The American Schism. The world is shocked as violence erupts and plays out in a deeply divided America. Americans are shocked, too—millions disengage and live in denial and despair. Nowadays, sharing different perspectives and opinions is difficult without evoking anger, high-level tensions, and often raging political division. Best-selling and award-winning author Seth David Radwell describes an enlightened exploration of history to unite a deeply divided America. He explores the two disparate, divergent Americas, which have always coexisted, and offers a reasoned path for hope.
In this episode, he joins Anne Pratt to discuss American Schism. Come on a journey in this enlightening episode; history is instructive. Better understand the origins of the deep divides and find rational reasons for hope for the frustrated majority, the disengaged, or those who see no current upside. Seth presented findings and proposed solutions to the US Congress Select Committee On Intelligence representing both political parties. There is a way to build a better and more progressive society.
Listen to the podcast here.
The American Schism with Best-Selling Author Seth Radwell in the USA
Analyze, Understand, and Inspire Hope
I am formally from South Africa and relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Leadership Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our bold leader joins us from the Big Apple, in New York City, in the United States of America. He is a former Corporate Chief and President of a consumer goods skincare product company and a global digital child publication and education conglomerate. Yet, he gave it all up, a call to action to heal the deep American divides.
He is the author of his bestselling book, American Schism. He presented his findings, analysis, proposed solutions, or his ‘secret sauce,’ if you like, to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He also received multiple awards for his bestselling book, including two 2022 International Book awards, one for nonfiction and one for the best new nonfiction book. We warmly welcome Seth David Radwell.
Seth, what a joy to have you come on and have this conversation. I’ve been super excited to explore your thinking and wonderful bestselling new book and have this critical discussion with you.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure for me to be here with you.
First of all, congratulations. Apart from being an Amazon bestseller in various categories, you’ve also received two 2022 International Book awards—one for best non-fiction and one for best new non-fiction. You must be truly proud. Perhaps, as a starting point, what do those awards mean to you, and what is the significance of those awards?
They mean a lot to me. I also won a Global Book Award. I’ve had a few, along with excellent reviews. It’s important because it means my message resonates with my fellow citizens. You probably know that most of my career has been in business. I detoured to work on the project that led to American Schism. I did this primarily out of concern for our democracy. These awards and reviews are affirming in that there are many Americans like me, who I sometimes call the frustrated majority. They believe there’s a better path to rehabilitate our social and political discourse.
That leads to the next question about why this book and why now? I know you wrote in the book that after the first year of the Trump presidency, you were concerned about the rising temperature, the mood in the country, and the political rhetoric. Why this book and why now?
It wasn’t one particular cocktail party moment where I said I had to do this. Throughout a couple of years, starting 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed that not only did our political discourse publicly collapse. Reason and data seem to be increasingly replaced by rancor and acrimony. I also noticed that my peers, the CEOs of companies, increasingly would put their heads in the sand. They didn’t want to engage because there was no upside. There’s a fear of outraging some group. It was an outrage-based culture.
Private sector leaders also disengaged. I said to myself, “What a recipe for disaster. The public discourse has collapsed, and private sector smart leaders don’t want to engage.” I realized that it seemed like it pretended the end of our democratic republic. I started doing some research in 2018, which led me to leave my career and work on this project. You don’t write a non-fiction book to make money. I would’ve stayed in the private sector. I did this because I think it’s important for our kids.
In the book, you discuss the importance of an irrational approach and a deep historical perspective. Can you share with us briefly what the roots of this rift are?
First of all, the book is an investigative tracing of the history of our divisions. Consequently, it goes all the way back to the enlightenment in our founding. One of the arguments in the book is that most of the divisions we see nowadays are, in fact, a derivative of an earlier schism that happened in our founding. Unless we better understand that original schism, we won’t be able to reconcile where we are now. History is important. I also argue in the book at various points that history can act as a solution for our wounds if only we would apply it. We seem to forget history very easily. That is a major obstacle in my view.
To that point, is it about understanding the historical context to learn from what they did historically to heal those divides over the passage of time? I recall that you said this is not a new narrative. What can we learn from history?
Through the book tracing, we see this pendulum-like swing between these ideas of what the American experiments should be. I describe it in the book as a pendulum. Consequently, we’ve had huge disagreements, which have led to Civil War and many other violent episodes. I also think in history, we’ve sometimes used what I call a ‘secret sauce’ or a special formula for getting past our disagreements.
For example, one such event I detail in depth in the book is the period between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Once the war was won, we had this credo in the declaration that we had to figure out how to govern a country. We needed a foreign policy, regulated commerce, and a tax system to pay for the war.
