July 12, 2012

Democracy and the Discontented:
American and Global Challenges to Democratic Governance, and a Plea for Expanded Political Engagement

Global Scholars Symposium 2012
May 18, 2012

Elliot Gerson
Executive Vice President
The Aspen Institute

Thank you, Cynthia

I am delighted to be here.  I attended this conference last year and I spoke at one of the first symposia when it was in Cambridge.  I congratulate all the organizers.  I am especially pleased to see the great mixing of all the fellowships (Chevening, Churchill, Commonwealth, Fulbright, Gates, Marshall, Rhodes, and Weidenfeld).  They all represent the same goals:  to give outstanding students with talents and ambitions—characteristics that make them especially likely to make positive dents in the universe—the opportunity not only to study in great universities, but to do so in a country different from their own.  This allows you all to learn from similar young people from across the globe—from worlds where different prisms bend the perceptions of reality in almost always enlightening ways.

Few experiences better improve perspectives on one’s own country, allow one’s own values to be stretched and challenged, provide a chance to recalibrate one’s moral compass (a necessary repair job at least several times in one’s lifetime)—and offer at least a temporary exit from an escalator with few exits, one that seems inexorably to carry young people of extraordinary promise and achievement and privilege to ever higher—but not always better—destinations.

My basic plea with you today is to find ways to be engaged as meaningfully as you can be in public governance, for we have a growing crisis in governance everywhere, and your collective and direct personal involvement would make a difference, perhaps a huge difference.

I will discuss these issues from a global perspective, but most of my focus will be on the United States.  I won’t apologize for that, as that is what I know most about, and as U.S. influence is still so disproportionate.  But I think what we see in the U.S. likely has resonance in the other 51 countries represented here as well.
It is my belief that whether firmly rooted, with a century or more of democratic institutions, or where democracy is newborn and in barren soil, democratic legitimacy is now everywhere vulnerable if not in crisis.  And things will only worsen if people like you turn your backs on it.

There are many ways to make extraordinary public contributions—in teaching, in research, in the media, as a physician, engineer or scientist, in law, foundations and nonprofits, as a soldier, social entrepreneur or private sector entrepreneur, or as a business leader.  But if there once was a day one could assume all will be well enough if one goes on with one’s own worthy work while only modestly involved as a politically active citizen, those days are over.  Yes, politics today is usually dirty, and often corrupt, but it is more important than ever, and it surely doesn’t need to be dirty and corrupt.

Before turning to American political dysfunction—and that is the best word to describe it—let’s briefly canvass the broader word. 

Not long ago, we witnessed the exciting and uplifting experiences of the newly democratic countries formerly under Soviet domination.  Even a decade ago, as Charles Kupshan (educated here at Oxford) recently wrote in his important book, No One's World, trend lines were arguably positive with respect to democratic legitimacy and effective governance.  And surely the experience of the Arab Spring demonstrated, if nothing else, the universal human desire for individual dignity and for political institutions grounded in respect for every person regardless of privilege or caste.  But look around us now.  The Arab revolts could easily lead to much more disillusion well before they lead to real democratic empowerment, if they do at all.  And what might today be the legitimate wish of democratic majorities could be regimes that scarcely look open and tolerant, or have the characteristics we usually associate with western democracies.

Ask almost any young Arabs today:  would you rather live in, say, democratic Iraq or in autocratic monarchies like the UAE, Kuwait or Oman?  The answer will usually be the same if you give them the choice about what they think their countries will look like in 25 years.  This does not necessarily engender hope for democracy.  Let’s look elsewhere.

Greece is an obvious and now familiar case, and the rise of its far-right and far-left parties no surprise after its moderate parties governed so irresponsibly.  Professor Ngaire told us much about Greece earlier today.

Elsewhere in Europe, we also see the strength of right-wing and extreme left-wing parties.  Much of this reflects an increasingly cynical public.  Many of their leaders have failed them, poisoned their hope, corrupted their confidence.  But we also see deeply cynical, exploitative and malevolent politicians, and too often, too few women leaders of principle to take them on.

Or consider the governing party in Hungary, or the alarming strengths of regressive parties in Austria and the Netherlands.

Ukraine . . . Russia itself—well I need say no more.

