Red and Blue and Points In-Between

Democrat Neera Tanden and Republican Bill Kristol debate the future of the country at Tufts
Neera Tanden and Bill Kristol at Tufts
“It’s not an acceptable democracy where more than 30 percent of the country feel they don’t have a chance at economic mobility,” said Neera Tanden, with Bill Kristol. Photo: Anna Miller
November 17, 2017

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Civil discourse isn’t dead—Democrat Neera Tanden and Republican Bill Kristol proved that point in a November 15 debate at Tufts covering a range of political issues.

In a discussion moderated by Farah Stockman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and New York Times reporter, the two managed to agree and agree to disagree. Take the issue of the “uprising” leading up to the 2016 presidential election, as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump each drew strong support by promising to overturn the current political order.

Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and former member of the Obama and Clinton administrations, said voters were frustrated at six years of deadlock in Washington, which she attributed largely to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But prodded by Stockman, she acknowledged, “People thought our answers were not good enough.”

Washington failed to address wage stagnation for working-class people, said Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard, former member of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and outspoken “Never Trump” advocate. “We should have seen this coming a little more politically,” he said.

“This is a real, live debate between a liberal and a conservative that’s not on Twitter,” said moderator Farah Stockman. Photo: Anna MillerTanden and Kristol disagreed on the U.S.’s free trade policy, which Stockman pointed out has lost support from both Republicans and Democrats. Kristol said opposing free trade is a dangerous message to send to the world, not to mention bad for people at home. “People have been hurt by [globalization], but there are still more people benefiting than have been hurt,” he said. “There are legitimate complaints, but you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Tanden agreed the policy is a win for the country, but countered that too many people are harmed by it. “The fundamental truth is there are winners and losers,” Tanden said. “The massive failure of the United States is we do pathetically little for the people who are losing out on trade.”

Whose Identity in Identity Politics?

When a student asked about how identity politics played into the 2016 presidential election, Kristol responded that Trump saw that he could sell it to the white working class, “and it’s not good for the country,” he said. “What we have to start doing is not encouraging, rewarding, or even tolerating the more nasty, bigoted versions of identity politics from either side.”

Tanden suggested that white working class identity politics are not the same as African Americans pushing for equal treatment, or Latin Americans defending their aspiration to be citizens. “Some groups’ identity politics is another group’s basic aspiration for civil rights,” Tanden said. “Is it really progressives saying ‘identity politics?’ Or is it an opposition to the equality of groups that have not been equal before?”

Trump’s proposed tax reform bill drew more agreement. Both Kristol and Tanden said it was largely driven by Trump’s need for a win after failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Kristol called it an example of “zombie Republicanism, ideas that have been sitting for 10 to 20 years, cobbled together in a confusing Congressional process,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty stupid bill. It’s not horribly evil, but . . . it doesn’t do much for the middle class,” he said.

Tanden argued that the bill reflects the Republicanism of the ’90s, not on the blue collar voters who elected him. “Trump ran on a mix of economic populism and xenophobia. He has governed with all of the xenophobia and zero of the populism,” she said. “He is overseeing an agenda that is not neutral to the working class—it’s antithetical.”

Asked how their respective parties can move forward, both Tanden and Kristol told the audience at the Tisch College’s Distinguished Speaker Series event that their parties—and the country—are at a crossroads.

Kristol said the Republican Party will continue define itself race by race, state by state. “It doesn’t have to be ‘Never Trump,’” Kristol said. “But we have to reject some core aspects of Trumpism.”

Kristol said fewer Republicans are rejecting Trump than he hoped or expected, but offered a note of optimism. “The good news is in America, our institutions are pretty strong,” he said. “Having one very irresponsible president does not bring down the pillars of the system in the way that happens in other countries.”

Tanden said progressives will have to come up with good answers for non-college-going Americans in rural communities, because otherwise, Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigration answers will win the day. “We need to think more boldly than we have before,” Tanden said. “It’s not an acceptable democracy where more than 30 percent of the country feel they don’t have a chance at economic mobility.”

She added, “Donald Trump can be the beginning or the end. It’s up to us to decide that.”

This event was held with support from the Lyon & Bendheim Lecture Series, and cosponsored by CIVIC, Tufts University Department of Political Science, the Tufts Republicans and the Tufts Democrats.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.