Fight for Liberty: Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump
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This event took place on Tuesday, October 16, 2018
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I want to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV to this Public Affairs breakfast program.
Today's discussion will be based on a new book which is just being released today entitled Fight for Liberty: Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump. Copies will be available for you to purchase at the end of the hour today.
But before we begin, I just want to take a moment to thank Jaime Leifer, who was indispensable in arranging the speakers for this program, so thank you, Jaime.
At a time when liberal democracy is on the defensive, when there is doubt and discord from both the left and the right, not only here at home but around the world, we are extremely honored to be hosting this eminent group of pundits. Our speakers, whose roots reflect the political spectrum are, in alphabetical order: Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot, who will serve as moderator; constitutional law professor and director for the Center for National Security at Columbia Law School, Philip Bobbitt; legendary World Chess Champion and chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, Garry Kasparov; and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The New York Times and senior political contributor for NBC News, Bret Stephens.
Each has contributed a very wise and thoughtful essay to this edited volume, in which they champion the values on which the free world was built. Among the surfeit of books on the threats to liberal democracy, Fight for Liberty stands out, not only for the multitude of views that analyze the threats to the liberal world order, but in offering possible solutions. The contributors to this project are optimistic in that having a fresh discussion on moral values and basic principles such as freedom of speech, a free press, and the rule of law can help bring democracy back to health.
To begin the conversation for the recovery, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our dream team of panelists, who with their overall command of American history, mastery of foreign policy, and profound familiarity with current events will guide us through the prevailing minefield of what they see as a global assault on democracy.
Thank you all for being here today.
MAX BOOT: Thank you, Joanne, for setting expectations so low for us. Anyway, it's a delight to be here, and thank you for hosting us. I have many fond memories of foreign policy seminars at the Carnegie Council, so great to be back here and with such a distinguished group of colleagues.
Let me read you a few words from something called the "Renew Democracy Manifesto":
The modern world is at risk of losing its way. The liberal democratic order is under attack from within and without.
In response, a committee has been formed to respond to the crisis. The free world must rally in defense of free societies and their values and promote them where they are most urgently needed and must reject intimidation or suppression of speech rooted in ideological rigidity or intolerance of political difference.
Western proponents of the liberal democratic order must first promote those values at home and defend them abroad. There is still a center in Western politics, yet it needs to be revitalized intellectually, culturally, and politically.
The center-left and center-right are still joined by a broad set of common values including a respect for free speech and dissent, a belief in the benefits of international trade and immigration, respect for law and procedural legitimacy, a suspicion of cults of personality, and an understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems.
Those are all part of this "Renew Democracy Manifesto" that was issued last year by this new group called the Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI) that we are all affiliated with. Garry over here is the chairman of that group. I'm on the board of directors. We're all involved in various ways.
That group has now produced not just this manifesto, which was signed by a very distinguished group of people—and you can go online for the whole list of signers who include thought leaders from both the left and the right in Europe as well as the United States—but now we've also produced an edited volume of essays which is out today called Fight for Liberty: Defending Democracy in the Age of Trump, and it has a truly distinguished lineup of contributors with an introduction by Jon Meacham, and everybody on the stage here has contributed to it along with a number of other people.
This is essentially our attempt to fight back against what we see as the threats to democracy from both the far left and the far right, as the manifesto says to try to "revitalize the vital center," which is under assault. This is obviously a massive undertaking, and what we're doing is not intended to be political. It's not intended to win elections, at least not in the immediate or direct sense, but what it is intended to do is to bring forward the ideas and to revitalize an intellectual opposition to the threats that confront our society and confront so many societies around the world.
It is truly striking to see how widespread the threat is. You have a fascist on the verge of winning the presidency in Brazil, you have democracy undermined in places like Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines. It's a very broad-ranging threat. It's not just the United States, but obviously there's not going to be a solution without addressing what's going on in this country because we are still the most powerful country in the world, and if we are not lending our voice to standing up for the values that we have built our country on, I think the entire world is going to be in trouble.
I don't want to talk a lot. I'm truly here to be the moderator and let this sparkling panel have their say. I'd like to begin by turning it over to Phil Bobbitt.
PHILIP BOBBITT: Thank you. Thank you for asking us. I know we're all very happy to be here.
Everyone in this room, I am confident, can recite Morris' words that begin the American Constitution: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . ." But how many of you have asked: "More perfect than what? More perfect in what way?"
