When I was young I believed in magical adults. I was taught or convinced myself that there was this circle of elite, highly-educated folks out there who knew what was going on in the world and had answers to all the complex issues. I was born at the twilight of the Carter presidency so my “discovering what is happening in the world years” were largely during the Reagan & HW Bush administrations. Admittedly, I was an odd kid; I remember revering folks like James Baker, a Republican presidential whisperer, who served in several administrations. I may not have agreed with folks like Baker on policies, but they were at least smarter than everyone I knew (or so I thought) and they had life figured out (or so I thought).
Adulthood, time, reality, the War in Iraq, the 2008 Housing Collapse, the response to Katrina, the general dysfunction of the Democratic Party, etc. have all helped to disabuse me of much of this. Moreover, over the past few years I’ve paneled and met with state school superintendents, Senators, Harvard educated fancy-folk, and a couple of billionaires. I’ve found that my mediocre high school GPA, community college attendance, and state university education often stand up well against theirs. I’ve shed my belief in the cabal of wise, magical adults. If you’re dorky enough to read this, then the answers we need to the societal questions we face are within you.
That said, I’m still an institutionalist. I believe in the power of the state and in the importance of having thoughtful folks in important roles in our society. The anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of the Trump Moment repulse me. Throw-the-bums-out-ism may feel good, but when the national fever breaks, I think it’ll be clear: we’re better off with “statist bums” from the ideological mainstream of either party than “outsiders” who govern by cliche, white-ethno-nationalism, and authoritarian populism.
At times, I feel like I’m shifting into an early stage black Andy Rooney--I don’t think we read enough; I feel like we don’t learn lessons from history. Post-election, I’ve diversified my news line-up. I’ve made it a point to read the Sunday paper. I’ve discussed with my students the need for active rather than passive news consumption--seeking out thoughtful journalism rather than passively consuming what shows up on their timelines. Via my podcast I’m trying to have more thoughtful conversations about the interconnectedness of issues (economics, politics, education, journalism, etc.).
I have a lot of concerns about our collective future. I’m not one of those “Trump voters are all racists” or “if you voted for Trump, you’re an idiot” people. I think the vast, vast majority of Trump voters really, really hated Hillary Clinton and really, really like the idea of massive tax cuts (but not the consequences: debt and deep discretionary spending cuts). In this moment, we have to differentiate between “Trump Supporters” and “Trump Persuadables,” and folks like us have to talk to folks like them about our collective future. Oh man, twenty-five-year-old me hates thirty-seven-year-old me for writing that sentence.
To that end, I’m going on a conservative AM talk show later this month to talk about my teaching. I hosted the GOP Gubernatorial Nominee as a guest lecturer in my classroom, and I plan to have some Republican electeds on the Nerd Farmer Podcast in May. We need a more thoughtful and engaged citizenship. In this era of political polarization we need to intentionally cultivate difficult conversations across ideological lines. And people like twenty-five year-old me have to become comfortable making common cause with folks they don’t agree with on every issue.
I think too many of us are taking an “it’ll all work out” approach. I don’t buy that. There’s a non-zero probability we’re headed toward a dark, violent, less prosperous future. Recently, while discussing Russia’s democracy-in-name-only-surveillance-state, Yale Professor Timothy Snyder said that "Russia is a possible negative future for the United States.” If we don’t know, teach, and understand our history and safeguard our norms and institutions, regression becomes as likely an outcome as progress. This is how the Visigoths sacked Rome. We aren’t guaranteed a hyper-egalitarian, Star Trek Federation, techno-fabulous near-future. We have to earn that.