Amidst the gloom and doom that is today’s political environment, there are rays of hope.
I often tell people that I would turn the country over to my students in a heartbeat. They are inclusive, community-oriented and passionate about fairness and civic equality. (Granted, they have enrolled in a School of Public and Environmental Affairs, so they are arguably a self-selected group.)
In my graduate law and policy class, I give a take-home final. (This is an effort to make up for a difficult in-class midterm, a demanding group project and a 20-page research paper.) The final consists of three questions; students are to choose one of the three and write an essay addressing it.
Unlike that midterm, there are no right or wrong answers. I’m looking for thoughtful responses–answers that tell me that they have considered the strengths and weaknesses of American governance and have formed defensible policy positions.
Two of the questions on this year’s final elicited particularly interesting responses. Here’s one of them:
It is 2020, and you have been elected President of the United States. You are following an administration that has made significant—even monumental—changes to American public policies. Which of those changes would you accept and follow? Which would you change? (I am not looking for exhaustive lists; choose one or two areas to discuss and justify your decision to accept or reject the current administration’s approach.) For each policy you would retain or reverse, explain why it is or is not supportive of the common good and/or consistent with America’s Constitutional values.
The students who chose this question were uniformly critical of the current administration, and very specific in their critiques. They all faulted Trump on environmental policy. Several pointed out that the “Muslim ban” violated the First Amendment. Economic policy and the tax “reform” bill came in for considerable scorn, as did efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act and failures to enact meaningful gun control or improve immigration policy.
I was particularly struck by essays from students addressing this question:
Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? Your essay should address:The type/structure of government you would create; the powers it will have; the limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced; how government officials will be chosen and policies enacted;the social and political values you intend to privilege, and the reasons for your choices.
When I’ve included a similar question in the past, most students have dutifully constructed a government patterned after that of the U.S. This year, there were more creative efforts, some borrowing from European and Canadian models, others proposing “from scratch” governance concepts. Three or four proposed to outlaw political parties, and all of them suggested mechanisms intended to prevent gridlock. A couple included stringent qualifications for holding public office.
All the responses included universal healthcare and other elements of a robust social safety net–including, in one case, a Universal Basic Income. All of them included mechanisms meant to eliminate or vastly reduce the role of money in politics. All of them provided for a rigorous civic education. All of them emphasized and protected the right to vote (some made Election Day a holiday, some allowed vote-by-mail and a couple made voting mandatory. One made vote suppression a felony.) All had laws protecting civil liberties and the environment.
All of them described legal systems protective of civic equality, and most suggested policies promoting respect for diversity.
The proposals weren’t uniformly practical, and there wasn’t a lot of space for details in any event, but virtually all of them showed that the writers had genuinely grappled with the question and considered the essential elements of a just society.
Needless to say, all of them came across as more thoughtful and informed than Donald Trump and his swamp.
If this country manages to survive the current administration, we’ll be in good hands.