The Philadelphia Convention met in order to create a set of rules and bylaws for the American state that would serve the values of the Declaration of Independence and do so more effectively than had the Articles of Confederation. Our founders apparently believed that it was necessary to establish and maintain national institutions of justice: to secure civil peace by federal instruments against insurrection, to arm the union of states as a whole and not individually against predators, to promote opportunity and prosperity by national means, and—this is the important phrase—"in order to secure" as they put it, "liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Like most law students of my generation, I was taught the Declaration of Independence, while important historically, had no legal status because unlike the Constitution it was not ratified by the people; unlike the Articles, it was not ratified by the states. On this matter as in so many others I was turned around by the insights of the late Charles Black. Black argued that the Constitution was contrived as an organizational means of carrying out the project of the Declaration, that is, it was the organization of a state that would secure society where no man was another man's sovereign—all men were created equal, where there were certain rights that could not be sold or bartered or given away—it couldn't be alienated, where the legitimacy of the government depended on regularly securing the free consent of its people.
Indeed, we know from the Declaration itself what the purpose of the American state is supposed to be, and it's not to provide for the common defense or secure the general welfare and so on. Everyone in this room can recite one passage from American literature—we could all do it in our heads just now: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." This is the part I want you to focus on: "That to protect these rights, governments are instituted among men." The purpose of government, according to the Declaration, the justification for the American seizure of sovereignty from the British colonial government, was to protect human rights, full stop. That's the American constitutional ethos.
In light of our perilous experience with the Articles, some of the new rules and bylaws were pretty obvious. The American state needed a secure source of revenue in order to provide for its defense, it needed a system of checks and balances to prevent tyranny which might well arise as a consequence of arming and responding to external threats, it needed to explicitly and implicitly guarantee rights of conscience, and indeed to build in the exercise of a conscience as part of governing, whether in juries or polling booths or in the councils of state. So thought the founding generation.
But it seems that these struggles must be re-fought by every generation. It hasn't been a good couple of years for the informal constitutional norms that support the American constitutional ethos. A president who vows to incarcerate his political opponents, who as a candidate refused to commit to accepting the verdict of the election, whose staff attempted to conspire with a hostile foreign power in cyber-burglaries and cyber-propaganda campaigns, who encourages violence against the press. Such a person is the embodiment of a troubling historical departure.
A president who asserts the power to pardon himself, who attempts to coerce the head of the FBI to shelve an investigation into his aides, who exhorts naval officers to commit themselves to partisan declarations, who demeans judges on the basis of their ethnicity, who invents and persists in telling the now-proven untruth that his predecessor was wiretapping him, who engages in a studied campaign to delegitimate the electoral process itself by falsely claiming that millions of votes have been stolen, and who uses the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Such a person strikes, however haphazardly, at constitutional norms that are not codified, but they dwell in the consciences of the men who have held that office.
Of course, the president is not the only figure on the stage who seems heedless of those constitutional norms that are meant to protect our liberties. Incivility in our politics, the petty harassment of officials, the intolerance of the very expression of ideas with which we disagree, and the cultivation of recovered memories of historic shame are projects on which the president does not seem to have a monopoly, but these are also threats as to which we must be vigilant.
Moreover, the weakening of our constitutional institutions and of our confidence in them will have a profound consequence for world order, which was the subject of the chapter that I contributed to this book. A growing lack of national cohesion and self-confidence will excite external threats.
But threats need not necessarily bring ruin. As Archibald MacLeish once put it, "They may be the grit with which the oyster mends his shell." The Constitution, written and unwritten, is constructed to enable us to carry out the project of the Declaration. The Declaration expresses a liberal ethos of tolerance, social mobility based on talent and effort, a pluralist society with power derived from consent. It's the Constitution that provides the mechanism for determining our futures. How and whether we will realize the vision of the Declaration is something that's in our hands. New threats to that vision as well as the inherited ones are the grist for its operation.
I think that's what Barack Obama had in mind when he spoke at the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. He asked, "What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?"
Of course, this means it's also in our power to degrade these ideals. I take it the purpose of this book and the purpose of our getting together is to prevent that.
GARRY KASPAROV: Good morning. Thanks for having us here today.