And of course there is also now the existential question of the European Union itself.  Can Europe’s political leaders save it?  And if not, all I will say here today is magnified many times.

Look to Asia? . . .

Japan—we have seen a sorry succession of weak and ineffective prime ministers and an ever more cynical public.

India—the largest democracy on earth provides much to celebrate, but some of the optimism that was palpable three to five years ago is dissipating; the parties lack internal democracy and there is too much power at the top.

Pakistan—a much sadder story, with a corrupted elite.  The major parties are run as essentially family dynasties.  And the failure of politics has fueled military anti-civilian prejudice, and rampant civilian susceptibility to conspiracy-mongering.

Turkey—A shining exception of democracy in the Muslim world, but now we see journalists getting arrested and a dominant party showing some worrying signs of entrenchment to protect its rule indefinitely.

Africa—Freedom House says the number of full electoral democracies in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from 24 in 2005 to 19 today.

South Africa—consider the grave threats to free expression and democratic governance posed by the Secrecy Bill and The Media Tribunal.  Hearings are going on this very week.  We could see imprisonment of those who expose the corruption and democratically legitimated kleptocracy that eats away at that once and long suffering country, one whose entry to democracy was one of the great joys of the 20th century.

Move across to South America—swings to extremes of left and right continue with disillusioned citizens weary of bad governance.  And Argentina again is turning its back on world economic norms with a return of Peronism.

And let’s not forget Israel—one needn’t fully agree with Peter Beinart (also educated here) in his powerful new book, The Crisis of Zionism,  where he describes two Israels, one located “east of democracy,” to recognize a path where if absent a two-state solution soon, time and demography could end democratic legitimacy.

How about right here in Britain?  You would know better than I, but surely the exposure of media/political cronyism at the highest levels is deeply corrosive to public trust in democratically elected leaders.

Then ask yourself . . . what are the messages to the developing world from this parade of democratic discontent?  For some, it causes general disillusionment, but for others it tragically suggests that democracy is no better than the corrupt autocracies they suffer under—and to others still, it also suggests that state capitalism, as practiced for example in China, may be an attractive alternative, even with its extreme corruption, and lack of basic freedoms.

And there is a parallel crisis of a different kind of legitimacy that feeds back on the political one—one threatening the essential capitalist understructure of liberal democracy.  Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey, spoke at this very symposium last year of the need for a “new capitalism.”  And just Monday in London, he launched a new Institute focusing on the shortfalls of capitalism’s practices today, and the urgent need for reform to protect its fundamentals:  executive compensation out of whack, the gap between executive and average pay widening.  Make no mistake, these problems reinforce the political problem—together they compound the risks to both democratic and free market futures.  Michael Sandel (also educated here), writes of similar issues in his wonderful new book on markets and morals.

But I’d like to return to the U.S. political scene for the rest of my remarks.  Sadly, there is plenty of evidence—despite the obligatory rhetoric of politicians in an election year—that the U.S. isn’t quite the beacon to the rest of the world as it has been:  economically, morally, institutionally, or politically.  Consider the reaction of the rest of the world to that very distinctly American political rhetoric of exceptionalism, evoking images of the City on the Hill, our God-granted preeminence, and predestination.  Until recently, such language elicited condescending chuckles from foreign observers, but beneath that there was usually grudging respect, and even envy for a country whose citizens were so ready to express such national pride.  Now such language it is often openly derided as ignorance compounded by arrogance.  Let’s face it, even with all the problems—myriad problems—in Europe and everywhere, the American lantern is not as brightly inviting as it used to be.


And I don’t mean just literally inviting, as in inviting to immigrants—though that in itself is a huge problem, one that contributes to the general perception of a country closing itself inward and with declining promise to the rest of the world. 


I suspect that for those of you who are Americans, some of the experiences you have had since coming abroad relate to surprise at how well other countries you have now visited do things we used to think America does best, especially if you have traveled extensively, and particularly if in northern Europe.

One reason so many of American businesses still do lead the world is because they benchmark the competition they emulate best practices.

But suggest to an American politician that we should try to learn from countries that do things clearly and objectively better than we do and he will look at you like you are from Mars.  It is somehow unpatriotic to even raise such comparisons.  Imagine if a politician were to say, for example, “France has a better health care system than we do.”  I can guarantee that politician will suffer an electoral defeat—even though the statement in most respects is true.  The U.S. is, for too many, the only country that matters; experiences anywhere else are irrelevant . . . or worse.  Remember, we have many members of Congress who boast they have no passport.

