“Since 1978, we have been fighting the wars of culture, economics, and foreign policy that redefined the American party system. The polarization that we have today is not about petty or personal things, although it gets very petty and very personal — it is a debate about political fundamentals,” said William A. Galston in his talk during the Hobart and William Smith Colleges President’s Forum Series.
In a lecture titled, “America’s Polarized Politics: Where does it come from, and what can we do about it?” Galston, a renowned political theorist and writer, detailed the history and effects of divisive politics in the contemporary U.S.
“At a time when so many of us are talking about the polarized nature of Washington engagement and questioning how we can actually have Washington work, one of the finest people I could think to bring to campus to reflect on this is Bill Galston,” said President Mark D. Gearan in his introduction of Galston. “He thinks carefully about these issues at the Brookings Institution. His background is operating at the nexus of political philosophy, practical politics, and reflecting on government, having served on the inside.”
To set the stage for the current polarized and stagnated character of contemporary U.S. politics, Galston described the beginnings of the environmental, civil rights, feminist and political protest and counterculture movements that occurred in the year before he enrolled at nearby Cornell University,
“It was hard to know at the time, but the seeds of fundamental change had been planted, and beneath the surface they were beginning to grow. And over the next 10 or 20 years they flowered in all sorts of strange and wondrous and unexpected ways,” he said. “There is no reason to believe that our times right now are different from the time that I just described.”
He went on to explain “three massive changes that have occurred in the country during past 50 years” — changes in demographics, economics and politics.
Galston paralleled previous “cycles of inclusion and closure throughout our history” with current concerns and debates regarding immigration reform.
“On the surface the immigration debate is about legal versus illegal, documented versus undocumented,” he said. “Beneath the surface is a deeper worry that’s like the worry of the early 1920s about the ability of the United States to assimilate and accommodate, to remain anything like an unum in the face of this increasing pluribus.”
Galston compared the economic growth after World War II — a time “not only of extraordinarily rapid aggregate growth but of the extraordinarily equal distribution of that growth through all sectors of the population” — with the economy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, “in which the proceeds of growth would be increasingly unequally shared.”
Reflecting on the fallout of that change in economic policy in the past several decades, Galston said, “If you hear American families worried about their capacity to provide the basic building blocks of middle class lives and opportunity for their children, it’s because of the mismatch between rising costs for those basic building blocks and the declining family resources available to pay for them.”
Finally, he traced the current political discord back to the early 1960s, when Democrats and Republicans enjoyed a “consensus of fundamentals” regarding economic, foreign and social policy. In the years since — with issues like the Vietnam War, abortion, gay rights, and inflation occupying the political sphere — political polarization has grown to levels not seen since the late 1800s, Galston said, and raised the question: “What can be done about it?”
Among reform efforts in areas such as campaign finance, redistricting and laws that govern primaries, Galston and a band of politicians, media executives, and business and non-profit leaders have created No Labels “to get the two political parties to do business across their differences,” Galston said. “If we can reach agreements with countries whose political systems we abhor, what is stopping us from reaching those kinds of agreements in the Unites States?”
No Labels is a national movement of Democrats, Republicans and Independence party members dedicated to a new politics of problem solving that champions a willingness to sit down with anyone — conservative, liberal or anyone in between — so long as they are willing to work to find solutions.
As for the present state of the government, and its future, Galston said that the nation’s current “period of decline” may be “a harbinger of a gloomier future,” or, “in ways that we can’t precisely anticipate but must surely work for, the seeds of renewal are being planted and sprouting, even though we can’t yet see them. That was true when I was a college freshman 51 years ago, and I submit that it is more likely than not to be true today.”
Galston is the Ezra Zilkha chair at the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. An expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections, he is a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and to six presidential campaigns. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.
At the University of Maryland, Galston serves as the College Park Professor and was the Saul Stern Professor at the School of Public Policy. In addition, he has served as director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, and as founding director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
The author of eight books and more than 100 articles in the fields of political theory, public policy, and American politics, Galston’s most recent books are “Liberal Pluralism” (Cambridge, 2002), “The Practice of Liberal Pluralism” (Cambridge, 2004), and “Public Matters” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). A winner of the American Political Science Association’s Hubert H. Humphrey Award, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004.
Galston served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has appeared on all the principal television networks and is a frequent commentator on NPR.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. The most recent guest of the President’s Forum Series was Victor Simpson ’63, former Rome Bureau Chief for the Associated Press. Other recent speakers include Dr. Kathy Platoni ’74, clinical psychologist, author and retired U.S. Army Colonel; Todd S. Purdum, senior writer at POLITICO and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair; Gus Schumacher, executive vice president of policy and co-founder of Wholesome Wave; and Former Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, the first woman in American history to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both houses of Congress.
The next President’s Forum Series speaker, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, will join the campus community Wednesday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in the Vandervort Room of the Scandling Campus Center.