The Next Generation

Let me begin with an academic caveat/truism: anecdotes are not data. I know that.

I will nevertheless repeat what I have often said: I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. If my graduate students are at all representative of their generation, they are admirable–inclusive, thoughtful and respectful of evidence.

We have just concluded the spring semester. I give my Law and Public Affairs class a take-home final with three essay questions, from which they are to choose one. Depending upon the question, I’m looking for essays that reflect understanding of the course content and an ability to apply it, recognition of the constraints imposed on policymakers by the Constitution and the rule of law, and a willingness to address the complexities of the conflicts currently bedeviling the policy process.

One of the essay questions on this semester’s final was the following:

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the 2016 election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, explain the very different views of American greatness suggested by the elections in 2016 and 2018. Do you think these very opposed views of our national character can be reconciled? Why or why not? If not, what do you believe will be the consequence?

Several students chose to respond to that question. I’d like to share parts of one of those responses, not just because it is well-written, but because I think it reflects views that are  widely-held by members of the student’s generation.

The very actors who helped cause the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic downturn have again found a way to capitalize. Ironically, this time it’s on the distrust and anxieties that came out of the Great Recession, where so many lost their jobs or homes or health and have yet to regain any of it, despite this administration’s boasts of a bull market and rising GDP. “If we could just go back,” they argue (back to when or where exactly, no one knows), the answers to our problems must be found in the past. Whereas Donald Trump wants to “Make American Great Again,” Pete Buttigieg tells us “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’” After spending a lot of time thinking about what Buttigieg means by this, I keep coming back to the fundamental question of greatness: What constitutes it in the first place?

What we see today are two different views of greatness. The first sets its sights primarily on economic gain and American sameness, an image less of America but of Americana – one designed mostly by the mid-20th century rise in the advertising, media, and entertainment industries. It’s a place where complexity is reduced to palatable one-liners, a place that can be experienced on a postcard or a Route 66 tour bus. The other view of American greatness, as promulgated by Buttigieg and a host of other progressive voices, is rooted in a very different kind of principle, one I would argue is more realistic about the complexity of our society and the problems we face, but one that’s also hopeful about how American can become greater. This version of American greatness is grounded in the principle that the ways in which we are different from one another are also the ways in which we can be better together. It’s the notion that we can take the very best ideas from each corner of American society and weave those together to create a system that works for everyone. These two versions of greatness might face opposite directions, but their stake is the same: Who gets included in the realization of the Great American Ideal? More importantly, who gets left behind when change comes?

I think these paragraphs do a wonderful job of describing dramatically different visions of American “greatness,” and the very divergent paths the country may choose. My student has cast her vote, concluding that

Making American greater starts by figuring out how to make it work for everyone.

I fervently hope that it will be people like this student who take America into the future.


  1. It’s a cute anecdote but doesn’t include much depth. The key is * HEGEMONY*. Unless you understand a basic corporate hierarchical chart, your discussion is shallow and meaningless….and also moot.

    Power and how it is distributed is the key. It’s a problem of today in defining greatness and all other impediments which prevent us from being “great.”

    Please bear with me as my mind and keystrokes don’t function well together as I struggle with new medications.

    What this country has now is a corporatist structure; hierarchy and all. The boards are “informal, and so are the “CEOS.,” but the structure is an Oligarchy — a few on top of the pyramid and the many below.

    Depending on what layer you’re asking the questions to, you will reliably different answers.

    A democratic form of government would see an inverted corporate pyramid. The masses would be at the top and those “serving” the masses would be below. The POTUS is the ultimate servant to all Americans.

    Today, he acts authoritarian — he/she rules over the people instead of serving them. That is a HUGE philosophical distinction.

    Have your students prepare a current hierarchy of the USA and compare it to what the Founders envisioned/laid out. From there, we’ll be able to see some glaring issues and why greatness means different things to different people depending on where you are in the hierarchy.

    Some of us who write on this blog will intuitively know, but others will awaken to it.

  2. How great! This student is a reflection of why America, taken one individual at a time, IS great. You are so fortunate to be able to read student essays. I know I looked forward to your lectures when I was in your class! Thanks for writing for us every day.

  3. Todd’s metaphor of an inverted pyramid might be taken by some as a plea for Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which would get him nowhere in attracting people who agree with him.

  4. “Making American greater starts by figuring out how to make it work for everyone.”

    It doesn’t take much “depth” to recognize that this country is run by corporations and the wealthy 1% or that this is due to Citizens United and the Electoral College removing our democracy “of the people, by the people and for the people” which President Abraham Lincoln hoped would not “perish from the earth”. Citizens United and the Electoral College have removed all control and all opportunity for any control; thus all possibility of how to make America greater by “….figuring out how to make it work for everyone.” The economy appears to be flourishing…but only for corporations and the wealthy while working people find themselves with no benefit from Trump’s “tax reform” and retirees have less and less money due to soaring prices on all goods and services. If COLA is based on the GDP as reported quarterly; we should all receive the benefit a nice increase in 2020.

    “I fervently hope that it will be people like this student who take America into the future.”

    Have any of the currently 21 Democratic presidential wannabes expressed any of the wisdom in the above student’s observations for Making America Greater…an excellent aim to make things work for everyone.

  5. I appreciate that Sheila is teaching her students critical thinking and that there is almost never one perfect answer to questions regarding political and economic situations and even many life situations that they will find themselves in. Her course will most likely help them throughout their lives in making daily decisions.

    My concern about her students and any other members of the younger generations is “what will they choose to do once they are out in the real world and have to earn a living”? What percentage of them will choose to put themselves and their own comfort first over making personal choices that would be better for our country, our environment, etc, etc.? When they are faced with these hard decisions will they prioritize their own comfort and convenience over doing what is best for everyone – choices that will demand they give up personal comfort, convenience, and financial gain in order to do the ‘right’ thing for everyone’s benefit? We will have to wait and see.

    I hope that after seeing and living through the damage that has been done by selfish capitalists they will vow to be better people than the generations before them and make the hard decisions that will have to be made in order to try to turn around the direction of this country.

  6. JoAnn,

    Unfortunately COLA isn’t based on GDP. rather on what is laughingly called the “market basket.” This includes basic food and beverages, housing costs, apparel, transportation expenses, along with other items thought necessary. The tricky thing here is that cost of transportation, which includes gas prices. The volatility of gas prices keeps us from receiving a accurate cola in many years when gas prices drop significantly, only to go up later in the year. If the cola were to be truly meaningful for retirees and servicemen and women, that cost would be either eliminated or weighted to minimize its effect .

    I applaud the student’s review of the differences between 2016 and 2018, but I’m mindful of my own generation which started out protesting the war in Vietnam and haling Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. We thought we were the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” How disappointing to look back and see, not a new age of enlightenment, but that we are the chief proponents of greed and arrogance.

  7. A culture of hope and informed civil discourse is a far better state. Thank you, Sheila, for your inspired service as teacher among the very best in an institution of higher education. You have reason to dance a lighter step.

  8. Professor Kennedy has opened up one of my favorite topics today – governing philosophy – so brace yourself for my philosophical take, as follows. One could argue that Citizens United brought us nothing new but merely affirmed the existing order of things, i.e., made it official, which suggests that we dissidents should spend our time and energy on changing the undergirding realities that brought us Citizens, to wit: a political order that allows libertarian Kochs and Mercers and other dark money zillionaires to buy elections. The remedy is called voting, assuming Putin allows such process to proceed.

    How did we get to where we are, and what are we doing to identify and rid ourselves of governing philosophies that harken back to East India Tea days of royal monopoly one step removed from today’s financiers on Wall Street (the new royalty)? Are we still operating as an East India Tea monopoly under cover of weak and unenforced Sherman and Clayton Acts which were thrown to the masses during the Gilded Age as a bone to avoid civil commotion and the wrath of Teddy Roosevelt? Who these days is enforcing Sherman, Trump or even recent Democratic presidents, or are they too beholden to libertarian and PAC cash to advocate for the 99% (except when on the stump)? Perhaps it is time to attack underlying causes as well as the symptoms of our current economic and political malaise in this lord v. serf brawl (1% vs. 99%), as in, by what right do the few control the distribution of the wealth and income from our economy?

    Given all of the above, what is it going to take to see real reform in allocation of power and resources between the lords and the serfs? Will even a Putin-less election do the trick, or are we merely changing faces while the East India Tea design continues? When will the serfs be welcome in the castle they built and still maintain?

    I have more questions than answers about how to cobble together a just society from the current chaos, so you be the judge. What now?