All these needs emerged, and there were huge disagreements about how to resolve them. Over the course of a couple of years, as we wrote the constitution as a framework, we made huge compromises that didn’t please everyone. In fact, there were huge debates at that time between these two different views of what America should be. Productively, we were able to use this ‘secret sauce’ to come together.
There are other episodes in our history like that. Contrastingly, there are episodes in our history where it has fallen apart. That’s what I mean when I say understand these incidents and historical episodes and understand what a ‘secret sauce’ is on how we get past them. That’s helpful. I will say that part of the ingredient in this special formula is about using facts and reason to craft solutions. One of the reasons, going back to your earlier question that I was increasingly concerned about is that I felt that our current discourse had abandoned facts. We are in an era where it seems like everyone has their own truth. I don’t think that is conducive to solving public policy problems.
For clarity for our audience, perhaps an important question is to define these two enlightenments. On the one hand, you talk about the moderates, returning to the early founders, George Washington, the first president, his chief advisor, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. On the other hand, you talk about the more radical enlightenment, like Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. How would you summarize each of these enlightenments? What did the radicals stand for?
This was the huge original schism. As I mentioned, these two sides were vying for what would dominate. There are complex differences between them, but I can boil it down for your audience to two things. For the most part, the moderates or people like Adams and Alexander Hamilton very much eschew democracy. They believed in what was called then an aristocratic republic, which means that the educated and capable were needed to govern on behalf of their fellow citizens. It’s not because they were elite, as we call them now, in some snobbish way. They believed that since many were uneducated, the best and the brightest needed to unite to govern.
The best example of this is Alexander Hamilton, who was a self-made man but brilliant. As he was putting together solutions for the Federal government, he needed competent people for this aristocratic republic. This goes back to the enlightenment in Europe and the moderates like Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and many folks like that. To some degree, those antecedents are discussed.
The contrary force was a major departure, which in my view, started with the French enlightenment, which viewed the republic’s role differently. During this time, the government concept was considered a social contract. There was a lot written about that. The radicals, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, differed so much because they believed that the only sustainable form of government in the social contract was a representative democracy of the people. Everyone had to have a voice. That was a huge difference from the moderates who eschew democracy. That’s the first big difference. It’s this notion of having the republic representative of a democratic form versus an elite aristocratic ruling form.
The second key difference goes back to the fact that the French radical enlighteners had documented how, for centuries, there was tacit collusion between the church and the monarchy to repress the people. The radicals came up with this notion of the separation of church and state. These were two separate realms that needed to not interfere with each other. As Jefferson famously wrote, “Not only in this new republic should we have freedom of religion. We should also have freedom from religion.”
Many founders were deists who believed their faith was separate from the civic realm. The moderates were much more tolerant of religion as part of the governing apparatus. In fact, there’s a famous quote from one of the moderates that emphasize this, which is Voltaire. He said in French, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.” That means, “If God doesn’t exist, we have to invent him.” Meaning to keep the people in line, religion was important. That was very different from Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, and some of the other radicals. Those are two big differences.
Those are very important distinctions. In the United States, or perhaps sometimes less than the United States, how do you think the current brands of those former distinctions appear in the United States now?
It gets a little complicated, as I discussed in the book. These two enlightenment forces: a radical enlightenment force and the moderates. They faced a third major influence after the country’s founding. It started with what was called the Second Great Awakening. That was where religious and faith-based ideals came back into the public sector in a big way. We call it in the book counter-enlightenment because it rejected reason as part of being the most important element of social discourse. These two enlightenment forces and this counter-enlightenment are the framework I paint that goes through history.
That way of background is at a very interesting time. When I was younger, the wealthy elites were all Republicans, and more people were Democrats. That was a lot of my youth. Now, because of the emergence over the past couple of decades of a new type of populism, it’s very much reversed. If you’re trying to paint where we are now versus the old Republican party, the Democrats are more the radicals, although they were also quite an establishment.
I argue in the book that the two parties were increasingly close together. One could debate it, but the notion of having a more representative democratic voice, expanding the voices at the table, was more democratic in a few decades than Republican. With this new force of populism, there is a backlash against that, which is popular but wants to return America to some fantasy state from the past where White men had (all) power. There is a retrograde view of what America should be, which Trump cleverly tapped into.
If you try to understand today’s environment, you got to think of the traditional Republican and Democratic debate and what that represented, then this more populist view that has happened both on the left and the right. Ironically, most of the educated elites now are more Democrat than Republican. The data show that people with college educations and those with white-collar jobs tend to be more Democrat, although very wealthy people are often still Republican. It’s not simple. I spend time in the book painting how this framework from the past maps out now and at different points of our history, like the Civil War, Reconstruction, etc.
