Mitch Daniels Urges Graduates to Resist Tribalism

The former Indiana governor, who leads Purdue University, believes that the hostility Americans are now showing one another is a threat to democracy.

Danny Moloshok / Reuters

For several years, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a conservative who now leads Purdue University, has imparted the same caution to graduating students. He tells them that while he hopes they never think of themselves in this way, they are now aristocrats who owe their membership in a privileged elite not to family name, wealth, or ties to a ruling party, but to their unusual cognitive skills and education.

America’s new aristocrats “have begun to cluster together,” he notes, “to work with each other, live near each other, socialize with each other, marry each other, have children just like each other’s children … and unintentionally to segregate from their less blessed, less well-educated fellow citizens. I’ve urged each set of graduates to resist this tendency, to make special efforts to connect with those who never made it to Purdue or a place like it. It’s a shame to go through life with a narrow range of human interactions, and all one can learn from those who are different.”

But, he declared during this year’s commencement address, over these last few years, “this new self-segregation has taken on a much more worrisome dimension. It’s no longer just a matter of Americans not knowing and understanding each other. We’ve seen these clusters deepen, and harden, until separation has led to anger, misunderstanding turned into hostility. At the individual level, it’s a formula for bitterness and negativity. For a self-governing people, it’s poison.”

Elsewhere in his speech, Daniels was perspicacious about the challenges that Purdue graduates are likely to face during the course of their careers and civic lives:

Conquering disease, world hunger, managing whatever climatic changes are on their way, continuing the breathtaking ascent from poverty that the world has achieved even in your short lifetimes—all these will provide many of you thrilling careers and opportunities for deeply rewarding service...

Beyond these material hurdles lie moral and ethical questions the likes of which, and the rapid onset of which, humanity has never had to deal with.

When we can genetically engineer perfect children, should we?

When wealthy adults can radically enhance their own mental abilities and lifespans well beyond those of the less fortunate, should we let them?

If and when robots, and a dwindling fraction of technologically gifted workers, are producing the majority of all the value and wealth in society, what will become of those who appear unnecessary? Will they be treated with respect, or as helpless dependents? If the latter, will the productive minority decide, as some have already begun to speculate, that the others no longer deserve an equal say in the society’s decisions?

Still, he declared, “the grandest challenge for your leadership years” may well be to reverse and surmount the threat that tribal self-segregation poses to American democracy:

Pollsters have even begun to use the term “hatred” to describe the degree of estrangement. They tell us that members of both tribes tend to belong mostly because of their animosity to the other side. In almost reciprocal numbers, they describe the other side as “closed-minded,” “dishonest,” “unintelligent,” even “immoral.” As we trust each other less, trust in the institutions of our society has eroded in parallel. Almost no sector—government, business, the media, higher education —has escaped a steep drop in public confidence. Some constant vigilance and skepticism about centers of authority is a healthy, all-American instinct.

But ultimately, to function effectively as a free and self-governing people, we must maintain some degree of faith that our institutions and those leading them have our best interests at heart, and are performing their duties with sincerity and integrity. And today, we plainly lack such faith.

Near the conclusion, he expresses optimism that Americans can recover a measure of faith in one another, arguing that Purdue graduates are well-suited to help.

The case he makes underscores one benefit of protecting freedom of speech on college campuses. “Here, you have lived in daily close contact with people of all faces, races, and places,” he told the students. “If you kept your ears open, you heard viewpoints very different from your own, in an environment that safeguards the right for every such viewpoint to be heard. You heard arguments that made sense, and some that were absurd. And you became better at telling which was which.”

In a tribe, he said, life is easy in all the wrong ways: “You don’t have to think. Whatever the tribe thinks is right, whatever the other side thinks is wrong. There’s no real responsibility; just follow what the tribe, and whoever speaks for it, says to do.”

Whereas for democracy “to survive and succeed,” he argued, “it requires its members to know its workings, participate in its operations, accept the reality of each other’s different outlooks, and the need to reconcile them by meeting in the middle.”