Melody Barnes

American Democracy and Economy in the Biden Age

Air Date: September 6, 2021

UVA Karsh Institute of Democracy executive director and former White House advisor Melody Barnes discusses U.S. domestic policy challenges.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Melody Barnes. She’s executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia, and she formerly served as director of domestic policy at the White House. Thank you so much for joining me today, Melody.


BARNES: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Alexander. Thank you so much for having me.


HEFFNER: You’re welcome. Let me ask you to begin with, with the inauguration of this new center, the Karsh Center, what is your primary focus in terms of the preservation of, or the restoration of our democracy? There are many aspects of our democracy that seem to be under assault daily. Are you having a single focus as you launch this work?


BARNES: Well, that’s a terrific question because you’re right. Democracy is such a broad topic and many, not only Americans, but people around the world have different conceptions of what that means. Often people think about democratic institutions in the United States, the Congress or the Supreme Court or the Presidency. People think about democratic practices, such as voting for example, and also a number of us talk about democratic culture. What sits underneath all of that, the norms of the way that we go about our duties and responsibilities as citizens or those who inhabit a democracy. And for us at the Karsh Institute, we’re focusing on all three of those things, but the way that they interact with one another. You can’t have a strong set of democratic institutions if in fact people aren’t allowed to actually practice democracy. And you can’t do that unless people are also engaged and thoughtful about democratic culture. So it will be a blend of all of those things.


HEFFNER: In Virginia now, there’s a gubernatorial election underway, a campaign season, they’re off cycle. As you interact with the community at U.Va., and broadly in Virginia, right now, the laboratory of democracy is working in the state to the extent that you can model examples of democratic deliberation and the institutions that we may perceive to be broken on the federal level and the state, how do you envision the Institute operating in a political culture in Virginia?


BARNES: Again, that’s a wonderful question because of this off-cycle election that we have in Virginia. Those of us who are Virginians and I was born in Richmond often say that we have an election almost every year. So it always feels like we’re engaged even when the rest of the country may be taking a little bit of a pause. I think that affords us a wonderful opportunity, one to be engaged in an election in a year not long after we saw the election of 2020. And I think that led more people to become even more deeply concerned about the state of our democracy. So the actual practices of, of democracy, the ability to vote, the way that people engage in debate, whether it’s civil or not, the issues and the public square, all of those things will be important. And there’s some things that we’re already thinking about very specifically at the Karsh Institute that I think will tie closely to what’s happening in this election and elections to come and how do we improve them and how do we strengthen them. But I also believe that you touched on a range of other important issues. Again, going back to democratic culture, the idea of civil debate, the need for good information as opposed to disinformation or misinformation. And there are things that we are going to be doing to highlight those issues as well. On September 24th and 25th, we will host our Democracy Biennial that will be produced by the Miller Center of Public Affairs and the Democracy Initiative, along with the Karsh Institute and with involvement from faculty and students across U.Va.’s grounds. And those from the outside as well, tackling some of these issues, we also have our Democracy Dialogue Series Two, we think is important as we bring people together who have different points of view, different stances, but how do we debate and engage on those issues in a productive manner? And those are just things that are at the very beginning of our work, which will include debate and discussion and dialogue, but also getting our hands dirty, so to speak, in very practical aspects that the public cares about quite deeply.


HEFFNER: As a seasoned domestic policy expert and practitioner, Melody, what’s your assessment of the Biden administration so far and its implementation of public policy specifically as it relates to this pandemic and the recovery from the pandemic, but actually ultimately conquering the pandemic, it remains to be seen if that is possible, even the first term of this administration.


BARNES: I believe that the Biden administration is doing an exceptional job in an extremely difficult environment. First, remember the election was contested. There was a period of time that the transition wasn’t even allowed to go forward. And those are precious days, I can tell you from someone who helped set up a transition in ‘08, for ‘09, that those are precious days, particularly when you’ve got a health crisis and an economic crisis against the backdrop of a political crisis. So we start with that. And then going forward, trying to address the healthcare issues as well as the economic issues, which are so closely tied together, at a point in time when Americans are dramatically disagreeing with one another about how to move forward: to mask or not? To distance or not? To have at the time of the election aspects of our economy closed for a period of time until we could get a vaccine distributed, distributing the vaccine and doing that in an effective way, in a way that understands the relationship between the federal government and state and local governments. So those are a host of complex issues while we’ve got the rest of the world to worry about, but you’re seeing that right now. And we also have other issues that the American people care about. So I think that they brought strong policy chops and very experienced people to the table to address those issues, to move policy very quickly, to move forward with the vaccine distribution as quickly as they possibly could, and to also give states and localities the kind of support that they need. I think one of the overriding questions and this isn’t just for the Biden administration, this is a question for all of us, is how did we get to a point where we as a country allowed ourselves to do this to ourselves, and by that, I mean, if another country had unleashed on us what COVID-19 has unleashed, we would declare war. Instead, we have turned on one another. And that is an important question, a democratic culture question that I think we have to answer along with those in the White House, and state houses, and city councils all over the country.


