General Wesley Clark is a Senior Fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center and a Co-Chairman at Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group. He also leads a Democratic political action committee known as "WesPAC," which he formed after dropping out of the 2004 race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Though now retired, Clark served in the U.S. army for 38 years, commanding at the battalion, brigade and division level, and serving in a number of significant staff positions. As the Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, Clark commanded Operation Allied Force in the Kosovo War, saving the lives of roughly 1.5 million Albanians from the threat of ethnic cleansing. After graduating as valedictorian of his class at West Point, Clark was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he obtained a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He later graduated from the Command and General Staff College with a master's degree in military science.
Question: How will politicians stay relevant in a country that can clearly be crippled by a few businessmen and a world that can clearly been revolutionized by something like Google?
Wesley Clark: Now if you go back into American history you’ll find lots of periods like this. Maybe not exactly the same technology, maybe there was not Sergey Brin... but it was somebody who did something and somehow something changed. The telegraph, transcontinental railroads, the rise of the railroads, the rise of electric power, automobiles. America has always been a dynamic, rapidly changing society. From the present, when you look to the past, I feel like I’m in mid-life right now at least, and so I’ve got the advantage of looking back. I was at West Point not too long ago and when I was standing there looking at where I had taken the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America as a 17-year-old cadet. I thought, “My goodness, that’s 48 years ago.” I can look back over five decades of adulthood in America, reading the newspapers, being part of the political dialogue, worried about what happened to the country. And I can tell you that this is not a unique period.
Every period had times where the politicians have had to learn to reconnect. Sometimes it’s more about the width of your tie and the length of your sideburns, like the late-1970s when we wore big flowery, paisley shirts. Sometimes it more about, "Hey, can you Blackberry, do you Twit? And hey, are you on Facebook? And can I be your friend?" But politicians have always had to adapt. And that’s the American system.
The American system is representative democracy. It’s always been about life, liberty, you want to say "the pursuit of happiness," but it really isn’t. It’s life, liberty, and in the words of John Locke, "the protection of property"—private property. That’s what government is about, that’s been the engine of economic growth. Property rights. Because the fruit of human labors can be retained it provides the incentive to invest, to invent, to grow, and develop. And the political system has to capture that.
So, how do you maintain your relevance? You know the technology, you meet the people, you solicit their ideas, you listen. If you can, you try to help educate. It’s always a balance, I think for political leaders. How much listening they do, how much reflecting of people’s popular attitudes, and then how much can they educate and transform the population through the means of communication.
Abraham Lincoln did it in incredible speeches. And they didn’t go out on Twitter and he didn’t have instantaneous following. The people read those speeches in newspapers across the country; sometimes two days, sometimes two weeks later. And they informed and transformed public opinion and shaped America. Today, it happens much more quickly. But hopefully we can convey not only the emotions that come through in live action television, but also the underlying dialogue.
I was recently at a high-level gathering and people were really concerned about the state of political dialogue in America. And I am too. I see a lot of passion on television; it seems to soar up ratings. "Hey, let’s tell them off. You know those elites..." and all that. Of course the people who are speaking are kind of elite. When you’re elected to run for the Senate, you’re pretty elite yourself, whether you think you are or not, compared to the rest of the people. But people seem to like the passion. But can they get the ideas across? And with each generation, there’s been a different challenge to the American democracy’s coped with, there’s no guarantee that we’ll successfully cope with this one, but I bet we will. I’ll bet politicians will connect. I’ll bet you people will emerge that can deal with the passions and convey the facts and ideas that are necessary for an informed public debate and the public support in the direction for our country.
Recorded September 23, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont