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2018 Manion Lecture: A Look at Contemporary America
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
October 17, 2018

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here. Thank you so much, Mr. Wernick, for that gracious introduction. Bonjour. C’est un honneur d’être ici. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Wernick, pour cette gracieuse introduction.

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 am able to give a speech only in English.

When I received this invitation from President Sarantakis, I was thrilled for two reasons. One is that I had never been to Canada’s Capital Region, and I wanted to remedy that embarrassing gap in my experience. My wife and I are excited to be here now. I was also thrilled because I know how influential are the people in this room and watching across the country. 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 administrations come and go. Thank you for all that you are doing for your communities and provinces, for Canada, and for the world.

Since becoming dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, I have 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 policymakers and public leaders. The passion and skills of our students give me great hope for the future of governance; I am 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 is from outside the United States, representing 90 countries. We are also a global school in terms of our faculty, who come from a wide range of countries.

Indeed, I want to thank you for some of Canada’s most valuable exports—the terrific Canadian students and faculty members who have come to the Kennedy School. Among our recent alumni are Ayesha Rekhi, who graduated in 2016 and is currently serving as a Canadian diplomat in Thailand. Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, graduated from the School in 1998. Gabrielle Scrimshaw received her degree from the Kennedy School last year; she is an 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 becoming rector of Central European University in Budapest. David Eaves teaches our students 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 am proud that all of these amazing people and many more who are associated with the Kennedy School have done so much good in Canada and around the world.

Yet, despite all of the good, important work done by you, by the Kennedy School community, and by so many others, 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 criticize those they view as elite for being out of touch and 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 many 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 key ways.

Much that is happening in the world today should concern us deeply. However, I remain profoundly optimistic about the future, and about the ability of people of good will 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. 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 those divisions.

Divided America

The United States is now divided, sorted, and polarized to a degree it has not been in at least 50 years. You can see this phenomenon in many aspects of American society. (By the way, I feel the oddity of standing in Canada, in North America, and referring to my country and my countrymen and women as “American.” But that term is much more convenient than any other I know, so I will stick with the convention.) In particular, most people’s allegiance to their political party and distrust of the other major political party has become especially strong: 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 equally dangerous. These attitudes permeate people’s views about all sorts of topics. For example, Democrats’ confidence in the U.S. economy has dropped sharply over the past few years, while Republicans’ confidence has surged—even though actual economic performance has not changed much. And more people now say they would be very unhappy if their child married someone with different political views. Moreover, political affiliations are increasingly aligned with other characteristics. We are seeing unusually large differences in political attitudes and voting patterns between women and men, between college-educated and non-college-educated Americans, between people living in rural areas and those living in urban areas, and so on.

It bears emphasis that divisions between people in the United States 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 folks from the country. Between distrust of big government and big business on one hand, and confidence in our large institutions on the other. Between defense of immediate American interests and standing up for fundamental American values. Between a pluralist attitude with opportunities for new immigrants and a nativist attitude focused on protection of old immigrants.

One great strength of democracies like those in 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 cheers. One key way in which democracy can fall short is that the variety of visions for a country grows wider and people with competing visions are not able to resolve their differences 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 found ways to resolve those divisions or to move ahead effectively despite them. Let me explain what I see as the three primary sources of those divisions in our country and then offer some thoughts about how we will ultimately move ahead. (I should note first that many of the forces causing wider divisions in the United States are having similar effects in other countries as well, but my comments will focus 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 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 are living in other parts of the 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 the income distribution are expected to live significantly longer than their parents, on average, while Americans of my age in the bottom third of the income distribution are expected to live no longer than their parents, 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 two 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 in what Case and Deaton term “deaths of despair” from alcohol, drugs, and suicide. I could offer other worrisome data as well.

A second, and probably more important, factor that has led to growing divisions between some Americans is social and cultural changes. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and some others who have been discriminated against and marginalized historically in the United States are now in somewhat stronger 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 groups with which they identify. In addition, other people do not object to the changes in our society but do object to what they view as a growing focus on demographic identity in the United States. Thus, social and cultural changes that are moving the United States in the right direction and have reduced some divisions in our country have unfortunately accentuated other divisions. In addition, the share of the U.S. population born outside the country is now at its highest level in a century. The greater diversity of language, food, and custom that has resulted is exciting for many Americans, but it is disorienting and disconcerting to other Americans, who fear the loss of the culture and lifestyle with which they are familiar. Moreover, the economic and social changes I have described interact with each other in people’s minds: There is evidence that white voters in 2016 tended to view economic concerns through a racial lens, in which they reacted partly to how they were doing relative to how they thought members of minority groups were doing.

A third factor that has contributed to growing divisions between some Americans is that more of our public leaders have been deliberately intensifying divisions for their short-term political gains. They have done so partly through the way they treat each other. Michael Ignatieff, whom I mentioned earlier, wrote in 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 in some cases 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 traditionally helped to hold us together. These leaders are suppressing voting using a range of techniques, undermining the rule of law, ignoring facts and evidence, and attacking our free press—even though voting, the rule of law, truth, 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. President Trump and too many other leaders in the United States have been deliberately pursuing these divisive strategies, and too few of our leaders have been willing to stand up against them.

