Former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who pioneered grassroots and internet-based organizing in all 50 states in his bid for the presidency in 2004, still believes that young people and technology will provide America with a bright future.
Mr. Dean, who was raised in East Hampton, gave a talk at Peconic Landing in Greenport Tuesday afternoon on the current state of American politics.
This is the second time Mr. Dean has spoken at Peconic Landing, where his mother, Andrée Belden Maitland, is a resident.
While the election of Donald Trump to the presidency last fall took much of the nation by surprise, Mr. Dean believes many of the narratives behind Mr. Trump’s success don’t tell the full story of this unlikely election.
While he acknowledged the “tremendous upheaval in western democracies” exemplified by the British Brexit vote to leave the European Union and Mr. Trump’s election, he said that one of the biggest scapegoats of these movements, global trade, “is a bogeyman that has very little to do with what went wrong.”
“Globalization has lifted one billion people out of poverty. If that’s what trade does, why is everybody so mad at trade?” he asked. “It polls well.”
He said that, in some states, like Ohio, the movement of auto plants had a real effect on workers, “but a lot more plants left Ohio and went to Tennessee or Alabama” than went overseas.
Leading these global isolationist movements, he said, are primarily white people with little education who had once had skills that were valued by the marketplace, but those skills are no longer valued.
“The condescension of the elite toward these folks, we can debate how much of that there is, but because they feel it, it’s a legitimate concern,” he added.
Mr. Dean said that it’s not billionaires that many people who don’t have jobs are angry with, it’s the sense that the system is rigged and unfair to people who work hard.
“Bernie Sanders was wrong about it being about billionaires,” he said. “We like billionaires. The issue was unfairness. That has to be fixed. Our tax code rewards people for pushing paper around Wall Street and doesn’t reward people for making affordable housing.”
“I like Bernie and I respect him, but I think he has a 1950s view of our problems and no experience talking about race,” he added. “He thought that was irrelevant, that it was all about class. His role was saying things that have to be said, but he’s not going to be the one that leads the change.”
Technology is also part of the divide, he said. Young people, who were raised with computers, have vastly more familiarity with using technology, and are therefore in greater demand in the job market than people who had once worked on assembly lines whose jobs have since been mechanized.
That’s why, he said, the average Trump voter is in their high 50s, while people under the age of 35 were far less likely to support him.
“If you don’t understand the internet, you don’t have a job except making $10 an hour at the landfill,” he said. “The under 35s aren’t left behind. They have problems and student debts, but they have hope. They’re used to competing in the global economy and they like it. What they value is inclusion.”
“I adore this generation,” he added. “These kids are mostly pragmatic. They want to work with the other side. They want to stop fighting and screaming with each other. They want to get things done. The most passionate issue they care about is climate change. That is the issue they would go into the streets for.”
But, he said, most young people he’s met are wary of the very institutions that help keep society together. They came out to vote for Barack Obama, but that action didn’t translate into community organizing or support for Hillary Clinton.
He said young people on college campuses, who began protesting right after the election, were shellshocked when they realized that their lack of faith in the political process had consequences.
“It was a repudiation of the core values of who they are and how they define themselves. This is a generation that believes in world culture,” he said, adding that, if the election had been held on the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point, HIllary Clinton would have won by a landslide.
“This is your Kent State and your Edmund Pettus Bridge,” he said, comparing the past fall’s election to some watershed moments in the Civil Rights and anti-war movement in the 1960s.
“This is your wake-up call. You actually have to put something in the pot to make it work,” he said. “This generation may discover, finally, that institutions do work.”
But when asked if he would again take the helm and try to ignite interest in the Democratic Party among young people, he wasn’t interested.
“What we need is somebody half my age to run this thing,” he said.
As to the state of sections of the country the president had described as “American carnage” in his inaugural address, Mr. Dean said that some of the most hopeful places in the country are far from the coasts.
Texas, he said, has good infrastructure but bad schools, he said, but workers in new high tech plants there are demanding improvements for their children.
Manufacturing is quite robust in North Carolina, and Japanese automobile manufacturers have taken a shine to Alabama, he said, adding that Kentucky had the “most successful application of Obamacare in the country.”
“I think change doesn’t come from the top down. Real change comes from the bottom up in this country,” he said. “Nothing makes people more progressive and less threatened by people who are different than you are than raising living standards.”