On the State of Our Politics -- Commencement Message

At the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where I serve as dean, I don't traditionally offer much more than welcoming remarks at Commencement. But I thought that this year's May 15 Commencement required at least some comments from me on what's happening in our national political discussion. Those comments follow.

While much of our focus in this institution is on developing the technical skills for success, ours is not a value-free environment. When Hubert Humphrey stood up at the 1948 Democratic National Convention and exhorted the Democratic Party to walk out of the shadow of states' rights and march forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights, he stood for the proposition that public institutions have a role and responsibility to promote objectives consistent with the values of a democratic society, including non-discrimination, inclusion, equal rights and justice for all.

So given the current tenor of our national political debate, I've thought a fair amount about what I might say this afternoon, beyond my traditional welcome. Of course, what I will not address is the question of what one's partisan political preferences ought to be, or ought not to be. We are a non-partisan institution.

But as I mentioned, we are not a value-free, or an evidence-free, institution. So what does a dean say to graduates going out into the world of practice, as we observe a public discussion in which there is considerable support for calls for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States? And what to say to public policy and public affairs graduates about a national political environment in which there is public sympathy or at least acceptance for nasty expressions of intolerance toward the disabled, toward women, toward immigrants, and others?

So I've thought about this, and realized that I probably don't have to say much, as I expect -- as I know -- these challenges only steel the determination of our students, students who are hopeful and optimistic about the boundless potential of humankind, but who are not naïve about obstacles to progress.

In contrast to the tenor of some of the public discussion today, the kinds of comments that largely guide our students and our community are from a political figure of another generation, one who said, "if we believe in our past and have faith in our future, we must dedicate ourselves to making each man, each woman, each child in America a full participant in American life"; a public figure who said that "equality means equality for all -- no exceptions, no 'yes, buts,' no asterisked footnotes imposing limits"; a political figure who further said that we must "make America a land where no one is forgotten [and in which] we make our prosperity not the servant of our selfishness but the instrument of our conscience."

Of course, in all these statements, I'm quoting Hubert Humphrey, our school's namesake, who was so very uneasy about leaders who, to use Humphrey's words, based their authority on "the passions and hates of a people."

Hubert Humphrey spoke a good deal about the purpose of politics and about political leadership, and, frankly, it's an issue that occupies, in one way or another, a fair amount of the discussion at our school, as it should.

The conservative columnist, Michael Gerson, who was a speechwriter and adviser to former President George W. Bush, recently wrote about this issue and used words that, well, could have come from Hubert Humphrey. Gerson noted that truly inspiring leaders identify with the vulnerable among us. And, like Hubert Humphrey said in so many ways, Gerson wrote that "the justice of a political system is determined by its treatment of the vulnerable and weak... [a commitment that is] inconsistent with a type of politics that beats up on the vulnerable and weak."

So I'd encourage you all, though, again, I don't think I need to encourage you to do that which I know you will already do... So, rather, I will express our school's support for you, as you take the long view and appreciate that nativism, chauvinism and bullying is nothing new to our political culture.

Whether it is our original sin of slavery, 19th century no-nothing appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment, early 20th century anti-semitic rants, say, like those spewed by Charles Edward Coughlin, who had tens of millions of follows during the 1930s, or later 20th century trafficking in innuendo and guilt by association of Senator Joe McCarthy, there have always been loud voices of intolerance appealing to our fears rather than to our hopes and our aspirations.

And to our many international students and all our students, you know well that this challenge of combating intolerance is not confined to the United States. We find it around the world, from Burma and India in Asia, to Austria, Greece, Denmark and other parts of Europe, to Central Africa and beyond.

Our challenge -- your challenge -- is two-fold, it seems to me: first, to confront and contest forthrightly those loud voices of intolerance at each and every turn; and second, and as difficult as this may be, to promote a politics of civility that recognizes and seeks to address real fears and anxieties of millions of Americans and people around the world who feel threatened by rapid change that seems far out of their control.

Frankly, I think Hubert Humphrey wouldn't have it any other way.

So Humphrey students, you indeed have our deep and enduring support, as you go out into the world to realize the principles that have animated your years with us, and that make a life of service so valuable -- principles that reflect a commitment to the common good in our increasingly diverse, complex and exciting world.