Altogether, then, I see three primary sources of the growing divisions in 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 U.S. politics and policy today. In the wake of a severe financial crisis and deep recession, and with the United States engaged in seemingly endless overseas wars, many Americans have legitimate reasons for frustration with our 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 broad ones, and that experts are often wrong. Those of us who are lucky enough to serve in positions of influence need to take these reasons 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 I have highlighted.

Moving Ahead

Where does the United States go next? We need to overcome these divisions, and I am confident that we will for the most part. But that process will not be quick nor easy nor complete. Let me explain.

I will begin, again, with the divisions stemming from economic forces. The key forces that have generated rising economic inequality are technological change that favors more-educated people and the globalization of economic activity. Both of these forces are poised to continue operating 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 will 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 in the United States in the future, as they have in the past. The challenge we have not been meeting is to raise incomes significantly for most Americans.

I have spoken at length elsewhere about approaches for achieving more-inclusive income growth in the United States. The key pillars are to increase public investment in education and training for people who do not have good access 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 people from unfair business practices. None of these approaches will reverse widening inequality on their own, but collectively they can make an important difference.

Unfortunately, I see little prospect for advancing in these directions in the near term. Despite populist rhetoric, the economic policies that have been advanced by the Trump 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 rollbacks and foreign trade disputes have primarily benefited pockets of American industry and workers while increasing risks for others; and the ongoing efforts to cut government programs subsidizing health insurance and other things hurt lower- and middle-income Americans rather than helping them. However, I am much more optimistic over the medium and long term. I think we see a growing public appetite for policies that can foster inclusive growth. As that 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 that these forces were “probably” a more important factor than economic forces in increasing our 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, the 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 these 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 U.S. 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 today, because I believe that many Americans have at least some appreciation for the crucial positive role of immigrants in our society. But as a citizen, as a student of economic growth, and as a leader of an educational institution where people from outside the United States are incredibly important, I find the prospect of any reduction in national openness to be very troubling.

The third source of divisions that I discussed was deliberate political strategies of intensifying divisions and undermining public support for institutions that have traditionally helped to hold us together. Those strategies seem to play well in some elections, especially in primary elections with voters from only one party and 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 has resulted 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. For example, 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.” The journalist E.J. Dionne, 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 differing views—poses a significant challenge. Nonetheless, I am 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 ongoing attempts to undermine them. The rule of law has been attacked, but still our law enforcement agencies and 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 lead produced estimates about proposed changes in our health insurance system that mattered hugely for Congressional voting. And efforts to suppress voting continue, but they are being countered by initiatives to increase voter registration, to make our Census counting and thus our political representation more accurate, to keep polling places open, and to reduce gerrymandering. I do not underestimate the seriousness of the attacks on our institutions, but I am impressed by the resilience of those institutions and by the way that many people have rallied around them.

The second reason we will renew a positive political culture 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 favored by people in the other political party from theirs and reaching out to those people to exchange views. Indeed, one of our focuses this year at the Kennedy School is developing stronger skills for civil and constructive discussions with people with whom one disagrees. And E.J. 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 toward nuanced views and genuine dialogue.” Other people are trying to redirect their parties’ 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 parties’ established leaders. Also, a colleague of mine told me about a Canadian pollster, Michael Adams, who wrote a 2005 book called American Backlash that documents a divide in the values held by U.S. voters and non-voters: “The values of the politically disengaged show a distinct lack of idealism; these Americans seem to reject both the Republican and the Democratic visions of the good life and the ideal community.” This issue is receiving belated attention.

The third reason we will renew a positive political culture is that Americans generally favor positive, forward-looking leaders. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan won their places in Americans’ 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 strong economic conditions he has enjoyed. So, I expect that American leaders who can offer positive, forward-looking messages will ultimately prevail.

Conclusion

In sum, I am confident that people in the United States will overcome our unusually large divisions of today and move ahead together again, although that process will take some time. Those of you who are watching us from other countries should take heart in that outlook.

You should also realize that the great majority of Americans continue to be very committed to strong relationships with our friends and allies in the world—including, of course, the people of Canada. A poll of Americans this past summer found that 70 percent 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 feared around 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 U.S. economy, a larger percentage than in similar polls in the preceding two years. With the embarrassing fight over Nafta behind us and a revised Nafta treaty hopefully coming into place, I hope that relations between Canada and the United States will fully regain their natural and necessary positive spirit.

I want to end, finally, on another 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 Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. Among Wendy’s many accomplishments in both domestic and foreign affairs, she led the team of Americans who negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal. In her recently published memoir, called Not for the Faint of Heart, Wendy wrote: “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 security.” All talented and dedicated public servants are critical to our democracy, 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.