This story first appeared on the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is republished with permission.
The greatest threat to the U.S. today is the corrosion of our democracy from within.
That was one of the insights offered by former Senator George J. Mitchell, who served as a U.S. senator from Maine and as majority leader in the Senate. He cited hyper-partisan gerrymandering and too much money in politics as the two major reasons for gridlock in Congress and for the polarized state of the country.
“American politics is drowning in a sea of money that is corrupting our society,” Mitchell said. “Democracy cannot function if people cannot trust their elected officials.”
He pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case as a key contributing factor.
Mitchell’s remarks were part of a Kerry Conversation, a series hosted by the Kerry Initiative at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The initiative, founded in 2017, is an interdisciplinary program that tackles pressing global challenges through teaching, research, and international dialogue.
The December 1 conversation was held before a full house in the School of Management’s Zhang Auditorium. It was a wide-ranging discussion on U.S. and European politics, the impact of disruptive innovation, and global leadership.
The two reflected on the 20-year anniversary of the Irish peace agreement and offered their thoughts on the possible implications of the Brexit agreement.
Mitchell cautioned against the UK’s taking any steps—such as reintroducing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—that could disrupt the peace agreement. “The threat of violence never disappears. You can’t rule it out. Anything that risks [the peace] has to be carefully weighed,” he said.
Mitchell, who spent five years helping to negotiate the peace agreement, also took part in the symposium “Twenty Years of Peace: Progress and Possibilities in Northern Ireland,” held on November 30 at Yale.
The hour-and-a-half-long discussion also touched on global trade agreements and the impact of innovation and new technologies. Mitchell underscored the idea that innovation can be good for society overall, even if detrimental to some individuals, citing the elimination of the whaling industry and stagecoach production as examples.
“Those changes were the result of dynamic innovation, not trade agreements,” Mitchell said.
Kerry and Mitchell also reflected on the recent passing of President George H.W. Bush, a Class of 1948 Yale alumnus. Both served in the Senate during Bush’s presidency.
Kerry spoke of President Bush as “a class act and a statesman” whose long public service represented “the best of public service and the best of Yale.”
Kerry wrapped up the talk by encouraging audience members to exercise their right to vote, citing high voter turnout rates in other countries.
“We have to have a better attitude about voting in the U.S.,” Kerry said. “We have to live our citizenship better.”
About the Event
The Yale Kerry Initiative will host a Kerry Conversation with former Senator George J. Mitchell on Saturday, December 1 from noon to 1 p.m. This event is open to the public. Pre-registration is required.
Mitchell, who served as a U.S. Senator from Maine and the Senate majority leader, will join former Secretary John Kerry for a conversation about their diplomatic experiences and the foreign policy challenges facing America today.
About the Speakers
Kerry served as the United States’ 68th Secretary of State from 2013 to 2017. As America’s top diplomat, he guided the Department’s strategy on nuclear nonproliferation, combating radical extremism, and the threat of climate change. His tenure was marked by the successful negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement. From 1985 to 2013, he served as a U.S. Senator representing Massachusetts, and was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2009 to 2013. He served in the U.S. Navy, completing two combat tours of duty in Vietnam for which he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat V, and three Purple Hearts. He received his undergraduate degree from Yale and his law degree from Boston College Law School. He currently serves as the Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs at Yale University and the Visiting Distinguished Statesman for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mitchell has had a long and distinguished career. He served for several years as Chairman of DLA Piper, now Chairman Emeritus. Before that he served as a federal judge; as Majority Leader of the United States Senate; as Chairman of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland which resulted in an agreement that ended an historic conflict; and most recently as U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East. In 2008 Time Magazine described him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Senator Mitchell is the author of five books. His most recent books are a memoir entitled The Negotiator: Reflections on an American Life, published in May 2015 and A Path To Peace, published in November 2016.