And for everybody who’s in government, there are probably five to ten sitting in a Washington institution wishing they were in. So once again, I would urge people not to overlook the capital city of their state, or the nearest big city, and think about: what can I do that will be working within government at a level where I can make a difference?
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Matthew Bishop with Books Driving Change. Today I’m talking with Anne-Marie Slaughter, the author of Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics.
Anne-Marie has been a big figure in Washington and thought leadership for the past 20 years or so. And this book is, for me, a delight. It’s both a story about how America, because America in some ways is also a beacon for the world, needs to go through a process of renewal to get itself out of its current, dysfunctional moment. And also, it’s a story of personal renewal as a leader. And the way the two themes weave together makes it a very rich book. And I’m looking forward to discussing it with Anne-Marie now.
In a sentence, for our audience of people who are interested in public service, particularly getting involved in building back better, why should they read your book?
Anne–Marie Slaughter (AMS): Matthew, it’s wonderful to be in conversation with you. In a sentence, you should read Renewal, because it will help drive your personal change, provide a guide to organizational change, and I hope will motivate national change.
MB: And I think you end the book in a very powerful way with this imagination of the world in 2026 — when America celebrates its 250th anniversary of throwing the British out, and its formation as a nation. And the first striking point, which resonates throughout your book, is that the celebration in 2026 must be fundamentally different from the celebration that took place in 1976 — which, as you say in the book, was an incredibly white event, really celebrating a white history. And it was striking how much we’ve already moved in the world, and in America, from that time. But what you set out is a beautiful vision of how America could be in five years time.
So the first thing I would ask is, are you in any sense optimistic that we can be there in five years time?
AMS: I do believe that we can use 2026 as a catalyst for reckoning, honoring, repair, and healing. And I use all four of those because I don’t think it will work if it is just a, “hey, we’ve been through our first 250 years, and now here’s a vision for the second.” The reckoning part is critical to the process of renewal.
But we are becoming a plurality nation, by 2027 Americans under 30 will be a plurality, there will be no white majority. And of course by sometime in the 2040s that will be true of the entire country. And that will be true for next quarter millennium. That fact tells you who are the Americans who need to commemorate, direct, and repair in order to honor and to heal. And there are a lot of things already going on across the country to retell histories. Obviously, the monuments are the most prominent, the removal of monuments. But there’s much more going on than that. There’s a recognition of our full history. There are huge debates about reparations going on in lots of different places. But I also think there’s at least the beginnings of a different vision of a plurality nation, of a country that is just deeply diverse and connected to the world. And a country that really could lead again, in a very different way than we’ve led in the past. So I’m working with a number of people who are traveling across the country who see a lot of this happening, but also a group of very diverse people who see this opportunity to say: who are we in 2026? And where have we been? And where are we going?
I actually don’t think we’re going to have national change without individual change.
MB: You touched on this at various points during the book, but what you’re offering with the idea of renewal is the possibility that the nation formed on a constitution that was essentially the product of white property owner slave owner types, could be owned by this extraordinary plural group of people, many of whose ancestors were people who were slaves or victims in all sorts of other ways. Why have you opted for renewal, rather than giving up on the American project altogether, and thinking about something different entirely?
AMS: I say that renewal is in between restoration and reinvention, or you could think of it as in between reform and revolution, but it’s a middle path. It starts with looking backward. And the thing I like about the word is, it’s like the British would say, a portmanteau word. It’s got “re”, so looking backward, and it’s got “new”, so looking forward, and the two are deeply interconnected. Because I think personally, and I describe this in my own personal journey, but also organizationally or nationally, you have to be radically honest in facing your past and facing who you are, and that who you are is shaped by your past. To accept it, not to try to justify it or deny it, but to accept it, and that on that basis, even when you can’t fix it — because often a lot of the things that Americans have done to one another cannot be fixed — but we can sit with them, and we can recognize them, and we can weave them into our story of ourselves. And then on that basis, you can envision and achieve something new.