At a time when many trend lines in the U.S. point to decline in this regard, one actually brings hope:  more and more young Americans go abroad for some of their education.  Last year, more than 260,000 studied in another country; a decade ago the number was about half that.  Value will come not just from greater global consciousness but from the direct experience that many nations do many things far better than we do.  Recognition of this reality—one often stubbornly ignored by our politicians—actually provides hope the U.S. can continue to prosper and lead again, and in more ways.

New statistical evidence of American’s competitive failings appears almost weekly.  We are now 25th of 34 advanced economies in student performance in mathematics, and behind many developing countries as well.  In college attendance, our previous preeminence has long faded; we are now 9th in percentage of younger workers with two-year or four-year degrees, and 12th in college graduation rate.  In health, we are 37th in infant mortality and equally low in life expectancy.  In environmental performance, we are 61st.  In the percentage of people below the poverty line, we are 21st.  Even in happiness, we are 15th among countries in people’s level of satisfaction with their lives.  And, of course, the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as one of the noble goals of government.

But many of our political leaders, as I just said, rather than asking what we can learn from the countries that have surpassed us in various ways—choose instead to win points and applause with unqualified boasts of our inherent greatness, and the implication that answers to our problems are to be found not just by closing our borders to immigrants but to foreign ideas as well.

The countries that are making great strides follow quite a different path, some autocracies.  No less patriotic than ours, their leaders ask what countries do best in elementary education or teaching science in high school, and how; what countries best prepare their people for tomorrow’s jobs, and how; what countries best protect consumers while maintaining business vitality, and how; what countries best reduce their independence on fossil fuels, and how.  They benchmark against the leaders—just like the strongest American businesses do.

Sadly, and shockingly given where the U.S. used to stand in most rankings, few of the best practices foreign leaders want to emulate are any longer in the U.S.

Young Americans who see the world—and America from different shores—can’t help but conclude that something is awry in a political culture that denies what they plainly see, and in a surprising number and diverse array of developed and even developing countries; health care systems that provide better outcomes at lower cost and for everyone; better airports, faster trains, more extensive urban public transportation—and even, amazingly, better highways; more upward mobility (yes, the American dream is now more real in many other countries than it is here, and I will return to this—it is critically important); more sustainable energy policies; elections that work quickly and inexpensively, with more rational discourse and greater citizen participation.  The list is long.

These young Americans usually return with an openness about the world that many of their parents lack.  No less patriotic than when they left, they see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger country.  They were taught, as we were all taught, that the U.S. was built to greatness on ideas borrowed by the rest of the world and improved here.  Interestingly, that is what we must do again.  I hope the Americans here will be among those—and will anchor your patriotism to realities, while still to the loftiest of our values as well.

Even our Constitution is no longer respected as it used to be.  I will in a few minutes return to this and suggest why there is good reason for this.  But consider that when many countries emerged as democracies in the mid-20th century, many if not most looked at the U.S. Constitution as a model for their own.  They don’t today.

Finally, consider some of the things that have fueled that American lantern of attraction for more than two centuries.  Perhaps more than anything else it has been the American Dream:  the universal desire that parents have that their children will lead lives better than their own.  This dream was given an American name, and not just in American dictionaries.  But that dream is dying.

And it is an urgent imperative that it be resuscitated.  And it can’t be, I argue, in the U.S. or any other country, if talented people sit on the political sidelines, or don’t attend the political game at all.

Zbigniew Brzenzinski has just written a powerful book on the declining global appeal of the U.S.  While as one might expect from him, he talks of the effects of the tragic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he also stresses the impact of the death of the reality of the American Dream.  He also decries the capture of American politics by special interests and campaign funding—which I will soon come to.

Let’s now fully turn to U.S. governance.  Simply stated, it doesn’t work . . . it is broken.

And the American people know it.  American government has never been more unfavorably regarded by Americans—at least as long as there have been polls, and probably much longer well. 

Congress itself has never been more unpopular.  Its favorability barely reaches the double digits. 