I would like to say a few words about RDI, the Renew Democracy Initiative. We started almost two years ago, in the beginning of 2017, with a group of intellectuals both from the right and left, getting together here in New York and thinking about the future. It was not just about Trump's election but also our recognition of the fact that the same threats to democracy could be noticed in Europe. The Philippines were mentioned, Poland, Hungary, Brazil, but looking at Germany, France, Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom, we could see the same very dangerous trend with the political center being decimated and the political fringes gaining more and more power both on the right and the left.
So the Trump "effect" here probably was a continuation of this tide. We also thought that the very fact that a person like Donald Trump could be elected as president of the United States legally in fair-and-square elections, and the fact that two major political parties ended up with candidates having overall a 120 percent negative rating told us that something was wrong with the system.
But we believe that democracy hasn't failed us, we have failed democracy. The idea was to look at this tide and find the right framework that will allow us to recover this premises where we could debate.
People who got together to form RDI, they could agree on very little if you analyzed their records in American political life. But they agreed that we needed this framework to be preserved to continue the debate because what we could see is that the political middle by being decimated created political chaos, that as we know from history always lead to the rise of dictatorships, whether on the right or the left. It's like political physics: You push the pendulum too far to the right, and you could see the reaction on the left. We are afraid, looking at this country and also at Europe, that extreme on one side generates excitement on the opposite side of this pendulum. We don't believe that extremism on the one side is a proper response to the extremism on the other.
We also wanted to remind people, just looking, for instance, back to the 1930s, that Hitler never won elections in Germany. The maximum he got was 37.3 percent. But at the same elections communists won [14.3] percent. So it means that more than half of the Germans rejected democracy.
Now, looking for instance even at France, where, thank god, they had Macron, who could save the Republic, but still in the first round of presidential elections Marine Le Pen won 21 percent while Mélenchon, the far left candidate, won nearly 20 percent.
Not even talking about Great Britain, where the reaction on Brexit that was pushed by the far right was the rise of an unreformed socialist on the Labour side. The latest program announced by the Labour Party at their conference is something unseen in British politics. We discussed with Bret this morning that even the first Labour government in 1923, MacDonald's government, was not so radical in their suggestions to what they call "reform market economy." Basically you have now a Labour Party on the rise in the United Kingdom that is arguing that the market economy has exhausted itself, and they want to go back to central planning. As somebody who was born and raised in the Soviet Union, I know the outcome.
That's a trend. On the left, you have an attack on market economy; on the right, you have an attack on liberal democracy. And it's very important for us to recover this faith in democratic institutions.
We always looked at the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist Papers as the foundation for our work because it's time to actually incorporate those values that helped to form this great republic in the 21st century, to make them more modern. Our working title for the book, which of course was rejected by the publisher, was Federalist Papers 2.0. We said that we were fighting for life and liberty and the pursuit of sanity in this insane time of Donald Trump.
The book is out. It's the first project of the organization, and there are 30 essays there, again written by people from both sides. It's divided in three sections: principles, threats, and solutions. Not that we know all the answers, but it's very important that we actually start this debate, and we want to show that there is an alternative to extremes on one side or another. So we don't want the American political cycle to be caught in the same trap as in many European countries where again the far right energizes the far left, and rational people are left with no choice but to pick one side or another.
This tide cannot be reversed unless America recovers its global leadership first of all on moral values. Right now we can see that Washington, and in this case more like the Oval Office, sends other signals. What Donald Trump has been doing and saying encourages dictators and authoritarian leaders around the world. While attacking American allies and questioning the traditional institutions that preserve peace and prosperity in the world, he has been praising and finding all sorts of excuses for illiberal forces. It is not probably surprising that they are on the rise today, although it's like a chicken and egg. You can always argue that Donald Trump was the result of the rise of illiberalism that you could trace back to the beginning of the 21st century.
It's hard to imagine that in the 27 years after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union we live at a time where for 13 straight years the index of Freedom in the World has been steadily going down. You can see more and more countries adopting undemocratic styles of ruling and authoritarian leaders because they believe that it will serve them well.
But the biggest challenge, of course, is in the United States and in the European countries, in the European Union, where we can see that many young people believe that democracy could be replaced by some sort of a Chinese model. Again, I have been arguing using my Soviet background with many of these young people and the ideologues behind this school of thought that it's not an answer.
