Finding hope in the era of populism

Read an essay by Dr. Will Ross, who shares his thoughts on the 2016 election.

Stunned. No better word captures the sentiment of the nation after the Presidential election; it is apropos for those who, in the wee hours of the morning, clung to hope for a Hillary Clinton victory and those who reveled in the surprising victory of the anti-establishment Trump campaign. In the aftermath of the election, there is for many a collective angst on how to chart a path forward; from the era when our imaginations were stirred with an agenda for hope and change, to one which in its nascent stage ushered in a grim ethos of nativism, racism, and sexism. The day after the election I received an email from a colleague who wondered whether the election would undermine the progress we have made, albeit erratic, in promoting diversity and inclusion on our medical campus. My answer: only if we fail to grasp the power of hope, the grace of empathy, and the strength to love.

You see, this country has been shocked and stressed before, in far worse ways than that imagined under a Trump presidency. We need only go back to September 11, 2001 for a vivid illustration of how we responded when our ideals and values came under attack. We came together as a nation to defend our democratic principles. We embraced our Muslim countrymen, many, who like Captain Humayun Khan, later sacrificed their lives defending the country they love. We were for a moment a shining example of resilience and equanimity under duress.

After the shock of 9/11, like many Americans I asked “Why do they hate us so?” I was able to regain my philosophical footing after reading works by Matt Bai, Thomas Friedman, and others who outlined the depth of despair in certain corners of the Muslim world, enabled by suppressive, autocratic regimes that in many cases found their roots in American hegemony. It became apparent that a military victory was illusory; we could only defeat extremism and the terrorism it breeds by an outpouring of American can-do optimism and support of civil institutions that are the bedrock of a liberal democracy. Fifteen years later, there is fear, palpable anger, and indignation among a sizable part of the American electorate after what is perceived as a capitulation to forces of isolationism. Yet I recall the words of a Hebrew poem – “Od lo avda kikvateinu” – “Our hope is not yet lost.” I know that the values of this nation will survive because the good in us far exceeds the hatred and intolerance we are witnessing. America, with its tradition of federalism and civil engagement, is intrinsically designed for balance and forward movement; we will indeed emerge stronger.

I am hopeful because I have personally benefitted from the hope, empathy and compassion of strangers. I am not supposed to be alive – literally. As a 15 year-old African- American growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was assaulted by a local gang. I survived the attack, but found myself struggling to stay one step ahead of the gang members. In a remarkable act of kindness, a Jewish couple, Alfred and Shirley Wexner, gave me safe passage; inviting me in their home, providing employment, and then supporting my travel to New England to escape the violence. When I returned to Memphis years later, most of the gang members, and many of my childhood friends, were either dead or incarcerated. I am alive because of the intervention of a very wise and caring couple who had an unfailing commitment to social justice and a belief that we have more in common than we have differences.

I recall that difficult time in my life because I fervently believe that the preservation of liberal democracy depends on random acts of kindness from those who understand the universality of human suffering. I believe there is much in common between those aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, who are protesting the indignities of profiling and the brutality of the criminal justice system, and the working-class white families struggling to survive in Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. For both groups, progress has been capricious, economic stability fleeting, and the American Dream increasingly elusive.

As an example, the life expectancy of an African American male is only 66 years (of note, that trend finally is improving). On the other hand, the death rates of whites ages 25-54 increased by 11% from 2000 to 2011. Their trajectory is counter to that of Blacks, whose death rates decreased by 23% in the same time period. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of white males ages 45-54 do not have a college degree. The low-skill manufacturing jobs they relied on to sustain their families are gone, and in their hearts they know that. Their hopelessness and despair mirror that of communities of color across the nation. Their future, our future, will be brighter if we abandon the divisive rhetoric that has pitted communities against each other and if we instead wage the war on poverty as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. imagined.

There are many things for which we can advocate and march against in this period of political upheaval: against anti-immigration policies, against the assault on gender equality and a woman’s right to choose, against the invective-laden speech of newly emboldened hate groups. There are also many things for which we can advocate and march for: an expansion of clean energy and infrastructure jobs that will employ millions of Americans, affordable education that will prepare Americans for high-paying jobs in the tech industry, support of LGBTQ rights, the dispatching of mental and behavioral health counselors to address the hopelessness behind the epidemic of heroin overdoses.

Regardless of where we fall in the political spectrum, most will acknowledge the societal benefit of unifying around the values and principles our country has traditionally stood for. From that perspective, the differences between Americans on the left and right is not that far, and certainly not insurmountable. Hope, empathy, and the strength to love are needed to bring this us together. We are an exceptional, inclusive nation. Some nations are weak enough to hate. Hopefully we are strong enough to love.

Will Ross, MD, MPH

Associate Dean for Diversity
Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology