Democracy and capitalism
Session one explored the relationship between political and economic systems
In introducing the first panel of the UVA 2021 Democracy Biennial on September 24, UVA Executive Vice President and Provost Liz Magill didn’t mince words.
“Across the world, citizens are debating democracy’s fate,” Magill said as she opened the two-day conference, which was presented in three engaging webinars because COVID-19 restrictions prevented the staging of an in-person event.
The panel focused on issues related to “Democracy and Capitalism.” Ian Baucom, dean of UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences, noted the U.S. climate of the past few years where “there’s been a sense of brokenness about the democratic system and the capitalist economy.” However, Baucom asked, is the system itself broken, or is this a passing fever, a momentary blip?
In determining how well democracy and capitalism are working, Gerald Chertavian, CEO of Year Up, said that the reality is that systemic dysfunction—including a lack of access to education and good jobs—has made the path for so many young adults much harder.
Chertavian paraphrased James Truslow Adams’ 1931 words about the American dream: “The American dream is a land in which life should be richer and fuller and better for everyone, based on their ability and achievement.” Then he noted that “the reality is that for millions of young people today, they cannot look up and see that next rung on the ladder.”
Rami Nashashibi, the executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, echoed that perspective in talking about the Englewood neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, where he works with underserved populations. The neighborhood was once a thriving area, Nashashibi said, but today, it is an area of poverty with the largest life expectancy gap out of 500 urban centers nationally.
A multigenerational commitment to stimulate jobs and provide opportunities through collaboration between the public and private sector could help mitigate the devastating effects of capitalism on inner city urban neighborhoods like Englewood.
While noting the brokenness of democracy and capitalism in their respective areas of expertise, each panelist also offered solutions. For Chertavian, a multigenerational commitment to stimulate jobs and provide opportunities through collaboration between the public and private sector could help mitigate the devastating effects of capitalism on inner city urban neighborhoods like Englewood.
Tom Perez, former secretary of labor under President Obama, said he observes democracy’s troubles in our current “world of false choices.” He pointed to the example of his former work prosecuting police misconduct cases, when others would assert: “You are either on the police’s side or the community’s side.”
The most important currency a police officer has is the trust of his community, Perez said. We must change the narrative around these false choices, he added, and focus on where positive change can happen.
Robert Hugin, former CEO and chairman of the biopharmaceutical company Celgene, noted that there are “no simple solutions” and yet “we have a system that works. It’s not perfect, it’s failed some communities.” But recognizing the power of programs such as government incentives, Hugin said, is essential.
When businesses and government come together and engage, communities experience an opportunity to thrive.
Deborah Feinen, the mayor of Champaign, Illinois, noted how when businesses and government come together and engage, communities experience an opportunity to thrive, which she has seen on a localized level.
But when and how quickly can that happen? As Perez noted, for many of these lower-income communities, “the luxury they do not have is time.” He pointed to this moment as a “third reconstruction,” an awakening—which, if we choose to take it, could lessen the disparity between those on Wall Street and “ordinary people.”
Nashashibi added to that possibility, noting: “What does it look like when we invest these resources to lead to prosperity for these neighborhoods—so the question of democracy can be a real one?”
In examining whether social immobility is a consequence of democracy or capitalism, Tom Baltimore, chairman and CEO of Park Hotels and Resorts, pointed to a theme that would resonate throughout the discussion: a lack of educational opportunities.
“America’s public school system, rather than lifting up our children, is really holding them down,” Baltimore said. “We need leadership and accountability to address it. So many deserve an opportunity – and education is that foundation.”
Carolyn Miles, former president and CEO of Save the Children, echoed that point, pointing to her agency’s work in more than 100 countries where she saw a common global thread of education as an “elevator.”
“I also believe that education is a right for children,” Miles said. “It’s not something we should ‘do better on.’”
While some panelists harbored a more pessimistic outlook, Darden School of Business Professor R. Edward Freeman said: “I’m incredibly optimistic. . . . I believe we’ve reached a critical point. Think about the issues that face us—no one is arguing we go back to a world of shareholders as the only ones who count in business. I think the tide has turned.”
But Freeman called for a sense of urgency. “I want to use Dr. King’s words: ‘We need to avoid the tranquilizing drug of gradualism’—we need to do this now,” Freeman said. “This has to be the calling for our generation and the generations that follow us.”
In concluding the discussion, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater recalled the Founders’ realization that compromise, even amidst contrasting viewpoints, was needed to create a union.
When we speak honestly and openly, and when we are a bit vulnerable, because it encourages others to be vulnerable.
“They said, You can’t be perfect, this will be messy, but let’s be committed to being more perfect,” Slater said. “There’s a lot more commonality here when we pull back the veil, when we speak honestly and openly, and when we are a bit vulnerable, because it encourages others to be vulnerable. And that is where you find the common ground.”