Here's Your Degree. Now Go Defeat Demagogues.
The following is an adaptation of an address to the University of Michigan’s class of 2016.
The most useful knowledge that you leave here with today has nothing to do with your major. It’s about how to study, cooperate, listen carefully, think critically and resolve conflicts through reason. Those are the most important skills in the working world, and it’s why colleges have always exposed students to challenging and uncomfortable ideas.
The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through “safe spaces,” “code words” and “trigger warnings” is, in my view, a terrible mistake.
The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations -- not run away from them. A microaggression is exactly that: micro. And one of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space, because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views.
We can’t do this, and we shouldn’t try -- not in politics or in the workplace. In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.
Think about the global economy. For the first time in human history, the majority of people in the developed world are being asked to make a living with their minds, rather than their muscles. For 3,000 years, humankind had an economy based on farming: Till the soil, plant the seed, harvest the crop. It was hard to do, but fairly easy to learn. Then, for 300 years, we had an economy based on industry: Mold the parts, turn the crank, assemble the product. This was hard to do, but also fairly easy to learn.
Now, we have an economy based on information: Acquire the knowledge, apply the analytics and use your creativity. This is hard to do and hard to learn, and even once you’ve mastered it, you have to start learning all over again, pretty much every day.
Keeping an open mind to new ideas is essential to your professional success -- just as it’s crucial to our collective future as a democratic society.
We are witnessing a disturbing change in the nature of American politics: a rise in extreme partisanship and intolerance for other views.
I’m a political independent, but over the course of my life, for nonideological reasons, I’ve been a Republican and a Democrat. So I can tell you: Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and each demonizes the other unfairly and dishonestly.
This is not a new phenomenon, but it has reached a dangerous new level. George Washington warned against the dangers of parties, but we have survived more than 200 years of political parties largely because the Founding Fathers created checks and balances to temper the fires of partisanship. Of course, they also excluded most Americans from their vision of democracy because they feared what democracy might produce. But over the past two centuries, through the sacrifices of so many civil rights leaders and soldiers, the promise of equal rights has spread across income, religion, race, gender and sexual orientation.
We still have a long way to go, and it would be a mistake to think that our progress is irreversible. Democracy and citizenship will always require constant vigilance against those who fan the flames of partisanship in ways that consume us and lead to, in Washington’s words, “the ruins of public liberty.”
We have certainly seen such figures before, in both parties. In the 1930s, there was the despotic Huey Long in Louisiana and Father Coughlin in Michigan, who blamed “Jewish conspirators” for America’s troubles. Then came Charles Lindbergh in the ’40s, Joe McCarthy in the ’50s, George Wallace in the ’60s and Pat Buchanan in the ’90s. Every generation has had to confront its own demagogues. And every generation has stood up and kept them away from the White House. At least so far.
In this year’s presidential election, we’ve seen more demagoguery from both parties than I can remember in my lifetime. Our country is facing serious and difficult challenges. But rather than offering realistic solutions, candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment. For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims. And for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street. The truth is: We cannot solve the problems we face by blaming anyone.
So why has it become so hard to find leaders who will lead from the front, rather than following from behind?
Here’s one reason, based on my experience: Today, elected officials who decide to support a controversial policy don’t just get angry letters, phone calls and faxes. They also get millions of angry tweets and Facebook posts denouncing them in the harshest possible terms. This is democracy in action. But this kind of instant condemnation also makes elected officials afraid to do things that, in their heart of hearts, they know are right.
Democracy in action can actually produce a lot of inaction, which we see every day in Washington and other levels of government, too. When governments fail to address the needs of the people, voters in both parties get angry and some politicians exploit that anger by offering scapegoats instead of solutions.
If we want to stop demagogues, we have to start governing again, and that requires us to be more civil, to support politicians who have the courage to take risks, and to reward those who reach across the aisle in search of compromise.
Doing this won’t be easy, and that’s partly because it’s not just social media that has changed the civic dialogue. The constant bombardment of news that we see on our phones, computers and TVs gives us the impression we are acquiring knowledge. Yet many of the sources, facts and interpretations are either dubious or colored by partisanship, or outright lies.
I say that as the owner of a media company who has seen how the marketplace has shifted. Today, people choose cable TV channels and websites that affirm their own political beliefs rather than ones that inform and challenge their beliefs. As a result, we have grown more politically cloistered and more intolerant of those who hold different opinions.
Think about this: In 1960, only 4 to 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they would be upset if a member of their family married someone from the opposing party. In 2010, one in three Democrats and one in two Republicans said they would disapprove of such a marriage. In 1960, most people would never have believed that interparty marriage would attract such resistance, while interracial and same-sex marriage would gain such acceptance.
For all the progress we have made on cultural tolerance, when it comes to political tolerance, we are moving in the wrong direction -- at campaign rallies that turn violent, on social media threads that turn vitriolic, and on college campuses, where students and faculty have attempted to censor political opponents.
As durable as the American system of government has been, democracy is fragile -- and demagogues are always lurking. Stopping them starts with placing a premium on open minds, voting, and demanding that politicians offer practical solutions, not scapegoats or pie-in-the-sky promises.
In 1928, Republicans promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard.” They won control of Congress and the White House, and a year later, instead of a chicken and a car, we got the Great Depression.
Today, when a populist candidate promises free college, free health care and a pony, or another candidate promises to make other countries pay for our needs, remember: Those who promise you a free lunch will invariably eat you for breakfast.
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David Shipley at email@example.com