Welcome. At 24 years old, the School of Social Work Annual Fall Colloquium is not only the longest running event in the College of Health, but quite possibly the oldest in the university. I’m delighted that here we are again, and even more delighted that you are here in attendance today.
Now, this particular colloquium occurs just three days after a truly historic presidential election, prompting the question on tens of millions of lips across America – What the hell happened? Only four words, but they pose a deep question, one which, as you know, political analysts of varying perspectives are hard at trying to answer. In the few minutes I have, let me share what I think are three key “take-aways” from the Trump upset:
- First, populist anti-“Establishment” rage is real. The ranks of people facing declining economic fortunes – notably low-wage working people and the so-called middle class – has been steadily expanding for decades, with no end in sight. They don’t like it; they’re afraid, and they’re angry. They want to hold somebody responsible, and they want something done to reverse their slide and the diminishing prospects for their kids. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side was tapping into the same populist anger quite successfully until his campaign was derailed by Clinton, leaving Trump’s right-wing version – xenophobic, misogynistic, Islamophobic, etc. – to romp freely. Populist rage is real.
- Second, political party leadership is out of touch with the electorate they claim to represent. Trump took on the Republican leadership and turned it inside out, upside down. On the Democratic side, Clinton, with a huge amount of baggage, appeared as the very picture of the elite Establishment, the old guard, inside-the-beltway-business-as-usual. In broad terms, her defeat (true enough, only in the electoral college, and not in the popular vote) spells the death of a shaky coalition of Wall Street money and so-called “identity politics” – blacks, women, Latinos, post-industrial working class, younger college-educated urbanites and hipsters – who every four years join in fear of a common enemy. The problem is that that coalition has no organizational base, is therefore unsustainable, and has been close to death for some time now. Yet Clinton and the Democratic party leadership missed it. So, one, populist rage is real; and, two, political elites are severely out of touch.
- Third, governmental institutions are themselves at their lowest level of legitimacy ever. Six years of Congressional gridlock, Obama’s kowtowing to Wall Street and failure to deliver on key “change” promises, seemingly endless wars that drain the treasury and wreck lives, and an anemic economic recovery haven’t helped. Neither has a broad-based perception of widespread government corruption, that “the whole system is rigged” in favor of the fat cats, the bankers and corporate heads who don’t give a damn about workers, and the political insiders. Let’s remember that a large majority of Americans found both Trump and Clinton as distasteful, didn’t want either one to become president. But in a general context of revulsion against government, and growing cynicism toward pretty much all voices of authority, the rude/crude tough-talking “outsider,” beholden to no one for money and promising to shake up Washington from top to bottom, comes out the winner. So, again: populist rage is real; political elites are out of touch; and trust in government and most authoritative institutions is in the toilet.
Well, I’ve used far more time than I should have. In conclusion, we’re in a bad spot (and not just because we missed a chance to elect the first woman president); we have much to fix; there’s a lot of work to do. Today’s colloquium topic – racism, and what to do about it – is surely an appropriate place to begin that work. Again, welcome; enjoy the day.