Q&A: William Kristol on the State of Public Decision Making in a Polarized Era

Bill Kristol headshot

Vann Professor of Ethics in Society William Kristol

William Kristol, the former White House adviser who founded the Weekly Standard magazine and edited it for 20 years, will join Davidson College in the fall as the visiting Vann Professor of Ethics in Society.

This semester he will lead two discussions on campus, the first on Jan. 30, posing the question: "Is ethical public service still possible?"

Tickets are free but required. They can be picked up at the Alvarez College Union Ticket Office or reserved online.

What is challenging about this era in public decision making that you hope to highlight at Davidson?

Liberal arts is the best preparation for being a responsible citizen in a liberal democracy. One thing I hope to do is emphasize the connection between what one studies in political science and philosophy and the literature classes and the science classes and public life.

Having a public life is informed by serious thinking about politics and science and philosophy and culture and history. That's a challenge today. There's more of a separation between the academy and real world than there used to be...As someone who got a doctorate and taught for a while, kept my hand in teaching, but also has been involved in government and the media...I hope I can be a little bit of a bridge and help highlight for students the connections and relevance of what they're studying to the real world—and the relevance of that to their education at Davidson.

These strains between parts of our country are greater than ever before. People tend to look at part of the country or part of society they don't like and say, ‘there's nothing I can learn from that.' That's not healthy. Ethical decision making, well-informed decision making, is more important now than ever. You might think it's not had a good run for the past couple of years, but that can change pretty quickly.

It's a big mistake to be too fatalistic about this because people use twitter, or one person got elected, or millennials are different from people 55 and up, and therefore, all of these lessons of history and public life should be tossed out the window. I don't believe that.

The title for the Jan. 30 event is, "Is ethical public service still possible?" Spoiler alert: is it?

Yes, which doesn't mean it might not be more difficult than it was 20 years ago. This is a recurring challenge and problem. If you look back in American history there was great concern in the gilded age—everything is corrupt, and it's all money, and ethics is impossible. That led to all kinds of reforms, the Progressive Movement, Teddy Roosevelt and so forth. You had the same kind of phenomenon in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s.

If you run into a few years when norms seem to be challenged or eroded, one shouldn't be complacent, thinking, that, ‘Oh, don't worry they'll pop back.' People fought hard to bring them back or renew them, or create new ones...You then need to think in a creative way what is the right kind of norms for the rule of law, democracy, deliberation in the 21st century. It's going to look differently than in the 20th century because of social media and because of the character of our country...It's a much more diverse country. It's going to have different customs than it used to. That's fine, but it shouldn't be at the expense of getting rid of all kinds of healthy aspects of serious, deliberative, civil, liberal democracy.

What are the particular challenges of the current moment? To what degree are they new, and to what degree are they permanent challenges in a liberal democracy? 

If you look at Federalist 1, Hamilton goes on about how you would hope the Constitution would be debated in a very serious and intelligent way but, he said, don't get your hopes up. He said there would be a lot of misrepresentation and foolishness and demagoguery and fear-mongering, and then he tried to explain how citizens might see through this or past this.

It's important to make the point that this isn't new. Serious people thought about this in the past. The country has dealt with it in the past. But that doesn't mean it will take care of itself. We need fresh thinking about it at the same time.

Many Davidson students seek public service-related internships or experiences. What are the things they ought to be looking to learn during those experiences for real world decision making?

Bring your education to bear on what you're doing. Things you study, whether the Federalist Papers or something in literature, something you debated in the dorm...will be more helpful than you realize in solving problems you're facing—the ethical aspects of those problems, how to solve them, how to get people to buy in. Most of public life is not an esoteric skill you learn only after leaving college. A lot is what you learned in getting a liberal education. I was struck by that when I was a little older, after I had spent some time teaching. In Washington, so many people I have hired over the years were not specialists or very experienced. They were intelligent, could write well, they had a good education—maybe from a good college or maybe they educated themselves—and they were curious. That was always much more important than "I studied somebody's decision-making at the Kennedy School at Harvard." People should feel confident in the liberal education they have received and in their own ability.

Learn from the new environment...a think tank, congress, an NGO, a political campaign...I learned a ton from being on a campaign...and then came into the executive branch, and it was a steep learning curve. Hopefully these two complement each other. Have confidence in what you know and an openness to learning new things. You can learn a lot from intelligent people who aren't teachers necessarily or even have a thought that their main job is to teach. They provide an example of someone who knows how to run an organization or how to participate in a meeting in a constructive way. You can learn a lot just by keeping your eyes and ears open.

Is there a greater burden on graduates today to bring both more respectful discourse and more thoughtful analysis to public debate, or is this just another cycle in history?

Cycles don't come to an end naturally. People help change the dynamic, and the dynamic of polarization and counter polarization, of people retreating to their corners and, then, further into their corners, is now somewhat built in, unfortunately. We will need fresh entrants into the system to change it. It can change. It's not that intrinsic in the modern world. This is where being young and new helps. One of the reasons people are so dug in is they have had 20 or 30 years of these arguments. They're on one team and not another, and they have fought a lot of battles against the other team. Inevitably, psychologically, they are, perhaps, less able to see the common interest, to side with one side on an issue and with the other side on another issue, than someone who is new to the game. You come with open eyes that you're not going to magically change the system in six months. But people can make a difference. It's more fluid than people think.

What about the Trump era of public decision making is most troubling and, conversely, most encouraging?

It is troubling to have a president who is willing to exacerbate divisions in the country in a pretty irresponsible way, to demagogue issues, to demonize groups...The presidency is a powerful office, so it's a unique challenge. Donald Trump is the symptom of a lot of different problems, but he also exacerbated them...It has affected our whole public and political discourse.

I'm optimistic that this is a strong country. We will survive this, too. Young people coming in are seeing a system they don't think is working well. That's kind of good in that they can react, their reaction can be healthy...there's a lot of desire that America can do better than this, that it's important to the world that America do better than this. And, therefore, there is a wish to get involved and change things. That makes me fundamentally optimistic.


  • January 22, 2019