And for me, the United States really has been about continually renewing a commitment to the ideals we proclaimed at our founding, but we’re betraying right there. Thomas Jefferson embodies that contradiction, as the author of the Declaration of Independence and someone whose life was made possible by some 300 enslaved people, including his own children. But those words are still there. And they have actually inspired generations of Americans, and people around the world.
And so the renewal is a recognition that you can recommit to those ideals, you can accept how much they have been betrayed and how. The United States is a country with both genocide and crimes against humanity in its past — something that I was certainly never taught, and was not breathed about in 1976. But on that basis, then I think you have a way for all Americans to feel like they are seen and heard, and then to participate in this collective act of creation, or recreation, or renewal. That is something we can do as a country, and we’ve done before.
MB: So you talk a lot in the book about your own personal renewal as a leader. Can you tell our listeners a bit about that?
AMS: I can, and I tell it in part because it is an easier way to give on to these larger themes. It’s a way of starting with a story, which many of us do, but it’s more than that. I really did go through a very wrenching process of a crisis, a leadership crisis, that shook me, as a 59-year-old woman with a lot of success behind me. I nevertheless really had to take a hard look at who I was, and what I’d done, and to think about how to change.
I think that’s important for a number of reasons. One, if you are a leader — and I’ve heard from many leaders, both young women leaders and very established older white male leaders, and many, many others — I think this is something that is very important to at least think about, maybe particularly now, when many of our organizations are really being shaken at the foundations by younger people who are saying: wait a minute, there’s white supremacy here, there’s ingrained racism. It’s not intentional, but it’s there, and many of us have a hard time addressing it.
But I also think it’s important, because I actually don’t think we’re going to have national change without individual change. In other words, it’s a way of bringing home what needs to happen as a country, as an organization, and what that’s going to demand of you.
Now, if you are, let’s say, an African American woman who’s been far less privileged and has been far more discriminated against, some of what I write won’t apply to you, because you are not in the position of someone who needs necessarily to change as much as some of the folks who look like me do. But I think everyone can look in the mirror hard and see some things that are worth changing, and think about what does it take to do that?
To make change, you have to be in the arena.
MB: I’m very struck by how many social change leaders nowadays are talking about personal renewal, spirituality, which you touch on during the book. Quite a few are looking at psychedelics, things in that sort of way, as part of their personal renewal journey — which I think is both intriguing, but also, you wonder whether they’re just escaping and just how real these are. And whether that is itself a privileged use of things that are called medicines to them, and drugs when less privileged people get caught using them. But it does seem like there is this recognition that inner change is an essential part of a broader renewal and transformation.
What has your own process been? To what extent have you been on a spiritual quest? Or is it more as you describe it in the book — it’s very much reaching out to almost everyone that you led and asking for their feedback in a very candid way. Or to people who had mentored you, which I thought in itself was a very scientific, thoughtful way of going about it, as you hope a thought leader would do it.
But have there been other things that you don’t talk about in the book?
AMS: So it’s a very interesting link you make with the spiritual but also with the psychedelic. I do think that what’s common there is that these can be life altering experiences. The conversion experience is one where you are filled with the awareness of a higher power or a higher being. And of course, psychedelics — although I’m not personally experienced, but the people I know who have done them, and certainly reading Michael Pollan’s most recent book — for people in particular who suffer from mental illness, it’s a way of jolting yourself into another reality. And there again, that’s what the kind of really big change that we need to make is going to require.
For me, that journey did start with this advice from David Bradley, who used to be the Publisher of The Atlantic, and he said: run toward the criticism. He said: you can’t bluff your way through this. You can apologize, but that’s not enough. You need a learning journey. And the learning journey has to start from not just taking criticism, but asking for it. And I did. I went through my board members and others. And I asked what they really thought. I invited them to be radically candid. I didn’t accept everything they said, because, a) I still have an ego and b) people can criticize from many different places.
And again, I would say this particularly to those who are often the subject of bias. Instead of thinking of this crisis as just an incident, I saw it as part of a larger pattern. And that’s where you get to: who am I? Because if it’s just one thing, you can justify it. If you look back and say, ah, when I was Dean at Princeton, I interpreted these events this way, but perhaps something else was actually going on. And perhaps that something else was because of something I was doing, because that same pattern happened later and they were different people. And that was a process of radical opening up, but also of becoming more secure.
