Carl Gershman’s Remarks at the Penn Kemble Fellows Reception

Welcoming remarks by NED President Carl Gershman at the Penn Kemble Fellows Reception  on Sept 21, 2016

I want to begin by welcoming the third class of Penn Kemble Fellows.  It’s the largest group of fellows we’ve ever had – 32 – and I want to congratulate all of you on being selected.  The competition was very stiff, which is a terrific sign of how popular this program has become.  I have great confidence that it’s going to be an exciting experience for you, and that you’re going to learn a lot about the state of democracy in the world today and its prospect for the future.

I also want to welcome my old friend Mal Caravatti, who is Penn’s widow, and Genie Kemble, Penn’s sister who led the Free Trade Union Institute, NED’s labor core grantee, when the NED was founded more than three decades ago.

I want to say a few words about Penn Kemble, who was a singular American democracy activist for many decades, from the 1960s until his death a decade ago.

He was associated with many organizations during those years: Social Democrats, USA, which was the successor organization of the Socialist Party; the Coalition for a Democratic Majority that tried to reclaim the Democratic Party for centrist and pro-labor Democrats after the McGovern defeat in 1972; and Freedom House, the pre-eminent U.S. organization defending political freedom in the world that was created in 1941 to oppose isolationism in this country and to urge U.S. support for the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and its fascist allies.  He served as Deputy Director of the U.S. Information Agency during the Clinton Administration, when he took the lead in promoting civic education around the world.

He was called a “muscular” or a Scoop Jackson Democrat, meaning that he was a “large-D” Democrat who was a strong anti-Communist.  The New York Sun called him a “Cold War Hero.”

As a political or democracy activist, he was animated by ideas and causes, even has he appreciated the central importance of free elections and democratic governance.

He believed in carrying out the struggle to defend democracy primarily in the arenas of culture, values, and ideas.

He was a kind of paradoxical figure – a social democrat, and therefore, a person on the left, who did battle against what, fr want of a better term, we might call “left liberalism.”  He was essentially a person of the political center.

As a social democrat, he admired the thought of the philosopher Sidney Hook, who once said that democracy is not merely a political concept but a moral one.  It is democracy as a way of life.

Penn said that his passion for democracy was awakened by a trip he made to Italy as a high school junior, when he encountered anti-Americanism for the first time.

That passion expressed itself in his passionate anti-communism, which was the major issue in American foreign policy until the collapse of communism in Central Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

It also expressed itself in his support for the rights and well-being of ordinary Americans and in his relationship with the American labor movement; and in his defense of America and the liberal democratic principles it embodies.

There is today a greater need than ever for people with this kind of democratic conviction.

The NED has called attention to what we have called the authoritarian resurgence, by which we mean the growing and dangerous assertion of both hard and soft power by autocratic countries like Russia and China.  There is the problem of democratic backsliding in some countries of Central Europe and in places like Thailand, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Not least worrying is the crisis of liberal democracy in the established democracies on the West, including here in the US.  NED’s Journal of Democracy has just published an article entitled “The Danger of Deconsolidation,” by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, which documents the declining support for democratic values among young Americans.

There is a crying need to develop a new generation of young people in this country and around the world who, like Penn Kemble, are animated by democratic ideas and values. 

That’s the purpose of the Penn Kemble Youth Forum, and it’s why I think it’s so urgently important today.

It’s my pleasure this evening to introduce the first two speakers to this class of the Kemble Forum – Larry Diamond and Francis Fukuyama.  Without any exaggeration, I can say that they are two of the leading scholars of democracy in the United States and around the world.  Larry co-edits the NED’s Journal of Democracy, and Frank is a member of the NED’s board of directors and the director of the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, where Larry also teaches.  The discussion with Frank and Larry will be moderated by Ruth Smith, a former Penn Kemble Alumna who has worked on national security issues in Washington for the past decade.  This will be the first of what I know will be an exciting program over the next nine months of discussions about critical challenges facing democracy in today’s troubled world.