Foreign Affairs July/August 2020 Issue Launch: Democracy, Autocracy, and the Pandemic
How will the pandemic change global politics and international order? Will the crisis mark a turning point for great-power rivalry, political institutions, or American leadership? Watch “Democracy, Autocracy, and the Pandemic,” a virtual panel discussion on the July/August 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs with Executive Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and contributors Danielle Allen and Francis Fukuyama.
For further reading please see the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, "The World After the Pandemic," including articles "A More Resilient Union" by Danielle Allen and "The Pandemic and Political Order" by Francis Fukuyama.
This event is for Plus (also known as "All-Access") subscribers only. If you are an All-Access or Plus subscriber interested in attending, please contact [email protected].
Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (2014), Education and Equality (2016), and Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017).
Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), Mosbacher Director of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and Director of Stanford's Ford Dorsey Master's in International Policy. He is also professor (by courtesy) of Political Science. Dr. Fukuyama has written widely on issues in development and international politics. His 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, has appeared in over twenty foreign editions. His most recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, was published in Sept. 2018.
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan - Presider
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan became Executive Editor of Foreign Affairs in October 2017. He previously served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and, before that, as a senior editor at the magazine. His writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker, and his narrative history of George Marshall’s post–World War II mission to China, The China Mission, was published by WW Norton in April 2018.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good. Thanks so much. Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much to all of you for joining the virtual launch of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs.
We felt like we had something of an embarrassment of riches in trying to decide which of our authors in the issue we wanted to feature this morning. There’s a really sweeping and ranging piece by the epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called “Chronicle of a Pandemic Foretold,” a couple of really important essays by—one by Prime Minister Lee of Singapore on the cost of the U.S.-China competition, one by U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer, a couple of really good review essays by Amy Chua and Arvind Subramanian, and others. And I, as always, encourage you to read the whole issue.
But we wanted to, for this event, feature two of the essays in the coverage package, “The World After the Pandemic,” with authors who both, in different ways, get at this really fundamental question I think we’ve been grappling with since the pandemic started and, again, since the killing of George Floyd, and the discussion that’s followed, and the protests that have followed. This question of what the pandemic and its fallout means for our political systems, for democracy, for political order more broadly.
So really thrilled to have Danielle Allen and Francis Fukuyama with us this morning. Danielle is a political theorist who is the James Bryant Conant University professor at Harvard, where she also runs the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Both of our guests have too many notable books to mention in this context, so I won’t go over them. But two other things I wanted to mention about Danielle. She was just awarded the Kluge Prize on the study of humanities from the Library of Congress, which is sort of the Nobel Prize for the humanities. And she’s going to, as part of this, be running an effort by the Library called Our Common Purpose, which will be focused on promoting civic strength among the public.
So very much related to the essay she did for Foreign Affairs, which is called “A More Resilient Union.” And she’s also been leading a working group on pandemic response that brings together public health experts, and economists, and activists, and a kind of really wide range of thinkers and voices laying out the kind of comprehensive plan that, you know, you might want to see coming out of the federal government, but is perhaps not coming out of the usual authorities right now. So I would not normally recommend white papers as summer reading, but in this case it really is worth looking at some of the plans that they’ve been doing.
And then we have as well Francis Fukuyama, based now at Stanford, where he, among much else, directed the center for democracy, development, and rule of law and teaches political science. Again, more important books that I can mention here, but particularly relevant in this context are the two volumes he’s done on the history of political order, and which really, I think, underly the analysis that is in his piece, which is called “The Pandemic and Political Order.” So thanks so much Danielle and Frank for joining us.
A bit of housekeeping, just a reminder, again, that we are on the record. So that includes your questions. The three of us will talk for the next thirty minutes or so and then we will open it up to all of you. Please keep in mind that we will have, you know, something over a thousand Council on Foreign Relations members and Foreign Affairs subscribers with us today. So we will try to get to as many questions as possible but it will, of course, not be all of them. But please, when you’re asking questions, be relatively brief and to the point.
So to start, you know, it’s, of course, distressingly apt that we are having this conversation at a moment when COVID case are rising again in the United States. You know, we’re all pretty familiar with fairly damning comparative statistics, putting this country among the worst in terms of per capita deaths. I think there are still a few European countries that have higher per capita death rates. But unlike those, we in the United States have not really seen major declines since the—since the peak in the spring.
You know, both of you have spent your careers studying political systems and governance, and why they work or don’t work the way they do. So to start, I’d love to hear from both of you your diagnosis of the underlying causes of the underwhelming American response so far, and especially what, if anything about it, has surprised you given the work you’ve been doing for the proceeding decades—you know, long before we imagined something like this would happen. So, Danielle, let’s start with you, then we’ll go to Frank.
ALLEN: Sure. Well, for me, the most surprising thing is that our federal system should be—should have been a major asset for us in this response. For disease response it very much matters that it be tailored to local contexts and circumstances. There’s been a great diversity of experience across the country. Even as we’re seeing now where, for example, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona have rising case rates, whereas New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts have falling case rates. So you do really need to be able to tailor the response point to point to a locale. Germany has a federal system that was very effective for it.
So in the beginning when the White House sort of directed the response in a federal direction, there was nothing inherently wrong with that decision. But what flowed from that then was, from my point of view, a just comprehensive failure of governance. The federal government failed to understand its role in a harmonized federal system. It failed to provide the kind of supports needed for the states to take on their roles, effectively. And so we ended up at the—in the sort of economic space having competitions around supply chains, never actually resolving the supply chain problems around testing, and PPE, and other kinds of elements like that. Failing to disseminate knowledge effectively so that states could build on knowledge resources to lay out the sort of end-to-end infrastructure response.
