Repairing a Fraying Democracy with Richard Haass
Author and diplomat Richard Haass began his education at Oberlin College and Conservatory during a pivotal year for American democracy. It was 1970 and the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four college students at neighboring Kent State University. The tragedy spurred Haass into action: He filmed a documentary about Oberlin’s response to the shooting. More than half-century later, the film still stands as a moving tribute.
After graduating from Oberlin in 1973, Haass continued his studies as a Rhodes Scholar and went on to a distinguished career of government service, working for one Democratic senator, a Democratic President and three Republican presidents. In 2003, he began a two-decade term at the helm of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan resource for American citizens across the political spectrum.
In this episode of Running to the Noise, Haass—whose new book is The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens—joins host and Oberlin College and Conservatory President Carmen Twillie Ambar to tackle tough questions about why our democracy has never been so imperiled and how we can work to protect it.
Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Audio from The Bill of Obligations.
[00:00:00] Carmen: I’m Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don’t shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.
[00:00:46] Richard: I have spent my career studying, practicing, writing about, and speaking on American foreign policy. And a question I frequently hear is, “Richard, what keeps you up at night?” Often, even before I get to answer, the person posing the question suggests potential answers. Is it China? Russia? North Korea? Iran? Terrorism? Climate change? Cyber attacks? Another pandemic?
In recent years, I started responding in a way that surprised me and many in the room. The most urgent and significant threat to American security and stability stems not from abroad, but from within, from political divisions that, for only the second time in U.S. history, have raised questions about the future of American democracy and even the United States itself.
[00:01:36] Carmen: That’s our guest, Richard Haass, reading from his New York Times bestselling book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, an invaluable roadmap to how we can begin to repair our fraying democracy. Richard took the helm of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan resource for Americans across the political spectrum on U.S. foreign policy, in the summer of 2003.
And during that time, American democracy seemed in a relatively healthy place. The United States had just toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. And bipartisanship was strong enough to give President George W. Bush an approval rating in the ’60s. Well, folks, things are a little bit different now. Several of today’s polls find that more than 70% of people within each party think the other party’s leaders are a danger to democracy or back an agenda that would destroy the country.
So, as Richard stepped down from the head of the 102-year-old council after two decades in June, he shocked many people by saying that the biggest national security threat facing the United States is not Russia, or China, or climate change, but ourselves. And if Oberlin students were here right now, they would say, "President Ambar, the call is coming from inside the house."
We are so excited to have Richard Haass here on the podcast, Running to the Noise. I have been desperate, Richard, to talk to you. I see you on Morning Joe all the time but my mom now lives with me. And so, every time you’re on, I get a recitation of what Richard Haass said today. So, welcome to my podcast.
[00:03:07] Richard: Great to be with you, and that’s why the Bible teaches us to respect your mother and your father—in this case your mom. You got to listen to them, Madame President.
[00:03:14] Carmen: Gotta listen to them! And she loves you. She has now learned all of the famous Obies, and we have quite a few. And so, whenever you all are on television, she is telling me what you are doing.
But I have to say that this issue of where our democracy is, is of deep concern to a lot of us. But what I think has been surprising to people is that there seems to be a segment of our citizenry that doesn’t really quite believe in democracy anymore.
It has decided that authoritarian, sort of, approaches are, are maybe the, the way we should go. So, as crazy as this question is going to sound, maybe you can take a moment to make the case for democracy. Why is a healthy democracy important? I ask that concerned that I have to ask you that question, but I think we probably need to start there.
[00:04:04] Richard: I agree with you. It’s not a crazy question. It’s a fundamental question. What I like about the question, Carmen, is it’s a reminder we can’t assume things. Many of us would say, "Well, of course, we don’t need to ask that question. Of course, democracy is better." But just say, take the average age of an Oberlin student. He or she, say, they’re, they’re 20-something.
[00:04:22] Carmen: Right.
[00:04:23] Richard: 20-ish. Think about the last 20 years. Roughly began with 9/11, plus or minus.
[00:04:29] Carmen: Yeah, they’re a 9/11 generation.