What would you say if you had to summarize where we are now?
Where we are now is we have forces on the extremes, both the left and the right, that are more interested in serving self-interests and believing their way is the way that we need to move forward than the center, middle, or frustrated majority. I say that because my research shows that 70% of Americans, by far the majority between 65 and 70, fall into this frustrated majority. They believe that compromise is required, facts matter, and we must hear the other side. The other 35% are the fringes. They don’t believe that. They often use social media to make their size feel much bigger than it actually is. Not that 30% is small. This is both the left and the right.
That’s the way we are now. We have these extreme forces on both the political left and right. My view there is that’s counterproductive. Let me give you one example to try to illustrate my argument. One of the hottest areas of debate over the past 25 years has been immigration and how we deal with the myriad of problems related to immigration in our country. I forgot what year, but several years ago, there was a bipartisan bill on immigration reform that had passed the Senate and would’ve passed the House had it been brought.
This bill was developed by the Gang Of Eight, which comprised people on both sides that compromised. It illustrated in detail many solutions to many problems related to immigration. Because it was a compromise, it didn’t make anyone happy. The left was very concerned because there were limits on immigration. The right was concerned because the program or the package had a pathway to citizenship for dreamers, which the right was very against.
Nonetheless, this would’ve passed. Enough in the center believed it was important to come up with true solutions. That didn’t pass. Now here we are, arguing about building walls and open borders years later, but we’re far away from a solution. It’s not as if any of the problems have been solved. We fight about them more. That’s an example where compromise and fusing solutions are the work of public policy and government. We’ve abandoned that and would rather get angry at each other.
Returning to your original framework regarding your moderate, radical, and counterrevolutionary enlightenment, what percentage of the population would you say falls into those three camps now?
The biggest concern of mine in recent years has been the growth of counter-enlightenment, which I think used to be a small percentage of Americans. It’s always existed. I’m very much for faith and religion, but I don’t believe it should dominate governance. In that sense, I think the radical enlighteners were correct. What happened now is this rejection of truth; everyone has their own facts, which has been the growing portion of Americans. I think it is detrimental. That’s what has dominated the last couple of election cycles to the point where many Americans feel like the pursuit of truth is no longer something they strive for. It’s not something we need.
This plays very much into the global anti-democratic forces trying to muck up the notion of democratic republics, whether it’s Bolsonaro or other autocratic leaders. In essence, one way to think about it is that the 20th century was, in some ways, a battle between the notion of this open liberal society, fascism, extreme communism, and totalitarianism. On the one hand, the 21st century is turning into a battle between that same open society and the autocrats or authoritarianism, a growing model worldwide, like Xi in China.
This is troublesome that maybe in 50 years, we’ll look back and say, “That little experiment with democracy for a couple of hundred years, what a shame. We’ve lost it and moved back to some earlier era.” I should point out that my bias is that I believe that the enlightenment framework by which we use science and facts to solve problems is superior. It has brought us more prosperity in the last 200 years than in the prior 2000. If you look at the data, many people have made this case. Two hundred years ago, life expectancy on the planet was about 31 years. Now it’s over 70.
Two hundred years ago, 4/5 of the world lived in tremendous poverty. The portion of the planet living in that poverty level is 1/5, not 4/5. Many examples show that our inheritance from the enlightenment and the scientific revolution has served us well. I would argue that the same framework holds the answer to things like global warming, climate change, and various problems that we face now. If we abandon it, we do so at our own peril.
I do believe this enlightenment framework, which gets very short-scripted today. In the last 50 years, many in philosophical and academic circles look at the enlightenment as a couple of White men in Europe telling everyone how the world works, and it’s downplayed. That’s a mistake. That’s a misreading of what enlightenment is. The post-modern movement in many academic fields, which challenges the enlightenment, does so to insert other perspectives into the dialogue, which is very important. That movement wasn’t so much created to reject the notion of reason and science completely. That’s where it gets messy.
A couple of questions come to mind. The first is when Jefferson helped craft the Constitution; he said we must rely on facts and speak candidly. In this day and age of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, what do you think is part of the solution in helping to regulate the media and protect the freedom of speech, but equally ensuring that the truth is told and that there is accountability? What regulations and legislations? What do you think needs to shift to bring us back to the facts and the truth?