And so on. And relatedly, inside of states, the sort of links between city government, county government, state governments also didn’t function in a sort of harmonized way. Often conflicts between the city and county level and the state level, and that sort of thing. So there’s a lot more to be said about the nature of that governance failure, but the machinery itself was not the problem. What was the problem was our ability to know how to achieve the machinery to achieve a shared diagnosis of the problem, a common purpose with regard to strategy of response, and then real clarity about the implementation and the implementation roles at all levels for that response.
KURTZ-PHELAN: One thing thought I thought was really powerful about your piece is that you—you know, some of the targets are obvious and very much in the headlines. But you also turn that analysis on the broader public and the kind of failures of our society as a kind of civic culture to rise to that occasion. So could you say a bit about the analysis of the piece that gets at that underlying issue, which relates to governance?
ALLEN: Sure. So the basic work of governance, as I see it, is to be able to identify the problem that needs to be solved for a collectivity, for a political society, to diagnose the problem, and then figure out the implementation pathway for a solution. The diagnosis element requires integrative judgement. So the problem that we faced was a health problem. And there were scientific elements to it. It was also an economics problem. It was also a problem pertaining to civic liberties—civil liberties and so forth. All of these elements.
And from the get-go we should have been asking the question of: What’s the policy solution that permits us to align our objectives across the health space, the economic space, the civil liberties space? We actually never asked that question. We started from the get-go presuming a tradeoff. We shouldn’t presume a trade off before you’ve explored whether alignment is possible. And so it was the job of the society as a whole to recognize the need for an integrative conversation, to hold elected officials to account for having an integrative conversation, and to hold elected officials to account for making an integrative judgement about how to align our health objectives, our economic objectives, our civil liberties objectives. And again, that whole process of diagnosing towards a set of shared objectives didn’t happen.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Frank, let me put the same question to you. What do you think accounts for the failures here and what, if anything, about those failures surprised you, given the work you’ve done over the course of your career?
FUKUYAMA: Sure. Thanks, Dan.
So I think that the single biggest weakness of the United States as a society is its polarization. I think, you know, this obviously is something that began long before Donald Trump. I think the president has contributed to it. Now, normally if you look at polarized societies and you say, well, what gets you out of this polarization you’d say, well, it has to some emergency, some external shock that affects the country as a whole. And the pandemic is a perfect example of something that ought to shock us out of that polarization. And I guess what’s surprising is that that just didn’t happen. It didn’t happen from the get-go. And in fact the polarization, I think, completely undermined the response. And so it began with the president who for the first two months, you know, really until the second or third week of March kept denying that this was even a problem.
But, you know, if you look at the discourse on the right, it was completely, you know, conspiratorial saying that this was not—this wasn’t a real crisis, that it was something that was just being conjured up by the opponents of the president. And that’s just continued. And it’s deepened, actually, as the crisis has continued. So then it’s shifted from do we actually have a pandemic to how quickly should we open up. And it’s now, you know, reached the point where something like wearing a mask—(laughs)—which, you know, is not a huge violation of individual liberty, has become this cultural symbol where people on the right simply don’t want to wear a mask because they don’t want to identify with the other tribe.
And this is one of these things where that tribal identification has overwhelmed people’s rational self-interest. So if you’re going to a big demonstration against shut downs, or you’re going to one of these rallies like the ones we’ve seen in Arizona, it’s in your personal interest to protect yourself, that people are so—and so this is what’s really—I guess the ultimate surprise is the cognitive one, where, you know, the tribalism goes so deep that the kind of facts that people accept are not shared any longer, and people’s perception of what’s going on in the world is completely different depending on which side of this divide you’re on. So I guess that’s really what I find both surprising and very discouraging.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Mmm hmm. And I suppose you could add to that the differentiated impact in terms of the communities that really suffered from the pandemic.
FUKUYAMA: Yeah, well absolutely. So this is a pandemic that hit the blue states first. And it hit places with dense populations, big cities, large minority populations. And so if you lived in Wyoming or Montana, you didn’t see anybody around you getting sick. And so you could actually positively think that this actually wasn’t something that was real. Now that it’s rising in red states, we’re facing this very interesting moment where the cognitive dissonance is getting wider, and wider, and wider. And people are now seeing people around them getting sick. And at a certain point, it seems to me, things are going to snap because that dissonance can’t get so large that, you know, you’re just denying the things that are right in front of your face. So it’ll be an interesting test when, you know, conservatives begin realizing that they’ve made mistakes. And once that happens, I think there’ll be a cascade of, you know, recriminations and so forth.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I mean, Frank, your piece, like so much of your work, has this incredible kind of comparative sweep. And looking around the world there are, of course, lots of places, lots of countries that did better than the United States did. When you look at those cases what do you see as the kind of common thread? Or what accounts for success, whether it’s in East Asia or elsewhere? I mean, what is—what should we learn from those cases?
FUKUYAMA: Well, the first thing to say is it’s not correlated with democracy or authoritarian government. I think that if you look in both categories you’ll see some countries that did very well and some that did extraordinarily poorly. And so that’s a wrong conclusion. I would say that there’s several factors—political scientists are going to be studying this for years to come. But I would say off the bat one factor that’s really important obviously is state capacity. if you don’t have the public health system to train nurses, doctors, public health officials, you’re not going to do well.
