CFR President Richard Haass leads a conversation on expanding the idea of citizenship and ensuring the survival of American democracy. His new book, The Bill of Obligations: Ten Habits of Good Citizens, is a guide for elected officials, government staffers, and their constituents across the political spectrum to heal divisions and safeguard our country’s future.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We are delighted to have participants from forty-eight U.S. states and territories with us for today’s discussion, which is on the record.
CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution focusing on U.S. domestic and foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on domestic and international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics.
We are pleased to have CFR President Richard Haass with us to discuss citizenship, civic responsibilities, and how to protect the future of American democracy. You have his full bio, so I will be brief. Dr. Haass is in his twentieth year as president of CFR. He has served as special assistant and senior Middle East advisor to President George H.W. Bush, and held various positions in the Defense and State Departments during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on U.S. foreign policy, one book on management, and his most recent book on American democracy entitled The Bill of Obligations: Ten Habits for Good Citizens.
Richard, thanks for being with us. Thank you for creating this initiative for state and local officials. If you could begin by giving us an overview of your book and more specifically why the focus on obligations rather than our rights.
HAASS: Well, first of all, Irina, I’d like to know what are the two states not represented in this call. Clearly, you’re not doing your job. That’s very upsetting.
Second of all, I want to thank everybody for what they do day in, day out. I’m a great believer in public service. I worked on the Hill and I was lucky enough for work to work for four different presidents. I also have some sense of what public service demands and requires. So thank you, again, for what you are doing, and thank you for giving us this hour here today.
I wrote this book about democracy, putting obligations at the center. Just want to clarify for the record it doesn’t mean I’m not concerned with rights; of course I am. Rights are central to the American experiment. Indeed, as I expect all of you know, we only got the Constitution ratified when the Bill of Rights was added. Several states conditioned their ratification of the proposed Constitution on the adoption of a Bill of Rights. The reason is the entire context was still, you know, the breakaway from Britain, I mean, was still fresh in people’s minds, and the contrast between the totally or woefully inadequate Articles of Confederation and the new Constitution was great. And quite a few people were worried that the contrast was too great and we were creating too powerful a federal government, too powerful of an executive. Hence, the emphasis on rights. And again, rights and freedoms are fundamental to this or any democracy.
And, you know, again, just so you don’t think I’m not concerned about rights, you know, what Lincoln described as our unfinished work remains unfinished. The reality with rights doesn’t always match up, say, to the Declaration of Independence—which, by the way, we celebrate the 250th anniversary of which in three years. But even if somehow we were able to close that gap and we no longer had any issues with—essentially, if Lincoln’s unfinished work were to become finished, it still wouldn’t be enough for American democracy. Think about it. You know, rights inevitably come into conflict with one another—a mother’s right to choose versus the rights of the unborn; someone’s rights to acquire arms under the Second Amendment versus someone else’s right to public safety; the right not to get immunized or wear a mask versus the right to health and so forth, public health. And so, again, rights alone do not provide the basis for a functioning government.
Former Justice Breyer, Steve Breyer, wrote thoughtfully that the toughest cases and the most important cases that came before the Court—before the highest court—were not rights versus wrongs, but were rights versus rights. And when you have rights clashing, in the absence of compromise one of two things tends to happen. One is you either tend to have gridlock. You know, we’ve seen an awful lot of that. Or, worse yet, things have the potential to generate into violence, particularly if it becomes an all-or-nothing situation and the side that comes away with nothing, or comes away with what they believe to be too little, they then feel that the system doesn’t offer them enough and they’re prepared to go outside the system. And that’s the road to ruin and the road to violence.
So I’ve argued for rights in two contexts. One is what we all owe one another and the other is what we all owe to this country—to the government and to the nation—as a way of not substituting for rights but complementing them, almost two sides of the citizenship coin. We need rights. We need obligations. And American democracy will only realize its potential if both sides of the coin are developed.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Richard.
So we have a diverse group of state and local officials on this call. What role do they play in encouraging the kind of citizen participation that you put forward in your book?
HAASS: Well, all of them—all of you directly or indirectly are where you are because of citizen participation. Either you were voted for directly or you were appointed by someone, I expect, who was. So participation is essential to democracy.
Ideally, it will be informed participation. It was Ronald Reagan—I think it was his farewell address—who argued not simply for patriotism, but for informed patriotism, very much in this—in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, who wanted informed citizens. And that would be the way to hold elected and appointed officials accountable. That would be the basis for people understanding when they were to exercise the right to vote how to exercise it in a way—in a manner that would be in the best interest of the country, as well as their ow personal best interest.
So one thing I believe that people in public life have a right—I mean, have an obligation to do is to promote civic participation. We can talk about it in detail, but among other things the right to—the right to vote. I believe the right to vote should be readily exercisable. Obviously, there has to be integrity, but also I believe there has to—voting should not be, you know, made difficult with hurdles that are not, I believe, germane to the integrity of the—of the process.