[00:04:31] Richard: We’ve had two costly unsuccessful wars. We’ve had a pandemic. We’ve had an inability of the country to confront many of its internal challenges. We’ve had January 6th.
So, if you’re a young person, I can actually imagine somebody saying, "Well, look, I know what democracy’s done to me. I don’t know, though, what it’s done for me. What’s so good about this?"
So, look, the advantage of democracy, it seems to me, is democracies are predicated upon rights, whether the right is the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of religion, maybe the freedom from religion, all these other freedoms that when you look at the Bill of Rights, a lot of the fundamentals of what we now think of as, as democracy. The word freedom and democracy are very closely associated.
To put it another way, in an authoritarian system, you have virtually nothing in the way of rights. Everything’s in the way of obligations, what you owe the state. What I’m arguing is we need to avoid the other extreme where we just have rights. We also need to have some obligations. But democracies give you rights. They give you protection of those. If you look at the record of democracies, they also deliver pretty well.
[00:05:41] Carmen: Right.
[00:05:41] Richard: If you think about the last 75 years, the average American lives decades longer, we have far more wealth, our standards of living have gone up enormously, United States has led the world in some effective ways. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, but the last I checked, the Cold War stayed cold, and it ended on terms favorable to us, which is no small thing.
So, if I look at all that, I go, "Wow, democracy’s delivered." And even where democracy has failed, look at how we’ve self-corrected. We’ve self-corrected in Vietnam or with Iraq or with Afghanistan at times.
Look at the progress we made on civil rights, gay marriage. So, what this suggests to me is democracy retains an extraordinary capacity to adapt and to self-correct. And that’s what I think is so good about it.
[00:06:29] Carmen: I’m glad you made the case because I think you’re right. Early on in your time, as a first year student, in May of 1970, there were four Kent State students who were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guardsmen. You were on campus at Oberlin at the time. Tell us a little bit about how that early experience may have shaped how you think about American democracy.
[00:06:48] Richard: It was a powerful experience for me, but it actually gave me faith in American democracy. There were intensely debated issues, as you say, of people were killed protesting the war, and at that point, the expansion of the war into Cambodia. There was a policy debate in the United States about the war, but it wasn’t about American democracy. There was intense differences, but we had a way to work them out, to argue them. And ultimately, the United States changed its policy towards the war.
What’s going on now is something very, very different, that our disagreements are not simply about policies. We’ve always had those. What’s different now is what’s at stake is the system itself. It’s democracy itself.
It’s not simply about whether we should be doing what we’re doing with Ukraine, or abortion, or this or that policy issue. It’s much more fundamental. And people are beginning to do things that actually challenge the tissue, the fabric of American democracy, the system itself.
[00:07:49] Carmen: So, Richard, one of the things that you have said that I find sobering is you refer to the period of time where we’re in the shadow of the Vietnam War, we are dealing with Watergate.
And you say that, when we compare that time to where we are now, that our democracy is in more danger, that it’s more fraught now than that era. And I have to say, you know, reading that, I go, "Oh, my goodness, Richard." So, help us, help us appreciate why you feel that way, this moment that we’re in right now is more fragile than what we imagined during that time.
[00:08:25] Richard: It came up several times in the course of writing the book. I remember a dinner party that got pretty hot and bothered, where I made that argument and people said, "How can you say that? You grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s. We had the protests of the ’60s and ’70s. We had Vietnam. We had the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King."
[00:08:47] Carmen: Right.
[00:08:47] Richard: "How can you say this is either different or worse?"
[00:08:51] Carmen: Yes.
[00:08:52] Richard: And what I said to people was, "Well, a couple of things. One is yes, all those bad things happened, but in certain cases, the system responded. We saw that with policy issues about Vietnam or civil rights. We made progress. Second of all, what’s going on now is not about specific policies. It’s about American democracy itself.
If one looks at what happened around January 6th, what happened with the election, what’s happened more systematically with how we design our voting processes and so forth. So, I actually think this is much more fundamental. So, I don’t mean to say what happened in the ’60s and ’70s was not serious. Of course, it was.