But, you know, the other thing has to do with this combination of trust and leadership. In countries that have a high degree of trust in their governments and trust in fellow citizens, you tended to do very well. And in countries that are either highly polarized or in which people are distrustful of the state, you’re going to do very badly. Now, what’s really interesting is what’s going on in Latin America right now, because this is a region of the world where trust in the state is very low. You know, you have countries with very large parts of the population that are informal, meaning they’re completely disconnected to the state. They don’t believe the government when it tells them things.
So countries like Peru, you know, that actually look like they were doing very well early on, they had early shutdowns, are now, you know, finding themselves in a disastrous situation because their systems are overwhelmed. But I think it’s driven ultimately by the fact that people really don’t believe the government. And they don’t really, you know, see the logic of what the state is trying to do.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And the common thread, as you see it, in the East Asian countries, that—some of which are democracies, some authoritarian systems that did well—is that trust and state capacity, even if it’s—
FUKUYAMA: It’s that, and that’s true also of a lot of especially Northern European countries that have a high degree of both social and political consensus. But in all of these places you don’t have this American tradition of intense distrust of the state, per se. You know, people believe that the state is actually there to help them, and so they start off with a greater predisposition to believe public authorities. And that’s particular true in East Asia, where, you know, state authority is much more deeply rooted than in Europe or the United States, or any other part of the world.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Danielle, your piece is, of course, focused on the United States and the failures here, but in your work do you see examples of countries where they have gotten this sense of civic purpose right? What accounts for the models that work and the ways that they don’t? And especially do you see cases where this sense of purpose has been restored, right? Where we’ve had this—the kind of decay that’s seemed to have happened in the United States in recent years, and where they have, in fact, restored some sense of common civil purpose and identity?
ALLEN: Well, I want to start by staying that I think Frank’s first point about the fact that success is not something that correlates to whether you’re a democracy or an authoritarian regime is fundamental. So we have seen democracies that have succeeded and democracies that have failed. So yes. And I think the other thing I would put on the table in addition to the issues of state capacity and trust in government actually is age. So actually, Frank, I’d be curious to know what you think about this, but it looks to me like the old democracies of the world have failed and the young democracies have done just fine.
So the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, not so great. You know, Germany much better, Scandinavian nations. Brazil, not so great. It’s actually an old democracy. We forget that it’s an old democracy. At any rate, that’s a very, you know, rough sort of initial intuition. But I want to probe a little bit more, because I do think there are some critical differences. The older democracies have a sort of institutional footprint that predates the emergence of social rights as a concept. The young democracies have a concept of social rights fully woven into their core structure. I think this relates to the question of state capacity with regard to domains like health.
So that would be something that I would wonder about. And relatedly, I think the older democracies do have that different conception of the relationship between citizen and state. So the U.S. certainly has it in spades, but that came from something that was also familiar in the English context in the U.K., and they have had their own struggles with that. World War II transformed Britain in various ways. But at any rate, so I think that’s something to explore. So yes, I mean, we’ve seen success in Taiwan. We’ve seen success in South Korea, in New Zealand, Australia, Germany.
And that trust—that underlying infrastructure matters. I think the important thing that people should take away from that is to recognize that solidarity and the achievement of a sense of common purpose are concrete resources. They are as valuable as material resources, revenue, economic capacity, infrastructure, and so forth. The reason for this is because for a constitutional democracy to succeed in meeting a crisis it needs to succeed by tapping into volunteerism, right? So that’s the king of core contrast between what a democracy needs and what a(n) authoritarian state needs. It doesn’t want to achieve compliance through enforcement. It wants to achieve compliance to a maximal degree through volunteerism.
And the way to achieve that is through resources of solidarity. That means you have to pay attention to all of the things that you’re doing in your society that sustain resources of solidarity. For me, what this results in is a kind of fundamental question about the health of the social compact in the older democracies in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and so forth. So I think where we’ve seen success you’ve seen a more resilient social compact, a sense that people are committed to their fellow members of the society, that they recognize that the government is committed to them, that there is a sort of broad sense of mutual commitment. So for me, the real question is how in a place like the U.S. can we actually go about revisiting the question of what a healthy social compact is? How do we find the resources to sustain a healthy social compact?
FUKUYAMA: So, Danielle, I agree with that completely. I think this crisis may actually present an opportunity to rethink that social compact, because it’s obviously been so frayed. And I think the pandemic has revealed that. There’s another correlation that I think needs to be thought about a little bit, which is between populism and bad responses, because it’s not true that there’s an overall correlation between democracy and poor response, but it does seem to me that there’s something of a pattern with populist—democratic systems with populist leaders.
And I’m thinking specifically of the United States, Brazil, and Mexico. So each of them has a populist leader who share a number or characteristics. So one is a kind of very personalistic approach to government. They don’t care about institutions. It’s all about them and their personal charisma. And that kind of leader does not like to be associated with failure. And so in all three cases, you have leaders who have denied that this is really a problem. They keep stressing economic issues because that is what they believe is really going to make them win the next election. And, you know, between Mexico and Brazil, Manuel Lopez Obrador is on the left and Bolsonaro is on the right, but in a way their responses have been very, very similar to one another.
And so that, I think, is something that, you know, in a strange way, may actually be a good thing in the future because this wave of populism is something that I think is threatening liberal institutions all over the world. And the abject failure of that style of leadership, you know, is something that may have consequences for the survival of that type of regime.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Frank, can I ask you to react to Danielle’s point about the age of democracies as well? Does that strike you as valid?