I think people in public life can model certain behaviors that are essential to a democracy. One is compromise, which is essential, as you all know better than I do, to get things done. Civility; people in public life can model civility. It also turns out to be pretty practical. Again, I feel a little bit like I’m preaching to the converted here. It’s taking those coals to Newcastle. But you know, the person you’re disagreeing with today—which is Thursday—on one issue might be the person you need to work with tomorrow on a totally separate issue. So civility—or—incivility tends not to be persuasive. Plus, it can—it can poison a relationship, so even when there is a potential for getting something done together that potential has been eliminated.
I think people in public life have the obligation to reject violence for political ends.
I think they have the obligation to respect norms. You know, one of the most fundamental is conceding when one loses an election, the so-called peaceful transfer of power. It’s at the core of the legitimacy of democratic systems.
Again, you’re part of government service, so by doing what you’re doing you’re generating or modeling respect for working in government, which I think is wonderful. We’ll talk about it more, I expect. But particularly for those of you who have influence or oversight of public school education or public education at the higher level, I believe mandates for civics are vital if our democracy is to survive another 250 years. So I think you’re all in a—in a pivotal position to make an extraordinary difference when it comes to the trajectory of democracy in the United States.
FASKIANOS: So, Richard, picking up on that point, you wrote this book because of—I don’t know if you’re still disclosing the school—the undergraduate who did not know anything. Why don’t you tell—
HAASS: Irina, I want to interrupt you. You’re getting my books confused. That was the reason I wrote the last book, which was—
FASKIANOS: Oh, that was the reason you wrote the last one. That’s right; I am. It’s been a long day. But if you could talk a little bit about why this is important because of the K through twelve curriculum and what—teaching civics.
HAASS: Well, I’ll talk about it both K through twelve as well as higher ed.
Americans are not born knowing about American history or American government or about democracy. Nobody is. So we have to teach it. We can’t just assume the transmission happens by itself genetically or simply because we somehow breathe it in. Doesn’t happen. And so we have got to make a conscious effort to transmit—to teach the narrative.
I think it’s particularly important in the United States because unlike, say, Japan, which is a robust democracy, but Japan has a society which is homogenous in many ways. We are many things; we are not homogenous. I happen to think it’s one of our strengths. We’re a country of immigrants. We’re, in some ways, the most heterogenous democracy in the world when it comes to country of origin, when it comes to religion, when it comes to race, you name it. But as a result, those same features can become ways of pulling us apart.
So, again, what brings us together is the idea of Americanness. And that was—that was central to the founding of this country—that this was a country founded on ideas, wasn’t founded on other attributes. So, again, it’s incumbent upon us to teach these ideas, to transmit this narrative.
What’s so important about middle school and high school is it’s one of the very few things pretty much everyone in this country has to do, which is go to school through the age of 16. It could be public school, which is mostly is. It could be private school. It could be religious school. It could be homeschooling, what have you. But that’s our best opportunity to cast the widest net. And I believe that, you know, all of us would consider teaching young people how to read and count and think critically, how to access technology, get on the internet, and so forth, all that’s central. Why is this any less central? Why is it any less central to prepare people for their life to come as a—as a citizen?
And so I would think that this ought to be required in all of our schools. It’s there for some. Usually it’s half a year, I don’t know, but you know, it’ll vary according to what state or city you’re from. Many states in the country it’s half a year, one or two it’s a full year, some nothing at all. And also, the content and quality of what is offered varies, shall we say, dramatically.
It’s actually even worse, oddly enough, at the college and university level. I lost count; I think it’s about four thousand two- and four-year colleges in this country. Only a handful require that as a condition of graduation you take civics. Don’t get me wrong, virtually every university and college in the country offers civics or something close to it. But they’re not required. So depending upon the—how a student navigates his or her distribution requirements, they can easily graduate from school without having been exposed either to the basic documents, the basic history, or really any understanding. And I think it’s particularly critical there because, if you think about it, the average freshman’s eighteen. Well, they’ve got the right to vote already. They’re going to spend four years on campus and they’re going to be acting out politics on campus. And then they’re going to leave campus, and for the next however many years that they have in their lives they’re going to have the opportunity to vote. And again, we want them to vote and we want them to get informed as a runup to their voting. And civics, it seems to me, is part of that.
When I say civics we can talk about the content, but it is history. And I more than understand how complicated that is, how politicized in some ways that’s gotten. There’s the basic documents I want people to be exposed to. There’s basic facts that are central to American history. And just to be clear, I don’t want to impose and I think it’s a mistake for anyone to impose a single interpretation of history on a young person. I think people ought to be exposed, again, to the basic documents, to the basic events and facts, and then they ought to be exposed to the serious representative schools of interpretation of that.
