“We Need to Emphasize the Importance of a Well-Functioning Democracy!”
Since its foundation in 1936, the Kennedy School has become the global leader in educating and empowering individuals committed to advancing the public interest. Its graduates are engaged in leading positions with national governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, non-governmental organizations, the science sector and the private sector – they are all connected in their endeavors to foster international dialog and transform society. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy initiative, spoke with Douglas Elmendorf (58), Dean and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy, about the importance of a well-functioning democracy, the fight against racism and the “virtual Kennedy School”.
Prof. Dr. Elmendorf, the Faces of Democracy initiative wants to support a better understanding of democracy around the world. Our first question is always: How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
Douglas Elmendorf: It is crucial for public leaders to be responsive to the needs of the people living in their communities – whether these are cities, states, provinces, or countries. Well-functioning democracies are a powerful way to create that responsiveness.
In my view, the democratic system is a very important way to achieve the goal of having a responsive government!
But not all democracies are succeeding in being responsive today, and improving those democracies is hugely important. Conversely – and perhaps counterintuitively – some societies that do not operate within democratic frameworks have been successful in responding to many of their people’s needs, and those of us who support democracy need to understand how they have done that. In my view, however, the democratic system is a very important way to achieve the goal of having a responsive government.
Social inequality, polarization and repression: The principles of liberal democracy are coming under mounting pressure – in Europe and the USA too. What can we do to protect our democracies? What is good governance?
Douglas Elmendorf: We need to emphasize the importance of a well-functioning democracy in making the will of the people, rather than narrower interests, paramount in setting a society’s course.
Many people in countries all over the world have lost confidence in their established political leaders and criticize those they view as elite.
But we also need to ensure that democracies address public concerns effectively, which is the essence of good governance. Many people in countries all over the world have lost confidence in their established political leaders and criticize those they view as elite for being out of touch and self-serving. We need democracies to lead the way in addressing that frustration.
Whether coronavirus, climate change or migration: The populists are currently having an easy time forcing scientists onto the defensive with “alternative facts”. How can science regain the doubters from the center of society?
Douglas Elmendorf: At Harvard Kennedy School, we teach students how to understand evidence and use analytical skills. We value knowledge and expertise. At the same time, experts have to be humble and understand that they, too, might have blind spots.
Experts will not be listened to if they do not listen in turn and try to understand others who may hold different opinions.
Experts will not be listened to if they do not listen in turn and try to understand others who may hold different opinions. Engaging in a civil and constructive way with people with whom one vehemently disagrees is hard but can help us learn much more than we would learn otherwise. This is an important value that should be paired with expertise and evidence.
Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are two of the key foundations of democracy. However, hate speech and “fake news” are impeding democratic discourse. Are social networks good or bad for democracy?
Douglas Elmendorf: To extend my answer to the previous question, I think we need to engage in civil discourse to advance knowledge effectively. This does not mean that we accept views that we find abhorrent or false. Far from it. What it does mean is that, in our own speech, we avoid vitriolic rhetoric, we try to understand other people’s perspectives, we vigorously advocate our own views, and we look for ways to work with people with whom we disagree without abandoning our principles.
Following the death of George Floyd you said: “We are reminded – yet again – of the scourge of racism in American society and of the imperative to change.” What specifically is the Harvard Kennedy School doing to combat racism?
Douglas Elmendorf: One of our core values at the Kennedy School is belief in the worth of each person regardless of their race and other characteristics. To hold true to that moral imperative, we are examining our work and learning to make them as fair as possible. We are also doing teaching, research, and outreach to help reduce racism in the world, and many of the faculty members we have recruited in the past few years are strengthening our capacity in this regard.
This fall, we launched a new, required course for our Master in Public Policy students to provide a grounding on racism and public policy.
We offer our students about 20 courses and seminars related to race, racial inequality, criminal justice, or policing. This fall, we launched a new, required course for our Master in Public Policy students to provide a grounding on racism and public policy; we also provided an Orientation Week session on anti-racism and allyship for our students. The Kennedy School’s research centers and programs are conducting numerous seminars, discussions, and events on racism and other forms of injustice. These efforts, and more, are captured on a page on our website focused on confronting racism and bias.
During the coronavirus pandemic the Harvard Kennedy School campus remains closed. How has learning and teaching changed in the meantime? Have changes taken place that you would like to keep in-place in the wake of the pandemic?
Douglas Elmendorf: We have been teaching, learning, working, and communicating remotely for the past six months, and will continue to do so for an indefinite number of future months.
Creating a “virtual Kennedy School” has not been easy. I am gratified by how our faculty, staff, and students have risen to this challenge.
Creating a “virtual Kennedy School” has not been easy. I am gratified by how our faculty, staff, and students have risen to this challenge. Through imagination and hard work, we have rebuilt our degree-program courses to use technology well, crafted new executive-education programs with new pedagogies, developed new ways to interact outside of class and away from our offices, held innumerable Zoom video encounters with each other and with guests and far-flung members of our community, and much more. The efforts have been intense, and I think the payoff is clear. These changes are not just good for the School’s effectiveness today; they will give us greater flexibility and impact even after we return to campus.
Prof. Dr. Elmendorf, our seventh question is always a personal one: what do you like to do most of all in your leisure time and what objectives have you set yourself for the next years – professionally and privately?
Douglas Elmendorf: To relax in my free time, I like to run with my wife and walk with my dog.
I care about what we can achieve through good governance and the ways in which we can create positive change that improves societies and people’s lives!
If I think ahead to the next few years, I pair a concern about the stark public challenges we are facing – the challenges resulting from the pandemic, from climate change, from forms of injustice – with an optimism that good public policy, administration, and leadership can make a difference in the world. I care about what we can achieve through good governance and the ways in which we can create positive change that improves societies and people’s lives.