Interview #6 – William Antholis
William J. Antholis serves as Director and CEO of the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship, public policy, and political history. Immediately prior, he served as managing director at the Brookings Institution from 2004 to 2014. Bill Antholis earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in politics (1993) and his B.A. from the University of Virginia in government and foreign affairs (1986).
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.
Alex Hendel (Virginia Review of Politics, Interviews Editor): Alright, Bill Antholis is here with us. Thank you so much for doing an interview with us.
William Antholis: Great to be here!
VRoP (AH): So, let’s get started!
WA: Thank you for coming here to the Miller Center.
VRoP (AH): Thank you! In 2014, you left your job as Managing Director at the Brookings Institution to come serve as the Director and CEO of the Miller Center. What prompted you to leave D.C. and return to Charlottesville?
WA: I’ve actually lived in Charlottesville since 1999. So returning to Charlottesville wasn’t even the issue; it was trying to figure out how to get a job in the town where I lived! For fifteen years (for ten at Brookings and for five before that), I commuted to Charlottesville to work at Brookings and before that, the German Marshall Fund.
When the Miller Center job opened, it just seemed like the perfect match. It was at UVA, where I had attended undergrad – a place that had funded a year of my dissertation research at Yale. Based on that one year’s fellowship, I moved back here for two years and lived on a farm outside of Charlottesville writing my dissertation, working with Peter Onuf, who recently retired from the history department and who was a Jefferson Scholar.
When my then-fiancée, now wife, took a job here in 1998, and I was still working at the White House, I thought, “Oh, that would be fun for a year or two; I get to come back to Charlottesville on weekends!” A year later, we were engaged and bought a house together. The year after that, we were married! We raised our kids here and we still live in the same house, two blocks from the Lee statue in downtown Charlottesville, so it was a dream job in a dream town.
VRoP (AH): Your 2014 book, Inside Out India and China, talks about the importance of viewing those two global superpowers as being driven just as much about internal, province-level politics as top-down central politics. What prompted you to study the issue, and why do you think that that realization is so critical for understanding these countries in the 21st century?
WA: I think that, like most really good research projects, it came out of a set of interesting questions that I had. But it evolved out of our own domestic political experience. We have red states and blue states, we have purple states that go back and forth. If you think about the big challenges facing our country, domestic and international, the political diversity within the United States is so great – and the answers, to the extent that they’re found, often come from various perspectives in those different regions.
If you think about global trade, Silicon Valley has a different view than New York. Both are generally in favor of it, but they see it differently. Hollywood has yet a different perspective, because they see this as both a market for our goods and also a source of talent and ideas for the products that they make. Michigan and the auto industry view the world differently too. And the Midwest too – whether they’re selling wheat or importing goods that come from China that are sold in Wal-Mart.
As a student of politics, I was always fascinated by that. And as somebody that worked in the State Department and the White House, watching deals get done often involved a trade-off of those various interests and, in the best of circumstances, seeing the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, but still understanding the sum of the parts.
Okay, so, that’s a bottom-up perspective from the United States. The top-down perspective: Having worked on a number of international negotiations, World Trade Organization meetings, G7 summits, and climate change negotiations, we were increasingly sitting across the table from India and China. I started doing the math of 1.3 billion people in China and 1.2 billion – soon to be 1.3 billion – in India, and I thought to myself, What does that involve? That’s the population of the United States, plus the population of Mexico and Brazil and the rest of North and South America and the 500 million people that live in the 27 states of the EU. All that together is 1.3 billion and that’s just China alone! You have to do it again to get to India.
If you think about how hard the politics are within our own country, just add the complexity of bringing Guatemala and Germany and Great Britain and Brazil and Belgium into that conversation. That’s what China and India wrestle with every single day in coming up with policy, yet they get to negotiate as one. So what I wanted to understand is if India and China were going to be a big part of our future, what does that look and feel like?