A recent Rasmus poll found only 17% of Americans believe our national government possesses the consent of the government.  17%!!  You are all young.  The Americans in the room may think those figures bad but that they’ve been almost as bad since you’ve been in high school—so perhaps they aren’t shocking.  But they haven’t always been bad.

In 1964, Pew found 77% of Americans expected their government to do “the right thing” almost always or most of the time.  Today, fewer than 20% feel that way.

So the American people think our democracy doesn’t work.  That could be enough to imperil its legitimacy even if they were wrong.  But there are also many objective signs that it doesn’t work.

One is that Americans don’t vote as much as citizens of most other countries, including developing countries.

In 2010, only 37.5% voted in Congressional elections.  Most of the poor don’t vote; they have largely given up hope (and who now by the way suffer the horrendous fraud of politicians complaining of voter fraud,  Everyone knows the many measures introduced to reduce “voter fraud” are designed only to keep the poor and elderly from voting.  Politics has become such a cynical game that people can deny this with a straight face and get away with it.  As in an increasing array of issues, facts don’t matter.)

But there are also signs that young people are voting less than they used to.  Why?  As Rock the Vote found in a 2010 poll, it is very simple:  because they think it doesn’t matter who wins; no real change is possible.  Why do they think so?  Because they think the power of special interests is simply too great.  And they are right.

Another sign  of our broken government is our near abject inability to deal with critical issues.

  • Climate change . . .  Nothing.  But perhaps a bad example as perhaps you’re a skeptic about it.  (Where else in the world do climate change skeptics exist in significant numbers?  But that’s another story . . .)
  • Deficits . . .  Right and left agree this a serious if not profoundly serious problem, at least in medium and long run.  Nothing happens.
  • Health Care . . .  Reform that was hugely important barely passed and may soon be undone.  Yet Americans on the right and left agree that 50 million people should have insurance of some kind, shouldn’t lose insurance because they lose their jobs, shouldn’t be denied insurance because they have preexisting conditions, and that health care costs shouldn’t fuel our deficit and threaten to strangle our future financial prosperity.
  • Financial Crisis . . .  It is reasonably clear what types of banking practices precipitated the crisis—yet, nothing even now after the JPMorgan Chase debacle.


Another sign of dysfunction is decaying public infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the U.S. an overall grade of D.  What does that tell you?

But I’d like also to suggest that poverty, pervasive and expanding, is one of the strongest indications of American democratic dysfunction. 

Not just the existence of poverty in the richest country on earth, and to shameful proportions, but its utter absence from political discourse.  What national politicians talks about poverty?  None.

America is moving to a kind of dichotomous society we used to deride in banana republics—rich getting richer in gated communities or their equivalent, and the poor growing, and barely seen in urban ghettos and rural decay. 

Extreme poverty is increasing too.  Over 20 million Americans live in extreme poverty.  One in 50 Americans’ only income is food stamps.  Add the poor and the near-poor—that is under $44K for a family of four—and you have more than 100 million people. 

In a wonderful book by E. J. Dionne (also educated here), he notes that the U.S. has gone from being cooperatively equalitarian to one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The richest country in the world now has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.

And, as I have said, the evidence is clear and stark—mobility from the poor to the middle class is not easily open to anyone of talent and ambition as it once was; it is declining. Americans now have less upward mobility—and those born privileged have less downward mobility—than in many of the formerly aristocratic countries our ancestors fled from.

I have argued Americans think its government broken and I have mentioned just a few signs that it is broken.  So why is it so broken?  Again I will suggest a few reasons, but my main concern is that more people like you dedicate at least parts of your careers to fixing it, restoring trust in it, and making it more responsive.

But what are some of the reasons it doesn’t work?

In my view, staggering inequality, with trends in the continuing and wrong direction—and the role of money in politics are the main reasons—both exacerbated by an constitutional system that doesn’t work for us well today.  Political scientists have even shown a casual similar correlation between growing inequality and growing political gridlock.

Let’s consider the matter of money.  When I left for Oxford in 1974, the total spent by all candidates for Congress, House and Senate, was $77 million.  In 2010, it was $1.8 billion.  Members of Congress spend up to 70% of their time raising money; that is their job; they become fundraisers far more than they are legislators.  British Parliament still deliberates; U.S. Congress does not.  Members spend fewer days in session or even in Washington.

