Roland Davidson: Dear Ford Class of 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017 - 4:18pm

We’re graduating into a world that is more fractious than ever before. This statement, which has been repeated for years, has moved from insight to truism to enduring political reality. We can put our heads in the sand, drown out the rest of the world with Colbert clips and retreat into our enclaves. Or we can do something about it. Personally, the last six years of the Obama administration lulled me into a sense of complacency. We lived under a divided government with incremental social victories on the national level by the left, like the expansion of LGBTQ rights, and by the right on the local level, like restrictions on abortion access.

I often recall the quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” There’s inevitability to it. But after watching the liberal (small "l" Lockean liberal, not big "L" Democrat liberal) world order tear at the seams, I’ve begun to realize that our future is not inevitable. We must actively work to craft the world in which we want to live.

This might sound obvious. I’m sure that the Facebook commenters will tear me a new one for sharing such an obvious failing. But I would seriously ask that everyone try to find a way they can make the world a better place. Even if you’re working outside policy as a 9 to 5 (more realistically 9 to 9) business consultant, find time to volunteer at a food bank or tutor children on the weekends. It’s too easy to become complacent. Seriously reflecting and finding the time to help make the world a better place is part of our duty to the American people.

Right now, the United States is going through a period of deep unrest, but I think we have an opportunity. Politics is often defined as the art of the possible. But what is possible seems to have shrunk. Gone are the New Deals, the Great Societies, even the Contracts with America. I don’t mean to sound like a Sanders acolyte — I’m not — but I really do believe this is the time we need to relitigate American truths. Why can’t the United States have a welfare state like the Netherlands? Why can’t we have a universal basic income, a policy that Nixon privately supported?

Ross Douthat, The New York Times’ token Republican, has spent the past couple months writing about policies that he believes would be good for society but politically impossible. I implore each of my readers to think about why their ideal world is “politically impossible.” Social security seemed impossible 100 years ago, and now it’s a cornerstone of our political reality. With dedication, we can expand the scope of the possible.

Beyond legislative goals, we need to reflect on how to create a truly inclusive civic society. The sexual revolution liberated millions of women. But now evangelical Christians are feeling increasingly endangered by a more sexual public sphere. Perhaps part of this may be due to misogyny, but part of it comes from a very real place of having their values threatened. How do we create a country that caters to both groups? I don’t have the answer, but I think there’s room in the middle for both groups to find common ground. Both a number of feminists and religious conservatives have criticized the prevalence of pornography in our society, perhaps for different reasons, but there’s room for collaboration that could help build a more inclusive society.

But there are basic values we can’t compromise; they are too essential for our democracy. We must maintain a respect for open participation. Our democracy is better when more people vote. However, this is at risk. Voting identification laws have consistently stifled the voices of the most marginalized among us. Furthermore, gerrymandering has been used by Republicans and Democrats to make elections more difficult to contest. Both tactics may be politically expedient but they whittle our democracy’s foundation.

We also must have compassion for the oppressed. Listen with an open heart and an open mind when a person in pain tells you about their struggles. This extends to people we wouldn’t traditionally view as marginalized. It’s truly a privilege to attend the University of Michigan, and the critical thinking skills that we’ve honed have been a blessing. With this degree, we’re part of the intellectual elites. With that honor comes an obligation. Many don’t have the luxury to learn in the environment we have. We need to learn how to talk to those people. That means having uncomfortable conversations with the archetypical racist uncle or your teenage brother when he makes offhand sexist comments. That means standing up for others even when it’s difficult for you.

Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, I was relatively uncritical of his mass surveillance policies because I trusted him. Now that President Donald Trump has control over the National Security Agency, I’ve become increasingly concerned about what effects mass data collection will have on undocumented immigrants and Muslims. In 1967, Noam Chomsky warned about the danger of left-wing intellectuals being co-opted by the Johnson administration’s imperialist policies. We have to remain critical of our own government, even when candidates we support hold the reins of power.

Lastly, there are dark fringes that have moved increasingly center-stage this past year. These are not people with whom we negotiate. We can’t debase ourselves by acting as though the ideologies that undergird the alt-right are as legitimate as any other. This is not a missive against the Republican Party. Since I’ve come to attend the Ford School of Public Policy, I’ve come to respect a number of staunch Republicans and understand that we have common goals. For example, a number of mainstream conservatives, such as Marco Rubio and Newt Gingrich, have recognized the reality of racist policing. Let’s keep our eyes and ears open for unexpected allies outside of our own camp and build new coalitions to achieve our goals.

However, we must remain vigilant. While some populist Democrats share Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s desire for a massive infrastructure bill, working with him further cements Bannon’s power and political legitimacy. But we need to distinguish between the Steve Bannons and the Ben Sasses of the world, between people who are willing to stand up against the bigotry in their own ranks and those who will abuse our political system for their nefarious ends.

With an enduring commitment to our most important values and constant questioning of the world around us, we can really make the world a better place. That’s really the crux of public policy. When you strip away all the trappings, that’s why we all chose to study our discipline. Borrowing from Herman Cain, borrowing from Pokemon, I would like to leave everyone with these words of wisdom: “Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. It's never easy when there's so much on the line. But you and I can make a difference. There's a mission just for you and me … Just look inside and you will find just what you can do.”

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.