One of the things I tell people is that if you face your worst nightmares, if you’re always worried about what other people are saying behind your back, well, get them to say it to your front. And sometimes it’s not as bad as you think. And even if it is, you’ve faced it. And then you accept — and there’s a spiritual dimension to this too, of course — our imperfections, our humanity, our constant striving and constant falling short, which I think is really part of the human condition.
So the spiritual part — and this is also part of the pandemic, because I did write a lot of this book during the pandemic although I did a lot of thinking before. I became a passionate birder. And that to me, being out in a field somewhere, trying to track down this little speck of feathers, I’m kind of at one with something larger in a way I’ve always responded to beauty that way. It’s more being outside myself. And I think that’s one of the things I learned on the journey, that good leadership, good people, good nations learn how to be outside of themselves.
Keep trying until you find a lever that when you know you pulled it, something happened. And that will stick with you because the satisfaction of having done that just multiplies.
MB: And as you were going through this sort of reflection and learning about how to be a better leader, one of the things that comes through is you’re wrestling with what a lot of us are wrestling with who are white and privileged which is: what is white privilege? And how do you remain a leader, but also honor the fact that you are the beneficiary of privilege in all sorts of different ways? And what does that mean for the model of leadership going forward that we’re going to have?
AMS: It’s a lesson that I learn and relearn, because there are just so many ways in which somebody like me, who grew up in a world of many certainties — that this was our history, that this is who we were — you learn to let go and to hear things that sound preposterous to you often at first go, as white supremacy did to many of us. For me, white supremacy really was the Ku Klux Klan. It certainly wasn’t me. And then learning and listening.
But the other thing I do, and I write about it in the book, is I now share power. I was President and CEO of New America. And then in 2018 I split the job, and took the woman who had been my executive vice president, and I offered her the presidency. She was African American, and partnering with her day in and day out [taught me a lot]. She’s now moved on, and I have another president, and their experiences are so different from mine in some ways, but like mine in others, so there’s enough of a commonality. We’re all at the top of this organization, we’re well educated, we share a lot of similarities in lifestyle, but our life experience has been so different that they perceive a different organization than I do. And because different people are talking to them to begin with, that also means I hear things I would never hear.
And I do think more of us have to find ways to do that. For one thing, if we wait for all the white people to step down or retire, it’s going to be forever before the power structure shifts. So we can create much more room by just dividing jobs that are currently put together. But we also will learn in both directions, right? So people who haven’t had leadership experience, get it, but those of us who have, that’s the best way to learn how to lead differently. And one of the things I’ve been struck by is that almost none of my friends have people of color in their intimate circle — in the sense of working with somebody day in day out really closely, or as friends. And that’s a kind of social segregation, that even transcends class.
MB: I was also very struck by your quite amusing description of how the rugged individualists of the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau and Walden Pond and Emerson and so forth, and how they were actually rather coddled by their wives, who made their individualism possible. And how you then built off of that to talk about the community, and recognizing how we’re all the sum of community in a way, and how that needs to be embedded in this notion of how renewal is going to happen here in America, and also what sort of leadership models really should be adopted going forward.
But do you feel that there is a generation of leaders coming through that think differently and behave differently? From what you’re saying, there is still this sort of self sorting around keeping yourself in your silo with people similar to you. And there isn’t that real embrace of diversity, despite 20 plus years of talking about it in management schools and so forth.
Go into government soon enough, so you’re not scared, so you know what it’s about, and that you make the contacts, so that you can go in again, if you want to.
AMS: I do think things are changing. I was just reading a book on Gen Z, that was put together by a number of different professors, so it’s cross disciplinary. And it really is striking that they are the first generation to have grown up entirely digitally, so that they just don’t know a pre-digital world, and how that fact affects their sense of reality, their sense of identity. There really are differences. And they are able to connect to people very different from themselves in some ways, but the same in others. So let’s say you’re gay, and you would have been restricted to your high school when I was growing up, where probably no one else that you knew, or maybe a very few people, [were also gay]. Now online, no matter where you are, you can find groups, and those groups may well be more racially or ethnically mixed.