[00:09:34] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:09:35] Richard: But actually, I think this is more systemic. I think what is at stake here is not a policy. What’s at stake here is actually democracy itself and quite honestly, the ability of this country to stay united. We went through the Civil War where slavery was a threat to the union itself.
And I don’t want to say, you know, we’re necessarily there, but I could see a, a future in this country where political violence could become much more common, where our ability to get things done, it’s already significantly diminished. It gets even worse. We get even more polarized. We get more culturally separate from one another and foreign to one another. And I’m worried about that future.
And I’m not predicting it, but I can’t sit here and confidently say, "Ah, that can’t happen here." Well, if there’s one reaction, Carmen, I want people to have when they think about these things, I don’t want anybody to be sanguine. I want them to be worried enough to get involved, to basically say, "This is worth keeping this democracy of ours, this country of ours. They’re in some danger, and I want to do my bit to help protect and preserve."
[00:10:42] Carmen: Yeah, that’s, that’s, the perfect answer. It’s like you don’t want us to be frozen by this sobering thought.
[00:10:48] Richard: 100%. No one should be immobilized, but no one should be sanguine. I want people to be worried enough, but I want that to be a spur to action.
[00:10:55] Carmen: Right. I want to talk to you a little bit about the two-party system because I don’t think we can have this discussion about where we are if we don’t talk a little bit about our party system. And for those people who don’t know Richard, he has worked for a Democratic senator. He’s worked for a Democratic president, Republican president.
He’s... was a registered Republican for quite some time, but he certainly has been what I would describe as, kind of, nonpartisan in the way that he’s gone about his work. But then, you know, in 2020, Richard, you changed your party affiliation to no party affiliation.
And I guess I’m wondering how we get to a healthy democracy if we don’t have a party system that we can feel good about or at least that is on the same page with the rest of us around the valuing of democracy. So, you know, when did democracy become partisan? I guess maybe is the question. And how do we get there from here if we have a party system that I don’t think is delivering on the very fundamental principle of the value of democracy?
[00:11:59] Richard: I’d probably answer it a little bit differently. I think democracy has always been partisan. We’ve always had differences. And parties are, in some ways, people coming together based upon certain principles, almost the pooling of collective views. And whether you have two, three, four, whatever political parties in Europe or parts of the world, you’ll have dozens of political parties. Here though, for much of our history, we tended to have two.
And by the way, parties were very good ways of, of building compromise, making the system work. The word partisan and all, that’s a pejorative word, but it need not be that. Parties could be moderating influences, a way of sandpapering off the extremes, of building the potential for, for compromise. I think what’s different now is the parties themselves have lost control.
Think about it. Every politician, in some ways, is his or her own party. They have access to the media. They have access to money. They don’t need to compromise. Leaders of parties, in many cases, can no longer discipline members of their party. The parties are much less significant. So, we’ve become much more partisan, but political parties have become less significant as instruments in American politics.
[00:13:12] Carmen: And you would say, Richard, that that’s on both sides of the aisle?
[00:13:15] Richard: Oh, yeah. But I think also what’s happened, just so it doesn’t look like I’m sugarcoating reality, I think what’s happened within the Republican Party is somewhat different. It is qualitatively different.
And the reason I’m no longer Republican, it’s not the party I joined. I joined the Republican Party, which believed in, in markets, believed in a strong American presence in the world, had certain respect for individual privacy and liberty. This is a very different Republican Party.
[00:13:39] Carmen: Yes.
[00:13:40] Richard: This is now a much more radical populist party, much more defined by culture and by an extreme definition of individual rights than, than anything I recall. And let me just be clear, since you mentioned it, Carmen, I hated the idea of leaving the party. I feel, in some ways, like a political orphan. Despite what I said before, parties are important for presenting choices and candidates and, and so forth.
And some primaries in certain states are closed. You have to be a member of it. So, I don’t like the fact of having moved myself away from either party. I just couldn’t any longer look at myself in the mirror and feel comfortable with saying, "I’m a Republican."