That is the set of questions that animated that study. How do local forces in these huge, complex places negotiate and bargain with one another when they’re facing global challenges? In order to answer that question, I felt that we had to literally go live in Mumbai and Madras (also known as Chennai) and Delhi and travel to Bihar and Gujarat and Rishikesh – and that was just in India! Then do the same thing in China. We lived in 8 different places, we travelled to 20 states or provinces, we interviewed a couple hundred people, and it was just trying to get a sense from the inside-out about how these places work.
VRoP (AH): That’s a great segue to the next question, because as a big part of your research for this book, you employed a lot of ethnographic studies. To what extent do you think ethnography should be used in making political arguments? And do you think it is underutilized or overutilized as a methodological tool?
WA: Uhh, yes? [laughter] Or, as Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
I believe in the power of ethnography. But I think it can be a simplistic tool, and so it has to be used in the right ways. From E Pluribus Unum – “from many, one” – you have to understand the many, but you can’t lose sight of the one. In China and India, and now in the United States, diversity became a political strength. As these countries became much more aware of their localities – and empowered their localities – they became more dynamic. As these localities and local identities and local ethnic groups more identified their interest with the nation’s interest, you started to see some successes. Yet you also started to see dysfunctions where those identities became overplayed – from the bottom-up, from the inside-out, and also the top-down looking in.
As a result, in both countries in 2014, you saw the rise of unifying national leaders who tried to cut across ethnicity, class, and locality. To some degree, I think there is a certain truth to the argument that in the 2016 election here, an approach of understanding our electorate as the sum of a number of parts, rather than talking about the outcomes as unifying America, hurt Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. I do think that it is very easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Or the flip side of that: How do you make the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
I think that’s important to any nation’s narrative. We are a nation, and those two [India and China] really are nations. They are an assembly of small parts, but there is something distinctive about both places that is more than just their boundaries. There is a cultural identity that is tied to a certain “nation-ness,” and I think we have that as well. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. It’s a strength.
Eric Xu (Virginia Review of Politics, Editor-in-Chief): So moving to some of the work that you did earlier in your career, your 2011 book, Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming, treats global warming as an immediately threatening phenomenon that requires urgent action from both national and international actors. Given the current administration’s reticence to move forward on climate change policies, what hopes do you currently see for international leadership in this arena?
WA: Just to go right to your question, which I think is wonderfully well-phrased, I would say that my great fear is not just the United States not moving forward but actually moving backward. I think the really good news is that the rest of the world has taken a step forward. And the rest of the world is not only not going to move backward, but they are not going to stand and wait for the United States to catch up. They’re just going to keep moving forward.
I have a personal stake in this, so I’ll just own this and talk about it upfront. That book, Fast Forward, came out of a series of articles that I wrote with Todd Stern, who became the U.S. negotiator for 7 of the 8 years of the Obama administration. He came in with President Obama; he worked right until the end. Todd was my boss in the Clinton administration in Kyoto, where I was first introduced to the topic.
Todd and I wrote two essays that sketched out how the United States could move forward on climate change. One was to assemble a group of the most important economies in the world, frankly outside of the climate regime, for informal talks. But then within the climate regime, to build a bottom-up agreement that was based on what the leading countries could pledge to do politically, not legally. That would give them a period where they could build confidence in one another, as opposed to feeling that the first period of collective action on this issue would have legal consequences if nations didn’t meet their pledges.
That’s what the Paris Accord was. And even there, it took 7 years to negotiate the thing. This is not a legally-binding document; it’s a politically-binding document. But politically, it was such a big step forward that the other 190-some countries signed up for it. The only countries that didn’t sign up for it were Nicaragua and Syria, for totally separate reasons – Syria in the middle of a civil war and Nicaragua because it didn’t think that it went far enough. The fact that you got that much global unanimity around this is truly a step forward. Every single one of those signatory countries is going to move forward on the agreement, so I see that as the international leadership.
