The Fault Lines of Democracy: Conversations, Contestations and Cross-Cultural Comparisons

10th Anniversary of the Graduate School of North American Studies
at the Free University Berlin
Anniversary Conference Theme:  The Fault Lines of Democracy: Conversations, Contestations and Cross-Cultural Comparisons
Berlin, October 20, 2017
CDA Kent Logsdon

Professor Hoffmann-Holland,

Ambassador Dion,

Professor Haselstein, Professor Fluck, congratulations to you, the entire faculty and staff, the students and the alumni of the Graduate School of North American Studies at the Free University Berlin on this your tenth anniversary.

The Freie Universität Berlin is one of the most successful public-private initiatives in the history of transatlantic relations.  Professor James B. Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, the last High Commissioner to Germany and the first American Ambassador to postwar Germany, was extraordinarily proud of this institution. He emphasized how, as an academic community, the Free University lived up to the high ideals of the students and professors who founded the University in 1948.  Professor Conant was an educational statesman, working for reform and improvement – both in the U.S. and Germany.  His career spanned decades, including times of depression, world war, and the onset of a Cold War.  It was also a window on enormous transformations in international relations, society, and science on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the era of challenge and opportunity that framed his life and vocation, Conant believed that diversity of opinion within the framework of loyalty to a free society was fundamental. “Democracy,” he once wrote, “is a small hard core of common agreement, surrounded by a rich variety of individual differences.”

Today, we face very different challenges and opportunities, and your conference title, “The Fault Lines of Democracy” alludes to them.  Some might also say it is increasingly difficult to reach the ‘small hard core of common agreement’ that Conant thought we must aim for.

For example, historically in the United States, according to the established rules in politics, candidates avoided taking extreme positions.  They aimed for the center of the political spectrum.  Today, according to recent studies, ‘very unfavorable’ views of members of the other party more than doubled between 1992 and 2014.  In 2016, most – as opposed to just many – Republicans and Democrats viewed the opposition in deeply negative terms.

If you delve deeper, however, conservatives and liberals, Republican and Democrat perspectives and life histories are far from homogenous.  The old assumption that Conservatives are just the rich; and liberals are the blue collar union workers doesn’t apply today.  The average conservative is no less empathetic than the average liberal.  There are conservatives who are pro-Choice and support same sex marriage.  There are liberals who are pro-Life and have difficulties in accepting same sex marriage.  People from both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ fight for empowered communities.  People from both sides do their part to protect the environment.  In short, there is huge diversity within each worldview and also vast common ground among members of opposite sides.

As scholars, I am sure you would probably agree that when people look at the same objective evidence, their views should come together.  Many aspects of 21st century life, including the Internet and social media, however, make it easier to ignore information, insights, and solutions from the other side.  It is becoming increasingly easy to go through life without meeting anyone who disagrees with you.  Political affiliations and views become entrenched – without people even realising it.

These new fault lines are causing a loss of ‘social capital’ which makes it more difficult to collaborate and find solutions that embrace both freedom and security, a healthy economy and a healthy environment, and all the other perceived dichotomies.  Participation and dialogue in government, in society, and particular in education, should be about people talking to people, together finding solutions to problems.  These conversations might be uncomfortable, but we must have these conversations to counter polarization and strengthen mutual trust.  As educators, I would encourage you to burst the bubbles – and help people to engage.  That is certainly what we try to do as diplomats on an international level.

The Graduate School of North American Studies was founded ten years ago to examine the social, economic and cultural changes facing North America, as well as Europe, at the beginning of the 21st century.  It is a fitting sequel in the ongoing development of this very fine university.  I would like to thank all of you here today for all that you do to communicate a vibrant portrait of American society and culture to teachers, students, and other multipliers.  The work of the broader American Studies community in Germany contributes considerably to the academic and social discourse about issues that are vital to the broader transatlantic dialogue.

And so, again thank you, and congratulations.