Are we losing our democracy?
No. Every generation faces challenges, and we certainly have our share of them. But this is the best system in the world. I wouldn't move to any other country, and people still look to America as a beacon of democracy. People are too quick to bemoan the end of civilization when it's not happening.
What do you think are the mainstays of our system? We have strong institutions. The separation of powers is crucial, and we have a free press—although there are always concerns about the health of the First Amendment. Then there's the fact that generations of immigrants have come to America because they want to live in a free society. All these aspects make the society strong. Ronald Reagan in one of his speeches said, "Liberty binds us together." That's so powerful. People talk about ethnic identities and red vs. blue states, but the overarching belief in liberty is the central fact. If we can get back to that, it gives us a strong foundation moving forward.
What are our weak spots or pressure points?
One is political polarization. Polls say that about 16 percent of the country are at the political extremes—6 percent on the left and 10 percent on the right. They don't want compromise and can't abide any opinion different from their own. Another problem is the amount of power that the big tech companies have over free expression—almost like Orwell's vision in 1984, but with private sector entities. I'm concerned about that, even though I don't think tech execs are the rub-your-hands-together evil geniuses sometimes portrayed—they're just people trying to make the best decisions in hard situations.
The combination of polarization and the way people now express themselves via Twitter and the like, without seeing their neighbors, is distorting. It makes people seem much crueler to one another than they are to their actual neighbors. But if the 16 percent figure is right, then 84 percent of Americans are not in those categories, and a small minority are driving the negative content. I can't say what those numbers looked like in 1950, but most Americans just want to live together in freedom and let you believe what you believe, and that gives me optimism.
Is there anything a system like ours can't survive?
Nuclear attack, or some massive, technologically enhanced form of destruction, whether external or internal. The Roman Empire could only hit the people it actually saw. In the last two centuries we've learned to kill so many more people in remote ways—viruses, missiles, cyberattacks. I worry about those much more than about the latest Twitter blowup.
Have other times seemed this bad, or worse?
The 1960s were horribly divisive, with multiple major tragic political assassinations—President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.—and urban riots every summer of LBJ's presidency. Nixon had also lost a very close race in 1960, with very questionable ballot counting in Illinois and Texas, and chose—to his credit—not to challenge that election. It seemed the wheels were coming off the bus. We recovered because of the inherent strength of the American system, and because of strong leaders on both sides of the aisle. I lived in New York City in the 1970s, which was a complete mess—graffiti, blackouts, bankruptcy—and Ed Koch as mayor started the process of turning New York around. Then Reagan on the national level helped America get its mojo back and win the Cold War. Later, the whole computer technology revolution, despite my gripes, really was a path to further prosperity in America when many thought natural resources had brought us as far as they could. There are always new frontiers in a country that allows for freedom of thought and entrepreneurial spirit.
Do you think you'd feel differently about this if your politics were different?
My politics are determined in part by my optimism and my gratitude. Ben Wattenberg, an LBJ speechwriter who saw those riots up close and who was my mentor, said that in America the most optimistic candidate always wins. I'm grateful for what this country has done for the world and also for the Jewish people. If my ancestors had stayed in Europe, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Now I'm here, my kids are here and we have a shot of continuing this great endeavor. If I didn't have optimism and gratitude, maybe I'd be bitter and aggrieved, and that would lead to different politics.
Do Jews play a canary-in-the-mineshaft role for democratic collapse?
Oh, absolutely. When societies treat their Jews poorly or drive them away, or are antisemitic, often that's an indication of some larger societal sickness. Think of Spain in the 1490s, or Czarist Russia in the early 1900s, where almost 700 pogroms were eventually followed by a revolution that led to the death of millions. And many nations that drive away their Jews, as in the Arab world after the creation of Israel, suffer as a result.