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In Search of a Just Society: Reflections on the 2016 Election with Professor Rob Reich

Professor Rob Reich
Dec 13 2016

By Elizabeth Bernal

A month after the Presidential election, I still vividly remember watching the events unfold late into the night as more and more states on the map turned red. I remember hearing the screams and cries of angry and devastated people from outside my window in my on campus apartment. The liberal bubble of the Stanford community had suffered a loss more profound than any I can remember during my five years on campus. I was in shock. In that moment, only one thing was certainmany of the truths I had held about a just, democratic, and compassionate country were called into question.

I woke up the next morning to realize, sadly, that I had not dreamt the painful events of the night before. This was our new reality. As I reached for my phone to shut off my alarm I saw an email from Professor Rob Reich who teaches the Public Policy core course Justice. The email read as following: “It seems to me impossible to conduct class today without addressing in some form or fashion the results of the US Election last night. I will devote a portion of class today to discussing the election outcome.  Please come to class with your own thoughts and reactions.”

That day, Professor Reich gave us the chance to collectively grieve and process our thoughts, questions, and discomfort in context with our studies in Public Policy and Political Philosophy. Grateful and inspired, I reached out to Professor Reich to find out more about his own views on the election, his pedagogical decision to incorporate the event into a class discussion, and his own takeaways from the insights of students.

 

Q: What made you decide to have a conversation with the class about the Presidential Election results?

A: As anyone who is in the class would know, the topic of the class, Justice, is something that seems to me deeply relevant to any student, any person’s, capacity to evaluate the legitimacy of democratic institutions around us, or for that matter, the justice or injustice of various aspects of what we see going on around us here and now. So, for me, the interest in studying political philosophy and talking about the issue of justice has to do not with memorizing what other people have said in the past but taking the thoughts that other people have had in the past about what it is that justice is and making them speak to or relevant for our own contemporary concern.

The election was resolved at 1 or 2 am and class met at 10:30 in the morning. It was, for everyone involved, a surprise outcome since virtually everyone had been predicting that Hillary Clinton was going to win. In part because there had been so much said leading up to the election about various ways in which the prospect of a Trump presidency was not just a reflection of policy differences between republicans and democrats but all kinds of destabilization--destabilizing long standing democratic norms in ways that might threaten the very aspirations of what democracy is or for that matter what justice might require. From comments about Mexicans to women to Muslims to the Mexican-American judge—you can go on a long list—these [concerns] are less policy concerns than ways of suggesting that long standing norms of democratic governance were being brought into question.

So, having been surprised myself about the outcome of the election, and knowing that it was on the minds of students, and in a way to show the connection between the content of the class and what’s going on around us, I thought it would have been irresponsible not to have allowed some conversation about the election to have happened. As I mentioned in the very beginning of my remarks, I honestly do view Donald Trump’s election as the most important political event of my lifetime next to 9/11. Not to make a comment on it seemed irresponsible to me.

Q: You said that the election was the most important event since 9/11, can you speak a little more as to why that is? How does this feel different from other events?

A: The easiest way to express it for me would be that Trump’s election represents a really sharp break with what you could describe as ordinary politics. By ordinary politics I mean the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have an internal battle to identify a nominee, and then there’s a contest between the two nominees about the direction that the new president wants to take the country in. What stands out to me about this election is that Donald Trump ran first against his own party and defeated sixteen other contenders and then ran against the Democratic Party and won that too. This represents Trump having defeated, as it were, both parties in an election and repudiating the ordinary political alignments that have long been a part of our basic political affairs. In so doing,  [Trump] left all kinds of uncertainty since he was so unforthcoming about the content of the things he wants to put in place, so people are making lots of guesses as to what’s going on.

Perhaps in a bigger picture even, we’re seeing the rise of populist movements across the world against the bipartisan or multi-partisan party establishment in different countries. What has long been a kind of global consensus around norms of tolerance, immigration, welcoming of certain types of diversity, and the role of experts within policy has now been called into question. The kinds of background rules and norms which have been the guideposts for politics are much more uncertain now. It seems like there’s a genuine danger now that the “institutional stabilizers, “as the framers of the United States Constitution would have put it, on executive power are being weakened.

Q:  One of the things that a lot of people are concerned about right now is the fact that our nation is truly divided, as evidenced by the election results. Weeks after the election, people are still protesting, rioting, and it appears few are willing to work together. Do you foresee a way to get things done, create policies, and work towards a just society? How do we move forward from here?