FUKUYAMA: Well, clearly the older the democracy is the more embedded your belief in institutions. The only problem is the United States which, you know, really is now the democracy with the longest continuous, you know, history of constitutional government. And I must say, not just in this pandemic but in general, you know, I have never thought that the basic principles of rule of law would be challenged in any kind of serious way. And we’ve seen that happen repeatedly. And it’s been intensifying, you know, after the pandemic has started.
And so I do think that a lot of our assumptions of what—you know, political scientists used to have this concept of a consolidated democracy. So if you had, you know, two or three elections where you had a turnover of leadership to another party you’d say, OK, you’re consolidated. That’s fine. You’re in the club, and you’re not going to go backwards. And unfortunately, I just think that our experience, and that of a number of other countries around the world, has indicated that that’s not such a great—(laughs)—you’re not safe. You know, there’s no point at which you can’t experience political decay and start to go backwards.
ALLEN: So I think I—just to clarify and sort of add one wrinkle there—I think the suggestion I’m making is not so much a falling back as a regrettable progress forward and just sclerosis. So that’s the question I’m really asking about with democracies. So it’s true that they have embedded institutionalism, but my concern is that the machinery of the institutions is no longer functioning effectively, which is a sort of slightly different problem than decay of commitment to them. I think that problem exists as well.
But the thing that really struck me was the sense in which folks really didn’t actually see how to operate the links between federal government, state governments, county, city, and so forth. Those links were all there to be operated. So there’s a sort of atrophy of understanding among our elected leaders and in the system generally about how machinery ought to work, and an atrophy of sort of capacity with regard to identifying—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—machinery are occasions for judgement.
So in other words, the point of the machinery is really to support an activity that we might call judgement, right? Again, that sort of diagnostic and solution-generating capacity I was trying to describe. Yet what we have instead of a sort of process of integrating the kind of different kinds of expertise, asking the big question: What should be our strategy? Should our strategy be to just slow the spread, or should it be to actually suppress the disease? We didn’t actually ever ask that question. And instead we sort of presumed that sort of technocratic answers should just deliver a solution. That there wasn’t a need for the space of kind of integrating judgement.
And so that’s why worry, that what the machinery is for has disappeared from view, as well as the specific knowledge about how to operate it. As a result of those two things, it’s less nimble and flexible than it would otherwise be. And hence, my word sclerosis.
FUKUYAMA: Yeah, no, that I agree with completely. I think the system has gotten way too rigid and a lot of it is being taken for granted. And that really needs a big rethink.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So both of you in slightly different ways get at this question of the information and media environment—kind of cognitive environment that we’re operating in. And, frankly, you are, you know, very pessimistic in your piece, and I think more broadly, about both the weaponized babble that is much of the kind of public debate right now, as you put it. And, you know, you rue the democratization of authority, and lack of kind of technocratic unified voice in the delivery of information. Danielle, I think you have a slightly different view of what the solution is likely to be and see more opportunity for sort of grassroots renewal there. So I’m curious for reactions from both of you on the ways that technology and the media environment make this task harder or easier, given where we are now.
FUKUYAMA: Well, you know, when the internet appeared in the 1990s, everybody thought it was great because it was going to blow away all of the intermediaries like publishers, and editors, and governance, and all sorts of gatekeepers for information. And in fact, it’s done that. And it turns out that that world isn’t such a great world, because you actually need sources of credible information, which are basically institutions that have the capacity and the trust built into them to be information providers. And that whole structure has, I think been eroding. And I think that, you know, a lot of the digital platforms that now have governed so much of our lives have assisted in that because their business models have tended to focus on things that are popular and get clicks rather than things that are authoritative.
So that’s, I think, the general background to the information world that we’re living in right now where anyone can say anything. You know, we used to celebrate that. Anyone could be their own publisher. Well, that’s happened, and I think that’s what’s really led to this decay of authoritative information. And I think if you don’t have commonly agreed on face and a common cognitive framework for dealing with public policy problems, you’re in trouble as a democracy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Danielle, is that too pessimistic? Do you see more opportunity?
ALLEN: I don’t think it’s too pessimistic as a diagnosis of where we are. For me, I’m always—you know, I describe myself as not—an optionist. That’s to say, I’m not exactly an optimist, but failure is not an option, so I’m an optionist. So I think that diagnosis is accurate. And therefore, I think the job is to figure out the solution. So the way I tend to put it is we have gotten really fixated on social media and what life is like inside the communications ecosystem that it delivers. And we don’t actually have to be stuck inside it. We might, in fact, build an alternative. I like to say the alternative we should call civic media, so that we can begin to make it clear that social media is like being in middle school. That’s more or less what the experience is like. And so we need to build something alongside it that’s a clear alternative.
And there are grassroots examples. My favorite—people know I tend to point to this one—is something in Lexington, Kentucky called CivicLex. This is a media platform that is filling a news desert. We all know that there’s been an incredible erosion of local news—local investigative journalism, local explanatory journalism, coverage of statehouses and city governments, and so forth. So we talk about food deserts. We have to recognize news deserts in exactly the same way. And so what CivicLex has done is taken all the tools of media platforms and started delivering investigative journalism, explanatory journalism in a local context. What’s the city council doing? What is sort of county-level water management doing?
