Let me begin with an academic caveat/truism: anecdotes are not data. I know that.
I will nevertheless repeat what I have often said: I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. If my graduate students are at all representative of their generation, they are admirable–inclusive, thoughtful and respectful of evidence.
We have just concluded the spring semester. I give my Law and Public Affairs class a take-home final with three essay questions, from which they are to choose one. Depending upon the question, I’m looking for essays that reflect understanding of the course content and an ability to apply it, recognition of the constraints imposed on policymakers by the Constitution and the rule of law, and a willingness to address the complexities of the conflicts currently bedeviling the policy process.
One of the essay questions on this semester’s final was the following:
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the 2016 election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, explain the very different views of American greatness suggested by the elections in 2016 and 2018. Do you think these very opposed views of our national character can be reconciled? Why or why not? If not, what do you believe will be the consequence?
Several students chose to respond to that question. I’d like to share parts of one of those responses, not just because it is well-written, but because I think it reflects views that are widely-held by members of the student’s generation.
The very actors who helped cause the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic downturn have again found a way to capitalize. Ironically, this time it’s on the distrust and anxieties that came out of the Great Recession, where so many lost their jobs or homes or health and have yet to regain any of it, despite this administration’s boasts of a bull market and rising GDP. “If we could just go back,” they argue (back to when or where exactly, no one knows), the answers to our problems must be found in the past. Whereas Donald Trump wants to “Make American Great Again,” Pete Buttigieg tells us “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’” After spending a lot of time thinking about what Buttigieg means by this, I keep coming back to the fundamental question of greatness: What constitutes it in the first place?
What we see today are two different views of greatness. The first sets its sights primarily on economic gain and American sameness, an image less of America but of Americana – one designed mostly by the mid-20th century rise in the advertising, media, and entertainment industries. It’s a place where complexity is reduced to palatable one-liners, a place that can be experienced on a postcard or a Route 66 tour bus. The other view of American greatness, as promulgated by Buttigieg and a host of other progressive voices, is rooted in a very different kind of principle, one I would argue is more realistic about the complexity of our society and the problems we face, but one that’s also hopeful about how American can become greater. This version of American greatness is grounded in the principle that the ways in which we are different from one another are also the ways in which we can be better together. It’s the notion that we can take the very best ideas from each corner of American society and weave those together to create a system that works for everyone. These two versions of greatness might face opposite directions, but their stake is the same: Who gets included in the realization of the Great American Ideal? More importantly, who gets left behind when change comes?
I think these paragraphs do a wonderful job of describing dramatically different visions of American “greatness,” and the very divergent paths the country may choose. My student has cast her vote, concluding that
Making American greater starts by figuring out how to make it work for everyone.
I fervently hope that it will be people like this student who take America into the future.