Socialism failed, but it is very important for us to actually find the right model, how to incorporate the values that made this country great and made the free world prosperous and so powerful into the 21st century and maybe to create some sort of excitement because radical views are always very attractive for youngsters. You would like to be on one side or another because you're changing the world, and the status quo is losing to more dynamic ideologies, no matter how cruel and inhuman the ideology is.
So it's very important for us to add what you may call "sex appeal" to the centrists, to help them to recognize that without this strong foundation for liberal democracy and market economy we cannot succeed and that we can definitely modernize it because all these institutions that served this country well are getting rusty after almost 250 years, but we should not look for total destruction of the foundation that is indispensable for achieving our goals and building a bright future.
MAX BOOT: We're here to make centrism sexy.
BRET STEPHENS: I can hardly think of a better way to add sex appeal to liberal democracy than to put the four of us on stage.
Garry said something that I thought was fundamental and profound and worth dwelling a little further on, which is the line that democracy didn't fail us. We failed, or we are failing, democracy. I'd like to ask you to think that thought through. Because when we have conversations about the rise of Trump or the rise of populism, typically what you read are arguments making the case that structural failings in our democratic systems, whether it's the mechanisms of representation, the overrepresentation of small states, economic issues, socioeconomic issues, that all of these have contributed to the resurgence of a kind of illiberal populism of both the right and the left. I think there is some truth to that mode of analysis.
But the other way in which there's been I think a broad failure has been pedagogical. One of the striking facts is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which happened when I was 18 years old I don't think there was ever a pedagogy to explain to a younger generation—those who are now in their 20s—exactly why did the Soviet Union fail. Why do centrally planned economies tend to lead toward tyrannical outcomes? Why was it a pretty good bet, for example, that as soon as Hugo Chávez started taking Venezuela down the path he was taking it that you would end up with the authoritarian regime that you have?
It failed also because we have had a general neglect here in the United States of civics education at almost every level of schooling. One of the things I have to say as someone who identifies as conservative is that I find it ironic to hear some of my friends on the left say: "You have a president who doesn't believe in truth. He doesn't believe in the American system. He doesn't believe in checks and balances."
And you say: "Well, hang on a second. The American academy for many years on the left was saying there is no such thing as truth, it's all relative, and the American system is a sham based on the powers and privileges of a handful of white men at the expense of everyone else." So it's a little late to start trying to recover those sorts of values and that mentality but I hope not too late.
The essence of this book I think is to restore the pedagogy, if you will, of freedom. We want this book to be read by distinguished people like you in this room, but we want your kids to read it, and we want high school students and college students to read this to understand what are the foundational concepts which go not only into the construction of a free and liberal social order but a free and liberal global order, and how those two things come together. Phil's essay in particular does an incredible job of explaining just that.
I want to make just one or two additional remarks. The last time I spoke in this room for the Carnegie Council was when I was a deputy editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. I was on Fox News all the time. I was clearly affiliated with the right. Times change, as Max also can attest.
As I said, I graduated from high school the year the Soviet Union collapsed, but for many years afterward, in part because of the interests of my late father, I had a kind of antiquarian interest in the literature of totalitarianism. So I read Hannah Arendt, for instance, when I was in college. I read a lot of the dissident literature that emerged from the Soviet orbit. It always fascinated me, but I always saw it as an interesting analysis of a bygone era, of something that happened in the 1920s and 1930s. You read Darkness at Noon, for example, and you say, "How does a guy come to those sorts of conclusions when he's willing to accept the verdict that at some level he knows is untrue against him?" Orwell and so on.
One person I read in particular who had a profound impact on me was Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel laureate, who wrote an amazing book in the 1950s called The Captive Mind. If you haven't read it, do yourselves a favor, and—after you read this book, because it's almost as good—read Milosz's The Captive Mind. One of the things that I thought was very striking was how it understood that the mental byways, the pathways by which his generation of Polish intellectuals coming out of World War II ended up becoming convinced Stalinists. They did not become convinced Stalinists because they were pressured to do so by the regime or because they were living in fear of their lives. They found alibis and excuses for accepting the new Stalinist order as inevitable and in some sense as just.
So it was a much more complicated—the point Milosz was making is that the psychology of authoritarianism, of populism, of totalitarianism is in fact a much more complicated psychology than many of us in the West have typically recognized.