  9. Peggy; mea culpa. COLA is based on Consumer Price Index (CPI) does include gas which price does fluctuate but goods and services costs goes only in one direction…skyward at an ever increasing rate. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) reflects a broad measurement of the nation’s overall economic activity and includes all private and public consumption. Isn’t CPI included in all private and public consumption and thus part of the GDP? And I am asking; as a public consumer who struggles to reconcile my checkbook the instant my bank statement arrives I should understand this better. I am simply the bookkeeper who transfers my Social Security and PERF income from PNC bank to creditors for those “thought to be necessities” such as local utility monopolies, replacing my 31 year old furnace which died during last year’s ice storm, my 17 year old fridge which died, new hard drive to replace the used hard drive of unknown age to maintain communication due to my deafness, $2,400 in repairs on my 23 year old car, tripled medication costs in a three month period. Nearby Thrift Stores are gone so my wardrobe hasn’t been replaced for quite a while, probably no included in any economic statistic.

    “My concern about her students and any other members of the younger generations is “what will they choose to do once they are out in the real world and have to earn a living”?

    I repeat Nancy’s concern copied and pasted above; trying to understand the convoluted workings of this government and corporate control of America makes me ask again, “Have any of the currently 21 Democratic presidential wannabes expressed any of the wisdom in the above student’s observations for Making America Greater…an excellent aim to make things work for everyone.” I especially ask that of the two qualified “elder statesmen” seeking our votes who are well aware of the true economic condition in this country over recent decades.

  10. The students often reflect what thier teacher/professor motivates them to be. Well done. Critical thinking is most important to any classroom on any subject. That’s why Republicans hate it so much. The “sameness” and economic measuring sticks are the only thing they have to retain power.

    Good work, Sheila.

  11. Gerald,

    Perhaps it is time to attack underlying causes as well as the symptoms of our current economic and political malaise in this lord v. serf brawl (1% vs. 99%), as in, by what right do the few control the distribution of the wealth and income from our economy?

    Ditto. Better late than never!

  12. Gerald,

    When the Germans decided to “attack the underlying causes” it was TOO LATE. It appears we’ve following them almost “step by step.”

    See “The Oster Conspiracy of 1938” by Terry Parssinen (Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, 2003).

  13. “The new authoritarian capitalists exploited the mismatch between the rhetorical exhortations of the Bush administration, as it pursued its agenda of “democratization” around the world, and the tawdry practices it indulged in—from the manipulation of evidence leading up to the Iraq War to the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the systematic torture in secret jails around the world, illegal “rendition flights,” and extraterritorial incarceration of hundreds of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

    In order to succeed in this moral void, the new authoritarians made a PACT with their respective people. Although the precise rules varied from country to country, the template was always the same. Repression was selective, confined to those who openly challenged the status quo. The
    number of people who fell into that category was actually very small—journalists who criticized the state or published information that cast the powerful in a negative light, lawyers who defended these agitators, and politicians and others who publicly went out of their way to “cause trouble.”

    The remaining members of the population could freely travel and could live more or less as they wished.”

    “Freedom for Sale: Why the world is trading democracy for security” by John Kampfner (Basic Books, New York, 2010) pp. 5-6.

    This is why we will, more than likely, follow the Germans into the same “dark hole,” as they did.

  14. As with the youth oriented Gun Violence Prevention (GVP) movement – #TeamEnough – I have witnessed and believe the coming 2020 election will show the engagement of the millennial. As I look to offer hope and energy for voters I am buoyed by the underpinnings of energy that is resonating with people like the students in Sheila’s classes. It is a reflection I hold dear and will embrace for the future should my prediction about their engagement come true. Please continue to speak to us of your classes and their energy. There are times when I need to hear their “song”!

  15. The greatness of a nation is embedded inside its people and is affected only at the margins by the qualities and actions of its elected leaders. We must now admit based on history that a even a democratic republic like ours will often choose “less than great” leaders who in turn tend to rely on similarly inadequate subordinate staff, advisors, and political allies, and will cater to those who’ve aided them in acquiring power. We hope that will not be the case, but to trust that it won’t is to defy the odds. That suggests a truly great nation with permanence is one that can find its voice, maintain its values, and prosper in SPITE of how flawed its elected leaders happen to be from time to time.