It’s supported by philanthropy. So that is a different business model than we have traditionally had. But in addition to filling that news desert, the other thing that they’re doing is working on civic relationality. So they couple the online delivery of resources and online participatory spaces with in-person meetings, bringing together public officials, whether elected or appointed, and local members of their constituencies. And they have a really important role, which is that in any given conversation the ratio between constituencies or ordinary folks and citizens and the public officials has to be no bigger than seven to one. So no more than seven people for every single elected officials.
So the point is that they’re building a context where information is consumed and deliberated on in context of strong relationality. And it’s that link between healthy relationality and information that is really critical to reversing the dynamics that we’re currently experiencing. So we know there’s an appetite for this. Everywhere I go people express a sense of exhaustion with what the media landscape is delivering to them. So there is demand, right? There’s demand out there. And we’re starting to figure out how to supply that demand. And so between the demand and supply, there ought to be a business model in there. So we need a media entrepreneur who can see that demand for civic media, see the concrete things that count as filling it, and start to build on that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We ran a really—a piece that I found really fascinating early in the pandemic by Jaron Lanier, the technologist, and the economist Glen Weyl on what Taiwan has done on civic technology and how a combination of kind of grassroots hacker movements and, you know, trusted public officials created a very, very much kind of grassroots civic tech-drive response, which has in fact been very, very effective, which I found kind of a fascinating model for the rest of us.
So before we go to questions, for the sake of ending this part of the conversation on a constructive note, not to suggest that either one of you is an optimistic. But I’m curious if there—you know, if we could have the Allen-Fukuyama Commission to address the failures in civic purpose and governance that have been so starkly exposed by the—by the pandemic, what are the kind of one or two policy steps that you think we should take as a country that would have us better positioned the next time this comes? Danielle, I’ll let you go first on this one.
ALLEN: It’s funny that you should ask that because I was just sitting here thinking, I was asked just yesterday to nominate people for a commission of this kind. And I was just sitting here thinking, I’m going to nominate Frank! (Laughter.) So you know, it’s going to happen.
But at any rate, the first thing I would foreground is we need to invest in civic education. I recognize that that feels like it’s a long way away from the immediate, urgent needs of decision making and governance. However, we can’t actually have effective governance without a population that both desires it and knows what it is. And all signs indicate that we no longer has a population that desires constitutional democracy, because we don’t have a supermajority of support for constitutional democracy any longer, because only—you know, fewer than 30 percent of people under forty think it’s essential to live in a democracy. That’s a huge red alarm bell statistic.
And relatedly, all the various surveys about civic knowledge and so forth indicate great erosion of people’s understanding of our institutions and how to use them. We invest about $54 a year a year federally per kid on STEM education and 5 cents a year per kid on civic education. So you get what you pay for, all right? we can’t govern effectively because we haven’t actually put a lot of time into teaching folks how to do it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That is—I think that’s a concrete recommendation as well. Frank, let me pass that to you and you can—
FUKUYAMA: Well, look, let me just start by—you know, I don’t like to be too overtly political, but any kind of reform really depends on the Democrats winning in November. I think if that doesn’t happen, then things are going to get worse along very predictable lines. Assuming that you have enough of a political base to actually start doing things, one of the issues is one that I’ve been actually pushing for a long time, which has been like rolling a big boulder up hill, which is essentially reform of our whole public sector and of the civil service. I think that Americans don’t like bureaucrats, and that’s why this has not been a popular issue.
But I think that we’ve seen in both the impeachment hearings and now big time in this crisis the fact that the United States has a government that’s got lots of expertise. It’s got a lot of agencies with a lot of state capacity. But because they’ve been denigrated and pushed aside by politicians in recent weeks, and months, and years really, that hasn’t benefitted us the way it ought to. And I think that we need to restore something of the autonomy of those state institutions. We ought to prize expertise. And we ought to fix a lot of the problems that existed in that civil service, you know, well prior to this—to this crisis. So that would be the top of my list.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And that’s a matter of fewer political appointees, or?
FUKUYAMA: Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of things that can be done. I think the other big issue is the one that Danielle raised really, which has to do with the social compact. Because, you know, we’ve got a broken health care system that is extremely unequal. They tried to fix this in 2010 with the Affordable Care Act. And, you know, half of the political system has been trying to dismantle that ever since then. So I think, you know, if you actually don’t have a system that can deliver access to health to all of your citizens, you’ve got a really big problem. And that’s also another thing that will be very urgent.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Well, I have many more questions, but I’m going to cede the floor to everyone else on the line. So a reminder, first of all, this is on the record so don’t say anything that you don’t want in the public domain.
And I will hand it over to Sam to call on questions or read out questions.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take the first question from Kilaparti Ramakrishna.
Q: Thank you very much.
My question is about this question on young democracies and their success in dealing with COVID. I have lived in South Korea for about eight years, and just returned to the states. What I noticed there was the great deal of trust of the people in the government and in the institutions. But that does not mean that they don’t throw out the government, and they have done that repeatedly through various protest movements and so on. But when you come to the United States—I mean, I take the point made about the elections. Of course, we will look for what happens in November. But what about the institutions? Why did they fail so horribly in dealing with the kind of crisis that we have? Thank you.
FUKUYAMA: Well, I think that the—you know, a lot of this is traced to what I mentioned earlier which is the underlying polarization. Now, South Korea’s got polarization as well, but it also has a longer tradition of state authority, which is true I think of really all of the states of East Asia that are within the Chinese cultural zone. And that includes South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and so forth.