I also think in this day and age we need to make information literacy part of this. New Jersey has done it. I’m hoping other states do it at the high school level. But we need to teach young people to become critical consumers of information. They’re being flooded. They’re being—and we live in this age of, if you will, unlimited information thanks to the Google machine and much else, but the problem is a lot of it’s misinformation. So how do students, how do they discern what’s a fact and what isn’t? How do they tell the difference between facts and opinions? How do they test what purports to be fact? What kind of behaviors—for example, I’m a big advocate of multi-sourcing information rather than single-sourcing. And so I think all this needs to be taught in our middle schools, obviously in our high schools, and at the college and university level.
That’s the way we tool up Americans in order to fulfill the obligations of citizenship. And we just cannot assume it somehow happens otherwise. Indeed, we should assume it doesn’t happen otherwise.
FASKIANOS: So your first obligation is to be informed. And Christina Jones, who is a councilmember in Raleigh, North Carolina, asks: How do you define “informed”? So if you can dig into that a little bit more, that would be great.
HAASS: Actually, it’s a great question. It’s, obviously, subjective. But I would say, you know, inform—and it’s separate—it’s also separate from the question of how does one get informed. But I think what I would count as informed is I think people need to know something about American democracy, something about American history, how American government is structured, how it operates. So just kind of that’s the backdrop. We can—we can go into greater depth if people want.
And then I also think being informed means understanding what the issues are and the consequences—you know, the choices and the consequences of those choices. So, to take an issue that Congress is going to have to take up in the not-too-distant future, something like the debt ceiling. And so the issue is, you know, what is the debt ceiling? What is Congress being asked to vote on? What happens if they—if they vote an increase in the—for the increase in the debt ceiling? What happens if they refuse to vote an increase in the debt ceiling? So that, to me, is an example of being informed about an issue. It doesn’t say which way to vote; I just want people to understand the choices, what is—what each choice holds within it. What are the—what are the consequences? What it involves. And then, hopefully, they can themselves make—reach an informed opinion and advocate for it or write their congressman or what have you about the way they would like that individual to vote.
So I think there’s a combination in being informed—which is sort of understanding, if you will, the democratic basics in this country—and then one has to add to that a layer of being knowledgeable about some of the basic issues that are before us, be those issues domestic or international. And then the whole process of, you know, getting and staying informed. Again, some of the basics are a one-time thing to become, you know, familiar with them. You don’t have to read the Federalist Papers once a week and the rest, though every now and then a reading of the Constitution or the Declaration or Lincoln’s farewell address—I mean, Gettysburg Address and the rest is not a—not a bad thing to do.
And by the way, if you’ve never read or haven’t read in a long time the Articles of Confederation, I recommend it. It really is a stunner. Out of all the things that surprised me in writing this book, the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation I had forgotten. It’s quite stunning, quite stunning that anyone thought it could conceivably be a blueprint for anything other than total failure and inaction and, essentially, chaos.
But I think there’s—again, you know, one needs to familiarize oneself with the basics, which is largely a one-time thing. I think then, again, one has to familiarize oneself with the issues, and I think there’s certain sources to go to. I’m not big on social media, just to be clear. Keyword there—the operative word—is “social.” That’s not—if it were serious media, it would be called “serious media.” So I think one has to go to serious media to get informed on the issues. I think it’s important to multi-source it rather than just put all your eggs in one basket. I think information literacy becomes part of it. So it’s not simple. It’s got a lot of dimensions to it. But again, it’s essential to fulfill—to check the box of being an informed patriot.
HAASS: Irina, you’re on mute.
FASKIANOS: We want to hear from you, your questions. There’s several now in the Q&A box, which I’ll read, but please we also hope that you will raise your hand. You can click the “raise hand” icon on your screen. You can, when I call on you, accept the unmute prompt and please state your name and affiliation. Of course, there’s also the written feature, too. Include your affiliation. And we like to have this be a best—a forum to share best practices, so please do that as well.
So there is a written question from Hilary Ram: How do we inform citizens, indeed, but how do we do this with the death of local journalism? This seems to be our biggest challenge, getting the facts out to the public.
And then there was a follow-on comment: Also, the term “journalist” has a wide range of definitions, so.
HAASS: Indeed it does.
Look, I think you put your finger on one of the things that worries me, which is the shutting down of a lot of local news outlets. And you know, any number, of course, is largely economic, the breakdown of the advertising model. I understand. But it’s a real loss in this country. It’s a real loss because, you know, I grew up reading national papers but always reading a local paper, and it has a granularity that I think people—you know, I’m hoping some wealthy Americans decide that this is an area they could make a contribution in to sort of subsidize. I think that would be great. When people of means ask me what they can do, that’s always towards the top of my list.
