Since former Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s speech this past Thursday, the reaction from Amherst’s student body has been one of skepticism. Most students seem to view his speech as a lecture from their grandfather: one that must to be listened to respectfully, applauded and then forgotten. Indeed, Kasich’s speech covered many topics guaranteed to cause eye rolls amongst Amherst students, from assurances that we are all special to a declaration that taxes on the wealthy should not increase. Many people left the discussion with the impression that Kasich is a vacillating politician who is out of touch with America’s youth. I would argue, however, that the speech held a lot of wisdom which Amherst students should take to heart and served a far more important purpose than Amherst students give it credit.
Kasich’s political views certainly differ substantially from my own and those of the average Amherst student, but Kasich’s speech wasn’t about public policy. It was about shaping policy with morality and courage. This message is far more important and fundamental than current political hot topics or the specific measures Kasich passed as governor, both because it deals with the foundations of good government and because it resonates with not just one party, but all Americans.
The liberals in the audience could learn a great deal from Kasich’s speech. Kasich presented himself as a reasonable, rational individual who happened to be a Republican. Too often, liberals demonize the Republican Party as a party of racists and bigots. While there are certainly some Republicans who do match that description, many Republicans are just as, if not more, upstanding than their opponents. No political party ever holds a monopoly on morality, and seeing politics as a fight between good and evil is the first step towards the very intolerance and bigotry of which Republicans are often accused. Kasich’s speech was meant to present a different, equally true image of the Republican Party to Amherst liberals.
Kasich’s speech was also instructive for another group of Amherst students who receive little attention: its conservatives and Republicans. Amherst sometimes seems like an echo chamber of liberal ideology, and many take comfort in that, but if Amherst produces students who all have the same political views, it has failed as an institution of higher learning. America can’t function as a one-party system, so Amherst should produce not only the future leaders of the Democratic Party, but also those of the Republican Party. Kasich’s speech served as both a reminder to conservatives that they are not in the minority and a model for how future Republicans should comport themselves: with dignity and regard for morality placed above politics and party.
Kasich advised Amherst students to combine two seemingly contradictory values — the courage to actively combat injustice wherever we see it and the compassion to understand and forgive our opponents. Amherst students are quite good at the former, but mediocre, at best, at the latter. It is true that lasting change requires constant activism, but healing the divides of a nation and moving public opinion requires sympathy for one’s opponents. To illustrate this point, Kasich cited Nelson Mandela, who, after being imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid, went on to forgive his captors and become the elected president of South Africa. Had Mandela not worked with his enemies, he could have only been a leader for his party, never the nation.
Despite Kasich’s words, Amherst students had a number of reasons to ignore him. One such reason is his age. Millennials have a deep-seated suspicion for people far older than themselves. Such distrust is sometimes justified, but also ignores the fact that elderly statesmen like Kasich have had vastly more direct experience solving problems than students at Amherst. Solving economic problems in the classroom is one thing. Being in charge of a politically divided state for eight years is quite another. At the very least, we should meet Kasich halfway and try to understand his viewpoint, just as he tried to discuss Imagine Dragons and Drake with us last Thursday (albeit with debatable success).
Still others might be tempted to disregard his words because he is, in the words of one Amherst student, “a straight white male who’s had everything handed to him.” While it is true that Kasich has never experienced systemic discrimination due to his identity, he also came from a relatively poor background and ultimately rose to one of the highest offices in the country, an experience which few people, even those from far more privileged backgrounds, have matched. One could easily say that an average Amherst student is far better situated for success than Kasich was at our age. Does that mean that future generations are justified in disregarding our words just because we went to an elite, private New England college?
We shouldn’t trivialize Kasich’s accomplishments simply because he isn’t black or gay. His advice about seizing opportunities and never taking no for an answer can serve all Amherst students, regardless of orientation or race.
If Amherst had invited a liberal superstar like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or California Sen. Kamala Harris to speak, we would have gotten an inspiring speech on the necessity for tax reform and the protection of voting rights.We would have listened happily as the speaker criticized President Donald Trump and spoke about what a true president should be like (as well as the many ways you can contribute to the speaker’s campaign). But we would have heard nothing new and would only have been more zealous against the increasingly alienated conservatives on campus. With all the passion and flair of politics, it’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of a crusade against evil. The speech Kasich gave us was less dramatic, but ultimately far more meaningful.