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Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy

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This event took place on Tuesday, March 27, 2018

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you for beginning your day with us.

It is a privilege to welcome William Galston to this podium. He will be discussing his most recent book, entitled Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.

As one of our country's leading public intellectuals, Mr. Galston's work has focused on political and moral philosophy, public policy, and the preservation of liberal democracy around the world. In concentrating on these issues, he has worn many hats. He is a Brookings senior fellow, a Wall Street Journal columnist, an academic, and former White House domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton. For more about our speaker, please take a moment and read his bio, which was handed out to you when you checked in this morning.

Liberal democracy is in crisis. Declining socioeconomic well-being and increased immigration have combined to encourage populist leaders and movements to capture the narrative and to gain positions of power. In recent times, citizens in a number of countries around the world, including but not limited to the United States, Great Britain, Hungary, and Poland, have not only grown more critical of their political leaders and institutions but have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system and more willing to express support for alternative ways of governing. In Anti-Pluralism, one of our country's most astute observers of contemporary politics posits his explanation for why, especially now, we are seeing a retreat of liberal democracy and a drift toward populism and what to do about it.

Whether these trends represent a corrective to unfair and obsolete economic and social policies or a threat to liberal democracy itself, its institutions and values, remains open for debate. Yet this much is clear: In the face of sustained threats from within and without, the questions is whether liberal democracy can continue to exist without fundamental modifications or without compromise, and, especially in America, is it possible to reform and reinvent our divided country?

To address these issues, please join me in welcoming our very distinguished guest, Bill Galston. Thank you for joining us.

WILLIAM GALSTON: Thank you so much for that very kind introduction, among the best I've gotten in this sustained book tour.

I was going to spend a few minutes at the beginning of my remarks talking about the importance of my topic, but then I learned that I am probably sixth in line in the populism hit parade that Carnegie has been airing over the past year or so, and so I think you understand the dimensions of the problem and the importance of the problem.

So let me just come to my summary, and that is that along with the rise of China I believe that the spread of populism throughout the West and beyond is the single most important political story of the 21st century. That is why I sat down and as quickly as I could but as thoughtfully as I could wrote this book.

Let me tell you a story about when a light bulb went off in my head. It was the evening of June 23, 2016. Some of you will recognize that date. It was the date of the Brexit vote.

I'm a political junkie, but it is not just because I'm a political junkie that I was riveted to the screen watching the BBC as the returns started to come in and the jaws of the announcers started to go slack, a picture that would be repeated just a few months later in the United States. About 2:00 in the morning, as it became clear which way the wind was blowing, a light bulb went off in my head, and I said to myself: "My god, change the accents and a few proper nouns, and they could be talking about the U.S. presidential election. The issues are the same. The demographics are the same. The sentiments and passions are the same."

The very next morning Donald Trump began calling himself "Mr. Brexit." [Editor's note: According to this Washington Post article and the date of Trump's tweet, he started referring to himself as "Mr. Brexit" in mid-August 2016, about two months after the referendum.] I took him seriously, but I should have taken him literally as well, because that is exactly what happened.

It was fashionable as recently as a year ago to argue that the populism phenomenon had peaked. The Dutch elections didn't turn out as badly as expected, and then, against all odds, Mr. Macron in France not only won the presidency but succeeded in raising as if out of the Earth, out of nothing, an entire political party. I spent the spring with French political experts who told me that Macron might win a personal victory but he couldn't possibly win a parliamentary victory. Well, so much for that. He won a smashing parliamentary victory, and a bunch of articles and newspaper accounts were published quickly saying that populism had peaked, that the center of liberal democracy was reasserting itself.

