Just a week before a divisive presidential election, Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, and a candidate in the Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential election, and Jeff Flake, the Republican former U.S. Senator from Arizona and former member of the House of Representatives, shared their insights on the state of the American government as it struggles to maintain its institutions in the face of deep racial inequities.
In a rare across-the-aisle conversation about racial equity, Patrick and Flake talked frankly with Professor Brian Lowery about how race has affected their experiences as politicians in Washington, examined why political parties must reinvent themselves, and discussed the urgent need for citizens and business to re-engage with the political process.
Podcast transcript has been edited for clarity
Brian Lowery: Why did you agree to come on and talk about race with us here today?
Governor Deval Patrick: I think we all need practice. These are uncomfortable conversations, and as a Black man, it is exhausting to have to put people at ease before you can have any conversation on race when so much of being Black is being made to feel ill at ease. That’s often without intention, but just because of being the only Black person and being loaded with presumptions and suppositions about who you are and what you’re about. The amazing thing about the moment we’re in right now, is that the interest and sustained focus people have had on this subject seems to be really broad-based and consists of Black and white people and everybody else showing up and trying to have conversations.
Senator Jeff Flake: Much like what Governor Patrick said, the conversation that has been going on for the past couple of months has been wonderful. We have seen Republicans like Mitt Romney out on the streets marching with Black Lives Matter, and my own kids have taken time off of their college studies to do the same. It’s time to do this. The conversation that occurs when politics gets involved — such as what we’re seeing in Congress right now — is often not the best conversation you can have, and it’s time to have these conversations with people outside of that body, particularly with young people who see it differently from our generation.
Brian Lowery: Senator Flake, how has race affected your experience as a politician in Washington?
Senator Jeff Flake: I grew up in a very sheltered, white environment in a small town in Northern Arizona, so I had a lot to learn. When I got older, I went to South Africa for a couple of years, and actually saw apartheid in its full force. I went to Zimbabwe right after they had gone through the independence process, and then later, I went to Namibia and witnessed the moments right after it received its independence from South Africa and Nelson Mandela had just been released. To be able to see South Africa in the midst of those periods there and then to come home, to Arizona, and then eventually to Congress, made me see that even in the areas where we believe our country is more advanced than those other countries, we still have a long way to go. It’s been a learning process for me, and after spending 18 years in Congress I still continue having new realizations and to learn new things. Progress still needs to be made.
Brian Lowery: Governor Patrick, how has your experience as a Black man affected your experience as a politician?
Governor Deval Patrick: It’s impossible to separate those two identities. The first thing I ever ran for was governor, and that was the only elected office I had ever held. In addition, I was running in a state where the Black population is about 5%, so I didn’t have a base I could claim that would propel me forward. I think there was a supposition that running, not only as a newcomer and an outsider, but also as a Black man would be impossible. The conversation was never just that I “couldn’t cut the line like that.” It was always that, “I couldn’t cut the line like that, and my win was even more unlikely because I was Black.” One of the first things I discovered was that it wasn’t just people in Western Massachusetts, where I lived, who felt completely unconnected to Beacon Hill. It was also people in Central Massachusetts, in the Cape, up in the Merrimack Valley, and in Roxbury, a Black neighborhood in Boston, who felt that way. The ways in which people felt left out and left behind politically in Massachusetts was something that everyone had in common. As the first Black governor, the expectations of me were different. One example of this was when there was a shooting of an 11-year-old boy in Roxbury, and the media immediately amplified the voices of people demanding that I come down to the scene. Normally, these things are matters for the local government and the mayor of that city, not the state governor. My successor or predecessor, who are not Black, would never have been put in this position by the media. However, I had to get over that, and embrace the additional dimension of my job that came with being a Black man. In the end, I succumbed and went down to the scene of the shooting, and I think that in doing so I gained more than I lost. Having that intimacy with the people I served was important to me, and there are a variety of ways in which I owned that, and I learned from it. My first instinct, though, was to say that as the governor I was not supposed to be baited by the media to show up at a local event, even a tragic one.
Brian Lowery: I want to turn to what’s going on right now in politics. We’re deep in the presidential election, and there’s been a lot discussed in terms of race, and specifically, Donald Trump’s unwillingness to disavow white supremacist organizations. Even though he has refused to do this, he has still maintained the support of the Republican Party and most of his base. Senator Flake, what do you make of that?