In that same year when I came here, 3% of retiring Congressmen became lobbyists.  Now it’s 50% of Senators, 42% of House members.  Critics from the left and right and middle alike call our political finance system one of “legalized bribery. “ Add to the mix the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, and the spread of unaccountable super PACs, and it can be no surprise that public cynicism is at an all-time high.  Newt Gingrich’s campaign was kept alive long after the people declared it dead by one billionaire gambling magnate.  In any close election today, a single individual, a lone crackpot, can spend enough to defeat someone.  And worse, they do this mainly with negative ads.  Negative ads work—and they also turn off moderates and independents, further eroding confidence in government.

The media also are complicit in the dysfunction—but that’s a topic unto itself.  Not only is the kind of responsible journalism that once characterized much of the American press not yet found a new and a sustainable model of profitability, but political dysfunction is profitable for the irresponsible press, the shock jocks and the vitriol slingers.  Yes, the net and blogs can be wonderful alternatives but they also facilitate prefiltered news and can spread outrageous falsehoods.

And as I said earlier, some of the reasons the U.S. Constitution is no longer the global gold standard also contributes to the problems.  The U.S. Constitution was one of the great political accomplishments of all time—but that doesn’t mean all of it, especially the political comprises in it dictated by 18th century concerns—remain great provisions for all time.  Our checks and balances, our separation. of powers, our federal/state divisions, the now common use of the filibuster, senate-holds on president appointments . . .   All these contribute to the sclerotic gridlock that characteristics U.S. government today.  Nothing important can get done.

And in that vein, what is democratic about the U.S. Senate in the first place?  California’s 37 million people have the same representation as Wyoming’s 560,000.  That particular problem is only going to get worse given U.S. demographic trends; the Senate could end up as democratically unrepresented as was the House of Lords before reform.

And of course to add to the list, presidents are elected by the electoral college and not popular vote.  And a result of that is that the presidential campaigns are seriously fought in a minority of the states.  This is all crazy.  This combination of our constitutional and institutional scheme and the now essential role of money combine to make action on most critical issues so difficult.  Rich private interests with much at stake have many ways to block change.  This is why health care reform was so modest in the first place; that is why there was no public action; that is why climate change legislation is now near impossible; that is why the U.S. is alone in the world in its inability to regulate guns; that is why—when the tea party on the right to occupy on the left and almost all in between—can’t get basic financial reform enacted.

Enough, my point is not to depress.  It is soberly to acknowledge we have huge threats to the success of democratic government worldwide—including the most influential one, the United States—and in turn turnouts to citizens continuing respect for the legitimacy of those governments.

And it is to plea that as you all use this enormous privilege you have to study and live away from your home countries, you give serious attention to what you can do to engage politically when you get home.

I am not urging you all to run for office or to choose work in the public sector.  Though I do hope some if not many of you do.  But I am urging you to get as deeply involved as you can.

And this is not a matter of big government or small government, left or right or middle.  It is a matter of good government, respected government, responsive government, principled government.  Government for all the people, not just the privileged.  And those of you who become rich have every bit as much at stake, and arguably more, if trends don’t reverse.

Very few problems can be solved by the private sector alone.  Those of you who will engage in private or non-NGO careers to effect needed change will leverage that change many times over if effective government is your partner.  It is simply too important to leave it entirely to others.

The task is immense.  Public sector work needs to generate pride again, as it once had.  Public sector rewards must increase, including financial rewards.  Why are teachers paid so relatively little in the U.S.?  Because while our rhetoric respects teachers, our values do not match.

And for those of you who do go into politics, go with your eyes open but your values firm.  For today—in most countries, certainly in the U.S.—it is ugly.  There is too much preening to the rich and often ignorant, narrow-minded and prejudiced, while there are few rewards for dedication to the dispossessed who for at least some are still unlikely even to vote, let alone contribute to your campaign.

Public governance needs your extraordinary talent, reach, ambition and problem-solving skills.  Much of what you do will be frustrating.  But if you stick to it, while preserving your values, the personal satisfaction and pride you will have will surely compensate for the pain and slog getting there.

Just as young people were animated by the Civil Rights movements in the 60s, perhaps your generation can animate a movement to make government trusted and respected again.

Thank you.

**An excerpt of this speech appeared on The Atlantic website.**