This weekend, we welcomed our trustees and many other alumni and parents to campus for meetings and also the 137th Andover-Exeter sporting contests. Over the course of the last several days, I have received a lot of feedback about the All School Meeting address that I gave on Wednesday morning after the presidential election. One reaction came from an Andover trustee, Stephen Sherrill, Class of 1971.
Steve raised some questions about my address and told me that he would have given a “different” address had he spoken to the students. In the spirit of open dialogue and with his permission, I am posting below his alternative All School Meeting address. I believe that now, more than ever, we need to talk constructively with one another when we disagree politically so that we can move forward our nation and our world. Even as Steve and I plainly disagree in various ways, I embrace his constructive criticism and look forward to more dialogue in future. Steve’s comments to me follow and appear in italics:
It was interesting to me that a need was felt to address the student body in reaction to an election result. I do not recall such a need being felt in the past. So, why this time? And, if I were called upon to speak, what would I say? Here goes:
We awoke this morning to an unpredicted election result. It has made many on this campus unhappy; it has made many elsewhere in America happy. That fact, above all, we must recognize. Neither side can ignore or discard the views and votes and sentiments, the needs and hopes and pains, no matter how expressed, of 50% of the American electorate. In a democracy all voices must be heard and all viewpoints considered. Whether we like it or not, the political arena is not one in which discourse is necessarily more sensitive and more thoughtful , less attention-seeking and less provocative, than the discourse prevalent in social and entertainment media and unfortunately in private spaces – in each of our “locker rooms”. And political actors on both sides of the aisle seize upon extremist and intemperate statements by the other to amplify rather than mute them.
In this election, the negative campaigning, the focus on personality, the apparent animosity between the candidates, the “attack” language, has been unprecedented and distasteful. The electorate has been uniquely unhappy with both candidates. Both have character flaws that one might view as disqualifying. Many felt both candidates were unsuited for the job. Of those, most voted for Donald Trump, despite the offensiveness of much of his rhetoric (if “tweets” might be given the once elevated title of rhetoric) and personal conduct, especially with respect to women. Obviously, many voters overcame this because of Hillary Clinton’s conduct relating to her maintenance of a personal server, her relationship to donors to the Clinton Foundation and a sense of dishonesty in addressing these issues. More importantly, many felt alienated from the political status quo. They felt their needs were not heard or addressed. Remember, Donald Trump was perhaps the last choice of the Republican establishment – many question whether he is in fact at heart a Republican. Just as Bernie Sanders, who has not in fact been a Democrat, received virtually the same amount of electoral support in the Democratic primaries as Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the fundamental truth of this electoral season has been dissatisfaction with the political status quo.
So what do we focus upon going forward? Clearly, continuing to be knowledgeable about political issues is important. In this respect, we should first challenge the views that we hold, whether they be liberal or conservative. The truth is that the state of affairs that is routinely characterized as “divisiveness” or “gridlock” consists in large part of a difference in strongly held views about what is best for America. Perhaps in better understanding the views of the other side, we will come upon some areas for greater agreement. Perhaps the best solution is not to blame somebody for “gridlock” when the truth is that there is a bona fide disagreement and, perhaps, no real effort has been made to compromise.
Take, for example, the contentious topic of immigration. At one end, as the caricature would hold, are the nativist bigots; at the other, are drug dealers and job-stealers. These are the caricatures that in this election have been used by both sides to attract voters and drive turnout. Of course, these caricatures are misguided. In a more thoughtful characterization, on the one side are Republicans who oppose “amnesty” as benefiting lawbreakers while law abiders wait in line; on the other side are Democrats who will accept no solution without citizenship (i.e., the right to vote). In the middle are the American workers who are dealing with unemployment and lacking income growth and the American economy which is employing immigrant labor. Is there a middle ground? One which legitimizes the presence of hard-working, tax payers without an easy road to citizenship? Perhaps, but only if politically driven messaging by each side can be overcome and the legitimate concerns of all addressed. And let us not ignore the difficulty of the immigration issue: few would deny that a country must have control over who comes to live in it; few would deny that immigrants (including illegal ones) have made valuable contributions to our workforce and culture. Both realities must be recognized for a solution to be realized that will be acceptable to all except those committed only to political gain.
Many voters for Hillary Clinton overcame doubts about her character to vote for the policies for which she stood. And it was probably even more difficult for many voters for Donald Trump (especially women and Hispanics) to overcome his offensive comments to vote for the policy direction which he articulated. (And, by the way, in some important respects, many Trump and Clinton policies seemed the same: infrastructure spending, trade, protection of Social Security.) Those votes do not represent tolerance of the candidate’s character and behavior. And we should recognize that.
We must not seize upon the mistakes and weaknesses of others who are our political antagonists to banish their voices. We must challenge ourselves to think, to be open to viewpoints of others and to focus upon the issues our country faces. We must not accept preconceptions and orthodox opinion. We must not take the easy route of denying the legitimacy of differing viewpoints because of the sometimes offensive manner in which they are expressed. Only listening and considering will we be able to bridge gaps and deal with the issues important to our future.