Senator Jeff Flake: It baffles me and pains me to see what my party has countenanced from this man. Way back in 2011 when he latched onto the birtherism conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, that was enough for me to say that anyone ought to be disqualified just purely on the fact that they seemed to believe it. But I think what’s worse than believing something like that is not believing it, but knowing that some of your supporters do, and using it as a means to get support. In my opinion that’s the sphere in which this president has always been, and that’s why I couldn’t support him in the first election and can’t in this one either. It’s painful to see my party embrace it with open arms.
Brian Lowery: How do you think the Republican Party got here?
Senator Jeff Flake: This element has always been part of the Republican Party, but gratefully it was always a smaller segment, and we have always had leaders willing to put the country over their party. For example, when David Duke got the Republican nomination for governor in Louisiana in 1992, George H. W. Bush condemned him and endorsed the Democrat, even though he didn’t have a rosy record either and had been indicted on some charges. There were even bumper stickers going around saying “Vote for the crook, it’s important!” Several Republican senators actually traveled down to Louisiana to campaign for the Democrat, because they knew it was dangerous to have a party associated with that kind of overt racism. But we’ve slipped, and I often wonder why more of my colleagues haven’t condemned the president. However, we shouldn’t disregard that many of them did; many of them came out against him when he made his comments about Charlottesville and when he refused to condemn the Proud Boys. Those questions ought to be layups; they ought to be so easy, but the president seems so unwilling to offend a portion of his base. And that says ugly things about the portion of the Republican base right now. But we need to get beyond this if we want to be a relevant party in the future.
Brian Lowery: President Trump has demonstrated that you can ignore norms, and that it’s possible to be successful politically with the behaviors he’s engaged in. What do you think it’s going to take to shift the Republican Party back?
Senator Jeff Flake: Rejection at the polls. Nothing focuses the mind with a big election loss, and I hope that comes. If he were to win, that would validate this kind of strategy. I do think that he will lose, though, and I hope that it’ll prompt the kind of introspection and reflection that it should. We went through this in 2012 after the Mitt Romney loss, and we all concluded from the autopsy we performed that we needed to appeal to a broader electorate. Two months later we were chasing a populist. If there’s good news here, it’s that those at the state levels who try to be like the president don’t get very far. If you’re in Arizona and you’re trying to be a Trump acolyte running state-wide, you’re going to lose. I hope that this tells people that maybe Trump can get away with this behavior, but the rest of us can’t and shouldn’t. However, time will tell if that’s what happens.
Brian Lowery: The Democratic Party, since Lyndon Johnson, has not won the white vote in a presidential election. There’s a clear fracturing along racial lines in terms of party affiliation. Should the Democrats be concerned about this, and if so, what should the Democrats do to turn that around?
Governor Deval Patrick: First of all, I’m a proud Democrat, but Democrats get on my last nerve. At every Democratic event I go to, people are constantly focusing on how they’re going to put the coalition together and what they’re going to say, instead of why; what makes us a Democrat, what we are about. We should be talking to everybody, the people who agree with us, the people who don’t, the people who always vote Democratic, the people who never do, and all the people in between. I think what I saw here in Massachusetts is true nationally: that most people feel unseen and unheard by their government. I also believe that most people aren’t looking for the government to solve every problem in their life; most people just want the government to do their part to help them help themselves. Secondly, I think that one of the reasons why it is so easy to divide us is because we don’t know each other anymore in this country. We don’t have much more than the cartoon version of each other. It’s not until you spend time with people that are different from you and have different perspectives than you that you start to pierce through. If you live in Massachusetts, for example, you think your count doesn’t count; people are only talking to those who live in the “battleground” states. The same is true in Utah; people think they don’t matter in a national election. They see that candidates go talk to people someplace else than where they are. We have got to figure out how to make our politics more proximate at every level. Democrats have let the science and analysis of winning elections overtake the importance of making people feel seen and heard.
Brian Lowery: I want to hear your pitch: I’m a Trump voter, I live in a battleground state, I feel unseen and unheard, and I think Black Lives Matter is against what I stand for and what I believe in because my only understanding of it is the riots I have seen happening on the streets on T.V. Tell me why I should be connected to a Democrat who supports that movement.
