F&M Stories

Gov. Tom Wolf's Remarks

F&M 2016 Commencement Remarks by PA Governor Tom Wolf

Remarks as prepared for delivery at the 2016 Commencement of Franklin & Marshall College:

I am pleased to be here with you today.

As a result of this grand ceremony, I now join my wife in holding a degree from F&M.

I am truly honored.

I know you are honored, too.

And your families, friends, and professors who are with you here today, they are honoring you by their presence. This is, after all, a magnificent college with a long and glorious heritage. And you have accomplished a great thing by earning your degree here.

The question for you is: "Now what?"

What comes next for you?

I know this is probably the most over-asked question in commencement addresses. On the other hand, you have to admit there is a clear timeliness to the question. I mean, you're at a real pause in your life. I know that many of you have already launched on a life path. Still, it's the perfect time to ask:

What do I want to do?

How do I want to live my life?

When I'm old, what will I want to say I've accomplished in my life?

Believe me — you'll have a lot less time to reflect on such things once you become immersed in the minutiae that will so quickly come to dominate your lives. So now is the perfect time to think these broad thoughts and ask these broad questions.

One of the broad things I want you to think about is our democracy. It really needs your attention. It needs it because that's the way self-government works. It thrives only when it gets the attention of the people it serves. It needs the attention of good people like you:

Curious seekers;

Thoughtful dreamers;

Practical doers.

It needs the attention of people who categorically reject the notion that our democracy is beyond our control. It needs the attention of people dedicated to the task of building and sustaining a political system worthy of the trust of the people it serves. And it needs this attention now.

The problem is that too many people simply don't trust their government. They despair of it; they suspect they can't make it work. And so they avoid it.

This is a problem.

Democracies can survive neither the indifference nor the scorn of its citizens. They are founded on the consent of the governed. It is we who create and sustain our system of government. And we must have confidence in that system we create and sustain.

So, if we say we don't trust our government, we are pretty much saying we don't trust ourselves. And that's exactly what too many of us are saying just now.

For example, the National Election Study has been taking the political pulse of Americans since 1958. It shows a steadily declining trust in our government. It has been asking respondents things like:

  • Do you think you can trust your government in Washington to do what is right?
  • Does the Federal Government "care much about what people like me think?"
  • Is the Federal Government "pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?"

Up until the early 1970s, a majority of respondents said they believed they could in fact trust the government to do the right thing. Since then, not so much. Except for a brief blip around 9/11, trust has consistently been at a steep discount.

A number of Rasmussen polls taken recently show much the same thing. In 2014, 63% of a sampling of Americans said they believed that most representatives in the US Congress "were willing to sell their votes for either cash or campaign contributions." And 59% believed their representatives had already done this.

And look at voter turnout at election time. Most people are so disaffected that they don't even exercise the most basic act of citizenship — voting.

As Robert Reich observes in his most recent book, the largest political party in the United States is not the Republican or Democratic Party. It's the party of those who don't vote.

For example, turnout of eligible — not registered — voters in the 2014 mid-term election was only 33.2% nationally. This was the lowest turnout in a mid-term election in the United States since 1942 — during World War II.

Anyway, you get the point: Americans are frustrated. And this frustration can show itself in destructive ways.

The late V.O. Key — an eminent political scientist of my era — suggested that throughout much of the post-Civil War era, Southern politics displayed a peculiar dysfunction: Low voter turnout. A political process that kept the lid on most of the time. But that every once in a while boiled over with some really weird results.

Another political scientist, Walter Dean Burnham, suggests that by the 1970s, American politics was beginning to look a lot like Key's Southern politics. Burnham even compared the emerging pattern of American politics to that of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

And you know who came out of that period of political alienation and turmoil.

So, back to the question, "What are you going to do about all this?"

Remember, a democracy is about self-rule. We're in charge. And given my age, this is less and less my generation's problem, and more and more yours.

As I see it, you have only two options:

On the one hand you can conclude that there's really nothing you can do, so "let's just forget about it." Shrug your shoulders. Do your own thing. Live in the moment. Whatever.

Or, you can conclude that you really ought to do something to make our — your — democracy better.

I'd suggest the latter. But you have to decide for yourselves. You do have a choice.

The first choice is a seductive one. It is truly tempting to throw up your hands and proclaim, "It's not my job."

I'm reminded of a scene in the movie "Animal House" — and I really hate to make such a low-brow allusion to such an exulted group. In that film, the Delta House members have just been expelled by the harried and frustrated Dean Wormer. One of the characters looks at his colleagues and suggests, "This is a time that calls for an entirely futile gesture on someone's part, and we're just the guys to do it."

I also remember when I was a first-year student at Dartmouth and I voted along with a majority of my peers to abolish student government. "That'll show 'em," we thought.