What has happened since then? The rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) in Germany; the entrance of a right-wing populist party into the government in Austria; the victory, first at the parliamentary level and then at the presidential level, of populist forces in the Czech Republic; the destruction of the center-left in the recent Italian elections and the rise of two populist forces, one vaguely centrist, the other virulently anti-immigrant; and of course, I'm sure you have all been following recent events in Poland with the Holocaust legislation; and in Hungary with Mr. Orbán's all-out, and I would say dog-whistle, anti-Semitic attack on George Soros. So much for the peak of populism. It did not happen.

I should add that although my book is bounded by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe west of the Urals, one can make very similar arguments about what is going on in other parts of the world. Erdoğan's Turkey is a classic populist case study, and if I had more time, I would just walk you through the way Erdoğan has executed the populist playbook to perfection. But you can see similar things going on in Thailand and Venezuela and elsewhere. We are talking about a global phenomenon in my judgment, but it takes a distinct Western shape, and I want to talk about that.

Up to now, I have used populism as an undefined term, and there are some people who think that is exactly what it is, a series of passionate gestures, a movement in search of an ideology. I disagree with that. I think it is possible to trace—and I understand that Jan-Werner Müller has been here before me, and to some extent I draw my analysis from his work, but I modify it in various ways.

I think it is useful to see what populism is by beginning with a rough-and-ready analysis of liberal democracy and then seeing in what respects populism as an ideology challenges liberal democracy. In my book I talk about four conceptual building blocks of liberal democracy: The first is the "republican principle," a phrase that I take from James Madison. What it means is that all legitimate power flows directly or indirectly from the people, or in different terms, "The people are sovereign." There is no legitimacy outside the people.

The second building block of liberal democracy is the rule of the majority as the default setting. It's not necessarily what should govern in all cases, but unless there is a good argument to the contrary, majoritarianism is the rule.

The third key concept is constitutionalism, and this represents a public judgment as to the institutional framework and the processes through which the public will should be expressed. It's a system of rules that are, to use the technical term, "entrenched," that is to say, they have a standing above and beyond ordinary legislation, and it is intentionally harder to modify constitutions although not impossible. Because in effect constitutions are the way that peoples bind themselves against future mistakes. You've read the Odyssey, you remember the famous scene where Ulysses is bound to the mast so he can resist the call of the Sirens because he knows that if he is not bound and he hears the Sirens' call, he will succumb and he will be led to his doom. Constitutions are very much the same thing.

The final building block of liberal democracy is the idea of rights for individuals and groups that are valid even if they happen to contradict the will of the majority. So you can say that constitutionalism and rights stand against the idea that the majority should rule in all cases.

Against that backdrop, what can we say about populism? Why can we say, as The New York Times did in its headline this morning, that postwar global order is attacked from within, not from outside? Why is this an attack from within?

Answer: Because it is an attack on liberal democracy in the name of democracy. That is the fundamental populist claim: "We are the democrats, and you liberals are the anti-democrats." So populists are very comfortable with the idea that all legitimate authority comes from the people. No problem there. They are super-comfortable—with a twist, which I'll come to in a minute—with the idea that the majority should rule. But they are impatient with constitutional restraints, and they are ready to attack anti-majoritarian rights whenever it serves their broader purposes. So populists accept one-half of the liberal democratic package, but they reject the other half. That's one way of looking at it. That is from a sort of formal political theory standpoint, and that's my academic home base, political theory, so that's why you've gotten three minute of political theory from me.

But there is another piece to the populist story, which is less formal but no less important, and it goes to the heart of the practical meaning of popular sovereignty, the rule of the people. Who are the "people"? When we say, "We, the people," what do we mean?

We didn't always mean, "We, all the people," did we? We, the white people; we, the male people; at some point early in our history, we, the property-owning people, etc. The democratization of the United States has taken the form of the steady expansion of the perimeter of "the people," and so it comes closer and closer to corresponding to "the people" as a totality.