Governor Deval Patrick: We are awash in false choices; they are the steady diet of modern politics. As I said earlier, I don’t think you have to hate Republicans to be a good Democrat. In the same way, I don’t think you have to hate business to be a social justice warrior, or to hate police to believe Black lives matter. That’s not what people are talking about. We’re talking about seeing, valuing, and making policy based on an understanding of the fundamental dignity of every person. And issues of law and order come where there is a respect for law, and not the kind of lawlessness we see on T.V. In addition, the economic fragility, social isolation, and despair that people have been feeling for generations in Black communities is now being felt by everybody everywhere. These are issues that everybody is dealing with, and some of those solutions have to come from the government. You have to be interested in someone that wants to do, not just have, the job. In recent experience, “doing” the job means more than just being a bully on T.V. Being president is not a reality T.V. opportunity, it’s governing. And that means we have to respect some of those unwritten rules that democracy depends on, such as decorum, restraint, and respect. I think what the Democrats have to be about is trying to make an appeal that is about all of us turning to, rather than on, each other. And no, we don’t get it right all the time. No party and no individual have a corner on all the best ideas. You have to be willing to listen and bring a little humility to it, and I think when we do, we can win.
Brian Lowery: Senator Flake, if I’m a Black voter and I have reservations about the Republican Party, tell me what your pitch for me would be.
Senator Jeff Flake: Not everybody in the Republican Party is like the president. I can’t make a case for you to vote for the president; I can’t even make that case for myself. But there are other Republicans who understand this issue better than others. There are Republicans who were involved in criminal justice reform efforts, and there have been Republicans involved in Black Lives Matter protests. There are people who are getting it, even if they always haven’t. I would put myself in that category; I haven’t always got it. But as a conservative, I would say that if we have the right kind of debates and we actually debate policy rather than personality, Republicans will win more often than not. But it would be a hard sell to get somebody to vote for the president, I wouldn't even try.
Brian Lowery: As part of this series, we’ve had a number of guests who have highlighted how past U.S. policies — and to some extent, current U.S. policies — have exacerbated and created a number of racial disparities. Some examples are disparities in housing, familial wealth, criminal wealth, and most recently, the incredibly high death rate from COVID in the Black community. What would you tell a newly elected governor or senator who believes in Black Lives Matter to do, and how should they translate their belief into policy?
Governor Deval Patrick: There are lots of great policy ideas on each of the issues you talked about, particularly around health and criminal justice reform. I think we’ve made our uneasy peace in this country with non-discrimination laws, but we’ve never really made our peace with real integration; people really living and working alongside each other in personal ways. I think housing is a big part of that, and I don’t have that solution. I do think that we have to focus, not just on job creation, but on wealth creation. I am a pro-growth Democrat — I believe we need to be investing in growing our economy, and I think the best investments that the public can make are in public education, innovation, and infrastructure. I think it is important, though, to make sure that when we invest in those things, we are being intentional about the positive impact on Black people.
Brian Lowery: Can you elaborate a little more on what you mean by “intentional?” Are you suggesting that we should be race-conscious, or are you suggesting something closer to reparations?
Governor Deval Patrick: I think we should be race-conscious; trying to be coincidental about the beneficial impact on Black people is one of the reasons why it has taken us so long to have a sustained impact. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of the people who thinks nothing good has happened since emancipation; there’s been amazing progress in this country, much of it during my lifetime. But it’s also true that we have a lot more ground to cover. So yes, we should be intentional about restoring the right to vote to people who have paid their debt to society, we should be intentional about investing in creating capital access, and we should be intentional about providing people with the resources to start their own businesses and create jobs, opportunity, and wealth. We don’t have to limit those kinds of opportunities to Black citizens, but we should be focused on how we close gaps that we, ourselves, have created over time.
Senator Jeff Flake: I agree, there are times that you have to be purposeful. On the conservative side, there are some things that Republicans have championed that I certainly think have helped. In Arizona, for example, with regard to school choice. I think we need to improve the public school system overall, but if we wait until that’s done there will be a generation of kids who will have been denied opportunities. I’m not in favor of doing it nationally, and when the president talks about it it’s not as helpful. But locally, where meaningful education reform efforts can really happen, there are things we can do in terms of expanding opportunity that will certainly benefit a lot of people.
Brian Lowery: What do both of you think about the current health of our democracy?