We actually do a program like this for local journalists where we try to beef up some of their access to information and analysis about the world on issues that might affect people in the area where they—where they publish. But it’s a real problem. You know, I don’t have great answers about what one does with the closing—you know, there’s still some papers. There’s still, you know, radio and so forth. But it’s a problem. And I think, you know, this issue of how we revive local media I think ought to get more attention than it does because there’s no way the big national media can do this, and they don’t. And it’s a real problem.
And here I am in New York, which is not exactly a small town, and the coverage of New York City is really inadequate in the big papers. If you read—you know, I read among other things the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which are both published here, but there’s very little coverage with any depth about New York City. I don’t feel particularly well informed. And then so the question is, do I have to go to other, much more specific type of vehicles? And the answer is yes if I want to—if I want to—if I want to actually know what’s going on in the City Council or City Hall except for, you know, the very infrequent story usually written at 36,000 feet or about one particular issue. I would never get that from the major—the major outlets. So we pay a price here for not having really good local media or, you know, sufficient local media anymore.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Our next written question comes from Julia King and I don’t have her affiliation: This is an essential conversation. Do you have thoughts about how to have good-faith conversations around these challenging topics? It’s so easy to fall into angry discourse these days. And of course, we’ve seen the anger directed at election officials and school boards and those—and the like. So what can be done?
HAASS: Well, again, I think, you know, I have several obligations that are relevant to that—things such as civility, commitment to nonviolence, and openness to compromise. And I call upon in the book religious authorities to use the authority of the pulpit. I’m not asking any minister or priest or rabbi or mullah or anybody else to take a stand on this or that policy issue, but this is—this is not policy to rule out political violence, to call for civility, to talk about being open to compromise. Who better than a religious figure and a religious authority could call for being sensitive to the common good? The last I checked, the notion of being one’s brothers’ and sisters’ keeper is rather basic to scripture. So religious authorities need to step up, I believe, and play a role here.
I also think, you know, my hat goes off to a lot of these officials who are either getting verbally abused or in some cases physically threatened. I thought some of the secretaries of state who stood up through the electoral process a couple years ago, I talked about them in the book. That, to me, is a perfect example of putting the country before party or person. It’s the right thing to do. It’s not the easy thing to do. It’s anything but the easy thing to do. It’s courageous, it’s principled, and my hat goes off to them. So, again, you know, that’s the kind of behavior we need to see more. It’s the kind of behavior that John F. Kennedy wrote about in Profiles of Courage, people who did the right thing—in some cases compromised, in some cases refusing to compromise against all sorts of illegitimate pressures.
But I don’t have any easy answers to you. Again, you know, this is a book where I write about obligations. And a lot of things won’t get better until more Americans get involved in the process of politics, and show up to vote in an informed way, and reward certain behaviors and penalize others. And all I can say is that that’s not hopeless because our elections in recent years, particularly national, have been sufficiently close—either the vote for—the electoral vote for president or the overall vote, say, for Congress—that actually a rather small number and percentage of Americans could have an outsized impact. So I don’t think this is in any way—in any way hopeless.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to go to Bryan Barbin, who has a raised hand. And please identify yourself once you unmute yourself.
Q: My name is Bryan Barbin. I’m deputy secretary for taxation in Pennsylvania’s Department of Revenue.
My question relates to compromise in your book. I thought your book had—I liked it because if you don’t have an opposite duty for every right, then the right is only as good as force allows. So it’s the duty that allows the rights to go to everybody.
But my question on compromise is, we know that compromise is best understood by the most people if it’s explained, but what are your suggestions, basically, for someone in my position or in any state agency to do a better job of maybe explaining that compromises that happen happen because they’re the better alternative—either the better alternative short term or the better alternative to build on? But how do we go about doing that, educating on that?
HAASS: It’s a great question. In my experience, it requires—you know, real estate has three laws: location, location, location. I think compromise has three words: either explanation, explanation, explanation; or, repetition, repetition, repetition. The more complex and more controversial something is, the more one has to talk about it before, during, and after the compromise becomes a fact.
I remember when I—see, go back here now about thirty years, when I worked for President Bush the father. And when he announced—you know, he went from “read my lips: no new taxes” to, obviously, agreeing to tax increases as part of a compromise, and it hurt him badly politically. But I think one of the reasons it hurt him badly is he came from the school of thought which was just do the right thing and don’t worry, and I thought that’s inadequate. I think, yeah, it’s necessary to do the right thing, but particularly when it’s complicated and controversial. In this case, it was obviously controversial because he went against what he had promised. He needed to do a heavy, heavy amount of work of explanation, and he didn’t—gave one speech, wasn’t one of his best speeches to say the least, and that was it. And it just—you know, the lesson I took from that is there’s no—there’s no substitute for frequent education and explanation.