Look, I look forward to the day I either go back to being a Republican or maybe become a Democrat, or who knows what? I feel, in some ways, again, slightly orphaned. I don’t see this as permanent. I don’t think there’s a particular value in being outside, because among other things, just practically, you lose the chance in certain cases to vote and-
[00:14:38] Carmen: To influence.
[00:14:38] Richard: ... yeah, to influence, and particularly in primaries. And I think one of the big questions facing our collective future is, to put it bluntly, let’s just, you know, put it out there, whether Trumpism-
[00:14:49] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:14:50] Richard: ... survives Donald Trump-
[00:14:51] Carmen: Right.
[00:14:52] Richard: ... whether the cultural and political forces that he has unleashed or energized, whether this becomes permanent, and anyone after him has to, in some ways, carry out many of his policies, or whether, if you will, Republicans will rediscover conservatism, will once again believe in institutions, will once again believe in democracy, will once again believe in a stronger American role in the world. I hope so.
[00:15:17] Carmen: I hope so, too. You know, I feel like I’m in the Black church. I want to say, preach, Richard, preach, because that’s what I feel about... Because, you know, the Republican party of my youth is the Republican party that you’re speaking about.
[00:15:31] Richard: Sure.
[00:15:32] Carmen: And I think what’s been interesting about this, sort of, process for Democrats is they’ve discovered how much they valued that Republican party of their youth, this Republican party they may, they may have had disagreements with, but now, all of a sudden, it’s like, "Whoa, wait a minute." That was important. We, we really need these folks to be, you know, on their A game here.
[00:15:50] Richard: To me, one of the interesting questions is whether there will be more space in the party and whether one can essentially be successful as a "conservative," not a radical, not a populist-
[00:16:02] Carmen: Right.
[00:16:02] Richard: ... but as a conservative. And conservatives, again, by definition, believe in institutions, believe in precedent. Conservatives have this understanding that they’ve inherited something precious, and they shouldn’t take it for granted. The part of our collective obligation is to protect and pass on this special thing called American democracy and this country in better shape than we found it. I mean, that’s your goal at Oberlin.
[00:16:26] Carmen: Right.
[00:16:27] Richard: That’s your responsibility. You, you want to hand off the presidency and the college in better shape than you found it.
[00:16:32] Carmen: Absolutely.
[00:16:33] Richard: I try to do that over 20 years at the Council on Foreign Relations. And that’s any individual’s obligation. And I think as a generation, that’s our collective obligation. What worries me so much is I see so many people in this country no longer feeling that or believing or confident that the future will be better than, than the past, that their children will be better off than they are. And I think that’s why, in some ways, populism is as powerful as it is.
I believe we have an obligation to make it work. And one of the reasons I wrote this book is I try to encourage certain behaviors, things like compromise, civility, rejection of violence, because I saw those as prerequisites of what it would take for democracy to deliver.
[00:17:17] Carmen: You know, I’m so glad that we are segueing into your book because, you know, I’m sitting in this, this space of higher education and we’re all trying to figure out what we can do well to help our students be more prepared for the world that they’re inheriting. And I encourage everyone to get Richard’s book, Bill of Obligations, because he gives us, kind of, these obligations that he feels like we all need to embrace.
Get Richard’s book if you want to get all 10 of them—this is a little teaser—but I wanted to talk about a couple of them, Richard, because I think they’re challenging for those of us in higher education.
So the first one you say to us is about being informed. And I guess I wanted to ask you, how you would reconcile this notion of being informed when we’re all in our algorithms that only give us a particular perspective, right? So, we need to be informed. How would you help us broaden our aperture? Because we’re informed, but we’re certainly informed with the people who agree with us.
[00:18:11] Richard: Exactly right, which by definition, I would say, is we’re not informed. Look, if either one of us were ill, and we went to the doctor and we got a serious diagnosis, the first thing we’d do is get a second opinion.
So, one of the things I would say is let’s make sure we get a second or a third opinion when it comes to the news and analysis of the news. That, that, to me, is a beginning. Second of all, not all sources of information are the same. They call it social media because it’s social.