As you look at populist movements everywhere, what you see is that when they say "the people should rule," they don't mean all of the people. They always mean some of the people: the people who look like us, the people who speak the same language as their first language, people of the same ethnicity, people of the same religion, people who have been in the country for a long time as opposed to these newcomers. The idea of "the people" in the hands of the populists is always partial and exclusionary. Another way of putting this is that populism tends toward an ideal of homogeneity, one single popular will of one homogeneous people. And that's the gravamen of my deep doubts about populism, my sense it's a threat, because populism is here and pluralism is here.

In reality and in practice you can have one or the other. Populism is a threat to liberal democracy because populism is opposed to pluralism, and modern liberal democracy is inherently pluralistic. That's the case I want to make in one sentence.

Why is this happening? I spend a lot of time in the book trying to get my mind around it, and I have to say that in the five-year journey that led me to this book I have changed my thinking on more than one occasion.

So maybe a little bit of intellectual autobiography would be useful. I wrote my first article on the rise of populism in 2013, and I was convinced at the time that it was principally an economic phenomenon, that what you saw in Europe and increasingly elsewhere was the breakdown of the postwar social contract between the people and governing elites: Governing elites would deliver peace and prosperity and social order, and the people would deliver deference to elites in return.

When the elites stopped performing their side of the bargain, all bets were off, and the people began to withdraw their consent from this contract. Of course, economic stagnation, the Great Recession, the difficulty that governments throughout the West had in coming up with effective responses to the Great Recession, the implementation of austerity at the worst possible time, you all know that story.

After 2015 I began to broaden my understanding of the populist phenomenon, because things were going on after 2015 that simply didn't fit into the economic box very comfortably. In my judgment, one of the hinge moments in this story was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision—an honorable decision, a noble decision, but an ill-judged decision—to open Germany's gates to more than 1 million refugees from the Middle East and to some extent North Africa as well. That was the decision that created the backlash, that elevated Hungary's Viktor Orbán into a European folk hero, and which sparked the rise of the AFD in Germany and parallel parties in many other places as well.

In addition to economics we have immigration. But you have to understand immigration as a cultural phenomenon, or you have to understand the cultural interpretation of the fact of immigration because immigration in the minds of skeptics is a kind of trifecta of horrors. There is the economic dimension: "They're coming to take our jobs, and even if we keep our jobs, they suppress our wages." The Polish plumbers are driving down the wages of good old British plumbers, which to some extent, to be fair, they did. In addition to that, "They come demanding our social services, they're clogging the health care system."

This is why the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom and freedom of immigration from the rest of Europe became intertwined as a campaign issue, and why it was argued that if we get out of the European Union, we can take €350 million a week and redirect them to the NHS, a totally bogus figure, but it had great symbolic power: "The European Union is responsible for undermining social services in Britain." There is also a security dimension to immigration, both ordinary crime, and in the case of immigration from the Middle East and elsewhere the fear of terrorism as well.

But third and finally is a cultural dimension to immigration, the fear that immigration is transforming the country not only quantitatively but also qualitatively: "The country is turning into something I don't recognize." There are versions of this proposition throughout the West: "I feel like a stranger in my own country." Focus groups are turning up versions of that wherever we look.

So the force of the proposition: "Take our country back"—you have to complete the sentence—"Take our country back" from what? From whom? In the case of the United States we slammed the immigration gates shut in 1924 and kept them shut for 41 years. During that period first-generation immigrants as a share of the U.S. population fell from about 15 percent to 4.7 percent. That's where it was when the Hart-Celler bill was enacted in 1965.

Guess where it is now? It's at 14 percent. So it's basically where it was when the alarm bells rang in the late 1910s and early 1920s. By the way, if we keep on going, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, we will be headed toward 20 percent by 2070 or so. But we're not there yet.

So immigration is a huge part of the populist story.