Senator Jeff Flake: I’m concerned about it, and I’ve expressed that concern in a number of ways. When the leader of our party, and in many ways the most powerful person in the world, expresses a fondness for dictators, snubs our allies, and tries to undermine confidence in elections, he is clearly directly attacking the basic rules of democracy our country was founded on. In addition, he has demonstrated a failure to recognize the institutions and norms of Democratic society; freedom of the press, separation of powers, and independence of the judiciary have all been challenged severely. Gratefully, as I see it, the press has held its own. I don’t, though, share the concerns of some that Republican appointed federal judges will favor the president if he doesn’t win a genuine election. Where I’ve been the most concerned is in Congress. My own party has been completely supine in the face of severe challenges to separation of powers.
Governor Deval Patrick: I share the senator’s concerns. I think that conversations of this tone and depth are ones he and I are having in private, and sadly, they aren’t happening enough in the public space. There’s an observation I have made over time about these jobs: they’re a blend of substance and performance art. I think that as a relative amateur, I was slow to get the performance part of it. But I quickly came to understand that you have to have them in equipoise. Now, though, it feels like the performance art is everything, and the substance be damned. I was in Georgia last week, and there was a commentary among the candidates vying for one of the senate seats. The incumbent senator, the appointee, and one of the challengers, who is a Republican member of the house, were taking shots at one another about whether they had ever voted alongside a Democrat on a piece of legislation. The bad thing to do, in their argument, was to vote alongside a Democrat, even though no one was talking about what that legislation might have been about or what good it might have done. The appeal was just whether or not they were completely aligned with the party. That worries me. I’ve worried about having a leader who goes to work every day looking at how to divide us rather than figure out how to come together to solve problems, and I am deathly concerned about the outcome of this election. If he wins this election, it will be read as vindicating his behavior. I think the idea of these jobs used to be that even though you run hard as a Democrat or a Republican, when you get the job you try to serve everybody. But with this president, I have felt from the beginning that he is only interested in serving the people who voted for him. If that’s vindicated in this election, then I think we are in pretty serious trouble.
Brian Lowery: I’m worried we’re already in serious trouble for some of the reasons you already pointed out, Governor Patrick. 1) These jobs seem to be more performance art than substance and 2) the vitriol that is out there is such that if I am someone who deeply cares about substance, I don’t really want to get involved in politics if performance art isn’t my strength. How do we change the system so that you don’t get just a flood of performance artists as politicians?
Governor Deval Patrick: I don’t know that we’ll ever get rid of the performance art aspect. But there have been a number of proposals that propose a reform of how easy it is to get access to the ballot and the ease with which you can get and stay registered. I wish we could eliminate the influence of money in politics, and I bet those in Washington who are having to dial for dollars for as long as often as they do wish that as well. I’d also like for the access to the vote and voter engagement to be lifted so that there are actual consequences for the people who went and only performed without producing. The level of intentional or consequential suppression of the vote has left an awful lot of people wondering if their vote even matters. And then, you add to that the rhetoric we’ve had from the president that calls into question an election we haven’t even had yet. It’s a small wonder the people don’t think there’s a point in voting. We are going to have to make it super easy and very transparent for people to vote, and I think that we can do that securely. We’re also going to have to do things like redistrict in a neutral way. That doesn’t mean you have to water down strong conviction or play one game to one constituency and something else to someone else, but you should have to run under conditions that require you to learn how to bring others along and that make it incumbent on you to have to listen as much as you speak in order to serve well.
Senator Jeff Flake: If you’re asking how we can get people to not just participate in the democratic process, but offer themselves up for public office, I can tell you that’s a tough sell these days. I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and college students look at what’s happening at the national level and see the vitriol that politicians are subjected to and decide they want no part of it. In my own case, my wife counts our time out of office — almost 2 years now — as time without serious death threats; I mean, I got shot at at a baseball field. Even worse, people look at local races, which used to be a safe haven for bi-partisanship, but now all of the decisions people are forced to make — when children should go back to school during COVID, dealing with mask mandates, etc. — are such that whichever side you’re on, you’re going to get pummeled for it. We’re going to have a hard time attracting the right people; there always will be people who offer themselves up for office, but the people that would be good for the job are looking at what’s going on and deciding they don’t want to be involved in that.
Brian Lowery: A lot of the people on this call are business leaders. What would you tell them to do to help in addressing some of the deep inequities in our society and to help repair the damage that has been done to democracy?