[00:18:41] Carmen: Interesting.
[00:18:42] Richard: They don’t call it news. It’s social media.
And part of it is to understand what makes a source of information reliable or reputable? What’s its history? Are there fact-checkers? When mistakes are made, do they correct them? And so forth. So, it’s interesting. To take one state, New Jersey, they are now teaching high school kids this idea of information literacy. And the idea, it’s not to teach young people what to think. It’s to teach them to be critical consumers of information in an age in which we’re flooded, but a lot of what we’re flooded with is not trustworthy.
So, I think that ought to be part of it, so people understand, become a little bit more considered about what does it mean to be informed? What are, what are reliable, trustworthy sources? There’s places you can go that have a track record.
[00:19:31] Carmen: Right.
[00:19:32] Richard: And what we want to do is, say, expose yourself to these things. Again, this is part of what it means to be an informed citizen.
[00:19:39] Carmen: To have good checklist of reputable sources so you can go, when you hear that random thing on Facebook, you go, “Let me go check the New York Times, The Economist on this.”
Well, the other one I wanted to talk to you about, Richard, because this is so, you know, critical on, I think, a lot of college campuses, you talk about staying open to compromise. Because, you know, when I talk to students across the country, what compromise looks like to this generation of students and maybe what compromise looks like to me sometimes can be divergent.
And I think some of that has to do with, you know, skepticism and a sense that sometimes, this compromise is about selling out a little bit. And I don’t know how you were, Richard, when you were 17, 18 and 19 years old.
[00:20:22] Richard: I had much longer hair. That’s what I really remember.
[00:20:24] Carmen: Okay. Well, maybe you felt the same way, but what can you say, you know, saying that to me, "Stay open to compromise, Carmen," and saying that to this generation of students hits a little differently? So, talk to this generation of young people about what it means to stay open to compromise.
[00:20:42] Richard: I’m glad you raised it. It’s really important. First of all, I’m not saying to compromise. I’m saying to stay open to it. It ought to be a choice. It ought to be something you consider. There might be certain situations where you say, "Well, if I compromise, here are the consequences."
So, compromise may or may not be right for you under certain circumstances. So, I’m not in favor of always compromising or never compromising. I think it ought to, though, be an option.
[00:21:11] Carmen: Like, don’t close it out.
[00:21:12] Richard: 100%. And compared to what?
[00:21:14] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:21:14] Richard: So, you have to ask yourself, "Okay, if I don’t compromise, here’s the situation that I face-"
[00:21:20] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:21:20] Richard: "... whatever it may be. And I may be pure in my position, but I can’t get a lot of it. On the other hand, if I do compromise, I may have to sandpaper off some of my preferences, but I may get to stretch the, or change the metaphor, I may get half of what I want or several slices of the, of the loaf. So, which way am I better off? Is it better reject compromise or embrace it?" And what I want to do is have people simply go through that every time.
[00:21:48] Carmen: Right. Like, go through the exercise of compromise-
[00:21:50] Richard: 100%.
[00:21:51] Carmen: ... that, that is an obligation to this notion of protecting our democracy.
[00:21:56] Richard: And it may be in certain situations, again, you reject it. Often, you may not want to compromise on certain high first-order principles, but you’re more than comfortable compromising on certain details about how things are implemented, that you might say, "Well, it’s not all I want, but at least it’s a first step. I’m better off with it. It holds open the possibility of further steps down the road." Or you’d say, "That’s the most we can get."
So, the choice is not between this and what I want. The choice is between this compromise and nothing. And under those circumstances, I’m better with this compromise than I am with nothing. That’s the kind of conversation we need to have with ourselves and one another.
[00:22:36] Carmen: Yeah. You know, I, I really appreciate it. You know, we have this program at Oberlin called Sustained Dialogue, which is trying to encourage students to talk and engage with people who have different perspectives than they do and to have a dialogue. And one of the principles of this program is that you can have a hard back but a soft front.