Let me spend the last few minutes, having talked about the causes, talking about some of the possible responses. I am not one of the pessimists who believes that liberal democracy is on the ropes or on its last legs. Those of you with a reasonably broad historical memory will know that the United States has been through things this bad or worse, and the basic framework of the society bent, but it didn't break. Indeed, if you look at the period between the First and the Second World Wars, when every single long-established democracy came under intense political pressure, not a single one of the incumbent democracies fell from within. It was only the new democracies that got into big trouble, the democracies that had come into being after the First World War.

Similarly I don't think it's any accident, comrades, that we're seeing the worst populist manifestations in the post-communist states of Eastern and Central Europe. Post-communism is a lot like post-World War I. It's an interesting analogy to conjure with.

So what do we do? First of all, we have to get the economic story right. The real economic story is not something you can read off the income tables. It's a geographical story, it's a story of a small number of metropolitan areas, diverse, with growing populations, innovation hubs, that are responsible for two-thirds of the economic growth in the United States over the past decade. There is an increasing disconnect between the growth in major metropolitan areas on the one hand and the smaller towns and rural hinterlands on the other. There used to be a strong economic relationship between big cities, small towns, and rural areas. That has broken down. Big cities can make it on their own in relationship with other big cities, not only in this country but internationally, and the small towns and rural areas of the country feel abandoned, and with good reason, they have been. We haven't paid any attention to them.

So economic policy—and I could go into detail—has to focus on an all-out effort to achieve the geographical reintegration of the U.S. economy, because if we don't do that in a system of geographical representation such as the United States has, this split that we're seeing between places like New York on the one hand and the 2,600 out of 3,100 counties that voted for Donald Trump on the other, that split is not going to go away because the conditions that gave rise to the split will not go away. That's the first point.

Here's the second point: Our failures of governance have contributed mightily to the populist uprising. One of the things I do at Brookings is to help conduct survey research, and here are some results from a survey taken in April of 2016 that I paid a lot of attention to, but I should have paid even more.

Here's the proposition: Agree or disagree: "Because things in the country have gone so far off-track, the United States needs a leader willing to break the rules to set things right." This was April of 2016. Forty-five percent of Americans agreed with that proposition. Perhaps it's not an entire accident that Mr. Trump got 46 percent of the vote in the fall. Forty-nine percent of Republicans agreed with that proposition, 53 percent of white working class voters agreed with it, and 65 percent of self-announced Trump supporters did. President Trump was not elected on a promise to follow the rules. From the standpoint of his supporters, he was elected on a promise to break the rules on their behalf.

Why do they want the rules to be broken? Because they think the rules aren't working. And you know what? They're on to something.

We have to understand that gridlocked, ineffective government is one of populism's best friends. If we want to deal with this, we have to figure out both politically and institutionally how to get beyond the party system at loggerheads that we now have. I have some ideas about how to do that. Another part of my life is devoted to trying to put that into practice. I'm not going to go through that now.

The idea that we can simply stare at each other across the partisan battlefield like entrenched armies in World War I—those of us who are relatively satisfied with the status quo can live with gridlock. The people who feel aggrieved by the status quo will not live with it, and they have revolted against it. That revolt is against not only the policies but also the rules of the game. That is just a fact.

Third—I'm going to make myself probably unpopular in this company, but I'm going to say it anyway—we can't deal comprehensively with the causes of populism unless we purge the poison of the immigration issue from our system. Because it is poisoning our system. In order to do that, we are going to have to reach a grand compromise, and we are going to have to consider the possibility that those of you who are strongly pro-immigration in this room are not entirely right, and the people who disagree with you are not entirely wrong.

I recently visited Canada. They love their immigration system in Canada—I can prove that—despite the fact that the flow of immigrants to Canada as a share of the native-born population is three times as high as it is in the United States. Three times. We're now accepting about 1 million a year, the Canadian equivalent is 3 million a year, and there's no problem.

Why? Because they structure their immigration system differently. Their centerpiece is potential economic contribution and not family unification. Nobody else in the world does immigration policy the way the United States does, nobody else in the world gives two-thirds of its green card slots each year to immigrants based on family connections. That's a fact. Canada doesn't do it, Britain doesn't do it, Australia doesn't do it. That's just the English-speaking countries. No other country does this. I understand why we did it in the past. The question is whether we can afford to keep on doing business this way.