I don’t—I think the good news is I’m not familiar with the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, as best I know. If that changes, I’m sure you’ll be the first to let me know. But I watch what some of the state and city agencies do here. I’ve got—one of my kids works for the Department of Sanitation here in the city of New York and I see what they do on social media. It’s quite creative in terms of explaining certain policies, particularly where they’re innovating things like on composting. And they go to great length and so forth, and at least—so far, at least, they’re beating their metrics.
And so to me, you know, you have to go think about all sorts of distribution systems, all sorts of social media, and so forth, as well as townhalls. I mean, different parts of the public, different age groups, people of different backgrounds absorb information different ways. For all I know, there’s a role for YouTube Shorts. I’m not a big fan of TikTok, but maybe YouTube Shorts. Or maybe there’s things on Facebook or Twitter or other social media. There’s, obviously, PSAs. But I would just think that finding all sorts of ways to reach people, doing the explanation. It’s not going to be perfect, but again, it certainly can’t hurt and it can help.
And I don’t know, but that’s kind of where—but you know, I can hear in your voice a little bit of frustration, and I get it. As someone who tries to explain foreign policy issues and choices and compromises, it’s tough because it’s really—it’s not hard for those who oppose compromise, rather than characterize things, they caricature them or they make it sound so simple. Well, you know, and the word “compromise” has become something of a dirty word: Why did you sell out? Why didn’t you hold firm? And what you say is exactly the smart thing to say. Well, here were the—here were the real alternatives. You could have held out, but then this would have been the consequence. So compromise got me the best possible outcome that was available—not the best imaginable outcome, but the best available outcome.
But it’s hard. And in an age of single-issue politics and social media, you’re going to get some heat. And I think all you—you know, that comes with the territory. And all you can do, again, is spend a lot of time explaining and repeating the explanation.
FASKIANOS: So I’m just going to read a comment from Joseph Gacioch, who’s a city manager in Ferndale, Michigan: We will roll out our first community civics local government education program in the spring. Local government literacy is so important to civility and an informed community, and in local government our resources are waning every year. I like what you suggest and require civics as K through twelve. I posit state legislature should prioritize their budgets the same way and help fund experiential civics through the local government lens. Which I think is fascinating.
HAASS: Love that. Look, could I just say something?
FASKIANOS: Yes, absolutely.
HAASS: It was Justice—it was Justice Brandeis, when he was on the Court, and one of my favorite phases—phrases of American political history is Brandeis’ phrase, which should appeal to all of you, as states as being the “laboratories of democracy.” The best ideas in the country tend to travel to Washington, and states become the place where, basically, you can test-drive ideas. And you can introduce programs at the state or local level—states, but essentially—and you can show it works. I love the idea, and I—of multiple boards of education, whether it’s statewide, citywide, what have you—countywide, what have you, experimenting here and trying various approaches, see how they work, talking to various experts. And I want to work with—I’ve already spoken to several governors about helping them develop programs both for civics and information literacy.
But I think this is the way this is going to happen in this country. We’re going to show that certain things are really effective and popular and just good, and more and more—what I’m hoping is we create a kind of positive competition where people start saying: Hey, they got that at that school. They got that in that city, that state. Why don’t we have it here? So I think the idea that you all are going to innovate something on civics at the local level I think is fantastic.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to David Lovlien, who wrote a question but you’ve also raised your hand. So I think you should ask it yourself. And identify yourself, please.
Q: Thank you, Dr. Haass, for being with us today. I appreciate and value your time. I am a first-time, 25-year-old county commissioner representing District 3 in Merrimack County, New Hampshire.
I want to be a good leader for the people that I serve. Dr. Henry Kissinger has said America needs more serious leaders and that the quality of leaders in America has diminished over time. How can I be a more serious, high-quality political leader? Thank you.
HAASS: Well, first of all, I appreciate the question coming from your since I’m married to someone who went to the University of New Hampshire. So I’ve got connections to your state.
Look, I think the fact that you’re asking the question is—suggests to me that you’re already on your way. I’m a great believer that the best way to learn about leadership is through history and biography. My single favorite book for people in government is a book called Thinking in Time. It was written by two professors. I used to co-teach it with them years and years ago, a guy named Ernest May and another named Richard Neustadt. It’s called Thinking in Time and I think the subtitle is The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Irina can circulate a link. But it’s the whole idea about how to use history to help guide you for decisions that you’re confronted with now. I’ve written a book called The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur, which again was designed to help people in the public sector make better decisions, and to implement them more efficiently and effectively. So I think there’s—you know, there’s literature out there, if you will—the Neustadt-May book, my book—which deals with almost mechanics and how to—the intellectual side of things.
But I love the idea, essentially, of reading history and biography because—of people who faced the challenges of leadership, whether at the, you know, federal level, the state level. A lot of—even the corporate level. There’s a lot of—a lot of similarities. There’s a lot of good literature on decision-making and so forth. But that’s—and at some point, there’s no substitute for experience and learning from it. You know, you’re going to make mistakes, and the real thing is to set up, you know, mechanisms so you learn from them. And then, you know, I’m a great believer in not repeating mistakes. You will always make mistakes. I just want to be innovative and make new ones. I hate repeating the same ones.
