Remarks for APSA Event "Inequality, Democracy, and America’s Future"
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
August 29, 2018

Thank you. I am delighted to be able to join you for the opening of this conference. I am even more delighted that this conference is taking place. You are meeting at a pivotal moment for American democracy and for democracy in a number of countries around the world. I want Harvard Kennedy School to be as engaged as possible in making democracy healthier here and elsewhere. So, I am thrilled that our Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and the American Political Science Association’s Section on Class and Inequality are jointly sponsoring this event. I am grateful to Archon Fung, Miles Rapoport, Teresa Acuña, and other faculty and staff at the Ash Center for helping to organize this gathering. And I am grateful to Nick Carnes, Martin Gilens, and Ben Page for their key roles in conceptualizing and organizing the meeting.

Our mission at the Kennedy School is to improve public policy and leadership so that people can lead safer, freer, and more prosperous lives. One fundamental pillar of our work is using our research, teaching, and interaction with practitioners to help make governments more responsive to their citizens’ true needs. We have projects taking place at the School to expand voting rights, protect electoral processes from cyberattacks, make traditional media viable and emerging media accountable, study the rise of populism, and strengthen civic organizations, among other activities. The discussions that you will be having about inequality and divided countries and democracy represent an important addition to that portfolio of work.

I am an economist, not a political scientist, which means that I am on your intellectual turf, and I promise not to talk for long. But I do want to highlight three factors that seem to me central to the divisions and threats to democracy that we see in this country.

The first factor is rising economic inequality. I believe that we have become increasingly divided in part because our economic system has failed to serve lower- and middle-income Americans during the past few decades. Although measuring income growth presents various challenges, there is no doubt that lower- and middle-income Americans have experienced much less improvement in their standards of living than have higher-income Americans. The growing income divide is reflected in growing gaps in life expectancy and in other social indicators. And when people are at a growing economic disadvantage, they will tend to be at a growing political disadvantage. Angus Deaton has made a direct connection between economic inequality and potential harm to democracy, arguing that “the political equality that is required by democracy is always under threat from economic inequality, and the more extreme the economic inequality, the greater the threat to democracy.”

The second factor I want to mention is social and cultural changes. Women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and some others who have been marginalized historically in this country are now in somewhat better positions. These changes are very long overdue and very far from complete, but they are real—and as these changes have made our country more fair, they have reduced some people’s unfair advantages and lowered their relative status, which they object to. In addition, the share of the U.S. population born outside the country is now at roughly its highest level in a century, and the greater diversity of language and custom that has resulted is exciting for some Americans but disorienting and disconcerting to others. Thus, social and cultural changes that are moving America in the right direction—in the direction of our stated ideals—have unfortunately generated backlash and divisions that are challenging to our democracy.

The third factor to highlight is that some of our public leaders are undermining key traditions and institutions of our democracy for their own political gains. Michael Ignatieff—former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, former member of our faculty, and now president of Central European University in Budapest—was quoted in a paean to John McCain over the weekend as saying “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.” A number of our elected leaders now treat each other as enemies to be destroyed because that attitude plays well in some primary elections. A number of our elected leaders are also making false arguments to justify voter suppression and attacks on a free press, and they are fanning the flames of discrimination and bigotry. President Trump and too many other elected officials are pursuing these divisive strategies, and too few elected officials have stood up against those strategies.
These three factors, and others, pose significant challenges to American democracy. I am heartened, though, by the people I see assembled here, and by all of the insights and experiences you will bring to bear together during this conference. Gatherings like this one are pivotal for making progress in addressing inequality, strengthening democracy, and creating a better future for America. Thank you for being here.