By the way, no other country in the world is as casual about acquiring linguistic competence in the dominant language as we are. At the other end of the continuum I guess is Israel, where as soon as you get there, get your citizenship, you are sent to language boot camp for six months. But guess what? A single language is the single greatest integrating force in a civil society and in a polity. If you don't have a single language, you have a formula for division and resentment.

I could go on, but in short we have to deal with the real economic problem, the real political problem, and the real cultural problem if we want to do more than wring our hands and feel morally superior to the barbarians at the gates.

Thank you very much, and I am happy to take your questions.

Questions


QUESTION:
James Starkman. Thank you for a very interesting discussion.

Perhaps this is just a semantic problem, but you described the spectrum of political manifestations as being liberal democracy on one end and populism on the other, and in so doing you included places like Erdoğan's Turkey, the Czech Republic, etc. I would say that populism is in the middle of that spectrum, and authoritarianism is at the far right end of it. Maybe this is just a semantic matter, but maybe you could just clarify that.

WILLIAM GALSTON: I think that is an important question, but what characterizes pure authoritarianism is its indifference to majoritarianism. Pure authoritarianism says: "I'm ruling" or "We're ruling. We deserve to rule because we are a vanguard party or a leading class. We know better, and so we will rule on behalf of the people but not with the explicit consent of the people."

The Communist Party of China is an excellent example of pure authoritarianism in that sense. They claim to be democratic, but there's no sense in which that claim is warranted. They are using "democratic" in the sense of ruling on behalf of the people, but that's not the same thing as drawing their legitimacy from the people.

In the case of Orbán, as his severest critics have pointed out, he has changed Hungary from within using the constitution, the political processes, majoritarianism. In the most recent New York Review of Books you'll see a spectacular review by Jan-Werner Müller of a biography of Orbán, and it makes it very clear that from every formal standpoint Orbán is a majoritarian boss, but it would be hard to describe him as an autocrat or an authoritarian because he has never claimed that his legitimacy flows from his own personal excellence or the superior understanding of the party that he heads.

Is this a semantic difference? Yes, but it's more than that because I think there's a difference in principle and not just in degree between the rule of the Communist of in China on the one hand and Mr. Orbán's government in Hungary. That is not to say that I like Mr. Orbán's governance in Hungary, but it is to say that he is a different breed of cat. That's all.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a very interesting presentation.

There is one aspect that I associate very strongly with populism that you didn't really talk about much, and that is the demagoguery and the fact that this is a type of politics that is pursued very often with false information, misleading information, with fabrications, and that I think we are seeing in pretty much all the examples that you have quoted.

What is our response to that? Because very often in these situations facts become a secondary issue and perception is everything. I think we are seeing a lot of that.

I'm a European. I was born in a democratic system. I have actually a hard time thinking outside of that system, but when you say populists accept the fact that the power is with the people I think there are some extremely dangerous shortcuts here, because the next step is to say, as you said yourself, "The people is not everybody." There are parties in Europe, there is a party in Finland that is called the "True Finns," so the next step is "The people are those people." The next step after that is you have a leader who understands these people, there is a direct connection, and all the other nonsense you don't need anymore. So you don't need parliamentary democracy anymore, and everything that comes with that you don't need that anymore either.

These are the two points I wanted to raise, especially the first one, because you talked about our response. How do we respond to that?

WILLIAM GALSTON: A late governor of New York, the father of the current governor, once said memorably, "You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose." That's what an effective democratic—small D—leader has to be able to do.