In the book’s third part, I describe structural and mindset changes for moving forward. Media is one of the big topics. Since you ask it, let me go right there. There are a couple of things. First, let’s understand that from an economic point of view, accurate information is a public good. In other words, it needs to be protected. For example, most citizens can’t research every drug. We have an FDA that researches us so that we can make better decisions.From an economic point of view, accurate information is a public good. In other words, it needs to be protected. Click To Tweet
When I say information, I’m talking in the broader sense. There are regulations against financial institutions that try to prey on Americans that don’t understand finance. Many things protect the consumer based on the need for information. We used to have something called the Fairness Doctrine in the media before Reagan abandoned it. It said that the public airways needed to present various points of view, focus on information, and separate commentary from the information. That has been abandoned.
What is called cable news nowadays is not news. These are mostly opinion pieces. There are not very many news shows left. There are some in print, but even those are more biased than they used to be. Similarly, in the social media world, there’s no accountability. When you see a post on Twitter or anywhere, it could be a person with that idea or a Russian bot creating these posts. The answer is a couple of things.
There needs to be some more regulation of media. I’m not arguing for the public to take over media. We need private sector solutions for this, but there can be more regulation in various forms. We need to give incentives to the private sector to develop solutions. I’ll give you an example. Imagine a social media platform where every participator is authenticated. We do authentication in our society all the time. If you want to drive, you need to get a license.
Authentication is a common theme. Yet, in social media, there’s no authentication. First, it would vastly change the dialogue if people were real and had to stand by what they say on social media. The private sector can develop new solutions that do these things, and the public should demand such. I don’t think the solution to the media problem you point out will come from the government solving it. It’s going to require entrepreneurs to solve it.
In addition to that, what can government do or ought to be doing? If I remember my days in South Africa at a young age, I had a major role in a retail advertising agency. I worked in marketing. We had an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It was an independent regulatory body. People could file a complaint if there were any misrepresentations. It was then up to the advertiser to present their justification and legitimacy to the Advertising Standards Authority for making the claims they were making.
The onus of proof was on the person complained against. I’m not saying that is the model, but I’m saying that these regulatory bodies regulated, governed, and defined whether this advertising was legitimate. What should happen to these social media owners besides the consumer side of it? What accountability, independent body, and what can a government or a regulator do to protect freedom of speech? Equally, there needs to be a responsibility and accountability to ensure an honest truth is told, and perhaps even punitive consequences for misleading people, misinforming, and creating these conspiracy theories that disrupt our social order.
I relate to what you’re saying about your experience in South Africa. I was the head of many consumer brands. I ran a brand. I was a CEO of a company called Proactiv, which is an acne brand. We would spend $5 million a week on advertising. Every ad on TV or print had to be approved by the FDA for claims on the medicine side (The United States Food and Drug Administration is a federal agency of the Department of Health and Human Services), and the active ingredients and by the FTC for claims about marketing. (The Federal Trade Commission is an independent agency of the United States government whose principal mission is enforcing civil antitrust law and promoting consumer protection). If we violated those, we were punished.
Your framework for advertising is very relevant, in my view. I share it because most of my career has been in that. For the last decade, social media companies have tried to stand behind the notion that they are platforms and they are not putting out content. They must be held accountable if they put out false content or content that creates violence. I very much believe in that framework. One of the interesting things that we struggle with in the States is that of all information; political campaigning is seen as the most protected because it can’t be regulated.
All those commercials I created with my teams for Proactiv had to say things very much according to standards, or else they would be deleted, and punitive assessments would be given. Notice how you can say whatever you want in campaign advertising; there’s no regulation. The point is there’s a balance between free speech and accurate information. I would view that we’ve let it slide too much. Of course, speech is protected. At the same time, using media in the public domain to create conspiracies, falsehoods, incite violence, and all of that needs to be punished for using our direct terms. We need to hold the companies that provide these platforms accountable.There's a balance between free speech and accurate information. Click To Tweet
I know you went to the White House in Washington DC and spoke at the US Senate Select Committee On Intelligence, chaired by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. This was a Senate Select Committee of both parties. In presenting your findings and proposed solutions, what key solutions did you put on the table? What was the response to your proposed solutions?
The Select Committee On Intelligence seems politically motivated in DC in all arenas. This is a committee that has a good staff and good working people. The senators are committed to accuracy and truth. Despite their public faces, these senators want to solve problems and are very concerned about polarization. We discussed a whole range of things. One was this notion of social media and media in general and how it needed to be reined in.