A striking feature—and this is the point I want to finish with—for me being at The Wall Street Journal editorial page was suddenly seeing conservative colleagues who a year earlier would never have had anything to do with the kind of politics that were coming to the fore with Trump, the illiberalism, the screeching, the coarseness, and so on, suddenly find alibis and excuses for why they could go along with this. Why? Because it was a Manichaean world, and Trump was better than Hillary, or because we had to accept that we were no longer in the post-Cold War era and that Trump was alighting on truths about trade and international relations that rendered all of our previous beliefs about immigration and free trade irrelevant.
It was like reading Milosz in real time. I could point to various figures—who I won't name, but you read them in the papers, too—and you'd say: "That's what happens. That's how they move. That's how they come to accept the notion that truth is contingent, and history leads inevitably in some kind of dark direction, and you'd better accept it."
The final point that I want to make is that part of the pedagogy of liberty isn't simply understanding what makes the free world strong and robust and why we have to maintain those institutions, but it's to be alert to the kind of dark lure of an authoritarian psychology to which all sorts of people in this country and around the world are succumbing and have succumbed. If we can arm ourselves intellectually that way, I think we can start to make the kind of inroads for the sake of the world we all want to preserve that so far we haven't been able to achieve.
MAX BOOT: Phil, you wanted to say something?
PHILIP BOBBITT: "When everything was fine and the Earth was ready to rejoice and consume without creeds or utopias, I was troubled, waking up at night, muttering at dawn. Surrounded by the books of prophets and theologians, of poets and philosophers, I searched for an answer. What troubled me was a bit shameful. Talking of it aloud might even seem a crime against the health of mankind." That's a passage from Milosz, and he's talking about the break point after the end of the Cold War.
MAX BOOT: I hope everybody else has memorized Milosz here as well. Did you want to say something, Garry?
GARRY KASPAROV: Just following on Bret's point about this erosion that gradually conquers the minds of intelligent people. I think Trump is kind of a test, whether it's a little injection or it's a vaccine so it's not strong enough to kill the body but actually to give an immunity.
I hope for the latter. That's what we think could happen if we react accordingly to the threat, just to make sure that this experience will be a wake-up call because for so many years I heard in this country: "It's all fine here. Don't talk about your problems in Russia, in Iran, in China. It's elsewhere. It's not going to happen in this country," so ignoring what once Ronald Reagan said, that "Freedom is always one generation away from extinction." Now I think Americans are learning it, so I hope that the Trump experience will be a good lesson, especially for young people to recognize that they have so many ways of influencing their own future.
BRET STEPHENS: Reagan was wrong. It's only eight years away.
GARRY KASPAROV: What I'm trying to tell them is you have such a powerful weapon in your hands. You can vote. In many countries of the world, billions of people in the world are fighting and dying for the right to vote, and here you have this right. While everybody talks about, what, 80,000 votes that decided the fate of the elections in 2016, I would concentrate on the 90 million people that didn't vote. That's fundamental. We just have to bring people in. So participate in democracy. Vote, dammit.
PHILIP BOBBITT: I want to just add one thing to what Bret said because since Bret and I have traveled in the same circles I've seen the same process of rationalization that he describes with Trump and what he represents, but I would add there is another phase which I think we've now entered into. Rationalization was the first phase. The second phase is complicity because the more you rationalize and the more you become complicit in what he is doing, the more you have a stake in defending it, and you become part of this assault on democracy yourself. Then you're not rationalizing at arm's length. Then you start to embrace fully, and you become part of that movement.
We've seen this with people who were saying, "I don't like Donald Trump, but he's doing a few good things." The part about "I don't like Trump" is progressively fading away, and instead you're hearing about how only somebody like Trump could do all these wonderful things that he is doing, and you're seeing a more fervent embrace on the part of so many intellectuals and Republican Party figures, and it's deeply disturbing.
BRET STEPHENS: Another point connected to that. The late great Daniel Patrick Moynihan—by the way, there's a wonderful documentary that has just come out about him—had this wonderful line about "defining deviancy down." He wrote an essay in the early 1990s when crime was rising at an alarming rate, and he noted how the Valentine's Day Massacre, which shocked America in the 1920s, involved something like [seven] people being killed. Now on any given night in Chicago 70 people are being killed today.
His thesis was a good common-sense psychological observation that as abnormal behavior becomes more and more common and ubiquitous, your threshold for defining what's abnormal is defined downward, so behavior that you previously would have thought outrageous—you once used to think that listening to a child use the F word in casual conversation would be enough to get some adult to have his mouth cleaned out with soap. It's now just part of the ether.
