by Marcia Stepanek
The Gift of Gab
Robert Rosenkranz, 64, is chairman and CEO of Delphi Financial Group, Inc., and the founder and host of Manhattan’s celebrated IQ2 Forum, a monthly gethering of the city’s top movers & shakers in social change. They use the forums to debate some of the most pressing issues of the day. Rosenkranz, whose family’s Rosenkranz Foundation funds the forums, says his goal is to restore a spirit of “sophisticated debate” over issues facing society today. Contribute’s Editor-in-Chief, Marcia Stepanek, caught up with Rosenkranz in October. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
You host what has been called Manhattan’s ultimate dinner party—a monthly gathering motivated by your desire to improve the quality of public discourse today. Why are you so concerned?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in public policy, yet I’ve felt that we’re all just too angry, too emotional, too bitter, too partisan, and too rancorous as a society when it comes to national issues. We needed a forum where people could listen to both sides of an argument and come away, hopefully, with the idea that there’s an intellectually respectable position on the other side. It was in my mind that this would be a very desirable thing to have in our world.
Why this format?
I discovered the Intelligence Squared debates in London, which were live events, very similar to what we’re doing here, and I thought, gosh, this is a really nice format because it involves the audience. They’re engaged, they ask questions, they vote. The whole idea is to take a side on an issue, and then to get the audience to vote with you or against you on your stance after hearing your thoughts pro or con. I presented it to National Public Radio, and they were just incredibly enthusiastic and green-lighted it right away.
Any surprises during the debates?
Yes. People actually have changed their minds as a result of these discussions. Our forum to discuss global warming was sort of incredible in that way. People came to hear someone make the case that “global warming is not a crisis” and the audience felt absolutely that it was a crisis coming in, but then felt the other way going out. Another gathering, to discuss China, went similarly. People came in feeling like China was a significant threat and went away feeling that, no, it was not.
I think people are just more open-minded than the media give them credit for. Even those people who don’t change their minds come away with the idea that these issues are not so cut-and-dry as they may previously have thought.
I remember when we used to say in this country that partisan politics stops at the water’s edge. I remember when everyone responsible in both political parties felt that whatever their disagreements were domestically, we should have bipartisanship in foreign policy. That, obviously, has gone by the wayside. The level of discussion today is, instead, angry and short. I mean, when television tries to show two viewpoints, it’s usually people screaming at each other in short sound bites. My IQ2 forums offer an opportunity to raise the bar, to have a higher level of discussion. You know, an eight-minute argument, or resolution, is time enough to put forth a sophisticated case on a lot of issues.
Which has been the most controversial topic so far?
Global warming. That, I think, was the fourth-most downloaded thing on all of NPR. That’s a pretty big ripple, and we’re always getting e-mails from around the country from listeners.
We did one on Immigration, then one on Russia, called, Russia Is Becoming Our Enemy Again. We’re doing one on affirmative action, and the resolution is, It’s Time to End Affirmative Action. The one on aid to Africa will be, Aid to Africa is Doing More Harm than Good.
Who funds these debates?
My foundation, the Rosenkranz Foundation, is the primary funder, and we’ve had a very gratifying amount of support from a wider public.
Generally, the philanthropy that I’ve done in the past has been about writing checks to large organizations. Writing a check is a lot easier than hosting these forums, but in terms of making a difference, this is much more satisfying, and perhaps more effective. I mean, were it not for us, these debates would never have happened. It’s certainly, far and away, the most satisfying philanthropic undertaking I’ve experienced.