Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society

On April 18, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a discussion on the book “Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity and Democracy and a Prosperous Society.” The panel, introduced by Nancy Cantor and moderated by Liz Cheng, featured the following speakers: Danielle Allen, Earl Lewis, Deval Patrick (via video), and Amy Schulman.

The program was organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Good evening.  It is my pleasure to welcome you to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for a program organized by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The panelists here tonight will discuss the book edited by Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor, Our Compelling Interests: The Value of Diversity for Democracy and a Prosperous Society.

We are delighted that the Mellon Foundation selected the Academy as the New England venue for one of a series of conversations around the country on the issues raised in the book. The American Academy has been home to some notable projects over its history that addressed the issue of diversity in America, including ground-breaking scholarship in the 1970s on ethnicity, work on urban school desegregation, and comparative projects on ethnic pluralism and immigration in the United Kingdom, France, and China.

As Our Compelling Interests makes clear, America’s level of diversity is one of its most distinctive characteristics. Demographers predict that in 25 years the United States will have a majority non-white population. Diversity of all kinds—racial, socioeconomic, gender, religious, linguistic, regional, and sexual—has had a profound impact on American culture and institutions. Our Compelling Interests asks whether diversity is a goal worth pursuing, an opportunity to be leveraged, or a condition to be managed? Can we sustain a prosperous democratic society if there are particular groups that are excluded from the promises of equal political, social, and economic opportunity? How can our compelling interests as a nation be brought into alignment with the compelling interests of the many diverse groups of people who make up our population?

The Academy was founded during a time when the notion of a multi-racial American populace would have been difficult to imagine, even as the reality of racial diversity in North America was present everywhere. Yet diversity of a particular kind was very much on the minds of the founders; John Adams, John Hancock, and James Bowdoin among them. They saw the Academy’s mission as promoting useful knowledge that would benefit not only the elite, but people at all levels of society, possessing different degrees and kinds of property. Creating a nation that would enable diverse groups with distinct interests to have their voices heard in government without infringing on each other’s rights was perhaps the most pressing issue facing the 55 men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention.

To meet this challenge, the authors of the Federalist Papers imagined an “extended republic” with a representative form of government. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51,

“In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects.” That is, more diversity equals more security for equal rights. A large nation made up of many groups with distinct interests was more likely to offer respect for those interests, but it was no guarantee.

Madison also warned, “It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

It is with this history in mind that we look forward to tonight’s discussion of our shared interest in the value of diversity and the challenge of creating an inclusive society. As Earl Lewis and Nancy Cantor ask in their introduction, “Can we ensure a healthy and vibrant democracy without carefully aligning guarantees of civil and human rights, mechanisms for civic connection, and pathways of economic opportunity?”

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