From left to right: Philip Eliasoph, PhD, Aaron Weinstein, PhD, Bret Stephens, and Joette Katz.

Fairfield University’s Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens on Thursday evening. The university greeted the well-regarded New York Times op-ed columnist with a private cocktail reception beginning at 6 p.m. in the Dolan Event Hall. Stephens later began his remarks on “the evolution of global politics and ideological conflict” in the Quick Center at 7:30 p.m.

Following the talk, university faculty members Philip Eliasoph, PhD, and Aaron Weinstein, PhD, as well as attorney Joette Katz, J.D., former commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families and a past associate justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, formed a discussion panel to dialogue with Stephens.

An audience that ranged from adolescents to older adults crowded the auditorium, filling nearly every seat with curious spectators.

Stephens stressed the unwavering importance of liberalism, “in the classical sense of the word,” within American politics today. According to Stephens, political ideological groups are moving further away from common “bedrock” liberal values. Stephens reflected on a time when liberals and conservatives shared an “amazing consensus,” and were equally dedicated to maximizing “the freedom of every individual so long as it is not at the expense of other individuals.”

Stephens claimed that the modern American political divide should not be characterized as that which currently exists between liberals and conservatives. Rather, he suggested that within our contemporary political sphere, there exists great division between liberals and illiberals on both sides of the ideological spectrum—those who subscribe to the “amazing consensus” and those who do not. 

According to Stephens, open and honest discourse is the most vital tool that we as a society can utilize to combat these extreme ideological shifts and, as a result, preserve democratic values. 

“It’s curiosity, not contempt. It’s opening up discussions, not shutting them down. It’s being willing to listen to ideas you might dislike, rather than walking out of the room. It’s believing that at the core of an education is exposure to things that make you uncomfortable – not simply the warm bath of ideas you already agree with,” he stated.

“What Fairfield University, I believe does, and must continue to do – is provide that kind of education,” he remarked. “All of you who are involved in the schooling of your children or your grandchildren have to insist on this: that schools in America don’t become little factories for junior totalitarians to grow up and tell other people to ‘shut up and get lost.’ That is not how a democracy thrives.”

In his presentation, Stephens cited a current paradigm shift away from terminology of the “developed” and “developing” world and back toward an understanding of the world as “free” or “unfree.” Stephens claimed that this distinctive Cold War-era rhetoric is making a comeback largely as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait.

Stephens further discussed the fundamental differences between “free” and “unfree” modes of governance. He named six “inner weaknesses” of democracy, which can be summarized as the following: the capacity to “vote itself into bankruptcy,” the inability to distinguish significant information from insignificant “noise,” an openness to all ideas—even those that may be dangerous to a democracy’s values, a tendency toward isolationism when confronted with domestic challenges and incompetence within political leadership. 

Stephens subsequently described the weaknesses of illiberal regimes, which he summarized as: the ability to “make huge bets on bad ideas,” scarcity of available information that leads to mistakes, an emphasis on obedience rather than loyalty, a “squandering of human potential,” the tendency to lash out militarily when faced with economic difficulty and the “Goldilocks challenge” of “how to repress just enough to keep people in line, but not so much that you cause a revolution.”

Readers interested in Stephens’ talk should be on the lookout for his upcoming book, which will focus on the developing conflict between the “free” and “unfree” worlds.

For more information about upcoming events, visit the Quick Center website. 


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