“The polarization has become very sharp in this country,” said David Gergen, the Presidential Guest Speaker at the AAOS 2018 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Mr. Gergen, a political analysist for CNN and professor of public service and codirector of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, shared numerous stories about his experiences serving as an adviser in the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald W. Reagan, and William J. Clinton.


Published 4/1/2018
Peter Pollack

Short-term Pessimism, Long-term Optimism

Presidential guest speaker offers thoughts on political division, hope for the future
Democracies are facing crossroads right now, noted political commentator David Gergen, who took the stage as presidential guest speaker at the Your Academy 2018 event during the AAOS 2018 Annual Meeting. “Where are we going? It is an important question for the country. A number of democracies have improved their governance in recent years, but others have gone the other way.”

Mr. Gergen explained that traditionally, democracies have fallen to coups led by military leaders. However, since the end of the Cold War, a new force has been observed in countries such as Turkey and Venezuela, where populist movements have begun to push their countries toward authoritarian rule, and in nations such as Russia and China, where elected leaders have expanded their power and sought lifetime terms. At the same time, the current media landscape encourages consumers to reinforce their own opinions, while facts and bipartisan discussion take a back seat.

“The polarization has become very sharp in this country,” said Mr. Gergen. “It has become increasingly poisonous. Fox News and MSNBC were going at it long before Donald Trump came to power. You cannot put all of this at his doorstep. But nonetheless, in the last year or so, the process of division [has increased]. There are polls that show that, increasingly, parents of one political party do not want their children marrying someone from the other political party. That’s amazing. ...That’s something very new in America.”

Mr. Gergen stated that the authors of the book “How Democracies Die” address certain indicators that suggest a breakdown in democratic norms, one of which is repeated attempts to discredit the free press as well as voices of opposition and dissent.

“The call for authoritarian strongmen is very powerful in many countries,” Mr. Gergen observed. “The question we face increasingly in the United States is: Which way are we going to go? Are we going to strengthen our democracy, which is fracturing?

According to Mr. Gergen, when a free press starts to become discredited, the door is opened to voices and narratives that may have varying relationships with the truth—a trend that has become increasingly obvious in the United States. He said that part of the blame must lie with the press itself.

“I come in part from the press, and it has been distressing to me to see what has been happening in the conversation. I must tell you that I think that we in the press need to be more introspective and increasingly careful. There was a natural inclination [during the 2016 presidential campaign] to carry [Donald J. Trump] to help ratings, but it also was legitimate news. So, there’s a question out there: Did we help him too much in getting the nomination?”

President Trump
Mr. Gergen explained that President Trump has many strengths, but his inexperience and concerns about the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may impact his ability to lead effectively.

“We’ve had such a huge turnover in staff,” Mr. Gergen noted. “It’s unprecedented how many people have left the [Trump] administration. Frankly, it’s going to be hard to find really good people to come in at this stage. Usually, a president goes at least two years, maybe four years, before he has a big turnover in the staff. Your first team is usually your best team, and then your second string comes in after that. Trump is in a position where he’s going to need strong second-stringers.”

“[Mr. Trump] has an intuitive understanding for the spirit of the country,” he said. “When others did not, he understood the resentments of the white working class. And some business leaders say he’s erratic, but they like his economic and tax policies and they think they’ll be a boon to the country.”
Regarding the Mueller investigation, Mr. Gergen said that it’s become generally accepted, even by President Trump, that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

“We don’t know for sure, and we haven’t seen any hard evidence and it’s very important to stress that—there’s been no hard evidence after all these months that there was collusion [between the Trump campaign and Russia],” he said.

However, Mr. Gergen noted that there is a very real concern in some circles that financial dealings from President Trump’s time in real estate could come back to haunt him.

“The real estate business is tough-minded,” he explained, “and can be up and down like a roller coaster. The truth is Donald Trump, earlier in his career when he was managing casinos, had a number of projects that went belly-up, and he needed money to refinance. By that time, … American banks had concluded they weren’t going to do business with him. At that point, he needed foreign money, and everyone agrees he went after foreign money,” Mr. Gergen said. “The question then becomes: Was there something that was shady or illegal about the foreign money that he received, and most importantly, was foreign money laundered coming into his real estate holdings? And we don’t know yet, but there are a lot of suspicions that if there are going to be charges that come out of all of this, they’re going to rotate around the money. And that’s why more and more we’re hearing that Mueller is closing in on various financial transactions that took place.”

Positive trends
Despite his concerns, Mr. Gergen, who served as an adviser in four different presidential administrations, offered positive thoughts for the future.

“I happen to be a short-term pessimist about our politics, but I am increasingly a long-term optimist,” he said. “We have a lot of really good people who want to come off the bench and make a difference.”

Mr. Gergen noted a strong increase in the political participation of two important groups: women and veterans, as an opportunity to heal partisan division. He cited statistics from EMILY’s List, a progressive organization created to help women candidates get elected.

“In the 2016 election cycle, 1,000 women called EMILY’s List for help,” he said. “In the last 12 months, 26,000 women called. That’s going to make a major difference, and I think we should welcome it. We guys have had a long time running things, right? Look how well we did. Every organization I know benefits when there’s more gender balance.”

He also argued that a growing number of veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have served the country in uniform and seek to continue to do so when they return.

“We have 150 veterans who are running for Congress right now,” he said. “When I first came to Washington in the early 1970s, somewhere close to 80 percent of the people who served in Congress were veterans. When they fought under the same flag, they took that as their first and most important point of dedication. There were strong Democrats, there were strong Republicans, but all of them thought of themselves, first and foremost, as strong Americans. They were there for the country, and they worked across the aisle.

“My view,” Mr. Gergen said, “is that those of us who are older ought to fix as much of this as we can, and then we ought to get the heck off the stage and welcome that younger generation, saying, ‘It’s your turn.’ We’re going to be in good hands when they come into power.”

Peter Pollack is the electronic content specialist for AAOS Now. He can be reached at ppollack@aaos.org.