Something similar, of course, has happened politically in that Trump will say, we have a president who will say and do things that just two years would have completely shocked the system. Now the risk and the challenge is how do you not become cavalier in the face of these continuous outrages to what used to be normative standards of political behavior. That's a very tough challenge.
John McCain said something astute—and this is to your point, Max. He said, "I can't be the car alarm that's constantly going off." In which case, you have to ask yourself, for what do I hold my fire? The insidiousness of his brand of populism is that it forces us to ask that question all the time: For what am I going to hold my fire so I can nail him on that and that it will have some effect as opposed to just leading people continue to shrug?
MAX BOOT: Somebody maybe should write a book called The Death of Outrage except that Bill Bennett already wrote such a book, and he is an exemplar of the death of outrage because he is somebody who was decrying what Bill Clinton was doing to our country and is perfectly fine with what Donald Trump is doing.
Let me ask a question of the panel, if I could. It's striking how you have these transnational movements. In 1848 you had liberal nationalism breaking out all across Europe, in 1968 you had youthful progressive uprisings across the West, and right now you see these right-wing authoritarian or populist movements as well as ultra-left movements perhaps in reaction to that.
What accounts for the fact that so many of these institutions in liberal democracies are under siege when arguably you could certainly make the case that these are the most successful political systems in history?
PHILIP BOBBITT: One of the reviewers of this new book of ours said that he enjoyed most of the essays, but a couple of them were arid and academic. And I thought, Gee, I wonder if he's talking about me.
The answer I would give is something I've been writing about for a while and I'm still writing about it. I think that the founding of the American state at the end of the 18th century set a model for imperial and state nations, a model that Napoleon changed and that was picked up around the world. The re-founding of this state in the 1870s—and Lincoln's reliance on the Declaration, I might add—began an era of industrial nation-states that was picked up by Bismarck and that eventually spread throughout the world.
Over these two-and-a-half centuries we've had two constitutional orders that were strategically dynamic and shaped the system of states. I think we're on the cusp of another such change, and I think that these various revanchist, these reactionary movements on the right and on the left like Mr. Corbyn are a reaction to that, that the problems that the nation-state successfully conquered set in motion new problems as to which this constitutional order is really not quite capable.
I'll just give you one example. One of the innovations of the industrial nation-state was the development of weapons of mass destruction. By the adroit use of those weapons, we ended a terrible war, and we kept another war from beginning. Now those weapons are becoming commodified, and they will leak into the hands of smaller and smaller groups, non-state groups, state groups that have clandestine sponsorship of small groups, businesses, and business groups that sell them, and that's not the sort of problem that we're configured to solve.
GARRY KASPAROV: Yes, absolutely. I agree. At a certain point, every political system, even the most perfect one, reaches the point where it could not cope with new problems that somehow emerged within society. I couldn't agree more with Philip that we are now at this point. That's why it's very important for us to actually understand what kind of values we'll use to do these reforms.
The American political system has undergone these reforms a couple of times. Just look back to the middle of the 19th century, where two major parties, the Whigs and Democrats, were splitting, the Democrats for South and North, and the Whigs, by the way, for Know Nothings and Republicans.
When you look at the North-South conflict, I don't want just to use historical parallels, but it was also an economically dominant North and politically all-powerful south. Today when you look at the split of the red and blue waves in the country, it's basically the 2016 elections. Two-thirds of the national gross domestic product (GDP) is produced in the blue states while the red states have much more power, partially because of the system that allows small states to have equal representation in the Senate. I think the Kavanaugh confirmation that had 50 votes in the Senate had just slightly over 40 percent of the population represented.
Again, I am not here to question the wisdom of the system introduced by the founding fathers, but we are in the 21st century, and certain things that were quite obvious for them and served well at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century and 20th century now could be revisited.
For instance, when you talk about the life tenure in the Supreme Court. When it was introduced, what was the lifespan in this country? Forty-plus years, maybe for upper classes 50 years. Now it's 80—plus. It definitely changes our perspectives.
The Second Amendment was part of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, at a time when you could kill one person in two minutes. You had to reload your gun. Now you can kill 500 people in two minutes.