Campaigning in prose is not a formula for success in any democratic political system. Populism draws its strength and the demagoguery draws its strength from the power of the narrative, the power of the story. You can't beat a powerful story with pointillist facts. You beat a powerful story with a more powerful counter-story. That's what the defenders of liberal democracy are now challenged to do. The populists have a very powerful narrative that identifies ills, explains ills, and prescribes cures.

On our side we have to be equally specific because we cannot resist populism with fact-checking. It won't work. The facts matter, but in order for the facts to matter, they have to be placed into a context that is compelling.

I'll tell a story on myself because I'm not proud of it. I try to follow what is going on in the country pretty carefully. I didn't know until very recently, until two years ago, that between 2001 and 2007, after China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and before the start of the Great Recession, the United States lost 3.3 million manufacturing jobs. How many people in the room knew that? One.

That's a big deal. That happened on our watch. How many stories back then did you read on the front pages of the national newspapers about the crisis in small-town America occasioned by the collapse of manufacturing, small manufacturers throughout small-town America based on an unchecked surge of Chinese imports? Very few. I've seen more articles like that in the past two years than I did in the preceding 20.

That's on us. You've got to pay attention. Unless we recognize things like that as they're happening, the grievances will add up, and the populists will be able to tell a story about them and we'll be behind the curve trying to catch up, which is exactly where we are right now.

QUESTION: Hi. Jim Traub.

I'd like to share your even-tempered optimism, and basically I do, but I was struck when you were talking about immigration—and I agree with you entirely on that—you rightly used this word "purge." You yourself played an important role in the late 1980s in helping purge the Democratic Party of much of the taint that it had acquired over the previous generation from misbegotten Great Society programs and much else. In Bill Clinton you found a perfect vehicle in many ways—okay, an imperfect vehicle, but a powerful vehicle—to do that.

WILLIAM GALSTON: A perfect vehicle with a fatal flaw. Let's put it that way.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Traub]: But in retrospect I wonder if that history is a little discouraging because despite that remarkable act of purgation in the 1990s, including powerful welfare reform and so forth, that taint never went away from liberalism and from the Democratic Party. So it makes one worry that there is something very deep and very hard to eradicate about this stigma.

WILLIAM GALSTON: Oh, lord. My full history of 50 years of involvement with the Democratic Party just flashed before my eyes as you posed your question.

I'm going to have to give you a much shorter answer than your question deserves, but in sum there has been a shift in the class bases of the liberal party in the United States, and that shift has been paralleled in a shift in the class bases of many other center-left parties throughout the West, almost all of which are now in crisis: The center-left French Socialists got 7 percent in the most recent parliamentary elections, Renzi's party in Italy did very poorly, the most recent surveys now show that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany is the third most popular party and the AFD is second. I could go on.

The past two decades have been a catastrophe for center-left parties throughout the West. Why is that? Because the bases of these parties shifted from working-class voters, their historic base, to mobile, highly educated professionals. That shift untethered the working class from the center-left, and it has become the most mobile and destabilizing force in contemporary democratic politics throughout the West, and I could show this in country after country after country.

The working-class voters who detach themselves from center-left parties don't go to the center, they keep on going. An important part of the populist phenomenon has to do with the working classes in these countries fixing on right-wing populism as a more credible answer to their problems and response to their grievances than the center-left or the traditional center-right parties can offer.

Bill Clinton represented an effort to bring the working class back into the Democratic Party. If that had succeeded—which it did temporarily—we'd be having a different discussion, but it was only a temporary success. It is as though the Sisyphean task of reforming the Democratic Party where the Clinton forces rolled the rock most of the way up the hill—well, we let go of it, and it rolled all the way back down, and here we are.

QUESTION: You mentioned Canada as an example of success in dealing with immigrants, and then later on you said that a very important factor of national harmony is one language. Of course, in Canada there are two languages, French and English. That is also true in Belgium.

Is it possible that we could in this country have our second language as Spanish? We can't escape Spanish. Walk into a subway station, and you'll see all sorts of signs, both in English and Spanish; talk on the telephone to any service, and they always say, "If you want to speak in Spanish, press one." Is it possible that we could have in this country a two-language polity?