For almost 40 minutes, we discussed ideas for the regulatory framework and private sector incentives. Those are the things we were talking about. They’re concerned about polarization. I shared some of my research with them and discussed these extremes versus this frustrated majority and how that dynamic works. I talked about some other structural reforms and mindset changes. For example, the structural forms are unpopular because many senators do not want to go there. It’s things like term limits and ranked-choice voting.
I do lay out in the book a lot of structural changes that I think would be closer to what our founders had in mind. The current political establishment is not very receptive to those. I don’t think I made much headway in some things like that. A whole other section of recommendations in the book relates not much to structural changes like these but more to mindset changes and how we talk to each other. There was a lot of interest in that. For example, I’ll share a couple with you.
We all in America are increasingly in silos. Some democratic republics have obligatory national service, and we’ve had it over our history related to war. I wonder if we should have a service where every American spends a year doing service when they’re eighteen. For example, by going to another part of the country or educating other Americans that are different from them. If they do this service, the government may pay for their college. In other words, programs that start much earlier in the education arena, whether sponsored by the government or the government, re-endow the idea of civic education.
One of the problems we have now is that gizmo mindset. Both persuasions of enlighteners wrote, “A democratic republic requires an educated citizen to understand what their role is in a republic.” In my view, we’ve abandoned civic education in the last 50 years. STEM education, or Science, Technology, and Math, have crowded it out. That’s all very important. When I was in school, things like debate clubs were important, like how to evaluate evidence. I spoke to the committee a lot about some of these longer-term. Unfortunately, these aren’t going to change the world tomorrow, but longer-term changes need to establish more of a base for what a democratic republic means.
What was the response?
They are much more positive about that than in a term of limits. Let me tell you the structural stuff. There is an increasing appetite for the government to create infrastructure around the early American experience, meaning young people, to close this gap and get them to understand the civic arena. A wonderful professor at Harvard, Danielle Allen, has written a lot about civic responsibilities and how to instill them. That is not a short-term change but will ultimately be very important.
Were there any other proposals that seem to put them?
Some staff members were open to the idea of rank-choice voting and changing the way we vote, which is one of the structural changes that your audience might not be aware of. Rank choice voting is much more reflective of the electorates’ desires. In the last couple of decades, when there’s a third-party candidate, invariably, he or she is a spoiler. That candidate takes votes from one of the major parties and helps someone else win.
In rank-choice voting, you could have more ideas. You could have five candidates, and if what you voted number 1 didn’t get in the next round, then your number 2 vote counts. Your vote counts again. Consumers don’t quite understand it, but it’s quite intuitive. That’s getting adopted more and more, not at the Federal level but more at the local level. It was a good discussion. What were some of the other ones that they were open to?
With the rank choice voting, can clarify that for people? How far does it go? You have to vote number 1. If that candidate doesn’t win, it goes to vote number 2. If that candidate doesn’t win, does it go to 3 and all the way down?
Let’s say you have five candidates running. For example, the mayoral race in New York. You rank all five in order. Let’s say the one who’s in last place or at the end of that is candidate B or Bob; all of Bob’s ballots are taken since these ballots all voted number one for Bob. Since Bob is now in the last place, he’s out. The number 2 choice in all those ballots is given the vote. Now, we have a new ranking based on using Bob’s old ballots because Bob is out. They go to the second choice for those electors.
Similarly, now there are four candidates. The lowest one there is then cast out. Let’s say it’s Jane. If they say Jane is 1st on the ballot, it goes to the 2nd choice. If it says Bob, it goes to the third because Bob is out.
It is a process of elimination.
They use this in Alaska and New York. It’s increasingly being used, but the beauty is that you don’t have to be third-party candidates, or other candidates are not spoilers. They can put more ideas into the mix. Why is this beneficial? For one, you can be a third-party candidate without being a spoiler, but maybe even more fundamentally, since the election allows more candidates, you get more ideas in the discussion in the space. More ideas are always good because, in essence, public policy should be the result of a competition of ideas that win or lose. That’s good.More ideas are always good because, in essence, public policy should be the result of a competition of ideas that win or lose. Click To Tweet
I’ve worked with organizations like Rank The Vote, Better Ballot Iowa, and others to help do this. Many organizations in the country are working towards right-choice voting. Another one that they were interested in was campaign finance reform, which they would never talk about because, again, this is one where most of the elected officials say one thing. Since Citizens United, many elected officials and staff members on the committees realized how unmanageable campaigns have become.
In essence, it’s one of the reasons why I argue in American Schism for term limits. I used to be against term limits. I believe now that most elected officials at the Federal level spend far much money and time getting re-elected and solving problems. That was not what the founders had in mind. If term limits are the way to get past that, we should adopt them. I lay this out in the book.
