“It is an honor to be with you this morning,” I began.
(How else could one have begun, facing Communist Party officials across an enormous table in a spectacular meeting room of the Party headquarters?)
It was the first formal meeting of our trip, Dialogue Session I, and I had been tasked with speaking to the topic China and U.S. Political Parties: Innovating Policies in the Face of Domestic Challenges. (Like, say, the filibuster?)
I took a slightly circuitous route.
“When I was born,” I said, “there were 2.5 billion people on this planet — today, 7.1 billion — China was a poor country, and there was no television . . . let alone these magic devices that put all the world’s knowledge and symphony orchestras in your pocket at the same time as they take pictures, play games, keep your calendar, show movies — and even make phone calls.
[I held up my phone and paused for interpreter.]
“Thank you for making my iPhone, by the way.
“The next few decades promise even more amazing change and progress – the American futurist Ray Kurzweil says the next 50 years will bring 32 times the technological progress as the last 50 years — and as you surely know as well as I, along with great opportunity so much technological progress poses enormous challenges. The next few decades will determine whether we, as a species, attain spectacular, sustainable prosperity . . . or go hurtling off the rails.
“No two countries will have more of an impact on determining which way things go than the U.S. and China, in my view, and so it is truly a great privilege to be included in this visit and to pay my respects to you this morning.
“When I was a boy, maybe six or seven years old, I remember going into my mother’s room in New York – ‘Go away!’ she whispered urgently, ‘I’m on LONG DISTANCE! I’m talking to BOSTON!’
“Today, of course, we can make a call from New York all the way to China, let alone Boston — indeed, a video call — virtually free. Not completely free but — once the infrastructure is in place, and with Skype — virtually free.
“In 20 or 30 or 50 years, clean energy will be virtually free as well – not completely free, but virtually free – which means aluminum will be virtually free and, well, the potential prosperity is astounding . . .
“IF we can get from here to there without rendering the planet uninhabitable . . .
“And IF we can figure out ways to spread the good fortune . . .
“Which is really what some of the political differences in the U.S. these days are about.
“Should everyone have access to affordable health care? One party says yes, one party says no. Should there be a minimum wage — and should it be higher? One party says yes, one party says no. Should half of a billionaire’s wealth be paid in tax when he or she dies? One party says yes, one party says no. Should we put our unemployed construction workers to work modernizing our crumbling infrastructure? One party says yes, one party says no.
“And as I’m sure you know, the two parties have become so polarized that it’s become very difficult to reach compromises as we used to. “Innovating Policies in the Face of Domestic Challenges,” our topic this morning, has been — a challenge.
“A lot of my Harvard business school friends — who tend to be moderate Republicans or libertarians — say both parties, they think, have gone off the deep end and are equally to blame for the disastrous polarization and dysfunction of Congress. But in my view – and saying this with respect and fondness for my Republican colleagues here today [I patted the RNC treasurer on the shoulder warmly as I said this, explaining that we’ve been friends since college] — that’s actually not true.
“Here’s why – in three parts:
“Part One: Quite a few moderate Republicans have been voted out of office in primaries for being too moderate and willing to compromise. Replaced by people very far to the right. The equivalent is not true on the left. Democrats haven’t been kicking our moderates out for not being liberal enough.
“Part Two: A great many Republican incumbents, while they have not yet been voted out in primaries, are afraid they will be, so THEY, too, have become far less likely to compromise. Again, the equivalent is simply not true on the Democratic side. Very few if any Democratic senators or representatives live in fear of being ‘primaried.’ That could change; but it may not — because:
“Part Three: There is a reason for all this. There are billionaires on the right who stand ready to fund these primary battles — which, win or lose, really get the attention of any remaining Republican moderates. The equivalent is simply not true on the Democratic side. Yes, we have our billionaires. But few if any are ‘far left’ in their policy positions — no Karl Marx Democrats to balance the Republican followers of author Ayn Rand.
“In short, the constituency that would be hurt by raising taxes on investment income has billionaires eager to affect our elections . . . while the constituency hoping to raise the minimum wage has no billionaires.