HEFFNER: That’s fascinating to hear. I concur with your analysis about the mindset of the country and the national imperative that ought to be established to confront these crises. You talk about a democratic culture, but I want you to expound on the economic culture because we are aware of the systemic inequities in this economy. It’s something we’ve talked about on The Open Mind since I began my tenure hosting this program, going on 10 years ago. The question in my mind is, what is the Biden administration prepared to do, even if it cannot legislatively address that systemic inequity that can begin to absorb the issue, so that if, and when there is a legislative supermajority to legislate on the issue it can be tackled. We see this on some level with infrastructure, there is a compromise it’s moving forward. It does address some of the systemic problems in the American economy, but without overriding a filibuster, you can only really imagine, not realize the answer to some of the systemic economic inequities in America.


BARNES: Well, I believe you’re touching on a couple of things and one of them is to what extent is President Biden willing to use all of his executive powers to try and advance an agenda that will start to address issues of mobility, inequality, and equity, right? And I believe the president has made it very clear that the first thing he wants to do is to try and identify bipartisan policy solutions for a host of reasons, the importance of bipartisan solutions that are passed by Congress and signed by President. It’s not just a School House Rock thing. It is important because those are long-lasting changes. They can’t be undone by the next administration. They reflect, because, and if they’re bipartisan, the will of the majority of the country under in a situation of a representative government, the kind of government that we have. So that is first and foremost. But he’s also said that he won’t wait forever and he recognizes that people are hurting. And the depth of that pain economically for people that crisscrosses the nation: urban and rural and tribal, east coast, west coast, you know, north and south. And so I believe and having worked with the president when I was in the Obama White House, that he understands that there are Executive tools that can be used. And my assumption is, I don’t know this, my assumption is that he would be willing to exercise some of them when believes he has to, and when he believes the imperative is there to do so. But I do believe that in his view and because of his desire for healing in the country, both economic and to our democracy, that trying to do the hard work of bringing people together to pass legislation, is the thing that he believes that he’s been called to do. And the Infrastructure Bill, while it isn’t everything that everyone wants and, you know, divided into two pieces, it does reflect the fact that the legislative wheels can turn.


HEFFNER: And do you think that there are items in that Infrastructure Bill that, you know, in terms of their magnitude and their potential for long-lasting improvement on the American economy and of course our electric grid, transportation culture. There are things that could be accomplished through that that were not accomplished through stimulus, that were not accomplished with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This is a new paradigm, if you will, when you, when you talk about the investments in Amtrak, for example, I mean, there are elements of this Infrastructure plan that have not been embarked on until, you know, if, and when this is signed into law.


BARNES: I absolutely believe that to be the case. I think back to 2009, when we went into the White House with President Obama, and there were things that we were able to do in that stimulus package, but not everything. I remember sitting at the table with President Obama and Vice President Biden, and they’re pushing, asking questions, looking for ways to try and move some of these issues forward. And we weren’t able to. We got many things done, but not everything. And here we are, what, 12 years later, and we see the ramifications of not addressing issues of the grid and addressing many of our historic challenges related to American infrastructure, areas where on the report card America has received, you know, Ds and C minuses for a long time. And that has very real consequences for people as a matter of safety, for the economy, for moving goods and services, whether they be on the ground or virtually, digitally, I mean, all of that has ramification in our economy. And, and in addition to that, these are job creators. It, you know, this is a way to also help more Americans go to work in jobs that they want to be trained for, are trained for, and will help them earn a living in a way that they can support themselves and their families. So there’s a win-win-win aspect to all of this. And I think President Biden is also thinking very broadly about these issues. And you know, not in for a very, very long time, have we seen a president move this aggressively with Congress to try and accomplish some of the things that President Biden is doing to try and move our economy well into the 21st century.


HEFFNER: Melody, the backdrop, or the context here that I think is fundamental still is the income inequity and inequality. You look at during this pandemic, you know, the, the vast swaths of wealth accumulated by just a few individuals or a few companies, and that’s systemic. And still even with reforming the tax code, you know, even the most ambitious feasibly in the current climate, you know, you probably can’t address, but it just seems to me that we continue these domestic policy debates while we watch, you know, the system basically be one that, you know, works at this hyper growth pace for very top. And for everyone else, it just doesn’t work that way. And so how do you address that? You know, maybe in the aftermath of infrastructure, you know, to the extent that this administration can successfully achieve infrastructure, we, we know that the underpinnings of the American economy are still driven by a few individuals and corporations. And I just pose that question to you, if, and when that is ever going to change.


BARNES: That’s certainly the million-dollar question. You’re about things that are structural and are long-standing and require us to look at the relationship between our economic system and our democracy and the ramifications of that. And you’re also at core I think, asking a question about power, economic power and political power, and who is able to fight for and create change and why, and who is being accounted for in the American economy and being valued in the American economy. And quite frankly, also just being valued. And I think what we’re seeing as a result of so many people feeling and being left out, that there is an anger that for some time was sitting under the surface and has now exploded in our public square. I mean, if you think back to the 1960s, I mean, America coming out of the war, America going into the sixties was feeling pretty good about itself.