And the notion is that you don’t have to give up your viewpoint, that’s the hard back, but you got to have a soft front, which is an openness to hearing people’s perspectives, an openness to considering, as you said, considering the compromise, because there’s no way to get here from there, I think, unless we, you know, stay open to compromise.
You talk about in the book this, this notion of, kind of, supporting the teaching of civics as, kind of, a basic fundamental way forward, right, how do we build this anew, so to speak. And I guess I wondered what you thought that might look like on a college campus.
[00:23:29] Richard: So, here’s my view. I would think that one of the purposes of a college education, it’s obviously we think about it to prepare people for life. And I would say here in the United States, one of our purposes ought to be to prepare people to be citizens in this democracy.
So, I think that’s, if you will, our collective obligation. Right now, in most American colleges and universities, you can graduate without being exposed to what you and I have been talking about for the last half hour.
[00:23:57] Carmen: Right.
[00:23:57] Richard: It’s always offered. It’s there on campus. But it’s usually easy to navigate your course load and your experiences so you do not have exposure to these things. And I think that’s wrong.
My view is having the basics of democracy—what a democracy is, why it’s valuable, and most important, what does it take to run one? What are the requirements of successful democracy? What do citizens have to be prepared to do? I think that ought to be part of a curriculum. For example, Stanford, a school you may have heard of, about 2,000 miles to your west.
[00:24:31] Carmen: Yeah, heard of Stanford.
[00:24:33] Richard: The Oberlin of Northern California. Stanford is going to require all first years, I think it’s about 1,700 freshmen next year, every one of them is going to be required to take the winter module in Democracy and be exposed to civics.
And there’s going to be large-group classrooms and then there’s going to be literally 150 or more small-discussion groups where they and TAs or professors are going to talk about these issues. They’re going to read many of the same things, and so forth. I love that kind of a model. Now, it obviously needs to be tweaked. Something I’ve thought about a lot. What’s the content?
We want all Americans to have read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, certain Supreme Court decisions, certain presidential speeches, all that. We want them to have gone through that.
And we want them to read some of the history and be exposed to different schools of history. We don’t want to impose one school of thought, but we want, as a educated person, for every young person to say, "Okay, here’s different interpretations of these events. You should know them."
At a minimum, it would give you some empathy for others, and it would help you understand, maybe help your own thinking. You may even change your own mind. So, I don’t believe that’s impossible. I’m not naive. I know how politicized, even weaponized, education has gotten. I look what’s going on in Florida and so forth.
But I would think for a community like an Oberlin, or other schools, I actually think this would be a healthy process to go through to think about, "Okay, what do we want every student to leave campus with in the way of an understanding of democracy and of their obligations as citizens?" If it’s taught early on, let me give you a crazy idea, Carmen, as part of freshman experience type things, that way would also help influence their behavior for their four years on campus.
It’s not just for the rest of your life, but as you said, we’ve got to learn on campuses how to disagree, how to advocate, how to listen, what principles do we have, where do we draw lines, where are we willing to compromise?
People have to learn how to become political participants. What better place than a campus? So, actually, I would love to see this built into the first year of any college or university.
[00:26:48] Carmen: Well, this brings me to my last question that I think is one of the challenges on college campuses, but just maybe around our country, because one of the obligations that you admonish us to think about is, how do we put our country first?
And I think that, you know, when I’m talking to students and not just students, all sorts of folks, around this concept, there’s this moment where all sorts of folks say, "You know, I’ve been putting my country first, but I’m not sure the country has put me first," right? And they talk about whatever their experience has been here.
And it’s not just necessarily people who come from what people might perceive as marginalized communities, but it’s economic disadvantage and all these things that I think have been, in some ways, driving some aspects of this populist push, right? Feeling like the country hasn’t delivered, a democracy hasn’t delivered, as you and I have talked about.
You know, what would you say to folks who spend more of their time on the warts of what they feel like has happened? And sort of say, how do you expect me to do that when what I’ve perceived about this country hasn’t delivered? Because I think if we can get at that, we might be able to get at why we need to be committed to this idea of democracy.
[00:27:59] Richard: Well, we almost need another 30 minutes to get through this.