A lot of the protesters recently—the right-wing protesters—have been waving this flag with the rattlesnake, you know, that says “don’t tread on me.” And basically that’s really about the state. I mean, it’s this deep, deep distrust of state authority. And that’s a way that the United States is really quite exceptional. You know, European countries don’t have really the equivalent of that. And certainly the countries of East Asia have something of the opposite, where state authority tends to be honored, where expertise is bureaucracy is one of the things that they have paid a lot of attention to. So I think that’s one of the, I don’t know, elements of political culture that I think have really undermined our response.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Danielle, do you want to add to that?
ALLEN: No. I agree with those things. I guess the only thing I would add would be that, again, it’s a little hard to convey the concept, but with regard to governance. The purpose of government is judgement in this integrative way, to recognize that you have multiple objectives simultaneously. You have material security. You have health and economic resources, protection of civil liberties, and so forth. And we’ve lost sight of the fact that that’s what the job of governance is.
We have come—we’ve reduced it to the view that it’s just about spitting out an answer from the scientists or spitting out an answer from the economists. And until we can recover a conception that governance is about understanding your overarching objectives, the ones that shore up your social compact to deliver safety and happiness, liberties to all, that’s the overarching objective. We have to find the solution about that. Until we can recover that definition of governance, we’re not going to govern effectively.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And let me just make one more plug for the work that the group that you’ve convened at the Safra Center has been doing, which I suppose quite consciously hearing you say this, brings together economists, and epidemiologists, and, you know, people from left and right, and has exactly that kind of conversation about integrative judgement like that. So it’s totally fascinating reading, despite the white paper title.
Sam, let’s go to the next question.
STAFF: Our next question is a written submission from Laurie Garrett, who asks, to Danielle: In your wonderful book about the Declaration of Independence you end the book by saying it is time to let the Declaration once more be ours, as it was always meant to be. A lot of young people in the streets now with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests might take issue, arguing independence was only for white men. You just told us we, Americans, need to review our social contract. Can we do so starting from the Declaration, and how?
ALLEN: We absolutely can. I actually just finished reading Benjamin Crump’s new book. He is the attorney who represented Michael Brown’s family, and I think Trayvon Martin’s family, and a long list of folks who have suffered from police killings. And I was astonished to see that his conclusion draws on the vocabulary structure of the Declaration of Independence. So I am not alone in my view that the Declaration of Independence is an excellent resource for diagnosing, in its words, the course of human events, being very clear that the job of our elected officials of our government is to secure rights, that the purpose of securing rights is to deliver safety and happiness, that when our institutions fail to secure rights for the sake of delivering safety and happiness, we ought to alter them.
That’s the argument of the Declaration of Independence. It is an argue that is pertinent across time and space. It’s important that people recognize that the argument of the Declaration came as much from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as from Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was the scribe; there was a process of a group thinking. Both Adams and Franklin were people who were against slavery. Adams never held slaves, enslaved people—he was not an enslaver. Benjamin was an enslaver earlier in his life, but he gave it up. He became an active abolitionist, actively—proactively pursuing abolition. John Adams used the language of the Declaration of Independence for the preamble of the Massachusetts State Constitution. That preamble supported the end of enslavement in Massachusetts in the years between 1780 and 1783. So enslavement was over in some states as early as 1780. And that flowed directly out of the intellectual work done in the Declaration of Independence.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
STAFF: Our next question is from Michelle Gavin.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for this conversation. Absolutely fascinating.
And I’m a senior fellow at the Council. I focus primarily on Africa. And I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions of trust, right, and what the pandemic shows us about where you find trust in different societies. So there’s really good polling from a lot of African states that show there’s a tremendously low level of trust in general in government institutions. Obviously, it varies countries to country but speaking generally. And it’s usually—the low levels of trust are usually correlated with perceptions of corruption, of sort of self-dealing in state institutions.
So while I’m watching the response to COVID, I’m seeing these alternative voices of authority emerging, right, to provide clear information. It’s community radio stations in some cases. It’s imams in some places. It’s—sometimes it’s pop culture figures, right, who actually are making a huge difference with, you know, sort of putting to music their messages about hygiene, et cetera. So my question is, if we—in societies that are still sort of very young in terms of their governance model, right? Their sort of post-colonial governance model, what when we see these sources—authentic kind of sources of trust and authority, how do you take that information? How do you take what’s been illuminated about where trust is and link it up to governance structures? What’s the connective tissue?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Frank, do you want to start with this one?
FUKUYAMA: Yeah. I mean, that’s a tough one because I think as you look across all of the different voices that are trying to put out authoritative information—and this is not just in Africa, but in many other parts of the world—you know, some of them express genuine grassroots, you know, knowledge and legitimacy. And others don’t. You know, they’ve got contradictory messages and, you know, they reflect different kinds of racial, and ethnic, and other regional sorts of divisions. And I think the reason that we want to have liberal democratic—good, liberal democratic institutions is that given that pluralism of different voices you need, as Danielle said, you know, some mechanism that sorts through them, prioritizes them, and then actually arrives at a kind of social consensus. And so I think that this is an input to governance, these voices coming from the grassroots, but it’s not governance itself. I think governance still does require those integrating institutions.
ALLEN: So I would say something similar. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report about ten days ago called Our Common Purpose: A Reinvention of American Democracy for the 21st Century. And I was privileged to be one of the co-chairs for that report. Its core argument is that a healthy, flourishing constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous circle linking responsive, effective political institutions with civil society organizations that can bridge difference and connect people to their political institutions, with a civic culture that nourishes that social compact—that mutual commitment of people to each other and to their constitutional democracy.
