A Reason for Optimism

Last Friday I spent several afternoon hours driving for Uber, a nice little retirement activity I do occasionally. I’ve been quiet on FB about the election results. Like almost all of my friends on this platform, I was surprised and disappointed, and the cabinet choices continue and deepen that disappointment almost on a daily basis. The environment is the big loser in this election, I believe, with the most serious consequences for our planet’s health and future. There will be other negatives, but the bottom line is that we lost – not because we nominated a woman – but because the candidate we nominated was badly flawed, and ran a bad campaign. And when you lose, the other side gets to make decisions for a while and you must endure their decisions and their smugness just as the Republicans have had to endure ours.

But yesterday 3 of my riders gave me reason to hope that America is still America and that we will continue to be the America that I have loved all my life. The first was a Navajo from Tucson, in Durham for a conference about environmental health. We quickly found a conversation about public lands in the American west and then she asked me how long it would take to drive to the Atlantic Ocean and how much that would cost her with Uber. She has some issues with the federal government’s land management, but was so excited about the opportunity to see and enjoy her country. You know I appreciated that excitement.

The second rider was from a west African nation that has survived under a dictator for decades. He left his home country 5 years ago and gained refugee status and was allowed into America. After 5 years in Boston he moved to Raleigh and yesterday I picked him up at the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Durham where he had just taken the oath that made him an American citizen. I wish you all could have seen and felt, as I did, the absolute joy that consumed that man. It radiated from his being. He had just experienced the greatest joy of his life when taking that oath. The feeling of optimism he had filled me up with joy as well. Now think about what this man faces. His native language is Arabic and though we did not discuss his religion, he is mostly likely Muslim. We have elected a president who has spoken of a Muslim ban and whose staff has entertained the idea of a Muslim registry. It’s as bad a time to be a Muslim in this country as it has ever been. Yet for this man, the dream of America had come true, and one of the reasons he was so thrilled is that with citizenship status, he can apply to bring his parents, whom he has not seen in 7 years, into America with him. He still believes that America represents hope.

The third rider was a first year student at NC State who is from China and is studying computer science. It was her first venture off of the immediate area of the State campus and into downtown Raleigh, and she was very excited with a sense of adventure about her. As badly flawed as our public education system is in this country (and our new Secretary of Education wants to dismantle it) we still have the finest universities in the world and the best students from all over come here to learn. I asked her if she wanted to stay in America, but who knows if she’ll be allowed to do that. But she was excited to be here and enjoying America.

Three nice stories, but is that really enough for optimism in the face of President Trump and total Republican control. Probably not in the short term. Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department? Bad things will happen, bad policies will be implemented, gas prices are about to rise significantly, interest rates just went up. But I’m a history teacher and the pendulum swings – it always does. We lost this round and we have to face the consequences. But there are things that we can count on in response. Republican victories in 1920 with Harding, 1952 with Eisenhower, 1980 with Reagan, and 2000 with George W Bush all followed more liberal periods. They all led to a shrinking role for government in regulating business, health, and labor practices in the country. Trump’s cabinet appointments very clearly signal a similar path. But none of Trump’s appointments were as bad as Reagan’s choice of James Watt, who wanted to build a tram to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The businessmen cabinets of both Harding and Eisenhower devolved into scandal-ridden administrations. Reagan tripled the national debt and followed his large tax cut with a large tax increase 6 years later. And the two biggest economic crises of the last 100 years followed eight years of Republican rule and deregulation in 1929 and 2008.

But should counting on your opponent’s failure be a cause for optimism. I hope Trump’s infrastructure bill passes, and I hope Democrats don’t do what the Republicans did 8 years ago by vowing to oppose anything Obama proposed, worthy or not. The ACA is a mess and needs improvements, and even the Republicans are now discussing a replacement strategy that will not take insurance away from people. That’s an important step for them. The wall on the Mexican border, if it is ever built, can be taken down by future presidents. There will be quite a lot of cleanup necessary after Trump’s four years. But few things are permanent in American politics. Democrats once were the party of white people. Republicans were once the party that believed in conservation and protected the environment. Now the Republicans are the party of white, and the Democrats the party of conservation. Things change, pendulums swing, and they will again.

It is good to remember that this is not a mandate election. More people voted for the Democratic candidate, and the Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress. My party got a much needed slap-in-the-face reminder that it should not take poor and working class white votes for granted. Trump has promised to bring manufacturing jobs back to America, but he won’t. If we believe in capitalism, we should level with the American people that those manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Why would a businessman pay $25 an hour to build an automobile here when he can pay $5 and build it just as well in Mexico. Trump’s solution is taxing imports. Again, look to the 1920s to learn that tariff wars between countries result in reduced sales and eventually economic slowdown that lead to depression.

We’re in for four rough years. We should stop whining about the Russians and hacking and emails and trying to convince electors to change their minds. We should learn that real passion for a candidate is more important than a campaign organization that emphasizes targeting voters. We lost. Plain and simple, by the rules, we lost. We have to live with it. But we do need to learn to compete everywhere, across the spread of incomes and ethnicities. The Republican philosophy is flawed and it will fail. The bigger worry is whether we will be smart enough to take advantage of that failure when it occurs. But that’s not what worries me most. What worries me most is that the American people no longer actually seek the truth. I long for the days in the 1950s and 1960s when the delivery of news to the American people was through a limited array of outlets that were generally trustworthy and reliable. What has happened with talk radio and cable tv and social media is that we now get designer news, aimed to please segments of the population. Rush Limbaugh, MSNBC, Fox target specific audiences. The fake news available on social media doesn’t get filtered. People can hear the news that they want to hear. That is permitted in a country that values free speech, and it undermines the strength and unity of that same country. The long-term implications of different ‘truths’ are frightening.

Seeing the joy surrounding the African man who became an American citizen last Friday reminded me of my dear friend Alycia Allen, a teacher at CHHS that many of you knew and and loved. She accompanied me and some of my yearbook staff members on a ski trip to Vermont in January of 1993. On our carefully timed way back to Chapel Hill, we attended the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. Clinton ended 12 years of Republican rule under Reagan and H.W. Bush. Those were twelve tough years for black Americans. I remember watching my friend Alycia, who was African American, that day. In much the same way that I could both sense and see joy in the new US citizen last Friday, I will never forget seeing Alycia’s head and shoulders lift as if a great burden had been lifted from her at the moment President Clinton took office. It was as if hope had been restored to her soul. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King comes from the speech he delivered following the long voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

That is why I am optimistic today, even in the midst of the failure of reason in my beloved state of North Carolina which continues to find ways to deepen its embarrassment of itself. American progress rarely happens in a straight line, and struggles are ahead, but I believe that in the long run, the arc will bend toward justice.