But, again, I can’t think of anything better than, you know, some of these books about leadership, particularly in the public sector. And then, you know, there’s just so much good—you know, the Doris Kearns Goodwins, the Michael Beschlosses, the Walter Isaacsons, the Jon Meachams. You know, we’re blessed in this country with some sensational historians and biographers. So I would—I would just—you know, almost any of the great names of American history, I would read some of those.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next written question from Gail Patterson-Gladney, who is a councilmember in Poughkeepsie, New York: As a county commissioner, I would like to invite middle and high school students to attend county commissioners meetings. Besides reaching out to government teachers, do you have any suggestions on how to involve students in county government?
HAASS: I love that idea. One of the things I recommend in The Bill of Obligations, I have a section on—the last section on the book is where to go for more, and I have all sorts of things to read and so forth. But the last bit is to get people to see government in action. You know, it could be as simple or not so simple as being on a jury. One thing I recommend to every young person and not so young person, if you’ve never done it in your life, is to attend the oral arguments at the Supreme Court. It’s an amazing experience. To see politics in action at the local level, the state level, the federal level, watching hearings. I mean, CSPAN’s OK, but it’s more fun to do it in person. You know, but I think—you know, to go to the National Archives. I love the idea where people can—it becomes a physical, if you will, experience.
I think for the kind of thing you’re talking about—and, by the way, I know Poughkeepsie very well. I am at that train station with enormous frequency, since I have home not far from there. What I would recommend is creating arrangements with administrators or teachers for internship programs. You know, we have an internship program here, and we probably bring in, I don’t know, 125-130 interns a year at the Council on Foreign Relations. That’s a sensational program for getting people, you know, into the—for me—into the foreign policy, international world. They learn things, some of which are specific to that. Some of the things you learn are useful for any—for any job. And we have others—there’s other sorts of programs. There’s a program here called Global Kids for high school kids who—again, it’s like a three-week boot camp every summer which exposes them to international things.
But I would have some kind of an arrangement with schools. Maybe they could get some—you know, a course credit or whatever it happens to be—for students to intern in various agencies or offices, or at a minimum, short of that, at least to see—to go see a hearing. Just to get a sense, and maybe spend a few hours getting a talk or two about how local government affects their lives. But I think—what I think is important for young people is to give them a sense that what government does matters. Also, to give them a sense that it’s a potential career path, that it’s something that they could do which would be really, really interesting and might make a—might make a difference.
But I would think some type of—creating those kinds of bridges, so to speak, whatever the word is—between local schools—you could also do it at the high school. I mean, at the college level near Poughkeepsie you got Bard, obviously, and some other schools. But some sort of program I think would be—you know, I think it’s a great part of a civic—it’s not a substitute for civics education, but it’s a component of a civics education.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Dennis Mandsager, who has a raised hand.
Q: Can you hear me now?
HAASS: Yes, sir.
FASKIANOS: We can.
Q: OK. Thank you, Dr. Haass. Much appreciate this event. I’m retired Navy, but I got this invitation because I’m on the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
And there’s been a flurry of bills that some organizations say are really targeting the LGBTQ community. For example, a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex civil unions and marriages. There’s a proposal to eliminate gender identity as a protected class. There’s a bill that has passed both houses that says there’s no transition medical treatment available for anybody under the age of eighteen. There’s a bill that says your ID card must reflect your gender at birth.
And often, the people in favor of these bills use religion or the Bible as their primary argument. My church, for example, the Lutheran Church, says we should respect same-sex marriage, but we don’t have to honor them. And my church also supports statutes that prohibit discrimination against same-sex marriages and civil unions. But most of these bills are voted on along party lines. And you have referred to compromise a number of times today. How does a good Republican, a good Democrat, a good commissioner deal with this battle over gender identity and various LGBTQ+ issues?
HAASS: It ain’t easy, because these issues, for some people, are seen as absolute for, you know, you mentioned religion or scripture. If people derive their position from scripture, or their interpretation of scripture, to be more accurate, there’s probably not a whole lot of give in it. And, you know, you mention the idea about transitioning not until the age of eighteen. Well, that, in some ways, represents a compromise. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying that where one sets an age level. We’ve had it—you know, we’ve had compromises on abortion. You know, what’s—in terms of the timing of when abortions are allowed or not. We now see differences between and among the states. So even these totally—you know, some of the most difficult issues we find in our politics, there is an element of compromise there.