The one thing that struck me was that we need the scientific management model, but you also allude to the fact in the book around what you call a meritocracy of who gets a seat at the table. Many views around those sitting at the table go back to deep emotional fear. How do you use the scientific model of management, rational debate, facts, and evidence to counter deep emotional fear?
To some degree, the American experiment over 200-plus years has been largely a story of changing the people, meaning White men with property, which it did when it was written to where we are now, which has gone through a process. Jackson’s presidency was the first time all White men got to vote. It wasn’t women. It wasn’t African-Americans.
There’s a distinction between some basic questions about the social contract, which I lay out in the book. Things like, “Do we believe in top-down or bottom-up government? Will the government be “We the people,” or will it be Putin and Xi dictating down?” The second one is, “Who gets a seat at the table? Who counts?” Those are fundamental questions that may be emotional but are value driven.
When it comes to evidence, there’s no question in the business community. A great deal of evidence shows that the more diverse the group of people in a problem-solving environment, the broader the solution set. If you tell me, “Tell me about how the management model is conducive to having more people at the table.” I would point out that having different perspectives has been shown to have more thinking outside the box.The more diverse group of people in a problem-solving environment, the broader the solution set. Click To Tweet
On the meritocracy question, that’s interesting because meritocracy is a core American value, in my view. If anything, America has been envied over the world over the last hundreds of years not because America has large weapons but because it’s the place where there’s the longest experiment in self-government with all its flaws. There’s a notion or at least a dream that anyone could make it regardless of how they were born. If you were born noble or not. That’s what makes the American credo.
I also argue in the book that the meritocratic model is broken. I point out why it’s broken. What’s interesting about this, and I’m not sure how much your audience is aware of this, is that over the last 5 or 6 years, there has been an increasing attack on meritocracy. Many books have been written, like The Meritocracy Trap and a whole bunch that argue that we should abandon the meritocratic model, and it’s not working. In the book, I make the case that not only should we not abandon it, but we need to fix it. It needs to be repaired. Here it’s both management science as well as values.
The best source for your audience on the value side is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in the ‘70s. That was the Bible of thinking about a moral case for how the social contract should be constructed. I do think that there’s a lot in there that very much resonates with me. The data model, the data show that it’s not a meritocracy in the competition or rewards when everyone is at a different starting point.
Let me give you an example. In a New York City public school, the amount of money spent on a kid’s education in 5th grade is around $30,000. In a private school for a 5th-grade student, the investment is around $130,000. These investments are cumulative. If you want 2 kids to compete, and 1 is getting an investment of $30,000 a year, and the other is 5 times, that’s not a fair competition. At times in our history, we’ve been more meritocratic. A great example is the GI Bill after World War II, which gave real incentives to people returning to the war to get their lives together.
This notion, ever since the Reagan administration of government being the problem, has precluded any notion of redistributive justice from happening. That framework is wrong. If you think about the industry in charge of managing and carefully investing people’s financial assets, it’s a huge industry. We spend much less time discussing how to manage our private human capital. There’s no question that education is almost any investment’s most significant return on investment. That’s a whole other way of thinking about this with the cost to meritocracy that’s about getting the starting line closer.
It’s never perfect, but you want to balance and give everyone a chance. Ironically, the French Constitution of 1792, before the Reign of Terror, was the one that the radical enlighteners in France wrote. Not only does the Constitution lay out many of the principles of radical enlightenment, but it also lays out that the responsibility for education in a democratic republic needs to be on the government and that everyone needs to have access to quality education in the civic fields.
It specified whether they were talking about science. During the enlightenment, there was an explosion of interest in the average person’s ability to acquire knowledge. It was so fundamental. We take it for granted now. I’m bringing that up because the French Constitution of 1792 was one of the most radical enlightenment constitutions ever written. In the book, I talked about what happened. The counter-enlighteners came in, and we had a Reign of Terror, and everyone was killed and hung. It was a terrible outcome, which led to Napoleon. Still, there were periods of time in that process which were interesting despite having a much less successful outcome than the American Revolution.
Talking about education and the power of education, turning to a leader and an iconic leader whom we both greatly admire and respect, Nelson Mandela. He once said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. Talking of Mandela, can you take us back to an untold Mandela Moment in time when either television or reading a book that his life, leadership, and legacy have touched or influenced you in some way?
I’m going to go way back. When I was in college at Columbia in New York around 1984, many of us had chained ourselves to Hamilton Hall to close it because we were increasingly concerned about the university’s investment policy in South Africa. Mandela was a hero back then. He was still in prison. I was influenced by that particular part of the world early on, when I was maybe 20 or 21, because it was so representative. It was brought to me on campus, and Columbia wasn’t the only place.