WILLIAM GALSTON: I sure hope not. Let's take your two examples. It wasn't too long ago that Quebec came within a half of one percentage point of voting to secede from Canada. It was a very narrow escape. [Editor's note: The 1995 Quebec independence referendum failed by around 1.2 percent.]

As for Belgium, anybody who knows anything about Belgian politics knows that the two linguistic communities took more than a year and a half to agree on a new government. Belgium, for all practical purposes, ceased to function as a united polity during that period.

By the way, one of the things that ordinary Americans—not the people represented in this room—dislike most about the current situation is the "press one for English, press two for Spanish." That is a constant irritant, like a grain of sand in a shoe.

So no, I would not recommend that, and it may be that that is what is going to happen, but if it did, it wouldn't be good news for the country. It's hard enough to hold the country together as it is, but fractionalizing into different linguistic communities permanently would be a disaster in my opinion.

QUESTION: Hi, Ron Berenbeim.

I wonder what you think of Democratic success recently, which has been to try to find candidates that "match the district." They've done pretty well with that in both Pennsylvania and Alabama, and these people don't seem to be terribly far out from what I would call "traditional" Democrats. I could certainly have voted for either one of them.

WILLIAM GALSTON: I certainly agree with you. To put it as simply as possible, presidential elections are our national elections. Midterm elections are typically our local elections. That doesn't mean that there can't be national issues at stake, and usually midterm elections, particularly the first one, represent a referendum on, a judgment on, the newly elected president of the United States. But at the same time if you come from a state like Alabama, you can't run the same kind of campaign that Kirsten Gillibrand would run in New York City and hope to get elected. If you're from the 18th District of Pennsylvania and you run Marie Newman's campaign, you'll do even worse than she did in Illinois.

So yes, the art of politics that is organized through geographical representation—which not all democratic political systems are, but ours is, and we're not going to change that in my opinion—is finding a fit to local circumstances but at the same time having enough unity within a party so that it actually stands for something. That is a constant balancing act in American politics.

QUESTION: You mentioned Merkel's decision on immigration. Many would suggest that if there had been the political will to have equitable distribution of immigrants in the European Union the situation wouldn't be what it is today or what it developed into. What are your comments on that?

WILLIAM GALSTON: I could answer colloquially, which would be something like this: "If my grandmother had had wheels, she would have been a great trolley car." There was no political will within the European Union, and that's the whole point. It was an honorable decision but a political misjudgment because it presupposed a kind of unity of will and understanding within the European Union, which it quickly became apparent did not exist. It hardly existed anywhere.

One reason—and I'll give you another case study. In the past 15 months 690,000 refugees arrived in Italy. That's the equivalent of close to 3 million refugees arriving in the United States. The Italian election was almost entirely determined by that event.

There was a wonderful map that appeared either in The Economist or the Financial Times where the regions of Italy where the most immigrants had gone voted most strongly for the League, the most anti-immigrant party in all of Italy. What the events of the past decade I think have demonstrated is that the requisite political will—

Political will is sometimes a metaphor for governments doing things despite what their people say. But the issue isn't just political will by governments, the issue is the sentiments of the people. Merkel didn't even have the majority of her own citizens on her side, and she didn't have the majority of the citizens of any other EU country on her side either.

So here we are. There has been a huge political backlash because of it. In retrospect, a lot of people who supported her decision at the time have now thought better of it, not because it was a morally shameful decision but because it was a politically counterproductive decision. I know a lot of people in this room probably disagree with that, but that's the situation as I see it.

QUESTION: John Richardson.

I have a question which is really about how the United States can deal with China, but I start with there is a professor at [Stanford]—his name is Scheidel—who has written a book in which he says that since agriculture was developed the elites of communities have managed to take all the surplus very successfully and extract all that.