But at the end of the day, these are issues that have been brought into the political space. I think it’s legitimate for them to be brought into the political space. Societies have the right to define themselves and to say certain types of behaviors are or are not permissible. That’s, in part, what defines societies. If these—whatever the standards are or whatever the rules are, we have ways through legislation they can be, in a sense, taken into the political marketplace. And we then have the courts, because courts can sometimes say that certain things are against other rights. And there is a struggle—there is a struggle there. For individuals who feel strongly on this side of an issue or the other, there’s political involvement. So for those who think certain things ought to happen, and those who think certain thoughts ought not to be allowed, that’s the political marketplace. And that’s where you organize, you support candidates who agree with you, you try to educate, your vote, what have you.
So I don’t think we can ban these things. I’m not even sure we should ban these things from the political arena. In some cases, though, getting compromise is going to be brutally difficult. Again, I have no illusions here. I’m many things. Naïve is probably not among them. And no one has to treat them like any other political issue. And, you know, the iron law in American politics is what tends to prevail is not overall numbers but intensity. And those who fight for or against certain issues and bring to it great political intensity often have an outsized degree of influence or impact in the political space. And then, again, for those who don’t get the political outcome they want, then besides just the next election, then there are always options through taking cases to the courts.
Q: Thank you very much.
FASKIANOS: OK. Thank you. There is a comment—there are a lot of comments in the Q&A box. So you should—people should look at that. We will send out the list of the books that Richard has mentioned. So we will do that in the follow-up note, with the link to this event as well.
HAASS: Irina, can I mention something that we haven’t mentioned?
FASKIANOS: Yes. Yes, please do.
HAASS: Am I allowed to do that?
HAASS: So we’ve talked about some of the things that can happen at the state and local level that can make a real difference. And I talked a lot about civics education. I’ve talked a lot about modeling certain behaviors. One thing I’d just like to throw out there is public service. That I’m a great believer in it. And the reason is clear. I think right now, in this country, this society is too divided. We don’t have a sufficient number of shared or common experiences. We’re too divided by geography, class, educational—levels of educational attainment, gender, race, religion, politics, what cable station we watch, what radio station we listen to.
And I think that is bad for the fabric of American society. I’m not saying everybody has to agree. That’s never going to happen. But I worry about the degree to which increasingly we don’t know a lot of our fellow citizens and we’re not used to interacting with them. We’re all living in our own, to use the phrase, ecosystems. And I don’t think that sets the stage for a functioning democracy. I think it sets the stage for—potentially for gridlock, or violence, or you name it.
So public service, it seems to me, is one of the ways we bring people together from different backgrounds who would otherwise not get together. And don’t get me wrong, I am not—repeat, not—advocating for anything mandatory at the state or federal level. I think that would be an error. But I think we ought to incentivize it. And I know California’s doing an awful lot. Maryland’s looking into it. But there’s an awful lot of progress. It needs to be incentivized, paying people for the work they do. It’s not going to make them rich. They’re not going to make Fortune’s, you know, wealthiest 100 list. But it’ll give them something. We can also condition loan guarantee forgiveness—student loan guarantee forgiveness—a degree of it can be conditioned on public service.
I think employers, like they now give certain preferences to veterans, might be persuaded to give certain preferences to people who perform certain types of public—same thing for universities. I can imagine admissions counselors would say if you’ve had one or two years of experience in a gap year working at whatever, we will consider that a major plus when we consider your application. I also think this kind of service, these government programs, might give some people an interaction with the government that’s more positive than they ever imagined.
So I would just say—I would just urge people to think about it, in the context of your city or state, whether there’s a potential role greater than what you already have for various types of public service that would actually do good for communities or for certain objectives in your—in your city or state. But would do a lot—do a lot of good for the society and do a lot of good for individuals. This could be a great way to train them and so forth, to make them more attractive to future employers, or what have you. So it’s just one of the things we haven’t yet had a chance to do.
But I think there’s a real opportunity at the state level. And this, to me, is not a Republican or Democrat thing. I think this is actually something that there ought to be a degree of bipartisanship on. And obviously there’ll be compromises to be made about what the incentives are and what sort of programs count as legitimate public service. Fair enough. So but I think it’s something worth pursuing.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question from Megan Huether has a raised hand.
Q: Yes. Thank you for the opportunity. This has been wonderful. I serve on the Board of Aldermen in Manchester, Missouri, in the suburbs of St. Louis, where I hold a nonpartisan office.
And what you’re saying, and the whole topic, is resonating with me. And I’ve really been spending a lot of time thinking about local governments and neighborhoods being kind of the unit of political change that can help us overcome this polarization and isolation that we have. You know, as leaders, you were talking about how can we be good leaders and encouraging civic participation, providing on-ramps for people to come in and get involved in their local government so that they experience that ownership and practice these obligations that you detail in your book.
