A leading conservative scholar of poverty, Robert Doar graduated from the University in 1983 with a degree in History. In the 37 years since, he’s worked for the Washington Monthly and the Harlem Valley Times. He worked in the New York State and New York City governments, serving most notably as commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He then joined the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank where he now serves as President.
Doar sat down with The Daily Princetonian to answer questions about his time at the University, his political ideology, and current events.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Princetonian: Let’s start off simply: can you tell me a little about your time here as an undergraduate and what you did on campus?
Robert Doar ’83: I was a history major and I loved being in the history department. I do wish I worked a little harder in academics, but I was a JV basketball player. I got to spend a lot of time observing Coach Carril, who was a really remarkable teacher and leader, and a demanding person in values of integrity and hard work. Those were the high points of my time on campus.
DP: Tell me about your intellectual formation. Were you a conservative as an undergraduate?
RD: No. I was definitely not a conservative. I think if I was anything, I was probably a liberal. My dad had worked for Robert Kennedy and I was a great admirer of his. I was fairly certain at the time — and I subsequently came to a different view — that the classic democratic approach to issues concerning low-income Americans was a better approach than the conservative one.
DP: What changed your opinion?
RD: It was the experience of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s. I grew up in Brooklyn, and, well, we just never got better. Crime got worse. Schools got worse. Poverty didn’t get any better … I went into public service in the wake of Bill Clinton’s passing welfare reform, and I implemented it in New York City, along with many others. The success of that experience led me to believe that public policy on low-income Americans that was focused on helping people get into work and not helping them feel as if they were entitled to benefits without any reciprocal responsibility was a better way to help people and help their children.
DP: Journalism today faces the threats both of falling revenue and of regular political attacks. President Trump, for one, regularly decries established outlets as ‘fake news’ and even joked with President Putin at the G20 about getting rid of journalists. Tell me about why you chose to work in journalism after college, and why — or whether — you think it’s important now.
RD: Well, I think journalism is really, really important. And I think the drying up of newspapers all over the country is a tragedy … The coverage of town halls and community and civil society at the local level is not as strong. Newspapers play an incredibly important role in bringing people together. We have a scholar at AEI, Ryan Streeter, who has a piece featured in AEI Today this morning about neighborhoods. Neighborhoods have lots of institutions that make them strong, but one of them is often a local newspaper. The absence of that is something that I think is going to be a real problem.
DP: How about the second half of that question? There exists new, increasing distrust and rejection of mainstream media. What do you think that means for democracy and for civil discourse?
RD: Well, Jo, I’m not sure that’s all that new … The attitude about various media outlets by people based on their political views is not that new. To be fair, though, I don’t like the rhetoric of the President. Not only because it’s unpleasant and bad — which it is. But it also, more importantly, it has an effect in the world, where people now all of a sudden think that the President of the United States thinks that totalitarian regimes, people shutting down newspapers, those are all okay … But still, let’s not panic. The world of ideas and public discussion is still alive and well in the United States.
DP: You talked earlier about the importance of local town halls and of local government, and you moved on from journalism to work in policy at the local level in New York City and New York State. Local politics often get sneered at in favor of more high-profile jobs. Should they?
RD: That's a great question. I’m a big believer in people who go to public policy schools focusing on the state and city levels because you can do a lot more, quickly. If you’re really smart and really hardworking, those entities need you. We’ll give you responsibility and authority quickly, and you’ll be able to have an impact. If you go to Washington, it’s kind of a maw. You’re caught up in that for a long time before you can have any real effect. Remember that we live in a Federalist society and a Federalist country … The network of people working at lower levels of government makes a difference in the quality of life for American citizens in a way that people in Washington don’t.
DP: You’re the president of AEI, but you’re primarily a scholar of poverty. That’s an issue which has taken center stage in the Democratic primary this year. What’s your take on liberal ideas — like universal basic income — for tackling poverty?
RD: The first thing I’d say — and this might make some people uncomfortable — is that compared to where we’ve been in the past, our country right now is in a pretty good time. Child poverty is at an all-time low. African-American child poverty is at historic lows … So when politicians, for whatever reason, campaign with ideas to make dramatic, significant changes based on the idea that everything has failed ... I just think they’re wrong.
The conservatives that still quote President Reagan saying, “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won” are wrong. The liberals saying that we live in a broken, racist, discriminating, brutal society towards low-income Americans are wrong as well … When the Democratic candidates describe the current state of the economy, I don’t really recognize it.
DP: You weren’t always a conservative, but AEI is obviously a conservative think tank — and conservatism has evidently changed a huge amount since, say, the 2012 Obama vs. Romney election. Where do you think that a traditional conservative fits into the modern landscape?
RD: So, Jo, this is a very, very tough question for all of us at AEI.
We believe in open markets, and free trade across countries around the world. We think that helps Americans the most economically. And we believe that President Trump was elected in part because of his opposition to free trade agreements, and has implemented policies, including tariffs, that go against that.
Another policy is entitlement reform. Republicans and conservatives have always felt we ought to be concerned about the debt and the deficit. President Trump is not concerned about that … AEI scholars are going to continue to raise the issue of the long-term consequences of not facing up to this, the issue of the costs of the commitments we made.
Third is the foreign defense. President Trump came in, talking about neo-isolationism and withdrawing from the world. He’s done some things that have concerned AEI scholars. Other things he’s done have indicated that maybe he’s listening a little more, or willing to acknowledge that America has a role to play in the world. And we at AEI will fight that out...
Above all, we at AEI remain consistent to our principles of free markets, free people, limited government, economic opportunity for all, and a strong American role in this world. So we are — a lot of us are — a little bit discombobulated.
DP: Is there a book you think that everybody should have to read?
RD: I’m a big fan of All the King's Men. I think All the King’s Men is a beautiful novel about politics and humor and people. I really love that book … When I was at Princeton, I took a wonderful series of courses in American literature. We read everything from Twain to Poe, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway all the way to Updike. I think a good way to understand American history is not only through the history books, but also through the great novels. I think we should be broadly aware of the writers of fiction in the United States.
DP: We’re about out of time, so we’ll stop there. Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with me.
RD: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.