So what I would say in response to your question would be that the goal would be to figure out how civil society organizations can tap into, draw on those cultural resources to connect people to conversations taking place in political institutions. In some sense, I don’t think you want a strictly unmediated connection of political institutions to influencers and culture, because that opens up the danger of propagandistic appropriation of culture for sort of problematic political purposes. That’s why it’s so important that civil society organizations be a bridge between the zone of culture and political institutions. It permits independence, it requires collaboration, it pulls people, individuals, and society into decision-making processes, but in a way that also protects their economy, permits accountability with regard to elected officials, and leaders, and so forth.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Thanks, Michelle.
Sam, let’s go to the next one.
STAFF: Our next question is a written submission from Jim Sebesta (ph), who says: Can you comment on lessons learned from any historical parallels in the U.S. with the degree of polarization that we are experiencing?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Danielle, do you want to start with this one?
ALLEN: So that’s a hard one. (Laughs.) I mean, because obviously the worst case of polarization is the Civil War. So, you know, lesson learned, avoid that. All right then, so what are the paths that we have to avoiding that? I come back to that same virtuous circle that I articulated. Sometimes people ask the question: What’s the one reform to our political institutions that would change something? Or what’s the one sort of civil society organization that we need? I don’t think the answer lies down that path. I think you have to work on all three things simultaneously.
So it’s not worth people’s time to invest in finding compromise and working with others if their political institutions can’t function in a way that supports compromise and collaboration. But conversely, if the institutions can’t function that way, then—or, conversely, if nobody wants to participate in institutions of that kind, then institutions won’t be able to be supportive of compromise, and so forth. So I think we need reform on all three dimensions, institutions, civil society, and culture, simultaneously. Keeping that in focus is really important. So I think, you know, we need ranked choice voting would be my number-one priority for helping to moderate the electoral space.
FUKUYAMA: All right!
ALLEN: OK, good. Glad to hear that. (Laughter.) That civic media concept that I articulated. And then, yes, we have to invest in civic cultural resources that are really about people connecting with people that they disagree with. And honestly, like, literally starting out from friendship circles wherever you have them and then building out to the vast network. It’s not a top-down solution. We actually have to rebuild the relationality that makes it possible for us to function together.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Frank, kicking that to you, I’d also add: Are there examples from other countries where this kind of polarization has been repaired?
FUKUYAMA: Well, let’s just stick with the United States. So I really like ranked choice voting, so I’m glad Danielle mentioned that. I would say that, you know, there have been two cases, you know, not the Civil War in the United States. Those were the elections of 1896 and 1932. In both cases you had a lot of prior polarization. And basically it was solved by an election where one side won very, very decisively. And I actually think the 1932 election was probably the more relevant example because you had a country that had been governed, you know, by the Republicans under conservative principles for the prior decade.
They didn’t deal with the Great Depression well. It worsened between the stock market crash in 1929 and then the bank failures in 1931. And it took a long time for this cognitive adjustment to take place, where people began to realize, yeah, actually tight money and fiscal austerity are probably not the right approaches to solving this economic crisis we’re in. And then Roosevelt is elected, and he—the Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress, and then that lays the ground for the subsequent New Deal. So I do think that these things can be solve basically through electoral politics, but we’ll have to see whether that’s the way things are going to play out in this country.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. Let’s go to the next question.
STAFF: Our next question is from Nannerl Keohane. If you can unmute yourself.
Q: Yeah, thanks.
I wanted to go back to Danielle’s first point. I’m glad you mentioned the commission report on common purpose. And a great many powerful arguments are made there. And the federal system should have helped us. But I wanted to question your focus on alignment at the—as compared to conflict. It seems to me there are conflicts, painful conflicts, between health objectives, economic objectives, and civil rights, civil liberties. And I don’t quite see how a government could ever have reached alignment in more than a superficial way without wrestling with those conflicts, making tough decisions that’ll make some people unhappy. So I think governments have to do that as well as think in an integrative fashion. You don’t get to an integrative fashion without solving conflict.
ALLEN: So thank you so much, Nan, for your question.
I don’t fundamentally disagree with you. I would put it slightly differently, however. So it’s not that tradeoffs are irrelevant to the kind of integrative judgement I was describing. Not at all. It’s just that I think prior to a debate about tradeoffs one needs to ask the question about the optionality of available for achieving alignment. That is, you have to actually test how much you can bring things into alignment before the tradeoffs are clear. And we didn’t actually do that.
So the fact that tradeoffs are much less severe than we took them to be, if we had out of the gate pursued disease suppression via really beefed up diagnostic testing and contact tracing, we could have secured lives, livelihoods, and liberties simultaneously. We would have needed less in the way of stay-at-home orders. Taiwan did this, had positive GDP growth in the first quarter of the year. And we would have massively decreased the number of deaths. So we could actually have done much better on all three dimensions if we had pursued a different strategy. So what’s what I mean when I say we didn’t actually take the time to find the strategy that emerges when you actually pursue alignment.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Frank, anything you would add on that?
FUKUYAMA: No, that’s great.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Next question.
STAFF: Our next question is a written submission from Glen Fukushima, who asks: Assuming we see a change of administration on January 20, 2021, what are the three things the Biden administration should do to deal more effectively with COVID-19 and to reduce the tribalism and polarization that is inhibiting our ability to respond?
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a big question, but we’ll leave it at three things. Frank, do you want to start?