So I think there are real differences. I think, above all, they think much more horizontally. And I write about horizontal leadership, about leading from the center and the edge. Maybe I’m wrong, but at least my experience of leadership says total horizontality is a disaster. Leading by consensus means the person who can sit there the longest or be the loudest wins. And that you do need hierarchy, at least some hierarchy. But I also believe that you can move back and forth. You can be a hierarchy, and then be flattened into more of a web, and then go back to a hierarchy. And I think there are younger people who are demonstrating a kind of multiplicity, or a “both and” way of thinking.
And that’s what I write about when I talk about “rugged interdependence”. It’s not that rugged individualism isn’t a sizable piece of American history, it’s just that it is only one strand. And when you tell the stories of the women, or you tell the stories of the African Americans who were moving from south to north during the 19th century with the Underground Railroad, which is a strong solidaristic tradition, that tempers this narrative of the pioneer going forth to conquer the frontier. So it’s both, and I do think that many of the younger folks are much more skilled at that more flexible thinking.
MB: You touched on the issue of wokeness, in the book as well. And one of the big themes of the moment is how on both extremes, both ends of the political spectrum, things appear to be getting much more extreme and entrenched. On the progressive side, how big of a concern is wokeness?
AMS: I worry that the term wokeness is just the latest iteration of political correctness, which is the way in which many conservatives demonize liberalism of any stripe. And so I bristle when I hear wokeness. And I actually describe my own process of what I think was a kind of awakening.
I talked about how, when you’re birding, you start to see and hear the world radically differently; you’re just constantly alert to a flash of feathers, you hear things differently. And that once you’ve been awakened to the experience of many others — and this for me started as a woman in a man’s world, but now I’m a white person, in a world of many different races — and I’ve had to learn that [you] do experience the world differently.
Where I think we go wrong, is just a militant demand for purity. On the left, it’s interesting, Jonathan Haidt says that purity is one of those values of conservatives. But you and I are old enough to at least have learned about and lived through communism, Maoism, the kind of doctrines on the left where if you’re not with us, you’re dead. And that is not liberalism. That is not a view that allows for a plurality of views. And I’m no relativist, I’m a sort of universalist liberal, but this idea that you can’t speak or counter, or that if you deviate from a line — there’s a deep American strand there from the Puritans forward — that worries me. But I’d rather call it militancy, or puritanism, rather than wokeness.
MB: You talk in your vision of 2026 about one of the things that will hopefully be happening is that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be wrapping up its final report. What would that commission be about? Would it be handling some of these issues that are dividing America at the moment?
AMS: I would hope so. And so again, for listeners, the final chapter is a coda, and it’s set in 2026, and sort of an imagining. And I imagined that this commission was named in 2021 by President Biden, but that obviously has not happened, although it could still happen.
I do think it’s important to have national recognition of the multiplicity of stories and of wrongs. And done right, that commission would certainly focus on the enslaved Americans and descendants of enslaved Americans, who really were treated the worst, and started with the least, and have been systematically discriminated against the most. But many other Americans, including white Americans, who were Irish, for instance, or from other countries that were seen as inferior, subhuman, by other white people, those stories would come out as well. And I think this idea of simply saying, hey, we have a lot to face and a lot to reconcile with, would be very valuable. And I think it should be separate from the question of reparations, because in some sense, just the truth is a way of repairing at least the suppression of true stories. And that in itself would be valuable. It would be different from the South African one, or what happened in Germany after the war. It would be distinctively American. But I think many countries could use something like that.
MB: No, I think it’s a good idea. Of all the things that you set out as happening, hopefully, by 2026, which do you think is the most urgent that we get to grips with if America has to get on this path of renewal?
