Harvard Talk

For the fiftieth reunion of my Harvard class of 1969, I was asked to serve on a panel of five classmates to discuss “The State of Our Democracy.”

I had written five books about politics and history and had covered presidential politics for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Atlanta Constitution.

We were limited to five-minute opening statements. I tried to explain why Donald Trump had been elected president. The other panelists did not look with favor on my remarks. For the record, they were President Obama’s science advisor, the former attorney general of Arizona, an immigration lawyer, and a law professor at Northeastern University.

I have a story to tell about the 2016 election. I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, twelve thousand people. Graduated from high school in 1965. Guys in my class who were not going on to college had their choice of six plants to go to work in. There is one left and it is barely hanging on.

And nobody talked to those guys until Bernie [Sanders] and Trump in 2016. This is the point that I don’t think conventional wisdom has yet grasped. Those guys were treated as expendable—they felt. The banks got bailed out, nobody bailed them out. They were angry and frustrated and of course many of them just dropped out.

And not just them. Educated people, successful people, tell me, “I don’t vote.”

“Why don’t you vote?”

“Nothing ever changes.”

And there’s some truth to that. When we elect Democrats, we get: High taxes, high debt, and foreign wars.

When we elect Republicans, we get: High taxes, high debt, and foreign wars.

When we graduated, we were still in Vietnam. Fifty years later, we are still in Afghanistan. In fact, somebody born after 9-11 will be eligible to serve in Afghanistan later this year.

And this is never remarked. People don’t talk about the incredible perseverance of the United States government.

And yet this is a government that can’t win its wars.

This is a government that can’t balance its books.

Can’t figure out how to deliver health care. Can’t figure out an immigration policy.

You know, it’s forty-five years now since Richard Nixon resigned. That’s when we started passing ever more elaborate campaign financial reforms to take the corrosive power of big money out of politics. How’s that working out?

War on drugs. How’s that going?

The political story of the past fifty years is the failure of the governing class. A President Donald Trump is unthinkable, absent that failure.

He is a reaction against the failure of the governing class.

That is why the guys in my hometown voted for him.

There were 207, I think the number is 207, counties that voted for Obama twice and then switched and voted for Trump. So the question that is asked is: What’s wrong with those people?

Maybe we should turn the question around: What’s wrong with the political class?

Thank you.