It spread across the United States.
It was an important moment for me in my personal development. At that point, I started to research Mandela and saw his incredible journey and witnessed it.
Were you chained in the hall?
I was chained to the outdoor door. We were prosecuted. I would be expelled from the university despite having a 3.9-grade average. A bunch of public defenders got the university to dismiss the case against us. It was an experience from a long time ago, but I don’t regret it. It was quite an interesting experience. To be fair, as brave as I sound, I was scared that I would get expelled from the university. I was worried about that.
You still went through. That’s a bold step. In your mind, what is your definition of leadership and bold leadership?
This is one of the things that my entire effort with American Schism is about. It is a call to action. Here’s the thing. Many of our fellow citizens in this frustrated majority, or the 70% of Americans who believe we can do better, don’t know how to get involved. To me, bold leadership is taking a step. When I speak, I lay out all these organizations that are either fighting for structural changes we’ve talked about or the mindset changes and tell them how to get involved.
Bold leaders like Nelson Mandela of the world are rare. Most people can’t do that, but we can make a difference if we take 1 step or 2. Part of that was what I was striving for in my fight with a recent campaign, which argued that every citizen has a duty to take a step. That may be as simple as rejecting the fallacious reasoning at the Thanksgiving table from an uncle. Still, it also may be spending a little time volunteering or helping an organization trying to reverse Citizens United or whatever issue you care about.
Part of why I’m doing this is to create a network for citizens to take bold leadership steps. It may not be that huge, but many citizens are scared. Going back to where we started, one of the bold leadership steps for leaders in the private sector is not to be afraid to confront these issues and to get their heads out of the sand.
I was speaking with a CEO of a major education company and its employees. It’s tricky because if a CEO is focused on short-term maximizing profits, there are no upsides in taking these issues on. If they think a little more broadly about how they’ve been successful in a capitalistic system with infrastructure and with citizens who are educated, they should care. It’s an issue of perspective. Bold leadership can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be putting your life on the line. It can be taking a risk in a smaller sense where you think you can make a difference.Bold leadership can come in many forms. It doesn't have to be putting your life on the line. It can be taking a risk in a smaller sense where you think you can make a difference. Click To Tweet
Switching gears a little, a couple of fun facts. I know your commute and live between New York and LA. I can think of many reasons for going to Paris. What is it about Paris that captivates you?
LA is because I worked there for many years and still spend time there. I still have some clients there. Paris has always captivated me. I’m spending time there now because I’m trying to get American Schism published there. I have a couple of publishers interested. The book illustrates the linkages between the American and French revolutions, which were part of an overall movement against the Ancien Régime.
It would be very interesting to the French public. Ironically, France is also a democratic republic struggling with the same forces of popularism and autocracy as much of Europe is. I’m spending time in France because I’m trying to get the book published there. In fact, I was supposed to speak at a conference there. I also happen personally to be very enamored with France.
From your childhood, what is a significant childhood memory that stands out that has shaped the state of the person you are now?
That one that I discussed at Columbia was pretty important. My grandparents, both my maternal and paternal, were immigrants from what was then Ukraine, or what we call the Pale of Settlement. They were Jews that were terribly persecuted. It was a very anti-Semitic period before and into the Russian Revolution. They came to this country with nothing.
My great-grandfather came in 1911 and then brought his family over. They had nothing yet believed and bought into the American dream. One of my grandfathers became quite successful. The other one, not so much financially. They both were able to build a wonderful life and were shaped by the immigrant experience, which many in America have, whether it’s Irish or Italian. America is made up of these people who want to work hard and build a better life. That’s why we’re great. It’s almost like that has gotten a bad rap. The early experience of my family life and the old country was formative.
The third fun fact is you talk in your book about the American dream and how it has changed from what it was then to now. For you personally, what would you love the American dream to be?
I would love it to reinforce what has always been known. There are two parts to the American dream. The first part is that, as imperfect as it is, we have a model for self-government. That’s bottom-up a government of the people. It’s incumbent upon us to improve it, which is why you are for the structural changes. The second part of the American dream is that if you are diligent, work hard, and invest in yourself and your skills, you can be successful.
That is threatened now because of the problem with meritocracy. That’s why I addressed that. Those are the dual parts of the American Dream. For much of the last thousand years, your life depended on if you were born into a family of wealth or you were born into the clergy or everyone else. That was your life. It was a fixed situation. That started to change with the Reformation and Calvinism. It went to a new level in the Enlightenment. That’s why this Meritocratic model is important to me. That’s the second part of the American dream.