FUKUYAMA: I’m sorry, me? So the COVID thing I think is actually fairly easy, which is simply to focus the resources of the federal government on actually dealing—you know, creating a strategy. I mean, that’s the amazing thing, that even at this late date the current administration does not really have a national strategy for dealing with a crisis that’s obviously going to be with us for months to come. And creating that kind of response is not that difficult a thing. I mean, as Danielle was saying, you know, if you follow this integrative strategy right from the beginning you could have arrived at some sensible things to do. So that, I think, is important.
The polarization one is—(laughs)—that’s a really tough one. So it’ll depend a lot, first of all, on what the election actually produced. If the Republicans continue to control the Senate, then I think it’s going to be actually pretty difficult, outside of foreign policy, for Biden to not suffer from what Obama suffered from in the last six years of his administration, which is divided government and, you know, Republican obstructionism. If they do—if the Democrats do retake the Senate, and you have unified government again, then I think there are—you know, that’s when I think the 1932 scenario becomes more likely. That you do actually have a political consensus that you need deep changes in basic policies. And as I said before, you know, where I would start is healthcare, because that’s, you know, the thing that’s been laid most obviously bare by this—by this crisis.
ALLEN: So I would say something pretty similar, but with a slightly different frame. So I would suggest what the new administration should do should be to establish the Foundation for Pandemic Resilience. Now, that does mean achieving suppression through a federal strategy in the first instance. But it also means remedying the vulnerabilities that left us unable to deliver that strategy at the get-go. So those vulnerabilities are that broken social compact. So it does mean actually getting us to a place where we have health access that’s genuinely universal.
Polarization is another one of those vulnerabilities. So it does actually mean pursuing the kinds of institutional reforms—including reforms, presumably, to the functioning of bodies like the Senate, that would reduce the polarization and get us back to a place where we can do cross-ideological joint decision making, which you need for a properly integrative judgement, it must be said. So there’s more that could be said, but I think focusing on a concept of pandemic resilience so that we’re not just solving this problem but we can avoid them in the future.
It’s a lot like 2008, where the world had become vulnerable to its interconnection in our financial systems and we didn’t know it. We got blindsided. So we left 2008 having to correct for those blind spots. Same thing here. We have blind spots because of our global interconnection. They’re going to continue to affect us. We want to be resilient in relationship to them. So that’s that health infrastructure, it’s our capacity to govern, that means conquering polarization.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I would just add that there’s—
FUKUYAMA: If I could just make a plug for ranked-choice voting. I think that one of the institutional drivers of polarization is having a first past the post electoral system coupled with popular primaries. That’s really what’s driven the two parties towards the extremes, because it rewards activists, basically. They’re the only people that vote in the primary. And the whole point about ranked choice voting is to open up space for third parties, so that you can run against—you know, for example, if you’re primaried out as a Republican because you’re too moderate, you can still run in the actual election. And you can hope to win, because you can—you know, the second choices get redistributed. And I think that’s not a federal decision. That’s really a kind of state and a city level set of decisions. But if we could move to that kind of electoral system, I think that would do a lot to reduce the institutional drivers of polarization.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I would just add to Danielle’s closing point that the piece by Michael Osterholm in the same issue makes a really kind of chilling argument that this pandemic, as bad as it is, is likely not the really bad one that we’re going to face at some point. So it really underscores the need for that preparation for the next one.
Sam, let’s go to one more quick question before we wrap up.
STAFF: Our last question is from Fred Hochberg.
Q: Thank you.
Of all the institutions, political, that we’ve talked about, it strikes me that the Senate is the most, one could say, dysfunctional, the most damaging—one, just in terms of a small minority of Americans elect senators and they have an outsized influence. And it seems the hardest to make change because when a party’s in charge they’re not interested in making those changes because they fought so hard to get there. So any thoughts on how we can address the Senate, of all the institutions?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. You each have one minute to fix the Senate. (Laughs.) Danielle, do you want to start with this one?
ALLEN: Well I’m not sure I have good answers as of yet, but I think it’s an important question. So the Federalist Papers is very clear about the fact that the Senate is the rudder of our system. And for the obvious reason that the six-year terms, they’re the only—and because of their overlapping, two by two by two. They’re the only body that’s sort of continuously in existence without a complete transition. And as a result, they truly are the rudder. That is where we get our continuity from.
So we need the Senate to function. And we need to address the fact that at this point there is this incredible skew with regard to the percentage of population represented by the numbers of senators who hold, you know, majority power. So I don’t have answers, but I agree with you that the question of the functioning of the Senate is critical. I wouldn’t, myself, want to move away from the equal state representation in the Senate. So for me in that regard it tend to focus on the question of the rules of Senate operating procedure. Where do we require majority votes, where do we require supermajority votes, et cetera? I mean, that’s a very arcane subject, but I suspect that the solution lies somewhere there.
FUKUYAMA: Yeah. I think if the Democrats take both houses of Congress you could actually bring up D.C. statehood. That would rectify the imbalance a little bit. Down the road, you know, maybe California shouldn’t be a single state. Maybe it should be two or three states.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. A good note to close on, I suppose. So thank you so much, again, to Danielle and Frank for their really wonderful essays and for joining us this morning. And thanks to everyone for listening. Sorry not to have gotten to all the questions, but very much appreciate it in any case. So thanks so much. And hope everyone is staying healthy and safe.
FUKUYAMA: OK. Thank you.
ALLEN: Thank you. Take care.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. Bye.