[00:28:02] Carmen: I’m giving you the easy softballs. Come on, Richard.
[00:28:06] Richard: But I’d say a couple of things. One is to study some history. And the sense that, yeah, we have warts, but we’ve always had warts. But look at the change, look at how this society, this country has evolved. So, yes, do we still have discrimination? Absolutely. But look at the whole civil rights movement, look at what we’ve accomplished, look at the positive change that has happened.
Do we have economic inequality? Absolutely. But look at how the standards of living have improved dramatically over the last 75 or 100 years. We can go down the list. So, every area there are flaws or warts or whatever metaphor you want to use, my view is sure, but we’ve still come a significant ways-
[00:28:48] Carmen: Right.
[00:28:48] Richard: ... and it’s important not to overlook the progress. Second of all, I think we have to probably underscore the idea that the difference between equal opportunity and equal outcomes, and what, to me, is central to American democracy is real equal opportunity, but not necessarily equal outcomes.
And my difficulties with American democracy today, and it gets at some of the debates we’re having on campuses about things like legacy admissions and all that, is how do we make sure equal opportunity is real in America?
[00:29:19] Carmen: Right.
[00:29:19] Richard: One of the things I am really worried about, Carmen, is the imperfections of American K-12 public education.
[00:29:27] Carmen: It’s huge.
[00:29:29] Richard: That’s, that’s the great ladder of American economic and social mobility.
[00:29:34] Carmen: Absolutely.
[00:29:35] Richard: And right now, we have a major crisis going on with K-12 public education.
[00:29:41] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:29:41] Richard: It simply is not close to being good enough in too many ZIP codes.
[00:29:45] Carmen: Yeah, too many people being left behind.
[00:29:48] Richard: 100%. And I’d say one other thing. At the end of the day, for people who are frustrated, you may be right, then go and improve it.
[00:29:54] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:29:55] Richard: Think about public service, think about getting involved, whether it’s education or housing. You know, I’m lucky I got two kids, 30-ish. One works in city government. One works in politics. And I love that. Not that I necessarily always agree with them, but I like the idea that they’re involved.
I want the best and the brightest—Oberlin graduates the best and the brightest. I’d love for a lot of them to get involved. Your theme here—Running to the Noise—okay, make it better.
So, when students get frustrated with what they see, I’d say, "Fantastic. Channel that frustration into something positive, constructive. Go make a difference. Go try to bring about the change you want to see.”
[00:30:35] Carmen: Well, there you have it, folks—Richard Haass admonishing us to get into the arena. That’s the way that you can make a difference.
So, I just thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this super, super important topic of how we heal our democracy. And what I love about our conversation, Richard, is that, you know, sometimes, these conversations can be, kind of, outward, what needs to happen in the world.
And we talked about that a little bit, too, but, but we ended on what we can do about it. And at the end of the day, as the president of a college where I believe, like, our students go out and change the world for good, I want to show them all the ways that they can help make that happen. So, thanks so much. We appreciate you.
[00:31:11] Richard: Thanks for that last point, Carmen, because that’s the point. There’s a lot of reforms and changes we need, but they’re not just going to happen. History says good things just don’t happen because they’re good things.
[00:31:21] Carmen: Yeah.
[00:31:22] Richard: What we need are individuals to make it happen. And every person can become an agent for change in their lives, whatever stage they want to play on whatever scale they’re operating at in their private or public lives. If this democracy is going to get better, it’s going to happen from the bottom up.
It ain’t going to be delivered to us by FedEx. We are going to have to make it happen ourselves. Students coming out of places like Oberlin, I would say they have opportunities, even, to use my favorite word, obligations, to help make it happen.
[00:31:51] Carmen: Richard Haass, thanks so much. We appreciate you.
[00:31:54] Richard: Carmen Ambar, thank you.
[00:31:59] Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.
If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I’m Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I’ll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.
- Haass’ bio for the Council on Foreign Relations
- Haass’ 1970 documentary on Oberlin’s response to the Kent State shootings
- The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens
- Memory and Memorial (special feature from the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Oberlin Alumni Magazine)
Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.