UNC system President Emeritus Tom Ross said Thursday that in the wake of a historically divisive election American democracy is “inching toward failure.”
Speaking at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, Ross said the election of Donald Trump – and the support that Sen. Bernie Sanders received – shows that millions of Americans don’t believe that our current government is working.
“I fear both for our democracy and our government that they are stagnating and in need of real change and innovation if they are to thrive,” Ross said during the talk, titled “Divided We Fall: Restoring Trust in Our Democracy.” “By the same token, the constant criticism of government, sometimes without facts, by many without any desire to tackle the problem and find solutions, will lead to destruction.”
Many Americans, he said, “voted based on emotion rather than facts or issues.” The dominant emotion, Ross thinks, was fear.
“It was fear of change, it was fear of people who look different, of people who think differently,” he said. “It was fear of losing one’s place in society. It was fear of where I fit in the economy, what the future looks like and how I might fit in it.”
Anger, he said, “was another clear factor behind why people voted the way they did.” He said the anger is directed at elites, at Wall Street, at immigrants – and at people who voted differently.
He noted that a record-high 77 percent of Americans believe the country is divided, according to a post-election Gallup poll. And just 1 in 5 Americans trust the government, according to Pew Research Center.
“If we choose to ignore the situation in which we find ourselves, we do so at our own peril,” Ross said.
Ross, a former judge and president of Davidson College, led the 17-campus UNC system from 2011 until earlier this year, when he was pushed out by the Board of Governors. He is now president of the Volcker Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit focused on restoring trust in government.
There is no “miracle solution” for fixing our current political system, Ross said. He encouraged members of the standing-room crowd to donate their time and energy to government. Addressing the students in attendance, he encouraged them to consider careers in government after graduation, reminding them that they are “the ones who can really make a difference.”
He also asked people to remind their friends and families about the good that government does – and what it costs to do that good.
“Stop taking things for granted, and think about how government matters to us,” he said. “Help people understand that it isn’t free. Roads aren’t free. Sewer systems aren’t free. You have to invest in those. That infrastructure requires an investment. It’s called taxes. We have to invest. We don’t get the returns if we don’t make the investment.”
He also emphasized the uniqueness of this historical moment, declaring that there is “an urgency for action.”
“There is urgency to do something,” he said. “This is not something we can forget. We often go through elections and forget about them, and life goes on. What happened here in this election is different.”
Rachel Chason: 919-829-4629