Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: Republic of dreams

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

When U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, who represents the predominantly black localities of Baltimore County, spoke in MacMillan Hall Tuesday, he was unsparing in his excoriation of the new American condition. In a talk that was largely extemporaneous and unprepared — “My speeches come from my heart, … so I don’t know what I’m gonna say,” he proudly admitted at the outset — Cummings discussed a dimension of politics generally neglected by opportunistic politicians and ratings-hungry media outlets: The unabated pain, sustained suffering and unrealized aspirations endured by far too many Americans.

In a particularly poignant story, Cummings explained that during his Congressional swearing-in ceremony, he observed tears in the eyes of his father, a man subjected to twentieth-century America’s excruciating prejudice. Cummings, laughing, asked his father why he was crying. His father, moved that his son was joining the same legislative body that had relegated blacks to second-class citizenship for centuries, replied, “I saw what I could’ve been.”

Encapsulated neatly in Cummings’ father’s heartbreaking response is the central trouble plaguing our country today: the torturous evaporation of hope. “There are too many people who, when they’re 60 years old, will be wondering what they could’ve been,” Cummings warned. According to Gallup, only 52 percent of Americans believe in the economic opportunity afforded by the American dream, down nearly 30 percentage points from three decades ago. If dreams truly are the “touchstones of our character,” as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, then the essence of America is in a state of egregious — but not irreversible — disrepair. Americans, almost by definition, wield an uncanny capacity to imagine a brighter, better future and pursue its realization endlessly. In effect, the moment we stop dreaming, we are no longer American.

The defining project of the twenty-first century must, therefore, be the revival of American optimism. Effective politics shouldn’t be limited to the straightforward business of creating policy, canvassing door-to-door or winning the next election. Instead, American politics must take on the loftier objective of keeping imaginations aflame: cultivating hope in a country that is growing hopeless, resuscitating the people’s ability to dream in a time of grave nightmares and restoring faith in a nation that has, since its inception, embodied the universal and fundamentally human mission of creating a safer, more prosperous and more inclusive society.

Mainstream politicians ought to internalize Cummings’ advice immediately. Indeed, it is the very negligence of hope that has permitted political outsiders to accumulate so much grassroots support this election cycle. Take, for example, the unprecedented popularity of Donald Trump. Hopelessness and manic desperation are the principal sources of motivation for his energetic supporters. Ideologically, Trump voters are not atypically extreme or radical. They fit solidly within the moderate Republican establishment. But his support base is white, middle-aged and lacks much education beyond high school or some college. And it is this specific demographic, probably more than any other group, that has acutely felt the economic disempowerment engendered by automation and globalization.

America’s manufacturing industry, seismically transformed by robots and foreign imports, once employed 25 percent of the country’s workforce, providing even uneducated Americans with access to well-paid work. Today, the industry constitutes only 9 percent of American jobs. With skyrocketing higher education costs and fewer low-skilled job opportunities, the people who adore Trump have no alternative means of material or spiritual self-advancement. To them, the American dream is legitimately dead. To them, the declinist motto, “Make America great again!” makes perfect sense. To them, blaming racial minorities is an easy — and maybe the only — coping mechanism in a world that has coldly and callously left them by the wayside.

This isn’t to say that Trump’s racist rhetoric or the deplorable actions of his supporters at rallies is excusable. It’s not, and level-headed citizens have a responsibility to reject the kind of close-minded discourse that, as Cummings put it, “turns (Americans) against each other.” But the prejudice and xenophobia ignited by Trump’s candidacy are merely manifestations of a more significant reality: The absence of hope directly enables the proliferation of hate. To classify Trump voters as monolithically bigoted or stupid, or “white trash,” is to ignore their genuine plight and overlook the prevalent hopelessness behind Trump’s meteoric ascendance. Even worse, urban liberals’ knee-jerk denunciation of Trump’s supporters, irrespective of their behavior, exhibits the same kind of ignorance and lack of compassion they so vehemently decry in Republicans. Trump, as a human being, might be worthy of our unwavering revulsion. But as a candidate admired by millions, he does deserve some serious and forthright examination.

Like Cummings’ father, who refused to let his son be defined by his struggles, we cannot let some of the perceived deficiencies of this year’s competitors mar the whole election. This presidential race isn’t — and shouldn’t become — an anti-Trump crusade. Instead, it needs to be an election of hope, one in which both the voting public and the candidates recognize that hope against all odds is a fundamentally American tradition and that its deliberate preservation is essential in ensuring that America remains what it has always been: not a republic of fear but a republic of dreams.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.