A: I feel like if it’s not possible to have a political environment in which policy compromise is possible to solve things and get things done, even though we should aspire to that, we ought to be able to hope for a political environment in which common ground can be found to support the constitution or large ideals of democratic governance, like freedom of speech, the fact that your ancestry should play no role in evaluating whether someone is an appropriate citizen, things like that. My own view is that the very place where common ground is most needed now is in taking these two very divided political camps, Democrats and Republicans or if you prefer those who voted for Trump and those who voted for Hillary Clinton, and asking the question of whether or not there is still common ground in support of the constitutional values that have long been part of the country. Leave policy disputes now to the side for the moment—I wonder now whether there is a bipartisan agreement of essential constitutional values, which is why this election seems so fraught.

Q: Were there any comments made by students that you found particularly interesting during the conversation?

A: I had written out to the class after [our discussion] was done saying that I appreciated the conversation because I had in part learned a lot too. One student expressed anxiety about going home for Thanksgiving because he said his parents were both Trump supporters. He basically had done everything he could to avoid talking politics with his parents in the past couple of months. Now, he had to go share Thanksgiving with them and he didn’t know how that was going to go. That reflected to me something about just how deep seated these political divides go. Back in ordinary days, you would go home and you would have a policy argument with your parents or whomever and say, “we love each other but we’ll agree to disagree on this,” or some version of that. This time around the stakes just seem different. I took him to be saying he was really anxious in a way, which wasn’t just about displeasure of talking politics over Thanksgiving, but what it would mean for him to go home to his parents, who voted for Trump, and presumably what it meant for his parents to see their son not supporting that.

The other thing that stood out to me was the student who said that she had grown up in New York City and didn’t know anyone who was a Trump supporter, and then had come to college at Stanford and also hadn’t met anyone who was a Trump supporter—her whole life had been surrounded by people, none of whom voted for Trump. Part of what made the prospect of a Trump presidency seem so frightening to her was the language as she put it of the “othering” of lots of other people. She realized that in the absence of having gotten to know anyone who was a Trump supporter, she was potentially just as guilty of “othering” Trump supporters as they were of “othering” other people. I thought this was a candid admission about one of the problems that all of us here at Stanford face, which is the lack of opportunities to reach across these political divides since we are in such a left wing bubble here—Stanford is a bubble, Silicon Valley is a bubble, California is a bubble.  It would be better if we had opportunities to be on sports teams, to have meals, to attend concerts, and to do things with people across political divides so we got to see them as full human beings rather than distant others.

Q: What was the most important point you wanted your students to take away from the discussion?

A: The thing I felt was almost most important to say, but also difficult to say, was trying to identify Stanford and the establishment as part of a generational problem in American politics. Stanford, as I had said, is the white-hot center of the production of the establishment, or the breeding ground for the elite in the United States and across the globe. That’s what we prize Stanford for--that we train leaders. If this is the case, we’ve produced leaders that have for thirty or forty years systematically ignored the economic prospects of those with a high school degree or less. We’ve stewarded over an economy that has produced enormous gains for a very tiny fraction of the population, no growth or a loss of economic security for a majority of the population, and genuinely declining fortunes for the people who’s job security has been threatened. That’s both a Republican and a Democratic fault. I think Stanford needs to look itself in the eye about exactly the types of leaders it aims to produce if we want to be taken seriously.

To put it differently, if you understand the vote, as I do, as a rejection of a longstanding establishment consensus about economic matters, well we are the training ground for this establishment. It’s us who has been rejected in many respects. If we’re not honest about that, we will have missed a lot about the election that’s right before our eyes.

 

This June, I will leave Stanford with a Masters Degree in Public Policy. I hope to take the skills I have gained through my studies to make lasting differences in the lives of people in our country. Along with the many others who will graduate alongside me, we must answer this question--what types of leaders will we be? Like Professor Reich said, we must look ourselves in the eyes and find our own faults. Taking the course Justice has been a truly transformative experience in that it has helped me begin to critically examine my own values and choices in the context of a just society. If the election has taught me anything, it is that it is not enough to have the best interests of others at heartwe must continue actively striving to truly understand one another compassionately. Only when we stop “othering” and start realizing that caring for and truly understanding our neighbors is not an option can we begin following the long, difficult, yet critically worthwhile path to a just society.

 

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