William & Mary

Gates speaks on the history, future of representative government

  • Robert Gates stands behind a podium with flags behind them
    At the forum:  Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 speaks in Kaplan Arena Wednesday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Katherine Rowe shakes Robert Gates' hand on stage
    At the forum:  W&M President Katherine A. Rowe greets Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 after introducing him at the forum.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Compromise has played a significant role in America’s representative government over the past four centuries and is needed more than ever today, according to William & Mary Chancellor and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates '65, L.H.D. '98.

“Although we have a lot of work to do and enormous obstacles ahead of us, we do have the power and means to overcome just as this country has overcome challenges in the past,” he said.

“But it will take embracing the attributes of the Burgesses 400 years ago, a willingness to make tough decisions, a clear eye of realism to see the world as it is rather than as we’d like it to be, a willingness to listen, to learn from one another, an ability to see and understand other points of view and the wisdom to calibrate principle and compromise for the greater good of the country.”

Gates, who also previously served as director of the C.I.A., spoke Wednesday morning to a crowd of approximately 300 gathered in Kaplan Arena for American Evolution’s Forum on the Future of Representative Democracy.

The three-day event was part of American Evolution’s 2019 Commemoration, which is celebrating several important moments in Virginia’s history, including the 400th anniversary of the first representative legislative assembly in what would become the United States. That group met in Jamestown for the first time on July 30, 1619. Four centuries later to the day, members of the current Virginia legislators and other politicians and leaders gathered in Jamestown to convene the 400th Commemorative Session of the Virginia General Assembly.

Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Tommy Norment, majority leader of the Senate of Virginia, are co-chairs of the 2019 Commemoration. Both spoke at the forum, along with dozens of politicians, scholars, business and other leaders, discussing topics ranging from individual liberties to global challenges. Former W&M President Taylor Reveley moderated one panel discussion on constitutions and “making the rule of law stick.”

W&M President Katherine A. Rowe speaks at the forum. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Current W&M President Katherine A. Rowe introduced Gates. Praising his dedication to duty, Rowe said that the university is fortunate to have Gates as a teacher for members of the next generation, many of whom feel called to service.

“As I know well from my time with students at William & Mary, this is a generation dedicated to commitments beyond their own interests and own success, dedicated to improving their communities, their workplaces, their businesses and their world,” she said.

“The most important obligation of educators today is to teach the young people of this nation how to fulfill that call to their greatest capacity.”

In his address, “Framing Our American Evolution: Democracy, Diversity and Opportunity,” Gates reflected on the history of representative government in the U.S., which began just before the first enslaved Africans arrived in English North America.

“The glory of representative government and the shameful burden of slavery together have shaped the history of our country,” he said. “We have spent more than two centuries making representative government more representative and eliminating slavery and overcoming its awful legacy. We’ve made dramatic progress in both endeavors, but the paralysis in Washington and signs of persistent racism demonstrate that, four centuries after Jamestown and 232 years after the Constitution was signed, the United States of America remains very much a work in progress.

“Progress toward ensuring a representative government that is truly representative of all people has been agonizingly slow … but progress there has been.”

That progress has relied largely on an ability to overcome differences through a careful balance of principle and compromise, Gates said. The ability of the Founding Fathers to stand on principle when possible but compromise when necessary to create and sustain the nation is didactic.

“It is a lesson that I’m afraid many of today’s politicians, members of today’s representative assemblies, have failed to understand in an era of zero-sum politics and scorched earth ideological warfare,” Gates said.

Former W&M President Taylor Reveley (left) moderates a panel discussion with (from right) University of Virginia Professor A.E. Dick Howard, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory and President and CEO of the National Constitution Center Jeffrey Rosen. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)While vitriol in politics is nothing new, Gates believes that “that we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system.”

That dysfunction can be traced to several structural changes throughout the last few decades, Gates said, including gerrymandering, wave elections, the transformation of parties to primarily ideological movements requiring conformity, career politicians and the 24/7 digital and cable media environment.

“The moderate center — the foundation of our political system and its stability — is not holding,” he said. “Moderation is now equated with lacking principles, compromise means selling out. Yet our entire system of representative government since July 30, 1619, has depended on compromise. Not only is the constitution itself a big bundle of compromises, it creates a system of governance of checks and balances that can only work through compromise.”

Despite it all, Gates is still optimistic about the future of representative government and the future of the U.S., he said, adding that the country has gone through similar periods before. One reason for his optimism is the increased opportunity for people to get involved.

“Today, more than any other time in the last 400 years, all Americans – all Americans – have the opportunity to participate in shaping our country’s future, to put their shoulder to the wheel to get America unstuck and moving forward again together,” he said.

Gates, who previously served as president of Texas A&M University and president of the National Boy Scout Association, is also optimistic because of the young people he has met throughout the years, including W&M students.

“They fill me with hope,” he said. “They are involved in their communities. They care about issues. They’re willing to put their lives on the line for our country, and they are committed to building a better America.”

There is no other country in world as self-critical as the U.S., Gates said, but there is also no other country that has been so successful at reforming itself. While the country has come a long way since 1619, it remains a “work in progress to ensure liberty and opportunity for all,” he said.

“We must dream, we must believe and we must act to realize the full potential of representative government, to achieve the aspiration of our founders to form a more perfect union and to preserve and strengthen what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the last best hope of the Earth.’”