Partisan politics and emergence of economic competition among challenges faced by Americans of all ages
Thursday, April 03, 2014
But the orator on the stage of Lesley University’s penultimate event in the 2013-2014 season of the Boston Speakers Series wasn’t a professional comedian. The man who kept the crowd laughing through most of his 90-minute appearance was former governor of Utah Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a Republican who served as ambassador to China under Democratic President Barack Obama.
That sort of bipartisanship — and willingness to put service ahead of politics — played a role in derailing his hopes of becoming the GOP standard-bearer in 2012, Huntsman joked. And if that weren’t enough, compliments paid to him by liberal filmmaker and activist Michael Moore and an endorsement from the Boston Globe kept that train off the track and mired in mud.
“My career was so toast, it was over,” he said. “Then those invitations from Fox News stopped, and I got the message.”
Huntsman, though, said his ancestors (“a line of saloonkeepers and educators”) wouldn’t have tolerated his saying no to a president just because he was of a different party. After all, the Huntsmans were used to being Republicans who found political success in left-leaning parts of the country, like the San Francisco Bay area. And his Republican grandfather kept a picture of President John F. Kennedy in his house.
Yet Huntsman was self-effacing when it came to his political accomplishments, instead highlighting the importance of early education and extolling the virtues of educators, both in his family and everywhere. He went on to joke that his grandfather had said not everyone was cut out to be an educator; one needed a fallback profession.
So Huntsman’s father went into business.
But not everyone is cut out for business, so one needed a fallback profession.
So Huntsman himself went into politics.
He continued that he told his daughter that not everyone is cut out for politics. So she went into journalism.
“I am the failure of a failure of a public educator,” Huntsman said, capping off the bit.
Still, despite his near constant joshing, Huntsman said America has a serious problem with partisan gridlock, a situation that leaves older voters frustrated and causes young people to “peel away from the system.”
“We’re experiencing a human failure,” not a structural one, on Capitol Hill, Huntsman said. And the presidential race, of which he was a part (he finished third in New Hampshire, his best showing), isn’t a whole lot better.
“You look at the stage and say, ‘This is the best we could do?’” he said of the 2012 debates, which he likened to reality TV or game shows, designed to amp up the drama and conflict.
Barriers to changing things for the better include largely unfettered campaign financing, the gerrymandering of congressional districts — creating 70 percent one-party majorities in most cases — and a lack of congressional term limits.
“Incumbency reaches up, grabs people by the ankles, drags them down and puts down very deep roots,” Huntsman said.
However, he said he sees reason to be optimistic. Young people, he said, are far less beholden to political parties than their parents are, and even nearly half of the older electorate is registered “unaffiliated” as either Democrat or Republican.
In addition, nonpartisan groups like No Labels, of which Huntsman is an honorary, though extremely active, co-chair, are endeavoring to “instill an ethos of problem-solving” in Congress.
The timing couldn’t be better, as the United States is facing a new challenge from the far east: the emergence of China as an economic superpower.
With a quarter of the world’s population, the rise of China’s economy could either bring the promise of a robust trade partner and the opening of vast markets, or it could bring about the threat of chaos, even war. When the size of China’s economy matches that of the United States, which Huntsman said is only a few years away, “There will be a fear factor in this country.”
Part of the problem is that China itself, while transitioning from an “old export machine” to a consumer economy, has incurred staggering debt, largely from $650 billion spent on state-of-the-art rail and air infrastructure. In addition, the nation has 800 million farmers, but realistically needs only 200 million, leaving China in a quandary about how to employ 600 million surplus agricultural workers
Adding to the consternation are renewed rivalries with Japan, instability in North Korea and competition from South Korea.
Internally, China is experiencing some growing pains of Westernization, as well, as 700 million Internet users and 100 million bloggers speaking freely and publishing content that would have gotten them imprisoned several years ago.
Huntsman, though, sees hope in the “millennial” generation, people the age of his own children who more and more are studying the Mandarin language in school, and are more widely traveled and multicultural than any generation before. He believes schools should move away from the Cold War-era foreign language instruction and focus more on Mandarin and Arabic in response to emerging world cultures.
Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series wraps up the 2013-2014 season on April 30 with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
The crowd at Symphony Hall was perhaps in an especially receptive mood Wednesday night, as emcee Phil Redo of WGBH revealed the roster of Lesley University’s 2014-2015 Boston Speakers Series:
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