There are new challenges. We can look at economics and growing inequality and introduction of intelligent machines that could threaten many jobs. The reason of the rise of the far right or far left is that normally they point out the real problems the governing parties, the center, pretends to ignore. Of course they come up with wrong answers, but since this is the only game in town, they are the group that raises the issues, so they can resonate with the voters.
It's very important that we retake this initiative. We will not let them have a monopoly on asking questions and giving people easy answers and offering them something that of course is a fake and fantasy and is not going to work, but since there is no other authority in the room, they can steal the show.
BRET STEPHENS: I think one thing that is absolutely vital, and I suspect we all probably agree on this, is the political duopoly in the United States is increasingly serving us ill. In a healthy political system typically the fringes bend toward the center. The fringes seek the respectability of the center. In the last several years we increasingly have a system in which the center is bending toward the fringes, in which Bernie Sanders is improbably—at least by the standards of a few years ago—influential among Democrats, and the kind of Buchananite Trumpist wing of the Republican Party among Republicans.
What Garry just mentioned about the collapse of the party system of the United States in the 1850s is something we could use here. I think most of us in this room, most of us in our ordinary lives, sense a deep disquiet internally with whatever party we just happen to vote for because they're not quite as bad as the other person.
How do you go about actually creating a politics in which a third party like that could arise? In fact, it's not a crazy idea because we've witnessed exactly that phenomenon in France with Macron. Macron now has all kinds of political troubles, let's see where he is in a couple of years. But he signifies a certain kind of health in the Fifth Republic, in the French system, that it was able to reach beyond these stale alternatives with which it had been presented and look for a figure like him.
I think a question for the United State is whether that can be done here. If this book serves a long-term political purpose, it's to create an intellectual foundation for that kind of person. I don't know if the name is Bloomberg or Sasse or Hickenlooper or any number of people, but for purple-state America, if you will—and most of us are at least a little bit purple—to find a vehicle to express its political preferences, which are no longer well represented by either party.
QUESTION: I'm Suna Vidlini.
It seems, because I think Garry is able to read the global implications of what's going on as well, when this country coughs the rest of the world gets the flu, and it's almost not just the flu, it's like an epidemic. How are you reading like Jamal Khashoggi being murdered in the Saudi embassy? Do you think the likes of Putin or Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, how are they reading what's going on here? So it's Fight for Liberty not just here, but for the rest of the world it seems.
GARRY KASPAROV: My Soviet experience, I remember the words of U.S. presidents mattered a lot. So, whatever Harry Truman said, JFK, Ronald Reagan, it resonated with millions and millions of people on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Today unfortunately the effect is exactly the opposite. Donald Trump's statements encourage not those who are fighting for freedom but those who are suppressing it.
The fact that Donald Trump could question every institution, every alliance, and even moral values that America has promoted over decades globally definitely helps authoritarian leaders around the world to push their agenda because it's like a poison of impunity. If the president of the United States can afford being so critical about democracy and blasting his fellow leaders from democratic countries while praising dictators and almost openly showing his envy that he could not do the same things to the opposition as they did and are still doing, it has tremendous effect, and it's a negative effect. It's not just a cough, it's a virus.
That's why it's very important that we still have institutions here that are opposing Trump. Every statement from Washington, DC, that comes from the Senate or the House or other agencies in the U.S. capital help to soften the blow from Trump's brazen assumptions and accusations. But at the end of the day it's still about the president of the United States, who could set the right tone to help those who are just trying to turn the tide and start spreading democracy around the world.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
One of the most remarkable migrations in history was Bret Stephens' migration from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times. I wonder, apart from the possibility that Godfather Sulzberger made an offer to you that you couldn't refuse, what really lay behind that?
BRET STEPHENS: I thought the remarkable migrations involved the land bridge between Asia and North America, the exploration of—well, anyway.
I didn't ask for a raise from the Times. I asked that they meet the same terms that I had at the Journal financially, so it was not a financial interest. There were a couple of considerations.
One of them was that I was not simply a columnist for the paper. I was deputy editor of the editorial page. I did not feel in good conscience that I could represent the editorial page in that way. That is to say that my views as a columnist were so increasingly out of step with my responsibilities as an editor with a page that took a consistent line that I had to make a break. That was one issue.
The second one was that the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal isn't exactly pro-Trump, but it's anti-anti-Trump in the way that during the Cold War there were communists, there were anti-communists, and then there were anti-anti-communists, who disliked the anti-communists more than they disliked the communists. Being anti-anti-Trump meant being anti-Bret in the context of the editorial page. I thought that was a particular cop-out.
