignored but still the government agency I used to direct produced estimates about proposed changes in our national health insurance system that mattered hugely for congressional voting and popular opinion. And the efforts to suppress voting continue but they are being countered by initiatives to increase voter registration, to make our census counting and thus political representation more accurate, to keep polling places open to reduce gerrymandering. I do not underestimate the seriousness of the attacks on our institutions but I am impressed by their resilience, impressed by the resilience of the public servants who are carrying these institutions forward.
The second reason we will renew a positive political culture in the United States is that many of our leaders and citizens are working harder now than before to understand what our fellow citizens want for our country. These efforts are taking several forms. Some people are listening more to news sources favoured by people in the other political party from theirs and reaching out to people to exchange views. And this is happening across the United States in various ways. Indeed one of our focuses this year at the Kennedy School, is developing ber skills for civil disagreement and constructive discussions with people whom one does not immediately agree with. And EJ Dionne, in the column I just quoted, also called attention to: "the quiet, intellectually serious debates taking place around the country, debates whose virtue is that they encourage us all towards nuanced views and genuine dialogue". Other people are trying to redirect their party's political agendas to be more responsive to the actual views of voters and more responsive to the views of current non-voters as well. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders showed that many people in both of our major parties do not feel represented well by the party's established leaders.
A colleague of mine told me about a Canadian pollster, Michael Adams, who wrote a 2005 book called American Backlash: The Documents That Divide and the Values Held by US Voters and Non-Voters, and he wrote: "The values of the politically disengaged show a distinct lack of idealism. These Americans seem to reject both the Republican and Democratic visions of the good life and the ideal community." And we are paying belated attention to the views of people who are disengaged from our political system.
And the third reason that I'm confident we will renew a positive political culture, is that Americans generally favour positive forward-looking leaders. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan won their places in American's hearts through their open friendliness and their optimistic and broadly appealing messages about the future. In contrast Donald Trump's dark rhetoric and narrow visions looking to the past, have brought him low popularity ratings, especially given the b economic conditions we are enjoying today. So I expect an American leader who can offer positive forward-looking messages, will ultimately prevail.
In sum, I am confident that the United States will overcome our unusually large divisions of today and move forward together again, although that process will take some time and a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Those of you who are watching us from other countries, including Canada, should take part from that outlook. You should also realize that the great majority of Americans continue to be very committed to b relationships with our friends and allies in other countries, including of course with the people of Canada. A poll of Americans this past summer found that 70% think it is best for our country to take an active part in world affairs. Roughly the same number think it is more important for us to be admired than to be feared in the world. And nearly as many agree that the United States should be willing to make decisions within the United Nations, even if those decisions are not our first preference. Moreover, four in five Americans said they think international trade is good for the US economy, a larger percentage that in similar polls in the preceding two years. With the embarrassing fight over NAFTA behind us and a revised NAFTA treaty hopefully coming into force, I hope that relations between Canada and the United States will fully regain their natural, necessary, positive spirit.
I want to end finally on another a positive note about the importance of public servants like you in this room and watching across the country. We recently recruited to the Kennedy School faculty a woman named Wendy Sherman, a former US Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Among Wendy's many accomplishments in both domestic and foreign issues in the United States, she led the team of Americans who negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal. And her recently published memoir, called Not For The Faint of Heart, Wendy wrote and I quote: "None of my public service was a solo act. I thank every team, American and non-American alike, of which I have ever been a part, for their extraordinary service. Public servants, diplomats in particular, have been excoriated of late in the United States. It will only be when we feel the wreckage of their absence that we will fully understand how critical diplomats are to our democracy and to our country." All talented and dedicated public servants are critical to our democracies, to our communities and nations and to the quality of our lives. Thank you again for all that you are doing and will continue to do in public service, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. Merci beaucoup.
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