After we won — by electing Mickey Mouse, I believe — we congratulated ourselves on what we had done. For about 15 minutes.

Then we looked at each other and asked, "Now what?"

A futile gesture indeed!

In any case, a futile gesture is a real option for you, and you could possibly justify to yourselves this course. After all, things really are screwed up. And it's not your fault.

But then what?

Your futile gesture certainly makes a vivid point. But it is also a clear abdication of the responsibility thrust upon every citizen in a democratic system to do just the opposite. Non-involvement doesn't really solve any problem; it simply passes on the responsibility for solving the problem to someone else — someone whose policy preferences you might not like. Someone who won't deliver the real improvements we need.

So, I would ask, encourage and beg you to take the alternative course of action. Do what too few of us do today:

Reject the easy pessimism. Drop the cool cynicism. Get involved and make our government better.

This course is hard, and success is not inevitable.

As President Obama said in a recent speech in Great Britain, "It will require struggle, discipline and above all, faith, in making a difference."

But if you do not take up this particular challenge, your government will not get better. Nor will the policies that government promotes. Nor will the people who make those policies. Nor will our world. Nor will your lives.

If you don't get involved, you will prove those kings and queens of 18th-century Europe right. They're the ones who scoffed at our ancestors for suggesting that ordinary human beings could govern themselves. By abdicating your responsibility as a citizen, you're essentially affirming their noxious prophesies. You're turning our system over to people who will not make self-government work.

So, this is your challenge; this is your chance.

Keep in mind, I'm not asking that you embrace my policy preferences. This is not about the design of public policies. This is about the design of the system within which those policy preferences are expressed, debated, chosen. or implemented.

This is about the way our democracy works, not the decisions it makes.

The assumption is, however, that better public policies will come out of a political system that is open, transparent, representative and responsive. Than from one that is none of these things.

And the only way that system will be open, transparent, representative and responsive is if its citizens make it so.

O.K., I know I've just presented you with a very depressing prospect. I've basically told you it's your turn to try to turn a dysfunctional democracy into a functional one.

It will not be an easy task. In some ways, it might even be a thankless and painful task.

Also, you probably have better things to do.

But you would be wrong.

This is a great chance to do something spectacular, something important. It's actually an exciting time to be alive and engaged.

Just think of the times that were most interesting in American history. The people we remember — the Franklins and Marshalls and the Washingtons, Lincolns, Tubmans, Roosevelts and Anthonys — were active at times precisely like these. Those times were messy, challenging and full of friction, turmoil and angst.

Just like ours.

The people we respect were those who lived and struggled in those interesting times, who got involved, who were controversial — and who ultimately made a difference.

They built and rebuilt our nation.

You can do no less.

We needed them then. We need you now.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

First, vote!

This is the fundamental obligation of a citizen in a truly democratic system. Such a system can be neither truly democratic nor legitimate if it speaks for a mere minority of its constituents. And it will only include you in its activities if you vote.

Second, choose wisely when you vote.

Vote for good people. Or better yet, run for public office yourself. Insist on candidates who are honest, trustworthy, smart and competent. Look for people who will serve as able stewards of our noble tradition of self-government. Reject people who you know are simply trying to tempt you with tantalizing illusions. And patronizing happy talk.

Third, care about the traditions that sustain and protect our democratic process.

Interact with people of different political beliefs. Avoid certainty; but hold onto your beliefs. On the other hand, be willing to consider alternative points of view. Sharpen your own ideas by testing them against those of others. And use the logic you honed here at F&M to do this.

Finally, get involved with enthusiasm.

Take pride in improving the system that is yours to improve. Find real joy in doing what our founders asked us to do. Make our union more perfect.

These are the kinds of things an engaged citizenry must do to make sure our government works as we need it to work.

These are the kinds of things people like you must do if our government becomes as good as it should be.

It will be to your everlasting credit.

So, here's the deal

I would love to stand here and tell you that my generation is passing a perfect world — including a perfect democracy — onto you. But we all know that simply isn't true.

The world you are about to inherit has its obvious challenges. Things could clearly be better, including our democratic system of government.

And whether or not they become better is up to you.

What I would like is for one of you to stand here where I standing — say 30 years from now —and I'd like you to be able to look at those smart Franklin & Marshall graduates who are sitting where you sit now, and tell them that you gave your all to improving the government you're handing off to them. That you took a flawed system and made it better. That you made a difference.

You have the ability to do this.

Thanks to Franklin & Marshall, you have the tools. And thanks to your impeccable timing, you have the chance.

Congratulations on getting to this brilliant point in your lives.

Be good to the institutions that matter. Remember your friends, teachers and families. Remember this glorious institution that has left such an imprint on your lives.

And remember our democracy. Dedicate your brilliant lives to enriching them all.

Congratulations and good luck with the tough, important, and yet satisfying tasks that lie ahead for you.

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