[I decided not to try to explain gerrymandering — not least because my guess was that most of our very well prepared hosts knew all about this stuff anyway]
“So – in my view — we have a huge problem. The moderate, reasonable, problem-solving Republicans – like my friend and college classmate here [another pat on my RNC counterpart’s shoulder] — have been replaced by rigid ideologues. And this poses a huge challenge to innovating policies.
“I listed some of them – reforming our health care system, investing to modernize our infrastructure. Others include what Democrats think of as sensible gun safety laws, something called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and of course – of tremendous, perhaps existential significance – policy to mitigate climate change.
“Democrats believe the scientific community on this issue; many Republicans, do not – including the one they chose to chair the subcommittee in Congress charged with overseeing climate change.
“To fix this problem of polarization — to bring compromise back — we need to change the way we draw our voting districts, perhaps reform our campaign finance laws, and some other things, to make it easier for centrists and moderates to win election to Congress – and to make it more difficult for a single senator to bring the entire government to a halt. But it’s not easy and won’t happen overnight.
“Finally, ‘a point of personal privilege,’ as we say in America.
“One place our country has made considerable progress over the last five years is the area of equality for our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender citizens.
“Estimates vary, but you can figure that something like 5% or 10% of humanity falls into one of those categories. So maybe 20 million Americans, 100 million Chinese.
“But unlike many minority populations, this one can remain very hidden. When I was growing up people like me – and [the DNC staffer accompanying me, a young woman of Indian-American descent] – would never, ever let anyone know who we really were. If you could hide it, you just had to.
“I could write a book about how lonely and unhappy and unhealthy it is to live that way. In fact, I wrote two books about it. [resist the urge to hyperlink; but what would the royalties be on another 50 million copies???] But the wonderful news is that in America and much of the world, tremendous numbers of people have opened their hearts and minds to this issue.
“And I know it’s happening here in China as well, and I offer you my sincere admiration for that. [China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, removed it from the list of mental disorders in 2001, and just this past August sanctioned the second China LGBT Community Leader Conference here in Beijing.]
“In America, one of our 100 senators is now openly LGBT, as are 6 of our representatives in Congress. The mayor of Houston, the head of the New York City legislature, the sheriff of Dallas. Five of our ambassadors, including our newly appointed ambassador to Australia. The Democratic National Committee has nine officers. Three of us are openly gay. A former chair of the Republican Committee is openly gay.
“In just the past five years, despite the gridlock I spoke of, and with the help of a very small but growing number of Republicans, we have passed several pieces of federal legislation . . . and 17 of our states now allow marriage.
“It turns out to hurt no one to allow to people who love each other TO love each other. And not to pressure people to procreate with members of the opposite sex when they don’t want to. It made sense to do that in Biblical times, when tribes and nations wanted larger populations. It makes no sense now, when spaceship Earth will soon have 9 billion passengers on board.
“My own partner Charles and I were together for 17 years until he died of neck cancer three years ago. I still wear my ring. And before he died, we got to dance in both Bill Clinton’s White House and then again in Barack Obama’s.
“Unimaginable, when I was growing up.
“Just like my iPhone.
“So progress is possible, and there are forward-thinking Republicans like my friends here today with whom it would be easy and a pleasure to do business. But as I see it, they are not the ones in control of the Republican Party these days, and that poses challenges to all of us.
“Thank you again for the privilege of addressing you this morning.”
I had told just one of our team — a veteran of these dialogues — what I planned to say, to see whether he thought it would be okay. He said I should give it a shot, but not to be dismayed if the response was stone-faced. He said he really didn’t know how they would respond. His guess: a polite smile but no direct response. Instead, at each of the meetings over the course of the visit, in Beijing and Nanjing, the response boiled down to: “We believe everyone should be allowed to live in dignity and to live their lives however they want so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” And they seemed to mean it.
From what I know, that’s not the sentiment of all 1.365 billion Chinese. But it sure beats what we hear coming out of officials in, say, Russia these days.
And when you think about it, this is a good issue for our friends in China. In the first place, as an atheist state, they don’t face the deep-seated religious objections that have slowed progress here. In the second, it could help a little with their population challenges. And third, where most things they need to do to enhance the people’s well being is massively expensive . . . building cities, upgrading to clean energy . . . this thing, that impacts the happiness of perhaps 100 million Chinese . . . just treating them as valued members of society . . . costs nothing.
(The same would be true, by the way, in Mississippi.)