Today, I published an article for the Washington Post Made by History section on the history of campus conflicts (see it here). Because of that, I wanted to post a conversation I recently had with Jim Gelb, who works for the California State University system. He lives in Washington and works with the federal government on policy relating to higher education. His experience has given him a unique perspective government and education.

How the federal government affects us:

I think people don’t have a very good understanding of what it really is that the federal government does that affects their daily lives. Federal policy affects our health, our ability to communicate, our commerce system. People don’t realize that. And people have no idea how much anything costs in relative terms.

The tax bill is a great example. Taxes affect a lot of things that aren’t just taxes, both on a local scale and a larger scale.

People need to understand federal and state responsibilities:

There’s a division of responsibilities between state and federal government. Higher education is a good example. Higher education is primarily state responsibility, even if it has important national implications. National defense is a federal one of course.

The role of universities:

It’s hugely important that universities prepare people as citizens. I’ve seen the full spectrum of universities. But as someone who works for the largest network of bachelors system in the country, the role of the university is that it provides opportunity, and ideally, success for vast numbers of individuals who come from first generation families, low-income families, people who don’t have built into their economic pathway a birthright to higher education.

A good university system can make sure there’s opportunity, access, and success. That’s not just measured economically. It’s also measured in improving lives of individuals and communities. Universities are working on research that can help solve problems.

Campus conflicts are overstated:

A lot of things get picked up in the press and political world are anecdotes that are real but not are not indicative of life on campuses. These stories get highlighted for a variety of reasons, but they don’t capture what campus life is like. For the most part, people are focused on other things – academics, friends. There’s always been conflict on college campus. I’m not sure that things are really different right now.

From my experience with the campuses I work with, it’s a small part of a much broader set of things. It’s not unimportant, but it’s overemphasized.

How people of different political leanings look at each other in his world:

I think in the world that I operate in, people would say one another are good citizens. I say that as part of the higher ed community and as someone who lives in the DC community that’s very political. There are a lot of people on different sides of issues, and people are friends. Most people give each other the benefit of the doubt for being engaged and thoughtful. But D.C. might be different.

What it means to be an American:

It means you’re incredibly fortunate. For most of us, it’s an accident of birth. Here we are, born in this place and time. I think about this as a Jew. I have a family member who was a child survivor of the Holocaust. He had family that didn’t make it. That easily could have been us.

What we can all do to be better Americans:

I think we have to work to recognize our assumptions and biases. They’re there, and we should be open to examining them. Look for common ground, not look for reinforcement of our assumptions

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I had a chance to speak with Bob Driscoll, a former member of the Department of Justice during George W. Bush’s administration. Our conversation covered our duty to society, the limits of government, and what each side of the political aisle needs to learn. I also recommend reading an article he wrote on many of these topics for the New Boston Post.

What his family taught him:

My dad was a great citizen. My Grandad was a postman. My dad went to college on a military scholarship, then was in the Marines, and then became a lawyer. He asked us every night at dinner, “What are you going to do for society today?” He emphasized that it wasn’t about us. It was about the greater community. We did service at the church. My parents were active with setting up housing for Vietnamese refugees. There was always this notion that we had to be contributing something beyond our family unit.

He thinks American life has changed in the last twenty years:

Coming from a conservative perspective, I feel like because of maybe social media, or media saturation, people have lost any sense of limited government. Every problem today is a government problem. We place too much of our hopes in our federal leaders to fix our problems. That’s a cause of anxiety for both sides, depending on who’s in office. I read a piece from a psychologist that talked about how when we feel like we don’t control our lives, we are anxious. We have an outsized notion of any given impact that a federal leader has on them. People’s angst about their government is greater than the impact of the government itself.

I think what’s unique about the American experience is that we’re a society of negative rights, not positive rights. The Bill of Rights is a list of things the government cannot do to you. That’s good because it restrains government. But for others, it’s not enough. We don’t have a right to healthcare (at least legally speaking). People look to government to solve more problems, rather than the government setting the parameters by which government can solve your life.

How Democrats can improve as citizens:

People are so quick to go to motives these days. I think Democrats are, in general, a little bit quicker to do this. “If you don’t want gun control, you’re responsible for this shooting.” What I feel like saying is, “If someone calls you a baby killer, is that gonna make you pro-life?” Are you ever going to say, “I’ve never thought about it that way! Now that you put it that way, I’m going to change!” It’s the late night comedy phenomenon: everyone who disagrees with me is stupid.

How Republicans can improve:

Conservatives put things too simplistically sometimes. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because political correctness can bother you doesn’t mean you should be an a**hole. Pissing the right people off and being an a**hole has become a substitute for ideas. I’m halfway to the point that thinking that this is all about culture. I joked to a friend, “If Trump nationalized the energy industry overnight, no one would care so long as he tweeted something insulting about Rosie O’Donnell.”

What he thinks the average Democrat and Republican would say about one another:

It kind of depends what you mean by average. The average, meaning we randomly pick someone out of the phone book, you would think people of different political leanings are good citizens. In the real world, people aren’t that politically active, nor do they care that much about others’ politics.

But among politically active people, I don’t think they’d say people of the other side are good citizens at all. Republicans would say Democrats are f***ing communists who want the government controlling everything. And Democrats think all Republicans are racist bigots who are secretly Bull Connor.

What he’d say to a Trump voter:

To the average Trump voter, I’d say anger, even justifiable anger, is not a policy. Think about what governing means instead of just making a statement.

What he’d say to a Clinton voter:

To the average Democratic voter, I’d say get outside the bubble and make an effort to understand religious people. There’s a not unfounded perception for religious people that there’s no place for them in the Democratic Party.

Religion has informed his ideas about society:

We don’t have the idea that “if we had the right policy in place, we can fix this.” Policies help on the margins. But religious people see the sin of man. I understand that government can’t fix that. Understanding their value in the world brings them happiness. People who are more secular, democratic, liberal think “if only we could do this thing, it’d be great.” It still won’t work. Someone will take a bribe. Someone will fall on hard times. Someone will become an alcoholic.

What it means to be an America:

It just means to live in America and benefit from the freedom of structure of government. America needs people with those values of freedom and equality. But you can be a communist in America, and you’re no less American.

The thing that concerns him most about American politics:

I’m constantly amazed that no one has written about all the things that happen with (politicians’ finances). Maybe it’s because everyone is a part of the game. Bernie Sanders has been in government for 40 straight years and has three house. Same with Harry Reid. He only ever worked in government, and now he owns a suite in the Ritz. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, was investigated for corruption. His defense was two million bucks. That’s way more than he made in his career.

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