First I want to take this opportunity to thank the Chancellor, the deans, the provosts, the faculty members, family, friends, and especially the students for making me feel so welcome here today. I heard you could have had Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Condoleeza Rice. What happened? Is it because you don’t like independent-thinking black women?
Well, they told me to open with a joke. Now that you’re all laughing uproariously, let’s get to my speech. You know what? I’m already tired. I’m just gonna play a tape of it.
(I play tape on fast forward, making it sound like the Chipmunks. As it plays, I’ll do a few movements to keep people from getting bored.)
Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now I want to get to the real subject of this talk. The subject is you, and you want to know something about you? You’re great. I mean, I know you hear that a lot, not least from you, but I’ve got some statistics to back you up here. 91% of you believe in equality and believe everyone should be treated equally. 89% of you believe everyone should be treated as equals. For the first time ever, majorities of you feel that your generation is “post-racial.”
And yet, look at this world you’re inheriting. You’re expected to make less money than your parents. You’re expected to live fewer years than your parents. You’re expected to live with your parents for the next few years. Everywhere you look, America is in decline. We got 99 problems, and if a recent elevator video is any indication, Jay-Z has actually got 100 problems, so we can’t ask him to help us.
So there’s a bit of a contradiction here. You’re great, but your future ain’t. It’s like we’ve trained you to be a top scientist, but given you the lab from the Snow White movie. It’s like we’ve trained you to be a concert pianist, and then given you a couple of old broken Wurlitzers. It’s like we’ve trained you to be a perfect soldier, then given you army gear from two wars ago. Yeah, let’s not think too hard about that, ah, metaphor.
You may have heard that we can’t do much about these problems, because of our calcified, over-entrenched bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. I know most of you are going into professions where you presume you won’t have to think about dysfunctional politics. But that’s the problem with dysfunctional politics; their one functional function is to bite you in the butt.
However, there’s hope, and not just because of you. Because the very simple and accurate truth is that large majorities of Americans agree on the solutions to most of our problems. What kind of solutions am I talking about? Here are a few examples: ending corporate welfare. Tax increases for corporations who ship American jobs overseas, fail to show us their books, or fail to aggressively recruit our veterans. Marriage equality and family-friendlier policies at all levels. Firearm background checks. The Dream Act for children of immigrants. Sustainability, which isn’t necessarily about Earth First-level activism, but simply following a rule we all learned as kids: don’t leave things more of a mess than you found them.
All of these ideas have the support of at least 60% of Americans, and all of them are non-starters in our current partisan Congress.
But perhaps I’m thinking too big. You will hear people say “change one thing.” But what is the one thing that needs to be changed, above all others? What’s the one biggest clog of the river of American progress?
Graduates, I give you the two-party system. Like a lot of your well-meaning relatives this week, I give you something you never particularly wanted nor asked for; I give you the Republicans and the Democrats. Polls show that the two least popular organizations in America have never, ever, been less popular than they are now. But they remain powerful because they have many Americans convinced that 1) they’re the only thing standing between you and the other one; and 2) they’re woven into the fabric of America itself. Both of these ideas is as false as a dollar bill with “Republican-Democrat” written on it. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned of the danger of entrenched parties to a functioning democracy. Now more than ever, we need to listen to them.
I know, why should you listen to old rich white guys? Aren’t they the ones who got us into this mess? If we’re talking about the mess that culminated in 2008 with a financial meltdown and your parents’ houses losing half their value, then, yes, they did. Ever since then, most of the solemn old rich white men on your TV – and not a few of the non-whiteys also – have been singing the virtues of populism. The Tea Party calls itself populist, Occupy Wall Street calls itself populist, and several Congressmen and almost all columnists for the major media outlets call themselves populist as well. What is populism? Simply put, populism supports any solution that favors or helps at least 51% of people even if that solution happens to be less than ideal for the entrenched elite 1%. Heck, even dear sweet Mitt Romney, with his famous 47% comment, was actually trying to help what he saw as the other 53%. It’s kind of like the opposite of “racist”; everyone says they’re populist. Why is that? Well, I think these old guys look at you graduates with your Wikipedia-based essays – ah, excuse me. They look at your clear appreciation for crowd-sourced information and they don’t want to seem uncool.
Now, close your eyes and visualize. Picture this: The American Independent Populist Party. Committed to ruthless pragmatism: if it works for 51% of Americans, it probably works. In terms of the current two-party stagnation, some might say Populists have a Chinese food platform: a little bit from Column A, a little bit from Column B. That’s okay, as long as we all satisfy our hunger for change. If that sounds impossible, remember that 22 summers ago, in 1992, Ross Perot was running on a similar platform, and more than one-third of Americans were behind him. He had a plurality of votes before the parties swung into action with all their money. But remember that those parties are far, far, less popular today than they were 22 years ago, when they could at least point to the success of winning the Cold War. What have they done for you lately?
Now, I know that many of you are going to forget about our little chat today. You’ll go on and live your lives and never vote or click to help our country. Some of you will remain loyal to the Democrats or the Republicans because you don’t want to “waste your vote.” I get that. But I want you to think of other cases where you didn’t feel like you were stuck with two choices. Budweiser and Miller. CBS and Fox. Friendster and Myspace. Your high school fling John and your college fling Jenny. Remember how in all those cases, you went with a third thing? Did you ever regret that choice? I didn’t think so. Get a few celebrities behind this thing, and watch out.
I don’t need to say much more, because I have a lot of faith in you guys. I mean, just look at this name they’ve given you: millennials. With a handle like that, you’re not gonna leave us stuck in the last millennium, are you? I don’t think you will. So to wrap up, I want to thank you in advance for our glorious future. Muchisimas gracias, and congratulations to the Class of 2014!