AMS: Well, there’s the symbolic, and then there’s the policy. So symbolically, the one that I hold in my heart, is this idea that the Obama Foundation and the George W. Bush Foundation would come together and create a commission of people across the spectrum who would identify 56 additional founders to match the 56 people who signed the Declaration of Independence. I think that for our next quarter millennium, to say, hey, we were founded by many people in these 250 years would be very important.
MB: And this will be the topic of the Lin Manuel musical that you are proposing?
AMS: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right. I say that he would write a musical called 2026. And it could be all of our founders. I also talked about a lot of different policy changes that we haven’t gotten to. And the one I would most like to see is that by 2026, twenty-five or twenty-six states of the United States would have adopted rank choice voting, open primaries, final five, essentially a multi-party system, a system that could get you to something that looked more like a parliament- – but without constitutional amendment — by breaking the stranglehold that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party now have on our politics.
And as those parties get more extreme, there’s just a vast number of Americans who are not represented, and who are feeling increasingly hopeless about our future, because we don’t feel like we can make the change so many of us need. There’s nothing in the Constitution about only two parties, there’s nothing about a first past the post electoral system. So there are lots of people working to put rank choice voting on the ballot, and I hope to see twenty-five or twenty-six states at a tipping point by 2026. And from there, we would change our national elections as well.
One of the things I learned on the journey, that good leadership, good people, good nations learn how to be outside of themselves.
MB: This brings me to this final point that’s very dear to the heart of Driving Change, which is the idea of how do we encourage more people to get involved in public service and in particular into government?
And in the book you talk about how the current political system put you off ever considering running for office. But there’s a general crisis, it seems to me, of getting people with talent to commit to going into government — either running for election or actually serving in the civil service in different ways. And obviously, there’s more people who when they do want to do public service, they want to do it through the private sector, through nonprofits or business.
What do we do about that? Because clearly a key part of the renewal that needs to happen is to get people as they did in the first Progressive Era, when lots of people turned from business to get into government and service.
AMS: Indeed. And I think if I were in my 30s, say, not my 60s, I would think about running for office, even in the current system. But I would do it, and I would encourage other people to do it — my mentees, younger people in my life — to run for office at the level where you really have a realistic chance of making and seeing change, which for many people is at the local level, at the city level. And it’s remarkable how many kids are running for mayor or state legislature. But you need to start at a place where you can actually see what difference you can make. And you can see what it is to rally others around supporting a particular platform.
At the same time, I think you need to be working to change the political system. But there are a number of areas where we need big change — the environment, obviously, education needs overhauling from start to finish. So you can run for your school board, and stand up to those who would bully the folks on the school board.
To make change, you do have to be in the arena. And I did serve my two years in government, but I left academia because at least I thought New America was a way of making more change than I could do only by speaking and writing. But I think it’s to keep trying until you find a lever that when you know you pulled it, something happened. And that will stick with you because the satisfaction of having done that just multiplies. And then you can also inspire others. We have a cancer of cynicism and hopelessness because of the sense that no matter what we do, nothing really changes.
MB: And what of working in government as a professional, as opposed to an elected politician?
AMS: Absolutely. And I would say right now there are a lot of people in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the Biden administration, who are working really hard on major legislation, which is not as much as people wanted but, if it gets through, will be transformative. So I totally recommend that. It’s just that those jobs are very hard to get. And for everybody who’s in government, there are probably five to ten sitting in a Washington institution wishing they were in.
So once again, I would urge people not to overlook the capital city of their state, or the nearest big city, and think about: what can I do that will be working within government at a level where I can make a difference? And over a lifetime, I do believe you should go in and out — being in a nonprofit and being in the private sector are invaluable cultural experiences where you gain cultural capital and contacts. But do go into government soon enough, so you’re not scared, so you know what it’s about, and that you make the contacts, so that you can go in again, if you want to.
MB: Right, on that positive note, unfortunately, we’re out of time. Anne-Marie Slaughter, thank you very much. Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics is a really inspiring book with lots of great ideas in it. And hopefully, more than a few of them will find their way from the pages into the real world. So thank you for talking with Books Driving Change.
AMS: Matthew, it’s always a pleasure. And truly, what I want more than anything, is for Renewal to be much more than a book.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.