And though her nearly 13,000-word essay was short on policy solutions, Slaughter ignited a useful public conversation that is even more urgent today, given the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic on working mothers in particular.
Slaughter relies on that formula again in her latest book, “Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics.” But this time the crisis she faces is acute and largely self-inflicted, and she undertakes the more complicated task of mapping her personal experiences onto a blueprint for renewing post-Trump America. The message is: If she can do this, so can — and should — we all.
Her book opens with a dramatic scene in September 2017, four years into her tenure as chief executive of New America, which describes itself as a think tank “dedicated to renewing the promise of America.” It was, she writes, “the worst day of my professional life.”
A New America employee had alleged that he and his colleagues were fired and their department closed because of pressure from a funder whom they criticized. In the hushed hallways of progressive Washington think tanks, such an allegation is analogous to treason, a betrayal of the fundamental values of independent research, analysis and policy formulation.
“The accusation was neither accurate nor fair, either with regard to New America or to the funder,” she writes, “but it was calculated, successfully, to create a media storm and to put New America and my leadership in the worst possible light.”
Not two pages later, Slaughter acknowledges that in “the trial by press, thirty-eight out of thirty-eight media accounts found against us.” The journalist in me considers such unanimity rather damning. Slaughter does not.
But while she adamantly defends her actions and reputation, and resists sharing details of the crisis, she admirably uses it to examine her leadership flaws, biased assumptions and social privilege, inviting the reader into her painful process of discovery and renewal.
Renewal — as you might surmise from the title of this memoir/manifesto — is the operative framework, a concept “that looks backward and forward at the same time,” akin to ripping out sections of a building that were outdated, ugly or dangerous while maintaining the parts that are beautiful and strong.
As she excavates her past behaviors, Slaughter realizes that although she spent decades studying and writing that leadership “from the center” is more effective than “from the top,” it also has serious drawbacks. A center implies a margin, she writes: “Leading from the center without paying constant attention to the margin can substitute the horizontal power of exclusion for the vertical power of domination.”
It’s a wise insight, and there are many others. They would have had more impact if Slaughter had offered specific examples rather than vague allusions.
Midway through the book, the plot, as it were, shifts as Slaughter builds an argument for national civic renewal from the template of her personal experience. Just as she ran toward criticism, embraced hard truths and absorbed other perspectives, so must America. That means looking backward to retell the history that has been lost or repressed, and incorporating stories of pain and exclusion without obliterating the worthy lessons, achievements and meaning of a nation founded in both freedom and enslavement.
The lesson of renewal, she writes, “is that, as Americans, we cannot allow ourselves to separate the progress from the pain.”
Quoting from an array of historians, activists, experts and thinkers, she argues that American history is a story of both individualism and mutuality, or to paraphrase the novelist Colson Whitehead, “freedom as community,” a recognition that even the mythic independent man or woman relies on others to succeed. She applies this approach to nothing less than rethinking capitalism, with the aim of “yoking the profit motive and a social motive together, to achieve enough profit to be sustainable at a comfortable level and enough benefit to be socially valuable.”
Many of these policy prescriptions seem drawn from New America’s work, which doesn’t lessen their value or integrity but does give Slaughter’s writing the air of a long, wonky campaign speech. And while she preaches the need for “radical honesty” in engaging in the hard process of renewal, she skirts practicing it at times herself.
She never really tells us what happened in the crisis of 2017. At first, I thought she was withholding details to draw out the drama. By Page 40, when she refers to two unflattering front-page stories in the New York Times, I relented and searched out the news myself. (Spoiler alert: The funder was Google.) And while at the time Slaughter promised “deep internal discussions” about protecting work that is critical of donors, in her book she says little about how the crisis actually changed that key aspect of New America’s operation.
But the crisis clearly did change her, and she is particularly effective in describing her evolution as an outspoken feminist who is forced to face up to the ways in which her advocacy for her own tribe — White, educated women — left her blind to the struggles of many other, less-advantaged women. Genuine renewal, she writes from personal experience, “requires unlearning as much as learning. It requires equal parts humility and confidence — a difficult combination.”
America could do worse than emulate Slaughter’s bumpy path toward a more honest appraisal of who we truly are. With the 250th anniversary of independence soon upon us, Slaughter maps out an imagined celebration; it reads like a progressive pipe dream, in which partisanship disappears and a happy, communitarian patriotism reigns supreme.
“That is one telling of 2026,” she writes, and then concludes with a challenge.
“What is yours?”
From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics
By Anne-Marie Slaughter
203 pp. $24.95