What President Trump did here… I have enormous respect for the presidency, the challenges of any particular president, and even some of the political motives that President Trump might have had for his base, which he seems to care a lot about. But he is essentially taking us out of the negotiating room by backing out of the agreement: We now have no voice in this process. Our obligations, all arguments given, for pulling out – the obligations limiting our sovereignty, undermining our economic competitiveness – they’re just wrong.
I’ve spent a lot of time working on this topic, and I just see this unfortunately as a misstep by the president. I hope that he’ll come back around to see that it’s in our interest to not pull out. We have some time, though. It’ll take him almost 4 years to actually go through the process of stepping out of the agreement. And I hope that he ends up understanding why it’s not in our benefit to withdraw.
VRoP (EX): Absolutely. Using that as a transition point from international politics to more domestic issues, given the general consensus that partisanship has been steadily increasing over the past few decades within the United States, how do you interpret President Trump’s decision to exclude Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell from his recent working dinner with the Democrats over immigration? Is there hope yet for bipartisanship in Congress?
WA: I certainly think there’s hope for bipartisanship. And in fact, by not working with Ryan and McConnell, the question becomes “What other Republicans might work with the President on a deal on immigration reform?” But let me take a step back and say that, to my respect for the presidency and even for President Trump and the situation that he finds himself in, this is not the first time that we’ve had an outsider president whose party controls both houses of Congress. And yet the president struggles to get wins his first year.
President Clinton’s first year – I worked in the Clinton administration, although I didn’t start in the first year – was really messy and sloppy and the president really struggled to find common ground with Democrats on a number of different issues. It took him until August to get a budget agreement, which he did almost entirely with Democrats, and after that, in the fall of his first year, he turned around and did a bipartisan agreement (mostly with Republican votes) to pass NAFTA.
Jimmy Carter was also elected as an outsider – both houses of Congress were Democrat – and he struggled in the spring of that year to get some big, legislative wins. He did a number of things using the regulatory powers of the government. He got a lot of small legislative wins, but his big legislative win – creating the Department of Energy – didn’t come until the fall. And it also involved Republican votes.
President Obama really struggled to get bipartisanship as well in his first year. He tried, I think, but whether he tried hard enough is a real question and one that we’ll come back to when we all tell the history of the Obama administration. But most of his great legislative accomplishments happened almost entirely with Democrats. President Bush 43 got a win with Republicans in the spring of his first year on tax cuts, and then he came back in the fall to get a bipartisan win on education reform: No Child Left Behind.
There tends to be a pattern to these things. Presidents get elected, they work with their party in the spring, and then they pivot back in the fall of their first year and work across party lines. Having said all of that, this has been an unusual first year! The president was elected with a narrow majority in the Senate, and a somewhat larger majority in the House. He came in with an agenda that was largely given to him by members of Congress on repealing and replacing health care – Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act . And they were unable to get that done, to date.
Labor Day is a good pivot point. He is now looking at an agenda where he’s got three or four issues out there and he’s looking for a win. He was elected saying, “I’m going to win so much you’re going to get sick and tired of me winning.” On health care, there’s a – Empire Strikes Back, right? – return of the Republicans on trying to do a health care deal. They’re not going to get any Democratic votes for that deal. On tax reform, they might get a few Democrats. On immigration, on relief for the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, that may be a bipartisan agreement.
I think the president is right to keep his options open. I think he’s right to court Democrats. The challenge he faces in working with Democrats is that he has so stirred the pot in the first 6 months. He will either have to give so much to the Democrats in order to get an agreement, or by not giving enough, Democrats won’t be able to close the gap to work with him.
Remember, the challenge of the first year is that congressional primaries start in the spring of the second year of the presidency. Like LBJ said, “You get one year to get things done with Congress before they stop thinking about you and start thinking about worrying about their own re-election.” The president essentially has four months to do any one of these deals, and almost any one of them makes it harder for him to do any other one. If he rams through health care reform in the next two weeks, that’s going to make it even harder for Democrats to give him another deal. He’s going to have to completely abandon Republicans if he’s going to do a deal with Democrats on immigration reform.