Look, if you like Donald Trump because you think he's going to make America great again, god bless you. That's your thinking. But if you can see Trump for exactly who and what he is and still say, "That's okay," then I find that nauseating, to be honest. There is something amiss with saying: "I know that he's a pig. I know that he's disgusting. I know that if he were a Democrat I would oppose him tooth and nail. I know that his views on Russia are foul, and so on, and still I'm going to support him. Why? Because he's not a Democrat."
One of the tests that I've applied consistently is if Barack Obama were carrying out exactly the policy that Trump is carrying out, what would conservatives be saying? That's one test.
The second issue is, I actually thought the Times would be a good fit for me. James Bennet, the relatively recent editorial page editor, formerly of The Atlantic, is really a superb editor who I think wanted to broaden the conversation and create more Sturm und Drang on the editorial page. It certainly has succeeded, making it a more interesting place for a broader set of views, and that was the vision that he came to me with. It was a very appealing one.
The Times has been nothing but lovely toward me, the Sulzbergers, father and son, and at least the senior people on the staff. Some of the younger people aren't quite in tune with my sensibilities, but I'm an acquired taste.
QUESTION: John Richardson.
I accept the stimulating debate and the back-and-forth, but it's the liberal elites versus the right-wing elites that are bothering us. One side has the advantage, the other the advantage.
What does the panel think of the history that apparently has been studied by Walter Scheidel, who is a professor at Stanford. He's Austrian originally, but he wrote a book which essentially says that since the end of the hunter-gatherer phase of life and the start of modern agriculture, elites, I guess whether they're right wing or left wing, have always managed to take all the surplus, and the only way in which there has ever been any real leveling in social progress is by war and pestilence. What we're waiting for now is the next war. What do you think of that?
PHILIP BOBBITT: I think that's nonsense. I think that the progress of mankind has often be retarded by war and pestilence and that elites, whether to your taste or not, have moved us in science, mathematics; they've moved us to conquer the oceans; to develop wealth far beyond anything hunter-gatherers could do.
I think the idea that what this country or any country needs is a good war is a terrible folly, and I write as someone who has studied the history of war for decades.
BRET STEPHENS: Just very briefly, my mother arrived in this country as a refugee with seven dollars. Sometimes I'll find that Tucker Carlson has attacked me as an out-of-touch elite, and I'm thinking, Well, there's the son of Ambassador Richard Carlson and I'm the out-of-touch elite?
I just used my own case, and I think this is true, certainly I know it's true of Max, how quickly within a single generation or maybe two at least in this country people move from the very margins of society to the center.
Now it's true that there is always going to be ossification of elites, but so long as you have a system which is fundamentally meritocratic and open you're going to be able to diversify your elites.
Just a week ago I had an opportunity to speak to a class of young journalists at Stuyvesant High School. I would say 80 percent of that class were clearly the children of Asian immigrants. Fifty years ago, those would have been all probably mostly Jewish kids who were the children of Russian immigrants and so on, and I have no doubt that in 50 years' time it will be some other striving immigrant group. But so long as that is where we are as the United States I'm not afraid of the rise of the elites.
GARRY KASPAROV: It's a good point about elites, but we're in the 21st century, and everyone has this device in their pocket or purse. That has changed everything because elites could dominate debates when there were very limited ways of participating. Now anyone can collect data and even just to get into the debate.
Our problem is that we still live in a world that is being dominated by the governing philosophy of the 19th and 20th centuries which does not recognize that we are now dealing with what I could call the "iPad generation." It's always interactive, and we pretend it's still a one-way street.
Also, I think we lost our passion for explorations, and we let illiberal forces, the rules of the unfree world, to use the technology that has been invented in the free world to undermine the very foundation of the free world. So it's very important for us to recognize that this technological progress that has been conceived and realized here in the free world could and should be used to promote our agenda. It's just about finding the right strategy. We just have to live with the fact that it's not about elite, 100,000 here, 100,000 there. It's about potentially billions of people who could get in.
I think eventually if we find the right framework of engaging this massive crowd into the debate and making them politically active, we will turn this tide.
JOANNE MYERS: Max, Philip, Garry, and Bret, I really have to thank you for a very stimulating conversation, and I hope this is the beginning of a debate that brings fruit. Thank you all for being with us.