One of the experiences that I’m finding is that, you know, when I welcome people and encourage their participation, there’s a reluctance to participate because of concerns that I think are filtering down to the local nonpartisan level from higher levels of government, where they do not want to participate in the divisiveness. I’m wondering if you have, you know, reflected upon this problem, and how kind of that polarization is causing people really to not take part more civically. And if you have advice as we engage in those conversations, or inspirational examples of, you know, communities that have been able to overcome that. Thank you.
HAASS: No, it’s a wonderful question with a lot of insight. And I think—first of all, I think you’re spot on. I think a lot of younger people who hopefully are idealistic—if you’re not idealistic when you’re young, when are you going to be—are turned off. And the word “politics” has become something pejorative in this country. Oh yeah, that’s just politics. And it’s seen as divisive, or unproductive, or ugly, or whatever. I don’t know a way to ban that, and that gets at a lot of my obligations. And those are behaviors, norms, and civility, and compromise. All I think you can do is two things. In our civics education, we can encourage certain behaviors.
One of the things I like when we teach civics is to do things like debates or have mock Congress, mock city hall, mock state legislature, mock Supreme Court, whatever, mock constitutional convention, in ways that give students the chance to participate. And the teachers can step in and moderate, if you will, you know, blow the whistle, almost like a sporting match, and say: Hey, you know, John just said these things to Mary in the following way. Let’s just put aside the issue we’re debating. Let’s just talk about what just happened. So I think there’s things we can do if we structure the education so it’s not just about content but it’s about behaviors, it’s about tone, it’s about style, it’s about civility, and the rest, I think, would be one thing.
And then, you know, you all are in positions. You run your office. You’re involved in a hearing or you’re involved in what have you. Well, again, you set an example every day by what you do and how you do it. And that, to me, is one of the most important things of leadership, is the example you set. Now, I deal with foreign policy all the time. And people say, how should the United States go about promoting democracy? And I say, oh that’s easy. I don’t need people from the State Department preaching it. I need people from the United States day-in, day-out, demonstrating that democracy delivers, that it’s an attractive form of government that makes people’s lives better. If we do that, people around the world will get the message loud and clear. If we fail to do that, they will basically say: Hey, this democracy ain’t so hot. We don’t need it here.
And that’s why I think, you know, you all have a degree of influence over your immediate situations. And if you can make those, you know, better, and if you can find colleagues who you can work with across the political aisle, then it sends a powerful message that, you know, partisan differences are not insurmountable.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to try to squeeze in one last question from Katherine Castrejon (sp). I might be mispronouncing that. And please be brief.
Q: OK. Hi, everyone. My name is Katherine Castrejon. I work for a state senator here in California.
I just wanted to ask, this is—like, politics have been very controversial in the past few years. And I believe that voters are hesitant in voting in these—in this time of year. So what would you recommend to, I guess, kind of help those younger voters to continue voting? Thank you.
HAASS: Sure. Well, part of a civics course would be to show how voting matters, how small numbers can have unbelievably large impacts. If one looks at presidential elections, a couple of thousand votes in a couple of states has often swung—you know, made the differences. In congressional races, small numbers, again, can decide the difference not just in that race but in the overall balance in a state legislature or in the Congress at the federal level. And I would constantly remind people of how what government does, and how it does it matters. There’s almost no aspect of our life, for better or worse, that’s not affected by government. So I would want to basically get students—give students the appreciation that government matters. And even when you disagree with what it’s doing, that there’s ways of potentially weighing in or getting involved that would change it.
That it's not some impersonal, inanimate force. Or, in politics, there’s very—there’s almost nothing that’s inevitable or baked into the cake. And I want to give students the sense of possibility, that political involvement has with it the possibility of making a difference in good ways in their lives, and in their communities, and in the country. And basically saying, you should—you know, whether it’s limited to being an informed voter or you make a career choice to get involved in politics in whatever way, or at whatever level, or in public service whether it’s the military or law enforcement or what have you, that this can be a really important and satisfying—and satisfying path. So I think one just has to continue to reinforce the message of possibility.
FASKIANOS: I am sorry that we could not get to all the questions, both raised hands and written questions. There were a lot of good resources shared in the comment section, which we will—we will pull together, aggregate for you all, and send out a link. Richard, thank you, again, for doing this with us. Thank you for this book, The Bill of Obligations, and all the others that you have written. Dr. Haass is on Twitter. You can follow him at @richardhaass. And you can subscribe to his weekly newsletter on Substack, Home and Away, by going to richardhass.substack.com.
You can also follow the State and Local Officials Initiative at @CFR_local. Please visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for more expertise and analysis. Again, we will circulate a link to the webinar and transcript, but you can also send us an email to [email protected] with any suggestions for future topics, speakers, and the like. We want to support the important work that you are doing in your communities.
So again, Richard Haass, thank you for this. Thank you for the State and Local Officials Initiative. And thanks to all of you for taking the time today to be with us.
HAASS: Thank you, all. Thank you, Irina.