All of this with a Republican party that’s splintering. Steve Bannon is saying that he’s going to be campaigning against McConnell and Ryan. This is a very fractured political environment where the president’s ability, the Speaker’s ability, the Senate Majority Leader’s ability to keep their party together is becoming harder and harder. So is there a chance for bipartisanship? Is there a hope? Yeah, there’s a hope. But I think the chance of him doing a bipartisan deal means him giving up on any other partisan deal he might do, and vice versa.
VRoP (EX): Yeah, it’s a tricky situation, absolutely. So in talking about the historically informed presidency, in an interview with NPR, you talked about institutional reactions to certain leaders and policies. As examples, you pointed to Bush 43 being a reaction to Clinton, and Obama being a reaction to Bush. What type of movement or political candidate do you see as a likely or potential reaction to President Trump?
WA: This is one of those great things where the 20/20 hindsight in 2020 [laughter] will be terrific. Here’s the thing about President Trump: I’ve often jokingly said that if you were a sociologist or an anthropologist from Mars, that if you took your personal, normative reaction – good or bad – about Trump out of the equation and just viewed this as pure social science, it’s a fascinating controlled experiment on the political system. The truth is that it’s not a controlled experiment – because in a controlled experiment, you’re changing just one variable that you’re trying to disprove. In this case, he has changed so many variables! He communicates differently, he manages differently, he thinks about the political equation differently. He has scrambled the political parties. He thinks about the issue landscape differently.
My own sense of those variables that someone will probably react to? The belief that our institutions can’t actually work. I think Americans are now longing for a hopeful, constructive voice as opposed to an intentionally disruptive one. And I say disruptive as opposed to destructive. I think he still thinks he can get some things done, but they’re going to be accomplished by stirring up the pot and disturbing the way things were done in the past.
I think you’re likely to see some voices that say, “We have a Constitution, we have three branches of government. Rather than scrambling the deck, rather than disrupting how they go together, I’m going to give you the building blocks of a system that can work again” – and be transparent about them rather than saying, “Trust me.” Someone’s going to come forward and say, “We have to rebuild the system,” and it’s going to be constructive and not destructive.
That said, I do think that President Trump is a symptom and not a cause of the broader dysfunction within the political system. And whoever comes in will probably adopt some of his tools. You will probably see more direct communication. Somebody recently reminded me, actually, that President Obama has more Twitter followers than President Trump does. That might be a medium for communication. We may want more raw, unscripted moments from our presidents. For people who worked in the White House, who spent a lot of time managing presidential communications, that may be disturbing and disorienting. We may want people who are more dialed in and who are more controlled. But I think that a little more spontaneity and authenticity is something that we may see in candidates for years to come.
On the other hand, I might be completely wrong! What we might get is actually somebody who wants to disrupt the political system but who is filtered, controlled, edited, and systematic in how they do it – as opposed to chaotic, stream-of-consciousness, tactical but not strategic. There’s a debate about whether Trump is strategic or tactical; I happen to think he’s tactical without being strategic. I can’t see the strategy where he pulls these pieces back together. But you never really know what’s going on in the mind of the president, particularly this president.
VRoP (EX): Zooming back out again from domestic to international, in the late 1990s, you worked in the White House as the chief staff person for the 1997 and 1998 G8 conferences. What are your thoughts on the continued ability of the now-G7 to stay relevant in global affairs, given the rise of developing nations around the world?
WA: I think there’s definitely been a power shift from the G7 to the G20. That, in some ways, is the more relevant body. The challenge with going to 20 is that 20 is a harder number to manage. Eric, you’re in the Honors Politics program: you’ve got 6 in the room plus the professor. That’s 7. You can manage that conversation pretty well. When you go to a 20-person seminar, there are usually 4 or 5 people who dominate the conversation. Sometimes they’re the people who should, sometimes they’re the people who should not. It’s hard to have 20 fully expressed voices.
