Fred Harris Talks Past, Present, and Future with MPP Students

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Apr 26, 2019 - 12:00am

MPP students met living legend Senator Fred Harris during his address to the Policy Seminar on April 17. Harris was elected to the Oklahoma State Senate at the age of 25, and to the U.S. Senate at 33. In 1967, Harris encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to convene a commission—which came to be known as the Kerner Commission--to investigate the underlying causes of widespread race riots.  Harris served on the Commission, which visited the cities involved in the unrest, and which took testimony from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The commission’s 1968 report concluded that the United States was moving “toward two societies: one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  Harris said that the Commission’s work radicalized him.

Harris discussed the challenges of representing the electorate, including the age-old problem of doing what you know is right even when it goes against what people want.  He attributes the value we place on the former tendency to an innate, human drive to do what is best for the group, even when it goes against the interests of the individual.

Harris also reflected on agenda-setting and noted two opposing forces.  The first is how money provided by a “vociferous minority” buys the ear of elected officials.  The second is increased citizen activism, which is more effective now than ever before, as evidenced by the young people who survived the Parkland High School massacre and created a movement for gun control that resulted in new gun laws in New Mexico this year.

Harris sees the extreme polarization in politics today as a danger to our system, which only works when we can find consensus.