In our final few moments, any final words about what you think the future is calling us out to do now? What do you think Nelson Mandela would say to the United States and world leaders today?
It’s about the next generation. Whether it’s our kids and want them to live in a better world or whether it’s the planet and other species. Increasingly, there are one million species on the planet, and there’s one ruining it for all the others. We will be doomed if we figure out how to confront things like climate change. It’s about the future. It would be about the next generation. I’m very fortunate. I’ve had a wonderful life. I can’t complain. I’ve had a wonderful career, and many of us have. Do we want our kids to have those opportunities or not? For me, it’s about the future.
Seth, it has been such a joy. Congratulations on your amazing work. I look forward to us doing more things together. Thank you for coming to share your powerful work and your compelling insights.
Thank you so much. It has been a pleasure.
The American Schism has shocked Americans and the world. Some would say America has never been divided, conflicted, and violent. On the Western front, we experience a growing urgency to keep America and the Western world united, to keep America, the United States of America, to keep the NATO alliance a united alliance, and to protect democracies worldwide. Back home in America, on the American book front, bestselling books leave us feeling pessimistic, whether we are reading Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough or books about Barack Obama’s failed presidency or Michael Cohen’s New York Times bestselling book, Revenge.
On the American media front, we listen to conflicting news reports and feel confused. What are the alternative facts if such a thing even exists? Is news really news? We listen to a contradictory version of the same truth. On the one hand, listening to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Ari Melber or Fox News’ anchors and hosts, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. The extreme right and the extreme left leave us stunned on the American individual patriotic front, but there is a patriotic middle.
Seth David Radwell wanted to be part of the solution. During the pandemic, he hunkered down in his home office and took gusty books off the bookshelves to analyze and understand America’s history. He authored the bestselling international award-winning book American Schism. What do we learn from Seth’s analysis and understanding of America’s history in this American Schism? The roots of America’s conflict run much deeper than we initially thought.
Contrary to popular belief, they are not unprecedented. They go back to America’s origins and forefathers. On a positive note, these warring factions found a creative and binding solution to help navigate America going forward.
Perhaps a little counterintuitively, it is not about focusing on the ideological differences, the left or the right, the red or the blue, the fight for democracy, or the protection of an elite aristocracy. Instead, we need to understand and analyze America’s history rationally without judgment to inspire hope. We need to focus on important conflicts. What are the pain points on either side? Like America’s forefathers, we must spend our time and energy finding a creative and binding solution for the common good.
As we navigate through these troubled times in America and a delicate Western front, I’m grateful for Seth Radwell’s passion, analysis, and insights. When we rationally analyze and understand our history with our judgment, we can set aside our angry emotions and find the binding solution that will inspire hope.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- American Schism
- Seth David Radwell
- The Meritocracy Trap
- A Theory of Justice
- Too Much and Never Enough
About Seth Radwell
Seth David Radwell, author of American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing Our Nation, is an entrepreneur, business executive, and recognized thought leader in consumer marketing. A common thread across all his leadership and business endeavors has been his passion for our shared democratic values and his interest in American public policy.
Until 2018, He served as the CEO of The Proactiv Company, the leading skincare brand for acne. Prior, he served as President & Chief Revenue Officer of Guthy-Renker, the leading worldwide direct-to-consumer beauty company. In this role, Mr. Radwell led the growth of such leading brands as Proactiv Acne Solutions, Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty, IT Cosmetics, Wen Hair Care by Chaz Dean, and Crèpe Erase.
Mr. Radwell previously served as President of e-Scholastic, the digital arm of the global children’s publishing and education company. In prior roles, Mr. Radwell was President of Bookspan/Bertelsmann, the premier direct marketer of general interest and specialty book clubs, such as Book of the Month Club, Doubleday Book Club, and Literary Guild, and Senior Vice President of Content for Prodigy Services Company, where he pioneered new e-commerce revenue streams for the online service business. Before his days in e-commerce and the Internet, Mr. Radwell spent six years with the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Mr. Radwell received a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude from Columbia College, Columbia University.
Mr. Radwell believes our democracy is in crisis today and will remain if we allow the extreme ends of the partisan spectrum to dominate our political debate. Instead, Radwell proposes a new dialogue between those Americans who make up the exhausted majority, dedicated to a new threefold mission: to educate the public about our country’s political history in the hopes of recommitting to our shared democratic values; to re-establish a civil and rational discussion to replace our divisive contemporary political discourse; and, to commence the long process of healing our nation for future generations.