I think what has grown up are informal conversations that include India and China, Brazil, Mexico. As we said before, India and China each have 1.2, 1.3, coming on 1.4 billion people. Brazil and Mexico are each a couple of hundred million. Indonesia is that big. Those countries deserve a voice. How you manage those voices in the conversation is the art of diplomacy. How you balance the interests of those groups and still lead is the art of leadership.
Between the G7 and the G20, we’re getting closer to that, but I really do boil it down to the big 4: the U.S., Europe, India, and China. If you do the math, you have about 900 million people between the U.S. and Europe – 800 to 900 million people – 1.2 plus 1.3, right, so that’s another 2.5, you’re now pushing 3.5 billion people. That’s half the world’s population right there. You have two-thirds of world GDP. You have two-thirds of the world’s greenhouse gases, two-thirds of nuclear energy and nuclear power. If you throw Russia and Japan into that, now you essentially have three-quarters of the world’s nuclear weapons. You don’t have a few key nuclear states, including (as we’re all watching) North Korea.
It strikes me that the big 4, plus a couple of others we mentioned – Mexico, Indonesia, Brazil – are getting closer to managing the world economy. The hard part in that is, frankly, the European Union has 4 members of the G7. They don’t want to give up their seat at the table: Europe has a hard time negotiating as one. There are a bunch of other players in there, in the G7. Saudi Arabia is a very important player. How do you include them in the system, and should you include them in the system? They’re not a democracy, right? You look at, with the exception of China, all those other countries, you’ve got democracies. So if we are the leaders of a democratic, market capitalist integrated world economy led by democracies, you want the non-democracies to have a voice, but you don’t want them to have a dominant voice. Those are some of the design questions that go into what the global leadership group should look like.
VRoP (EX): Sure! So just to wrap up, thank you so much for giving us your time today. We wanted to know what keeps you passionate about politics to this day. Obviously you have a lot of experience, but…
WA: Boy, that’s a great question. So I have a brother who is in the movie business. And when he calls, he loves to talk about politics and I love to talk about movies, right? I’ve got lots of other passions too! But I think what my conversations with him reveal for me is that politics is everything. It’s math, it’s science. Climate change is a big, complicated scientific challenge – it’s a technological challenge, as well – but it’s a political challenge. How do you get 194 countries to agree to do the same thing?
Going back to that as an example, energy and climate is about one-sixth of the U.S. economy, roughly the same size of health care. We’ve been having a health care debate in this country for 25 years, right, since the Clinton administration. (Since they failed to do it, and I was there!) [laughter] That’s one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Imagine the complexity of all 190-whatever number we’re up to now. Back when I was a kid, it was 194. I think it’s 198 now – 198 countries negotiating their health care systems together at the same time. That is a big Rubik’s cube! That is a big, complicated, multi-dimensional chess board or jigsaw puzzle, and that’s fascinating.
It brings together science, technology, economics, but then also values, identity, conversation. And politics even goes beyond that to art, philosophy, music. There are so many different dimensions to politics. It is the full human experience.
My favorite book in political theory is Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. In Fast Forward, we have this great line that Strobe Talbott, my co-author, came up with: “We’re the first generation to know about climate change. We’re the last that has a chance to do something about it.” In The Human Condition, she has this great line. This was written in the 1960s, maybe early-70s. “Since the development of the atomic bomb,” – which was only 20 years earlier, so in that generation – “it was the first generation of humans to be able to ever leave the planet and the first generation of humans to be able to destroy the planet.” Politics, when it’s at its best, is asking the biggest, most important questions. Plus one other question: “What can we do about it?”
We have a new president coming to UVa; I encourage everybody to read his book, “Wait What?” It asks five questions. If you add up those five questions, it’s the essence of politics. “Wait What”: pause and think about a problem. The “wait” is as important as the “what.” Pause. “What If”: what if we thought about something in a different way? “How can I help?” “What is essential?” “Couldn’t we just?” If you think about all of those questions, they address the most important political questions we have as a society. If you think about them all together, they’re the essence of coming up with the answer to any question. So asking questions and coming up with answers is what keeps me passionate about politics.