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Arthur Brooks To Step Down As President Of AEI

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 6:18 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Arthur Brooks is doing some reflecting. He's wrapping up nearly a decade as CEO of a conservative-leaning think tank here in Washington. It's called the American Enterprise Institute. And when I talked with Brooks, he expressed concern that the competition of ideas in this country is under attack.

ARTHUR BROOKS: The current climate is rigid. It's a little bit authoritarian, as a matter of fact. And it's not just because of politics. It's just kind of a cultural wave that we have coming out of the despair in the financial crisis, I think. And so one of the big moral goals that I have is re-engaging the competition of ideas and helping Americans understand that disagreeing is a really, really good thing. And the opposite, which is shutting down ideas, is - that leads to stagnation and mediocrity. It always has and always will.

MARTIN: When did that start to happen? I mean, when did this hostility start to take root? You mentioned politics, and we'll get to that in a moment. But you said this has roots in the financial crisis.

BROOKS: Yeah. There's a lot of good research on how financial crises change culture. There's a very good paper, published in the beginning of 2017 in a journal called the European Economic Review. They looked at 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies. And what they found was, in the decade following a financial crisis, on average, you have a 30 percent increase in the popularity of populist parties and politicians. This is the current era by the numbers. And we don't look at history very much in America. We have kind of the historical memory of a goldfish. And that's a nice thing. That's - because we're always forward-looking. But when you look back a little bit, you'll see that this always has happened. And populism is pretty allergic to the idea that we can all get along, that the other people are not just out to get you.

MARTIN: President Trump came into office because of a populist wave. How much responsibility does he have personally for fomenting these kinds of divisions?

BROOKS: The politicians that we see at the vanguard of the political parties - they are a symptom more than the cause. We have to remember that we get populist leaders when we demand populism. And that comes down to how all of us are relating to the current climate - the competition of ideas. If you look at the data, about 70 percent of Americans are really dismayed with the way things are going in this country, and they don't like the polarization and the bitterness, the disrespect, the hatred, the contempt. So the key thing is that, as a country, we need to fight back against the polarization and bitterness.

I had an epiphany, Rachel. It was pretty interesting to me. I was giving a talk in 2014. It was an activist conservative crowd - you know, people in three-cornered hats and the whole deal. In the middle of my talk, I stopped, and I said, you know, I know that we don't have any of our progressive friends here, and I want you to remember that they are not stupid, and they're not evil. And this lady put up her hand, and she said, actually, I think they're stupid and evil. And she was making a joke. She wasn't repudiating me. But you know what I was thinking - you know, I'm from Seattle, Wash. - from a liberal family in Seattle, Wash., which is basically redundant because, you know, it's Seattle. And when that lady said that, I thought, she's talking about my family. And this is the key thing that I think about a lot. You know, if we want a better country, we need to stand up to people on our own side who are trashing the people that we love.

MARTIN: So then what is the fix? What concrete steps are we supposed to take, in your opinion, in order to stop that kind of personal attack that can create these larger divisions?

BROOKS: Yeah. So No. 1, we should make a personal commitment to not do that. And by the way, that means not writing anything insulting on social media. It also means not rewarding people who make those attacks. When I talk to people in the business community, I say, don't give money to politicians who don't share these values. So No. 1 is don't do it. No. 2 is don't reward it. And No. 3 is leadership. We should be looking for and cultivating leaders that really espouse these values. I think that our better angels - all of us - virtually all of us - are looking for better leaders. And by the way, there are a bunch of people listening to us right now who are those leaders. So OK, be - as Obama used to say, be the change you seek. And I think that once we start this wave - it's not just a backlash; it's an aspirational wave - we can really change the country.

MARTIN: Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.