In China, you have a single tribe, essentially the Han tribe. You have a Communist Party government, which is now supposedly going to take more and more control of industry and the country, and it is a very entrepreneurial society, etc.

In the United States you have a totally different sort of population, and one way to do things is to do what is being done now, which is to rattle the cage of every individual, every institution, every industry, every country, just shake it up with a sort of zero-budget approach so that you have to start from scratch every week, but there must be a better way. What is it?

WILLIAM GALSTON: There must be a better way. Indeed, there is.

First of all, I agree with your analysis of what's going on in China. After a period in which power to some extent was dispersed, it is now being re-centralized, and that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand it enhances your capacity to act in the short term, on the other hand, if things go wrong, there is no one else to blame. You're responsible, you as an individual, and the portion of the party that has aided and abetted you in this re-seizure of plenipotentiary power.

This story rarely ends well. I'm not predicting disaster for China, but I will say that Mr. Xi is gambling a whole lot on his ability to direct the lives and the fortunes of 1.4 billion people. If he's not up to it, "Katy, bar the door."

In the United States—I don't need to tell you—it is not an anarchic political system, but it is a political system that was designed with multiple power centers. If you ask why it was designed with multiple power centers, efficiency has nothing to do with it; the fear of tyranny has everything to do with it. Just read The Federalist Papers and you will see that the Constitution of the United States was erected first and foremost as a bulwark against the concentration of tyrannical power. That's what the Constitution is.

If it happens to generate good public policy from time to time on top of that, fine. But it rests on an analysis of what the philosopher Hobbes called the "summum malum." The summum malum for the founders was tyranny, which they defined interestingly as "the concentration of all power, executive, legislative, and judicial, in a single set of hands," which sounds a lot like populist majoritarianism 21st-century style to me.

So the solution to the problems of the United States consistent with the preservation of our liberty has to be found within the revitalization of our constitutional framework and not by going outside it. That's why people in this country who are so frustrated that they are willing to elect someone who is willing to break the rules in order to get things done is such a threat, because down that road, if you follow it all the way to the end, lies exactly what the founders feared.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Let's follow the constitutional road. The Electoral College was supposed to bring balance among the states, and because of that in the last election the person who got the most votes had to defer to the one who had the right balance in the Electoral College. How do you deal with this?

Also, in general, how do you want to bring pluralism back into fashion?

WILLIAM GALSTON: First of all, I think we're going to be stuck with the Electoral College for a very long time. Because of that, a political party that wants to gain the presidency is going to have to have broad support throughout the country, not just concentrated support in some parts of it.

One way of looking at the election is that Hillary Clinton won California by 4.3 million votes and lost the rest of the country by more than a million. That's one way of looking at the election. There are too many Democrats in California and too few in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If I were to offer a silver-bullet prescription for changing the political balance of the country, it would be to bribe half a million California Democrats and redistribute them throughout the rest of that country, and that would do the trick.

From the standpoint of pure majoritarianism, the Electoral College is a big problem. From the standpoint of pure majoritarianism, the Senate is a big problem. But if you look in the minutes of the Federal Constitutional Convention, you'll see the reasons why those devices were built into the Constitution. I'm not saying they're perfect, and my good friend the law professor Sandy Levinson, who some of you may have heard of, is strongly of the view that we need a new constitutional convention to rip up the old Constitution and write a new one, a proposition which scares the living daylights out of me under current circumstances, I have to say, but he is more confident than I am.

But for the time being—and this is the serious bottom line—the people who want to change the course of the country I believe are going to have to do so within the current legal and constitutional framework, because if we spend our time waiting for a fundamental reform, it will not happen, and it certainly won't happen in time to save us from much worse things than we're now seeing.

JOANNE MYERS: Mr. Galston, I have to thank you for really an interesting academic, sort of our own tutorial on how we can change the country. So thank you very much.

WILLIAM GALSTON: Thank you.

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