Jon Huntsman urges the United States to get its political house in order
Jon Huntsman, Jr. (Photo: John Liebeg/ ASUCLA.)

Jon Huntsman urges the United States to get its political house in order

Former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., stresses the need for American political leaders to put aside their partisan loyalties in order to solve the country's problems and restore the success of American democracy.

Huntsman declared that current rules on campaign finance were “an abomination.”

by Jacob Goldberg

International Institute, April 28, 2014 — Speaking at UCLA on April 16, former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., gave a sophisticated lecture on how the United States can create a more efficient democracy and become a more intelligent player on the international stage, particularly with respect to China.

The event, held at the UCLA Faculty Center, was the 2014 Bernard Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace, an annual talk organized by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Country before party: Improving the U.S. political system

Governor Huntsman addressed what he identified as the way forward for the United States in both the domestic and international arenas.

In the first portion of his talk, he recounted the political lessons he had learned as governor of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to China, a Republican presidential candidate, and a descendant of several politically moderate Californian politicians. From these lessons, the former governor crafted a prescription for how the millennial generation can harness its political capital to create a more responsive, less polarized American democracy.

Recalling his defeat in the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary, the speaker noted that his reputation as a moderate Republican who had earned the support of such influential liberals as Michael Moore, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton detracted from his appeal to mainstream Republican voters.

He lamented that his credentials and successes were insufficient to earn the support of a Republican voting populace that puts party before country, despite the fact that he was national co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and a critical player in “the most important international relationship of the 21st century” as Ambassador to China.

The former governor attributed this behavior of Republican voters to the polarization that divides the country’s two main political parties. Rather than valuing compromise and moderation as assets, Huntsman bemoaned, Republican voters gravitated toward candidates whose primary appeal was their oppositional approach to their political rivals.

In response to this political polarization, Huntsman declared that the American political system was flawed, but could be improved by today’s young voters.

He identified five areas that required reform. First, the millennial generation must live up to its potential by becoming politically engaged in a more active way. Recognizing that millennials are already active behind the scenes as bloggers and critics, the speaker urged young people to get involved in a less cynical manner.

Specifically, he encouraged them to become political players on campuses, as well as at the local and national levels. Their involvement in the mainstream political discourse could, he said, reverse the apathy that is the source of Congress’s “human failure” to compromise.

Second, Huntsman declared that current rules on campaign finance were “an abomination.” A regime that allows a minority of wealthy people to use their wealth to determine a political outcome for the majority, he said, cannot be called a democracy.

Third, the speaker called for an end to the gerrymandering that has redistricted the United States into predictably Republican or Democratic districts, saying it took the competition out of politics and hurt our democracy.

Fourth, he called for term limits for members of Congress. He cited statistics to show that in recent years, over fifty percent of members of Congress have entered the lobbying profession after their tenures. With limited terms, Huntsman theorized, these politicians would have less opportunity to “expand [their] rolodex[es]” in order to become more marketable to special interest groups and lobbying firms.

Finally, Huntsman called for greater compromise and problem solving among American lawmakers, based on the philosophy of the “No Labels” movement, of which he is national co-chair. No Labels brings together Democrats, Republicans and independents to promote what it calls “a new politics of problem solving.” Huntsman noted that the number of members of Congress who could be categorized as open to compromise (i.e., purple rather than exclusively red or blue) has declined from 344 in 1984 to 11 today, all of whom are members of the House.

However, he argued that the prospects for bipartisanship were looking up. The No Labels movement has brought 94 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle together in the “Problem-Solvers Coalition.” These lawmakers meet regularly to build trust and start negotiations on how to resolve crucial problems. In his opinion, the No Labels movement will be the key to solving the “do-nothing nature of Congress.”

Improvements in all of these areas, posited Huntsman, will lay the groundwork for a national strategic agenda that could “get real work done” regarding employment, energy, balanced budgets, and sustainable entitlements.

Preparing for the end of China’s rise

Huntsman next turned to an assessment of the U.S.-China relationship, revealing the depth of knowledge and expertise that earned him the position of ambassador to China between 2009 and 2011.

“We know that [China’s] rise is occurring, but we don’t know how it ends,” he remarked. “Either [it] will result in a peaceful, stable, predictable outcome for the decades to come. . . or it will result in chaos, instability. and bloodshed.” He charged the young American generation with the responsibility of ensuring that the former comes to fruition.

In contrast to the accusatory stance of Mitt Romney toward China during the former’s presidential bid, Huntsman spoke optimistically about the opportunity that the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping has made available to the United States. He described Xi and the members of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee as exceptionally talented leaders who, upholding the legacy of reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, will lead China further toward a market-based economy.

Unlike Deng, however, Xi needs to maneuver China away from an export-based economy toward a consumer economy. The former ambassador explained that this change would benefit both the Chinese working class and the millions of farmers moving to urban areas, but would come at the expense of China’s powerful state-owned enterprises. Wresting power from special-interest groups and convincing the working class to spend rather than save their money, he said, are the primary challenges to Xi’s reformist agenda.

Huntsman assured the audience that U.S. leaders have able and active counterparts in China. Although ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East require American attention, he argued that American foreign policy must continue to make rebalancing toward Asia a priority.

This rebalancing should, moreover, go beyond national security policy: economic and diplomatic engagement with China should be at the core of U.S. strategy. As things stand now, China does not see the United States as an honest broker, said the former ambassador.

By softening its “pivot toward Asia” and infusing it with intimate knowledge of the aspirations of the continent’s peoples and nations, he said, the United States will ensure that the rise of China has a stabilizing and peaceful effect on the global order.

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