Senator Jeff Flake: If I look at Arizona, the stereotype has always been that the business community is more with Republicans than Democrats. But since my party has gone off the rails, the business community has withdrawn, which leaves the local party apparatus completely dependent on the national Republican Party for support. For the business community, I would say to please re-engage. We have given ourselves two political parties in this country, and we need two sane, rational parties. The business community needs to get involved in helping to vet candidates and get behind those who they think will do a better job.
Governor Deval Patrick: I have spent most of my professional life in the private sector, and much of that in business. And it was by no means, in my experience, just a haven for Republicans; it consisted of a wide range of political views. What most business people seem to want from the government is clarity about the rules, the liability that they aren’t going to change, and a tax rate that is competitive. I think the other thing that the times demand, given the scale and scope of our challenges, is a lot more collaboration between the public and the private sector than we normally see. I feel really strongly about that, because having done business around the world, I have seen that the line is brighter here than it is in many other parts of the world. The give-and-take and collaboration that can come from people working toward a common goal yields a much stronger and lasting outcome.
Brian Lowery: We are just days away from the election, and the podcast will air after the election is over. What would you tell the average person to do if President Trump is re-elected?
Governor Deval Patrick: When President Trump was elected the first time, I made it very clear that he wasn’t my candidate, but he is our president. I didn’t want to replicate what I felt Obama had experienced, which was a lot of people in the other party rooting for his failure. We should not want our president to fail; we need a successful president. I hoped he was going to be a one-term president, but in the meantime, I wanted him to do as good of a job as he could. I believe that he spoke, in 2016, to something we didn’t, which was that sense of economic alienation and fragility that an awful lot of people were feeling. But now, having seen what he actually does and how much he has divided us, we’re going to have to concentrate on how we find bridges back to each other independent of the president, and work really hard and rally early around his successor.
Senator Jeff Flake: If he is genuinely re-elected, then we’ve got work to do. We’ve got work to do as a party, because we all know that, for Republicans, this is a demographic cul-de-sac. You can excite voters for a time, and maybe even for two cycles, but it would be difficult for Republicans to figure out where to go from there and how to drill down more on the base. Gratefully, if he is re-elected, we likely won’t have the situation that we’ve had with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate; they’re likely to be Democratic controlled. So, there will be some restraint and better guardrails than the president has had in his first term. I think that Democrats would be having that conversation as well, which is how they can put up a candidate that can appeal to a broader electorate and convince Republicans to come over. Republicans will have to think about how they can get somebody who will appeal to people in a way that good people can rally around and run their own campaigns on. If you look right now, down ballot, from the president: we’ve lost the House of Representatives, we’ll likely lose the Senate, we’ve lost 7 governorships, 6 chapters, and nearly 400 legislative seats. The Republican Party is being hollowed out, and I hope that if the president is reelected, we can focus on other races and hopefully have people that can run independent of the president. But they haven’t yet, so that may be too optimistic.
Brian Lowery: What should people be working on if Joe Biden is elected president?
Senator Jeff Flake: Joe Biden is a creature of the senate, and I mean that in a good way. He knows how to compromise, and how to work with Republicans. I’ve been very impressed, because when it would have been easier and more popular for him to say he would never work with those across the aisle, he didn’t. And I hope there will be enough Republicans, whether we control the Senate or not, that will reach across the aisle and work with him when it’s for the good of the country. We need to get back in the rhythm of working together and being able to campaign while talking about legislation that you’ve sponsored with a Democrat. I can tell you that that’s in no one’s campaign materials right now, but if Republicans want to be relevant in the future and broaden their base, that’s what they’re going to have to do.
Governor Deval Patrick: We have to deliver. There’s a lot of energy on the ground that is about getting rid of President Trump, but the same phenomenon of people feeling unseen, unheard, and unserved will still be there. We have to make good on expanding healthcare to everybody, making it affordable, and making it work. We have to make good on criminal sentencing reform and re-imagining policing. We have to make good on the promise of expanding the economy out to everybody, not just up to the well-connected and the investors. And we have to do that in ways that bring along people who will feel threatened by those changes; we have to govern for everybody, on purpose. Alongside all that, we have to reform democracy, and significantly expand opportunities for national service so that we can learn to know each other and make it less easy to divide us in the future.
This is Leadership for Society: The Podcast, a series of conversations hosted by Brian Lowery, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB, that focuses on the most pressing issues of today. In this season of the podcast, Lowery explores the role of race in society, how race interacts with structures of power, and how systemic racism manifests itself in day-to-day business and policy decisions.