    Why would we elect flawed leaders at the national level? Because although we have some opportunity to know about those leaders beforehand, we pay too little attention. Also, any such knowledge is really just impressions, filtered by staging, exaggeration, self-promotion, media fascination with sound bites, and the often contrived slamming by campaign opponents. Tightly wrapping oneself up in the colors of any candidate, no matter how attractive, is to set the stage for disillusionment. Voting strictly on party affiliation is another trap. Most of the elected power elite incumbents remain, no matter how incapable of they are, or how unwilling they are to collaborate toward national achievements. Often they disappoint us. Yet, we individuals who make up this nation manage to persevere, move forward and make the nation work despite its governmental and political foibles.

    The principles enunciated in our Constitution, to the extent they are preserved and followed, are what ensure that individuals and collegial collections of individuals are allowed and energized to voluntarily keep the nation moving forward by dint of our own efforts. As members, we have the strongest incentives to keep our nation great and to pass its values and traditions along to those who follow. Those incentives are: our individual, family, and collegially-defined best interests.

    Freedom of thought and action in pursuit of our best interests, is essential to national greatness, but that falls one step short. What we define as our “best interests” must be the recognition that we will be greater, more secure, and ultimately more prosperous as a nation when others outside our immediate circles also find themselves in the best positions to succeed. Without that conviction, we risk being too self-centered and short-sighted to be “great” as a nation. An ongoing win/lose mentality regarding others is corrosive.

    “Populism” is a word that touches on my thinking, and “Progressive (or Inclusive) Populism” is an extension of that, adding the dimension of promoting opportunity for others not closely connected to us but who should be enabled and encouraged to succeed — as an integral part of potential national greatness.

  16. Every day, I am encouraged by the integrity, intelligence, and the broad acceptance of different cultures and ideas by these young adults. I wish I could live another hundred years, so I could see the amazing things they will accomplish. I’m ready to give them the helm of this ship right now.

  17. out in the world,today,the younger, mellenials,students, thanks, you are aware. when im on the road,i will tend to go downtown in places ive yet to visit. the gathering of young people,are,talking,and taking notes. they have what we didnt,a way to get information,and sources and social interaction,via i phone. reconize the tool,that can change this. we are better aware of the scam politics,and scam think tanks,and news.we grew up looking at newspapers,and making hopeful decisions. are we in good hands for the future,after this present mob in the white house,we have opened our eyes,and question the facts,now i believe,we can get over this,or,,,,,its boardroom votes in out futures,not the democracy we have today..

  18. Democracy can be viewed as an inverted pyramid but I think that that misses an important point because it emphasizes who has the power. Democracy though is designed to serve a society wherein there are nothing but many minorities. In order to be the necessary voting majority virtual alliances have to spontaneously form and therefore a majority understanding has to emerge which gives no demographic power but represents the average voter.

    The idea of a controlling majority is the result of the branding of pervasive entertainment media changing the virtual majorities and attempting to achieve an real majority by widening the definition of those minorities to be inclusive enough to define a actual majority.

    Thus evangelicals, white racists, gun toters, unemployed underemployables, oligarchs and misogynists can become a virtual majority (or in Trump’s case close enough to one to be able to be helped over the finish line by enemies of the country).

    The MAGA majority brand encompasses all the minorities who were entitled by the past and therefore don’t want to let it go enough to ignore the obviously impending future.

  19. Peggy – What “we”? The Boomers are a huge group of people. “We” did fight for Civil Rights — and won some battles, although the war isn’t over. “We” protested to end the war in Vietnam. It took a while, but that was a success. Feminism came of age with the Boomers.

    But –(however much I hate to do so) — I will paraphrase DIckens – we were the best of generations, we were the worst of generations.

    While some were protesting and trying to bring the Age of Aquarius, others came from their private schools and wanted to grow up to be like Fred Trump. My undergrad campus had SDS and sit-ins, but it also had conservatives who brought WiIliam F. Buckley, Jr. to campus to “show those liberals”. (I remember that Buckley drew a lot of false equivalencies and used his vocabulary to his advantage.)

    I hate trying to put a whole generation into a box. However, if you want to – in our youth, we Boomers tried to change the world for the better. I won’t pick on Gen X. The Millennials, however, have picked up the mantle — or some of them have. It was a YOUNG woman I saw in Nashville on July 4 with her “America over everything” tee-shirt.

    History doesn’t progress in a straight line. Boomers did their part – and after family and jobs, I think they will be doing it again. There were a huge number of people I met during the Obama campaign that told me that they hadn’t been involved since McCarthy or Bobby. I welcome the Millennials, but I am not going away.

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