We had won World War Two, we had more people had more disposable income. People were acquiring homes and cars and things that they didn’t think they could. Going on vacations. But at the same time sitting under the surface was also an issue, anger and a frustration from those who had been left out. And what we’ve seen in the year since is a back and forth. And without really addressing some of those core structural issues. You mentioned the tax code, for example, that’s one of them. But also understanding the relationship, what the markets do. And don’t tell us when we have frothy markets and markets that are booming. And at the same time, we have people who aren’t able to make ends meet. Something’s wrong, and something is missing. And while some may benefit greatly and live more than comfortably, at the end of the day, a society, a democracy won’t be able to thrive when people not only are left out, but they are furious about it. And we are seeing that now crisscrossing race and ethnicity and geographic region. And we are going to have to address this issue, if in fact, we want our democracy to be the democracy that we have always said that we aspire to.


HEFFNER: Well put. It strikes me just the combustibility of that disequilibrium is significant. And, you know, you mentioned in the context of the economy specifically, you know, income, we are at a point where, you know, you look at these issues relative to the Eisenhower or Kennedy administration, and you understand that there was a different, you know, a different perception of what was sort of acceptable in terms of having a country and a people that who are, who are valued, and, and there being some sort of accountability for that in both, you know, from the government’s perspective and the corporate perspective. It strikes me just that, you know, that combustive, it will bust at some point, right. There will be some explosion, but the, the government’s non-interventionist policy combined with, you know, the great corporate gains, you know, sort of without taxation and without responsibility for the safety net or social wellbeing. It just seems to me that, that we are such a different country than we were at the point that you mentioned in the post-war period, just in those systemic issues that have been grounded in racial and cultural, they haven’t gone away, but in some ways they just seem so much more challenging to actually address because of the way our economy has changed and what you know is sort of understood is the American economic system today versus then. And I just wonder if you have any strategies for addressing that, because it seems like in so many ways the American economy is going to permanently be this kind of cannibalistic capitalistic thing and not so much the capitalism of an earlier American age.


BARNES: Well, I think one, some of what you speak of is what the Biden administration is hoping to address, in the same way that President Roosevelt launched the New Deal in an effort to address issues of poverty, the Depression, the amount of want that existed in American society at that point in time and took that a long way. That President Johnson with the Great Society in turn continued adding issues of civil rights to that, but also thinking about education, you know, what happened not only for K-12 education, but for higher education during that period of time was significant. The War on Poverty, the kinds of government engagement to a certain degree to try and address issues of poverty that quite frankly, you know, well-educated people didn’t seem to know existed. And President Johnson also took people around the country to parts of America that people had not seen or encountered or believed existed.


And here we are now with the kind of stratification that you were just talking about that in many cases is also aligned with political stratification and has also further been, I think, weaponized with issues of race in play that make it even more combustible and even more challenging to address. But I believe there’s an effort because we, one, this administration has said wants to address these issues and wants to bring resources to bear to try and start to address these issues, doing what it can on a federal level, that that’s important. I also believe that there’s important work that has to happen in our communities on the local level. I have worked with others, my colleague, Thad Williamson, and my friend Thad Williamson who’s a professor at the University of Richmond. My friend Corey Walker who is at Wake Forest University, you know, thinking about and talking about community wealth building and strategies that need to also take place on the local level. And thinking about wealth broadly. Absolutely economic wealth, fiscal issues, but also thinking about social wealth. And thinking about what communities, how communities can become wealthy and thrive, what community assets need to be supported and the need to set big goals on the local level, and to bring people together on the local level to talk about how they’re going to work with local governments and address those issues as well. So I really do believe that there is a “both and” strategy what we need to have happen at the federal level. And having worked on the federal level much of my career, I believe in its importance and simultaneously, and speaking of democracy in a kind of a Tocquevillian way, but thinking about what has to happen on the local level to build community wealth for individuals, all individuals, to believe not only believe, but to be able to participate equitably and to grow economically to be able to support themselves and their families and to thrive. All of those things are also important and both of those things need to happen.


HEFFNER: Melody we’re out of time, I just to kind of clarify what I was saying for our viewers. I think the lingering question remains, what do we do about all of the economic upheaval that has been the concentration of wealth, to reconcile that with the policy you described. Is crypto the future? Can we equalize things with crypto? I mean, there are communities historically disadvantaged. We recently hosted an expert on crypto on the program who are looking towards other means of market growth to even things out, because not only do we need a new paradigm, I think where Senator Warren and I know you used to work for another Senator from the Bay State, where I think she’s so spot on is, is understanding how do we reconcile all these years of damage and, disequilibrium with a future that can kind of reconcile it in terms of our economic and democratic norms. We must have you back to talk more about voting rights. Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at U.Va. Thank you for your insight today.


BARNES: Great. It’s been a pleasure to be with you, Alexander. Thank you so much.


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